Pioneer announced two new A/V receivers at January's Consumer Electronics Show: the entry-level $200 VSX-516 and the step-up $300 VSX-816. Not surprisingly, the step-up model is the way to go. Pioneer packed an amazing amount of value into the affordably priced VSX-816, including quite a few extras not available in the lower-end model. It has the latest XM Satellite Radio feature, HD Surround; excellent connectivity (for a bargain receiver); ample power; our favorite autosetup system; and stellar sound quality. No, you won't find some of the more cutting-edge features such as HDMI inputs and component-video conversion--but at this price, we're not complaining.
The Pioneer VSX-816's compact dimensions--17 inches wide, 6.25 inches high, and just 14 inches deep--make it easier to place than comparably equipped models. At 20.3 pounds, it's definitely in the lightweight class. The receiver is available in black or silver versions to match any home-theater decor.
The front panel's input buttons offer direct access to all sources such as tuner, XM, CD, DVD, and so forth, and the dial lets you easily tune to any AM, FM, or XM channel--a big improvement over the usual up/down buttons. While it's nice to have the various front-panel controls and buttons at the ready, neat freaks may lament the lack of a fold-down door to hide them.
The remote's LCD window keeps you informed about which source it's controlling, and the remote makes it easier to access XM HD Surround processing than with other XM-equipped receivers we've tested. Our only gripe was that, even with the remote's 62 buttons, you still have to use a shift button to turn on the XM.
As with the last few generations of Pioneer receivers, the VSX-816's MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration) autosetup program is both highly accurate and easy to use. Just plug in the supplied measuring microphone, bring up the intuitively designed onscreen display, and push a few buttons on the remote; the VSX-816 will unleash a series of tones and beeps for a couple of minutes. The MCACC then determines your system's speaker sizes and speaker-to-listener distances, sets the volume levels of all the speakers and the subwoofer, and applies a room/speaker-correcting EQ program. Auto EQ programs are notoriously hit or miss, but this one even satisfied our persnickety tastes.
Built-in support for XM Satellite Radio is all but standard in most receivers these days, but the Pioneer VSX-816 is one of the first models available that's compatible with XM HD Surround. In order to receive XM, you'll need to plug in a compatible Connect-and-Play antenna such as the $50 Audiovox CNP1000 and subscribe to the $13-per-month XM service. The VSX-816 sports 7 channels at 110 watts each and all the standard surround-processing modes from Dolby and DTS. Microsoft's WMA-9 Pro is thrown in for good measure, but it's not that useful since those sound files are rare.
Connectivity choices exceed our expectations for $300 receivers. There's component-video switching for three sources; four A/V inputs with S-Video, including the front-panel set; and three analog stereo inputs. The 5.1-channel analog input can be used with HD-DVD, Blu-ray, DVD-Audio, or SACD players. You also get five digital audio inputs (two coaxial and three optical, including one optical on the front panel). The 7.1 preamplifier outputs can be used for hookup to a more powerful, separate amplifier. We could carp about the almost haphazard layout of the various jacks and such--a more logical arrangement would ease confusion when wiring things for the first time.
We won't knock the VSX-816's dearth of HDMI connections; that's to be expected on a $300 receiver (this year, at least). But it would've been nice to see component-video conversion--the ability to take composite- and S-Video sources, such as a VCR, a game system, or a cable/satellite box, and output the video through the receiver's component jacks. Last year's Pioneer VSX-1015TX, which is available for much less than its $500 list price, offers that capability, allowing you to send any non-HDMI video source to your TV through a single connection.