The iPod is the most popular audio gadget of the decade, which is why it's incredibly frustrating that it's not easier to use it with your AV receiver. Either you're stuck using a patch cable and getting up from the couch to make playback changes, or you have to shell out for a pricey proprietary iPod dock, destined to be useless as soon as Apple releases new models.
That's why we were so excited when we saw the Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K (and its step-down cousins) at CES 2009; just plug your
iPod into the front panel USB port using the included iPod cable and you can navigate your music using your TV screen. That's a unique feature in this price range and the VSX-1019AH-K also has a full suite of standard features, such as four HDMI inputs, 1080p analog upconversion, and multiroom functionality. Even better, we were blown away by the sound quality of the VSX-1019AH-K for a $500 receiver, despite our initial worries that it weighs significantly less than last year's VSX-1018AH-K.
At this point, the VSX-1019AH-K is the clear frontrunner for our Editors' Choice award in the midrange AV receiver category, but we're holding off on making the designation until we've reviewed the latest models from Sony and Denon. That being said, with the street price of the VSX-1019AH-K creeping as low as $400 online, it's hard to imagine that there will be a better AV receiver value in 2009.
It's tough to make an AV receiver stand out from the pack, but the VSX-1019AH-K is likely to catch your eye on a retail shelf. That's mostly because of its glossy black front panel finish, which gives it a high-end feel, although it picks up plenty of fingerprint smudges. There are two large knobs on each side of the unit, one for volume and one for selecting inputs. The LCD display features bright white lettering and we had no trouble reading it from about 9 feet back. As long you keep the VSX-1019AH-K looking fingerprint-free, we think it's one of the best looking receivers in its price class.
Many receivers in this price range still include a basic text-based onscreen display, but the VSX-1019AH-K includes a full graphical user interface (GUI). Pioneer refers to it as "full color GUI," but that's a bit of a stretch; the color palette is limited to grayscale and some occasional blue for the majority of menu functions. Still, we found that the GUI made it easy to do most of the basic setup chores, such as setting speaker levels or assigning inputs.
Even better, the GUI works seamlessly if you plug in an iPod/iPhone to the front panel USB port. The GUI pops up and lets you browse your music collection using the standard iPod categories, such as artist, album, or genre. Movies and photos can also be played back, but only if you use the "iPod control" scheme, where you use the actual iPod for navigation, rather than the GUI. Yes, we would have liked if movies and photos were also accessible via the GUI, but it's not a big deal unless you plan on watching a lot of movies/slideshows on your TV.
We're generally big fans of Pioneer's MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration) automatic speaker calibration system because it's easy to use and gives excellent results. The system automatically determines speaker sizes, speaker-to-listener distances, sets the volume levels of all of the speakers and the sub, and calculates the subwoofer crossover point. We also like that all of the measurements are taken from just one microphone position.
Plug in the included mic and the receiver automatically brings up the autosetup onscreen display. Commence MCACC and the receiver sends an unusually wide variety of tones, whooshes, and thumping sounds through all the speakers and the subwoofer. The whole operation took about 5 minutes.
Checking the results, we were surprised to see MCACC misidentified our Aperion Intimus 4B surround channel satellites as "large" speakers. Since the 4B satellites have 4-inch woofers (with limited deep bass capability) we classify them as "small" speakers. When a receiver recognizes a speaker as small it redirects some of the bass that would normally go to the speaker to the subwoofer. That's what bass management is all about. So we had to go to the manual setup menu to correct that mistake, which is easy enough to do. Never assume autosetup is perfect. We almost always have to correct some aspect of speaker setup after running autocalibration programs.
There are two component video connections and the VSX-1019AH-K has enough input "slots" so you can use six high-def sources at the same time. Like almost all AV receivers these days, the Pioneer lacks S-Video inputs.
One slight step-down compared with the competition is its 5.1 analog inputs; most midrange receivers offer 7.1 analog inputs.
Multiroom functionality is a little better than average on the VSX-1019AH, with second-zone functionality offered using line-level or speaker-level outputs. Note that using the second-zone speaker-level outputs require you use the would-be surround back channels of a 7.1 configuration; you can't have a 7.1 setup and a second zone. Unlike all other receivers in this price range, the VSX-1019AH-K also includes a second-zone video output (composite), enabling you to view the GUI in a second room. If you're thinking of running a full-time second room off one receiver, it's a nice touch.
The included remote is decent, although a bit cluttered. The clicker does a good job of separating functions like the directional pad and playback controls, but the master volume buttons should be more prominent. Some of the buttons also serve dual functions, which can get confusing, but that's pretty standard on AV receiver remotes. As always, you can alleviate many of these problems with a quality universal remote.