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.
The VSX-816 is a 7-channel receiver, but if you're happy with 5 channels, the receiver can be programmed to reassign the remaining 2 channels to run B stereo speakers in another room or to biamplify compatible front speakers (ones with separate woofer and tweeter connectors). Biamping can produce significant performance advantages and allow the speakers to play louder without distorting.
If you're really pressed for cash, Pioneer's VSX-516 receiver offers many of the same basics as the VSX-816 for $200. The VSX-516 is a 7.1-channel model that offers 100 watts per channel (vs. the VSX-816's 110 watts), but it lacks a host of key features, including MCACC autocalibration and XM satellite functionality. Furthermore, the VSX-516 offers far fewer inputs and outputs. In other words, the extra $100 spent on the VSX-816 seems more than worth it to us.
We started the Pioneer VSX-816's audition with some music and liked what we heard. Compared to listening on similarly priced receivers, stereo CDs sounded noticeably richer and warmer. Billy Burnette's new rockabilly Memphis in Manhattan CD had lots of punch. The low-down growl and keen definition of David Roe's upright bass, as well as Burnette's tasty electric guitar licks and vocals practically lit up our reference Dynaudio Contour speakers.
Switching to multichannel music, we popped in the Cream Royal Albert Hall DVD. Its surround mix keeps the band up front as the adoring crowd's applause and cheers populate the back of a home theater--and the illusion of the spacious concert hall acoustics was beautifully rendered by the VSX-816. The War of the Worlds DVD rounded out the Pioneer's tryout. John Williams's ominous score made a strong, and very positive, impression on us. And while we have no doubt Pioneer's higher-priced receivers will play even louder and deliver the film's visceral mayhem with more gusto, the scenes of war-torn streets and subwoofer-fueled special effects were vividly rendered nonetheless.
Listening to XM HD Surround satellite radio, we were wowed by the effectiveness of the new system. The front-to-rear and center-channel separation was excellent--at least, when the music was properly optimized for surround sound. The problem was that a lot of the recordings weren't particularly remarkable, and in those cases, HD Surround didn't sound appreciably better than what we heard with Dolby Pro Logic II. But XM promises to use HD Surround for its original live broadcasts, so the potential for even better sound is there. Meanwhile, stereo XM music channels sounded more CD-like than what we hear from the other satellite radio service, Sirius.