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The urge to converge
Designwise, the receiver's extruded aluminum chassis looks smart, and its vertical CD player's motorized door is extracool. Another plus: the 9-inch-tall unit's deep-blue display won't sear your eyeballs during late-night listening sessions.
On the connectivity front, along with the more traditional line-level input and output jacks, you get a USB input to connect your computer to the stereo. Meanwhile, an optical digital audio output allows for a direct connection to a CD or MiniDisc recorder. Onkyo has thrown in a subwoofer output jack that'll come in handy if you want to add a sub to this $400 system.
As far as the tuner goes, it offers 30 AM/FM presets, and there's a three-mode timer with weekday, weekend, or sleep settings. We found both the full-function remote and the front-panel controls easy to use.
The S500's hefty fiberboard speakers look and feel like component-grade models. They feature a 3.5-inch cone woofer and 1-inch soft-dome tweeter. Another nice touch: The speakers are magnetically shielded, so they can snuggle up to your computer monitor or TV and not mess with the picture. However, don't plan on wall-mounting these babies--the speakers depend on the bottom-mounted bass port's proximity to a supporting surface. They're at their best on a desktop, a shelf, or a counter.
The S500 can tap into your computer's streaming-audio and MP3-playback capabilities with its USB connection, but the built-in CD player can't handle CD-Rs full of MP3s. Regarding the USB connection: PC users need Windows 98, 98 SE, Me, 2000, or later operating systems. Apple adherents with iMacs, iBooks, or Power Macs running OS 9.0 or later can also link up the S500. Multitaskers can mix in their computer's alerts and other sounds while listening to CDs or the radio.
We do have two minor operational gripes: The headphone jack is on the receiver's hindquarters, so we had to tip the S500 forward to plug in our earbuds. Also, the S500 has only a two-mode Acoustic Presence (bass boost) function rather than separate bass and treble controls.
Revving up the S500
It shouldn't come as a surprise that head bangers won't be satisfied with the S500's meager power reserves--just 9.5 watts per channel--but the system's loudness potential will probably be adequate for everybody else. We set up the S500 in our kitchen, then bedroom, and finally in our office. Radio reception was good overall, but difficult-to-receive college stations were fairly noisy.
CDs offered the best sound, so we used them for most of our sonic evaluations. The S500 excelled at retrieving Fred Hersch's exacting piano fingerings on Thelonious, his amazing tribute to jazz pioneer Thelonious Monk. The speakers purred on the lower registers and sounded very alive and present as Hersch all but danced over the keyboard.
We rocked out with a bit of Fleetwood Mac's live CD The Dance. The S500 summoned up a nice helping of Mick Fleetwood's pounding beat and John McVie's irresistible bass lines. Yes, once we pushed the volume up, the sound grew harsher, but at more moderate levels, it held together quite nicely.
At its $400 list price, the S500 is a good value, but if you can splurge another $100, check out its big brother, the PS-510. It's not as pretty and lacks the USB connection, but it has a three-disc changer, more power, and bigger speakers. Or take a look at Pioneer's stylish NS-33, which comes with a subwoofer for about the same price as the S500.