The most common question we get at CNET is, "what should I buy?" Unfortunately, instead of just spitting out a product name, that question usually forces us to follow-up with our own questions--how much do you want to spend, what features are important, and so on. However, last year when people asked "which audiovisual receiver should I buy", we actually had a pretty simple answer: the Onkyo TX-SR605. At $400, it was right in the "budget" sweet spot, and it included more next-generation features--such as onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, and analog upconversion--than any other receiver in its price class. Unless you were looking to spend a lot more money, the TX-SR605 was by far the best value.
So which AV receiver should you buy in 2008? Well, it's not that easy this year.
Onkyo has followed up on the TX-SR605 with the TX-SR606, which we reviewed favorably earlier this month. The company managed to make a good thing even better, as the TX-SR606 has four HDMI inputs and can upconvert analog signals to 1080i. And amazingly, for all these updates, the street price is still less than $400. But there are some snags that keep it from being our go-to pick.
The first major problem is that the upscaling video quality on the TX-SR606 just isn't up to snuff. The full details are in the review, but if you're even mildly interested in upconverted analog video quality, you're not going to be happy with your upconverted analog signals with the TX-SR606. There's a significant loss in resolution, and if you're upscaling to 1080i, the TX-SR606 actually adds black bars to the top, bottom and left sides of the image--yikes. If you're only using HDMI devices, it's not a problem, but there are a lot of Nintendo Wii owners out there that want to play Super Mario Galaxy without extra annoying jaggies.
The second problem is that Onkyo actually has competition in this price range from Sony. The Sony STR-DG820 has most of the same features as the TX-SR606 (minus upscaling, which isn't really a usable feature on the TX-SR606), and it also goes for $400. Even more enticing is the step-up STR-DG920, which features Sony's icon-driven menu system, XMB, plus upscaling to 1080p--which is likely to be better than TX-SR606's upscaling. We're still trying to get our hands on a STR-DG920 to review--Sony hasn't been receptive to sending us a review sample--but from the specification sheet it looks like it might be worth the price premium if you plan on using an analog video-only device and like the icon-driven approach of Sony's XMB interface.
If you're not set on getting four HDMI inputs, there are some other compelling options out there with HDMI upconversion. Pioneer's VSX-1018AH ($550 street) has three HDMI inputs, as does Denon's upcoming AVR-1909 ($650). Yamaha's RX-V663 only has two HDMI inputs and is selling for about $500. And if you already have a good universal remote, it's pretty easily to add more HDMI connectivity with an HDMI switcher.
Don't get us wrong, the Onkyo TX-SR606 is still a great receiver at an outstanding price point, but Sony and other manufacturers have stepped up to the plate this year to offer similar functionality at competitive prices. So this year when you ask, "what receiver should I buy", you're going to get bunch of questions instead of a simple product name. Sorry.