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Hands-on with the Pioneer VSX-1021-K: AirPlay and iControl2 app

CNET takes a hands-on look at the Pioneer VSX-1021-K's AirPlay functionality, along with Pioneer's iControlAV2 iOS app.

Now playing: Watch this: Pioneer VSX-1021-K's AirPlay functionality

The Pioneer VSX-1021-K was the first midrange AV receiver announced with built-in AirPlay functionality, and it's also the first one we've received for hands-on testing. We've had the VSX-1021-K set up for less than 24 hours, but that's enough time to jot down our initial impressions on its built-in AirPlay functionality and Pioneer's iControlAV2 iOS app.

AirPlay on the VSX-1021-K
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

AirPlay: The ultimate digital music remote
Simply put, 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), streaming music from an iOS device (any iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad) 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.

AirPlay also works with a ton of third-party apps, so we were streaming music from Pandora and Rhapsody in no time. Even though we've had plenty of experience using other digital music streamers, like Squeezebox, there's no denying that it's pretty fun to stream audio straight from an iPhone.

AirPlay also isn't limited to music on your iOS device. Fire up Apple's Remote app, select an iTunes library from a networked computer, and you can stream music from that computer using your iOS device as the remote.

Or, if you don't have an iOS device, you can use your computer as the controller--just hit the AirPlay icon the bottom right and select the VSX-1021-K. The only slight downside is you'll need to leave your computer (with iTunes running) on for both of these methods to work.

The VSX-1021-K's AirPlay functionality isn't exactly a clone of what you get on an Apple TV, as it doesn't handle video. The lack of video streaming does bring up the strongest argument against the Pioneer: why not just get a cheaper AV receiver and buy a more fully featured separate Apple TV box? It's definitely worth considering, especially because it's easier to replace a $99 Apple TV with an updated model, when new features get added.

While AirPlay with the VSX-1021-K is overall pretty responsive, you'll occasionally run into some hiccups. Changing the volume is nearly instantaneous, but there's a little lag between hitting pause and music actually stopping. And although the vast majority of our listening was dropout-free, we did have a rare stutter or two when streaming music from a Wi-Fi-connected laptop using the Remote app. (We had similar dropouts in this testing environment with the Apple TV, so it's entirely possible that it's an issue with our testing environment.)

Still, the hitches were far and few between. Short of a more elaborate music streaming system like Sonos or Squeezebox, we found sitting on the couch holding an iOS device to be one of the best ways to listen to our digital music, especially now that it's spread among several locations and services.

Pioneer also has a dedicated remote control app for the VSX-1021-K, called iControlAV2. 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 "drawing" an EQ curve with your finger, but we felt like it was difficult to control. It's easier and more precise to adjust those controls the old-fashioned way. It's definitely something that's cool to show off--especially drawing an EQ curve and hearing the difference nearly immediately--but it's just not that practical.

"Finger EQ" on Pioneer's iControlAV2 app for iPad.
"Finger EQ" on Pioneer's iControlAV2 app for iPad. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Exclusive to the iPad app is the ability to control Pioneer's automatic speaker calibration system, called MCACC. These controls are pretty geeky, so they'll be for home theater enthusiasts only, and it's going to take us more time to fully evaluate it. We'll be taking a more in-depth look at MCACC when we do a full evaluation of the VSX-1021-K's sound quality.

The "control" section of Pioneer's iControlAV2 app for iPad.
The "control" section of Pioneer's iControlAV2 app for iPad. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The "control" section of the app will be the most useful for the average person, allowing you to adjust volume and select inputs. We doubt we'd even use this 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. However, if you were planning on only using AirPlay, it's nice that you can turn on the receiver using the app, since you'll already have your iOS device out to use as the controller.

DLNA: A quasi-AirPlay for Android
We haven't spent that much time testing non-iOS devices with the VSX-1012-K yet, but we did a quick test with an Android smartphone running the DLNA-friendly Skifta app and we were easily able to stream music to the VSX-1021-K, using the HMG ("home media gallery") input. It wasn't quite as pretty as AirPlay (no album art) and the big difference is that you're limited to music stored locally on the phone. You also can't stream music from third-party apps like Pandora and Rhapsody--at least as far as we've tried. So far, Pioneer only has the iOS iControlAV2 app available--no word on whether dedicated Android apps are on deck.

Full review coming soon
We'll be doing more extensive testing with the rest of the functionality with the VSX-1021-K, but our early impressions is that built-in AirPlay is a killer feature if you own an iOS device. Expect a full review of the VSX-1021-K, directly compared with the Denon AVR-1912 (which also has AirPlay) and the Onkyo TX-NR609 later next week.