Pioneer VSX-1019AH A/V Receiver Page 3

The Express is based on the brilliant college football career of fleet-footed Ernie Davis, who became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy before he fell victim to leukemia. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack was mastered at a much higher average level than the other titles I demoed for this review. Even following a quick master volume adjustment, the low growl of the opening music, thundering drums, and other low-frequency punctuations dominated the room. The panning of crowd noise produced emotionally powerful effects. Dialogue was spot on.

The movie selections gave me a good idea of how the VSX-1019AH was voiced and what it could do. Surprisingly, the top end wasn’t as rolled off as I feared it might be in such a modestly priced product. The midrange was warm but moderately detailed and imparted a good feeling. Bass was the biggest surprise—at low to middling volumes, this receiver could deliver pretty good upper bass and midbass. All of that seemed promising, but what could it do with music?

Voluptuous Strings
I wondered how the Pioneer would interact with my new Bellari tubed phono preamp and some good orchestral vinyl. The LP in question was by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with works by Vaughan Williams (Concerto Grosso, Concerto for Oboe and Strings) and Peter Warlock (Capriol Suite, Serenade for Strings). Sadly, the Argo vinyl doesn’t have a CD counterpart. Initially, my attention was occupied with comparisons between the Dolby Pro Logic II Music mode and the analog pure direct mode, which cut out all of the digital and surround processing. The first surprise was that the pure direct mode sounded nearly as full as DPLII Surround, brimming with brain-delighting midrange stimuli, so I stuck with it.

Strings were sweet, voluptuous, free of grain, and slightly soft focused, although not unduly vague, with fully developed cellos and basses. The midrange presentation gave me a real concert-hall feeling, with the same emotional buttons being pressed and the same instinctive response: pleasure. The sudden, brief appearance of a harpsichord in one work, though low in the mix, was a remarkably vivid bit of conjuring. This was no faint tinkle—it was a delicate plucked-string keyboard instrument suddenly appearing between my speakers with ambient detailing that precisely focused it a little in back of the speakers. I wrote in my notebook: “This is why I bought the Bellari,” although I hadn’t expected to have such a moment so soon—or with a $500 receiver.

I was a recently conceived fetus when Billie Holiday recorded Songs for Distingué Lovers. Once again, the stereo pure direct mode trumped the 5.1-channel listening mode. At center stage was, of course, Holiday’s caramel voice, knowingly inflected, infinitely graceful. The center image was so firmly rooted that even extreme side-to-side head movements couldn’t shift it entirely to the left or right speakers. I could move to the edge of the sofa, smack in front of the left speaker, and still hear the voice suspended somewhere between the left speaker and the (then silent) center speaker.

Shootin’ Straight, a live CD by Dan Hicks & the Acoustic Warriors, suffered from some hardness in the voice, something I hadn’t heard in previous listens over the years. Because I was regulating volume to compensate for that, the brilliant acoustic guitar and mandolin ended up understated. DPLII minimized the vocal hardness and opened up the mix. At least the string bass was agreeably full, deep, and sometimes even detailed. Applause had a tight club ambience that leaked just enough into the surrounds to form a horseshoe-shaped soundfield, my favorite kind. Hicks’ hilarious between-song patter enlivened this country-swing and bluegrass fiesta.

As smartly voiced as this receiver is, I don’t want to oversell it. You can easily reveal the difference between a $500 receiver and a much more expensive one if you just turn up the volume. But if you choose your speakers pragmatically, this receiver will deliver the goods at low to moderate volumes and, depending on the material and the size of your room, may even stay decently well organized when played loud.

I’m impressed by how much the designers of this receiver reconsidered the product category. Rather than accept its flaws, they earnestly strove to mitigate them with a new interface that comforts the beginner with context-sensitive help and overall elegance. This receiver shames manufacturers who doom consumers to drab, monochrome, confusing GUIs. Pioneer also didn’t neglect the tweakers. With manual graphic EQ and several other adjustments, you can A/B your brains out. This receiver couldn’t be friendlier to users of Apple products. The only notable omission—and I mention it only because the product is otherwise so complete—is an Ethernet connection and related features, such as Internet radio and the ability to pull files off a PC.

But the Pioneer VSX-1019AH is an amazing product for the price.