Pioneer VSX-1021-K

Pioneer has undeniably been the main innovator in the midrange AV receiver space over the last few years, for example adding the ability to connect an iPod/iPhone directly via USB--and including a cable--before anyone else.

Now Pioneer is making iPod support one step easier with the VSX-1021-K, letting you wirelessly stream music from an iOS device--such as an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch--using AirPlay, Apple's proprietary media streaming format (check out our full hands-on). In addition to AirPlay, the VSX-1021-K also features a slew of other attractive features, including five HDMI inputs, DLNA compatibility, and Pioneer's iOS remote control app, iControlAV2. Not to mention the fact that it sounds pretty great, too.

As impressive as that package sounds, it's still not quite enough to make the VSX-1021-K our top midrange receiver pick of 2011. The Denon AVR-1912 edges it out just slightly by also offering AirPlay, plus one more HDMI port, a two-year warranty, more built-in streaming media services, and slightly better sound quality.

That still makes the VSX-1021-K our second favorite receiver of the year and it could be the top choice for some buyers if they really can't stand the inferior onscreen display of the Denon.

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Design

We could get into all the subtleties of the VSX-1021-K's design, but the reality is it looks a whole lot like other AV receivers: it's a big, black box. It takes up a lot of space, at 17.2 inches wide, 6.6 inches high and 14.3 inches deep, so you'll need a sizable chunk of shelf to house it.
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AirPlay

Built-in AirPlay lives up to the hype. Once you get the VSX-1021-K on your home network (either via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, using the $150 adapter), getting music to stream music from an iOS device is as simple as playing a song, hitting the AirPlay icon, and selecting the VSX-1021-K. Music played using the iPod app will have full cover art and artist info displayed on the connected TV, plus you can adjust the volume of the receiver using your iOS device's built-in volume controls. It's a really satisfying experience to sit on the couch with an iPhone, browsing your music and controlling your AV receiver.
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Just select the device

Using AirPlay is as simple as selecting the VSX-1021-K on your iOS device.
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You can also use a computer running iTunes as your AirPlay remote if you don't have an iOS device.
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User interface

Pioneer says the VSX-1021-K has a "full-color" graphical user interface, but that's a bit of a stretch. Most the menus are in relatively low-resolution black-and-white text, although you do occasionally see some blue in the setup menus.
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Outdated look for a home theater

While on par with competitors' AV receivers, it still feels pretty outdated compared with the colorful, high-def interfaces offered on other home theater devices, like a Blu-ray player or Apple TV. On the other hand, the Pioneer's interface is a good deal better than Denon's.
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iControlAV2 on iPad

The VSX-1021-K can also be controlled via Pioneer's iControlAV2 iOS app. The app looks great, especially on the iPad, but most the functionality feels gimmicky. The "emphasize" and "balance" sections let you alter the sound processing in various ways either tilting the iOS device or literally drawing an EQ curve with your finger, but we felt it was difficult to control precisely.
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Limited practical use

The "control" section of the app is most useful, allowing you to adjust volume and select inputs. We doubt we'd even use the app much if we had the VSX-1021-K as our home AV receiver, since it's easier to control all your home theater devices from a single universal remote, like a Logitech Harmony.
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Back panel

For all but the most elaborate home theaters, the Pioneer VSX-1021-K should have plenty of inputs to handle all your gear, including five HDMI inputs. Still, it's worth pointing out that the Denon AVR-1912, Onkyo TX-NR609 and Yamaha RX-V671 all offer six HDMI inputs.
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Remote

AV receiver remotes are almost always incomprehensible, and the VSX-1021-K's remote is difficult even by those standards. All the buttons are tiny, including even important buttons like the volume up/down controls. Several of the buttons have secondary functions written in blue or white and you need to memorize obscure acronyms like "A.ATT," "MPX," and "PQLS" to know what you're pressing.
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Auto setup mic

For best results Pioneer recommends placing the supplied calibration mic on a tripod.
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Included iPod/iPhone cable

The VSX-1021-K has the most extensive set of iPod/iPhone features available in an AV receiver, going beyond other manufacturers by even including an iPod USB cable--no small favor, considering Apple charges $20 for one.
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Side view

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