For audio, there are the aforementioned HDMI inputs, plus six digital audio inputs (four optical and two coaxial) and one digital audio optical output. There are two dedicated stereo analog inputs (one with a recording loop) and a 7.1 multichannel analog input. Vinyl fans will be disappointed to note the lack of a phono input, which feels a little cheap when you spend $1,000 on a receiver.
AV connectivity is great, but to really take advantage of it, you need enough selectable AV source names for all your gear. For high-def video, the VSX-91TXH is fully covered as each HDMI input has its own customizable source name, and the DVD, TV, DVR 1, and DVR 2 source names can each be assigned any of the component video inputs. If you use all your high-def inputs, there are two additional standard-def video inputs, one of which is on the front panel. This is a step up over the Onkyo TX-SR805, which offers more connectivity overall but only six total source names.
Additional connectivity is available, including XM and Sirius jacks, so you only need to connect an antenna (the XM Mini-Tuner for XM or the SiriusConnect SCH1 Home Tuner for Sirius) to get reception--with a subscription, of course. There's also a 12V trigger jack, a switched AV power outlet and an RS-232 connector to ease home automation installations. Additionally, an iPod input terminal to be used with Pioneer proprietary iPod cable, which should be included with the receiver (note that some early shipments of the VSX-91TXH, including ours, lack the iPod cable in the box and require you to call the "iPod cable hot line" to receive yours free of charge). Once you connect your iPod, you can browse your music on your TV screen using the receiver's remote.
The VSX-91TXH supports a second zone, using either line-level stereo analog outputs (with composite video) or by dedicating the surround back speakers to a second zone. To utilize the surround back speakers as a second zone, you'll need to change the "surround back speaker setting" in the setup menu. Although we did not test the second zone functionality of the VSX-91TXH, heavy multiroom users should note that the manual says that accessing main zone controls--such as changing the input--will temporarily interrupt service to the second zone.
Overall, the VSX-91TXH feels pretty light on the features in this price range. The Onkyo TX-SR805 offers more connectivity all around (including a third HDMI input), plus it supports a third zone and THX's Neural Surround processing--for the same price. The Sony STR-DA3300ES also offers three HDMI inputs and Sony's excellent graphical user interface for $1,000 -- although it lacks onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (which may or may not be a big deal, as discussed before). The Denon AVR-2808CI comes in at $1,200 and offers two HDMI inputs, plus has many other step-ups such as the new Denon GUI, component video output for a second source, and THX Neural Surround processing. It's certainly hard to argue that the VSX-91TXH has the best feature set at this price level. Better appointed step-up models exist, of course--the VSX-92TXH and VSX-94TXH offer more HDMI inputs and THX Neural Surround, but they cost $1,300 and $1,600, respectively.
The Master and Commander DVD's naval battles sounded immensely powerful over the Pioneer VSX-91TXH. Even as the 18-pound cannonballs smashed through the wooden ship's sides, and the panicked sailors ran for their lives the Pioneer receiver delivered the sonic goods. Sensing no strain, we nudged the volume higher and higher, but we cried uncle before the VSX-91TXH's 110 watts per channel did.
Bruce Springsteen's Live in Dublin DVD exercised the receiver's surround talents. Instead of the usual band in the front/audience in the rear mix, this DVD puts you in the middle of the crowd so the applause and "Bruuuce" cheers came from all around. The front left, center, and right speakers displayed impressive depth and a spacious quality that added to the realism of the concert. The mostly acoustic band sounded sweet; the Boss' vocal had just the right amount of presence and warmth.
We upped the ante with a new SACD of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The sumptuous sound was exceptionally beautiful, and we noted the Pioneer's deft handling of the orchestra's wide dynamic range. One nitpick: The deepest bass passages felt just a little lightweight.
We finished our evaluation rocking out with Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga CD. The band's supple rhythms came alive, and the guitars crisp detail was a treat for our ears.
The VSX-91TXH offers video upconversion of analog sources (composite, S-Video, component) to 480p HDMI output, so we decided to test its performance. We connected the Toshiba HD-A20 HD DVD player to the VSX-91TXH using an S-Video connection, and connected the VSX-91TXH to the Westinghouse TX-F430S with HDMI (in this configuration, the VSX-91TXH is responsible for deinterlacing the 480i signal from the HD-A20). We started off with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on standard DVD, and the results were disappointing. The VSX-91TXH failed to display the full detail of DVDs, as there was not enough detail on resolution test patterns. The next tests resulted in plenty of jaggies, on both a rotating white bar and three pivoting white lines. It also failed a 2:3 pull-down test, which results in moire in the grandstands of some footage of a race car.
We switched gears and looked at some actual program material to see how the VSX-91TXH performed in a more real-world environment. Unfortunately, the limitations exposed with the test patterns were very easy to see in actual movies. For instance, the introduction to Seabiscuit is a tough test for jaggies, and the VSX-91TXH did a very poor job with this sequence. Jaggies were present almost all over the image and even noncritical viewers would notice the issue. Even as the movie continued, the image looked soft and we consistently saw the top edge of the letterbox bars jittering. We also looked at Star Trek: Insurrection, and this disc confirmed that the VSX-91TXH does not have 2:3 pull-down processing. The opening sequence was subject to artifacts on both the railings of the bridge and the curved hulls of the boats, followed by more jaggies on the roofs of the buildings.
We also took a quick look at how the Nintendo Wii looked when upscaled through the VSX-91TXH. While many people may have most of their components connected through HDMI or component-video connections, the Wii is a prime candidate for upscaling as it only comes with a composite video cable (you can buy a component video cable separately, however). As soon as we turned on the Wii, we could see issues on the menu--the different channel buttons were filled with flashing and strobelike artifacts, as well as the animated arrow on the right hand side. We compared the video quality when the receiver did the upconversion to when we connected it directly to the TV, and it only took a few rounds of tennis in Wii Sports to confirm that the TV did a better job of deinterlacing.
While the upconversion capabilities of the VSX-91TXH were disappointing, we should stress that these issues will occur only if you use it to upconvert analog sources. If you are using only high-def sources, or if you use an upscaling DVD player (or a high-def player that also upscales DVDs), you won't run into these performance issues.