Think a home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) system is the only way to get affordable home theater? Think again. Onkyo's TX-SR503 delivers a full-service A/V receiver with more features, superior connection options, and better sound quality than you'll find in most HTIBs. Yes, more money buys more power and more extensive connectivity options as well as autosetup features, and--potentially--better sound, but for $300, the TX-SR503 is as good as it gets. The Onkyo TX-SR503 resembles a junior member of the Onkyo family of receivers. It's smaller--17 inches wide, 6 inches high, and 14.75 inches deep--and sports fewer buttons and controls than its pricier siblings. But the beefy 20.7-pound weight confirms that the SR503 is no lightweight; it's built just as solidly as the step-up models. The receiver is available in black or silver finishes.
Setup chores are implemented via the remote and the receiver's display, and after reading the user manual a couple of times, we sorted out most of the details. The procedure to assign the digital inputs wasn't part of the main setup program; that stopped us in our tracks for a minute or so, but in the end we'd rate the ergonomics as average. We noted the TX-SR503 puts out more heat than most similarly sized and powered receivers. The partially backlit remote has been redesigned this year and earns high marks for its layout and ease of use. Onkyo claims the TX-SR503's seven 75-watt power amplifier channels feature high-current, low-impedance discrete output devices. English translation: the amplifiers should be able to drive lower-impedance (4 ohm or 6 ohm) speakers without undue strain. The adjustable crossover function can be set to 60Hz, 80Hz, 100Hz, 120Hz, or 150Hz for seamless integration of any size satellite and subwoofer combination.
As usual, a full suite of surround-processing options are available, including Dolby Digital, Dolby EX, ProLogic IIx, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, and DTS 96/24.
The Onkyo TX-SR503 offers component-video switching on three inputs; many units in this price bracket make do with two. Our main gripe is that the SR503 doesn't upconvert to component from S-Video or composite sources, as does, for example, the similarly priced . The Onkyo also has three A/V inputs with composite and S-Video connections, plus a front-panel input for games and cameras. Its audio-switching capabilities include four digital inputs (one coaxial input and three optical inputs) but no digital outputs, as well as SACD/DVD-A analog inputs and a single stereo-analog input. The RI (Remote Interactive) jack can be used with Onkyo's ($100) iPod docking unit. Onkyo engineers installed high-quality speaker binding posts for the seven main channels, and spring-clip connectors for the B stereo speakers.
If the SR503's affordable price tag is still too rich for your blood, you may want to consider the step-down model, the TX-SR303. But you'll sacrifice quite a lot on the features front to save just $100; the SR303 is limited to composite-video inputs, 5.1-channel output, and spring-clip speaker connectors all around. The epic scale of the Hidalgo DVD really came across in the scenes with horses galloping through desert sandstorms and the thrilling Middle Eastern-meets-Western music score. Clearly, the Onkyo TX-SR503 is not your average $300 A/V receiver. "I Can't Quit You Baby" from the eponymous Led Zeppelin DVD rocked and rolled with surprising authority, which dispelled any doubts we might have had about the SR503's 75-watt-per-channel rating. No matter how hard John Bonham hit his drums, the sound never showed any signs of strain.
To get more of a handle on the SR503's sound, we compared it with Pioneer's VSX-515 A/V receiver ($275). Even acknowledging the 515's on-paper power advantage--it's rated at 110 watts per channel--we give the nod to the SR503. It performed better when we pushed the volume up--sounding richer and fuller on James Taylor's JT SACD, for instance--while the Pioneer's soundstage was flatter and smaller in every dimension. Not only that, Sweet Baby James's voice sounded as if he shed a few pounds over the Pioneer, and his guitar lost its acoustic glow; the Onkyo, by contast, restored the weight to the sound. A wide range of CDs followed, and we never detected a stumble. As it stands right now, the SR503 might be the best-sounding entry-level receiver we've heard.
Just as we were finishing with the SR503 review, a pair of towers arrived. Classical music CDs took on a majestic scale that belied the very real-world price of Onkyo's receiver. So don't let the SR503's low price lead you astray: go ahead and partner it with a decent set of speakers.