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AV receivers are packed with features that complicate making a buying decision, but the truth is most buyers would be fine simply picking the cheapest model that has enough HDMI inputs for their home theater. The Onkyo TX-NR414 is a perfect fit for this approach, offering up six HDMI inputs with a shockingly low street price of $280. It is missing many of the perks of more expensive receivers (such as 7.1 channels, a graphical user interface, automatic speaker calibration, analog video upconversion, and AirPlay), but many of those features are unnecessary and savvy home theater aficionados on a budget can easily work around the other limitations.
Our only hesitation is about reliability, with the conventional wisdom of the Internet (see forums and user reviews) being that Onkyo's receivers are a little flaky. It's hard to determine whether that's true (there are a lot of reasons why user reviews can be negative), but in any event it seems not to have affected the TX-NR414, which has gotten largely positive reviews from customers. (CNET doesn't test long-term reliability, so we have to rely on user reviews for details on reliability issues that don't show up during our testing period.)
There's a strong argument that it's worth spending a little more for the Onkyo TX-NR515, but both receivers are untouchable by the competition in terms of value.
Onkyo has never made much of an effort to pretty up its AV receivers. The basic design hasn't changed much over the years, with a boxy shape and an overall rough-around-the-edges look. The big volume knob is nice, though, and luckily the glowing ring around the outside can be dimmed in the setup menu. But if aesthetics are high on your list for an AV receiver, check out Denon or Marantz instead.
Onkyo's included remote is decent, although not as good as the offerings from Marantz and Denon. The input buttons are bright white, but they're small and don't glow in the dark. Overall, the remote isn't as cluttered as Sony's or Pioneer's, but there are still plenty of unnecessary buttons like the number pad at the bottom. At least with the money you saved by going with Onkyo, you can grab a nice universal remote.
The Onkyo Remote 2 app is far from well-reviewed by users, although the version we tested wasn't nearly as bad as the reviews would indicate. It's particularly great if you'll be using Onkyo's built-in streaming services, as the app often replicates what's on the TV's screen on your phone, so you don't have to keep looking back and forth. (That's a frequent complaint we have about smartphone remote apps.) It's also much more convenient to search services like Spotify or Rhapsody using a phone or tablet keyboard. The downside is that it can be a little buggy, although it usually worked well during our test period.
Onkyo's TX-NR414 doesn't offer up much of a user interface; it's just blocky white text on a black background. That's not such a big deal when you're making tweaks to the setup menu -- you'll likely only access that menu a handful of times over the life of the product -- but it's more disappointing when using the TX-NR414's networking features. Rather than the icon-driven menu on the step-up TX-NR616 (above the NR515 mentioned earlier), you get text that's hard on the eyes, and there's no album art displayed when you play back music. It's an archaic look, especially in 2012.
The good news is you can get largely avoid the TX-NR414's ugly menus by using the Onkyo smartphone app. The app actually shows artist info and album art, so there's no need to keep the TV on at all when you're using streaming-audio services.
Six HDMI inputs: Having six HDMI inputs is excellent for the TX-NR414's price, as most manufacturers are charging hundreds of dollars more for that much connectivity. Yes, you can pay $65 more for Onkyo's TX-NR515 and get eight HDMI inputs, but for most people six will be plenty. The rest of the TX-NR414's connectivity is solid as well, with four digital audio inputs (two optical, two coaxial) -- that's double the number you get on the $580 Denon AVR-1913. (Check out CNET's 2012 AV receiver spreadsheet for a more detailed comparison of AV receiver connectivity.)
Built-in networking: The TX-NR414's Ethernet port allows for all kinds of networking functionality, including firmware updates, smartphone control, and media streaming via DLNA, Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, Slacker, Last.fm, and Internet radio. I still don't think networking is an essential AV receiver feature (largely because AV receivers shouldn't be media streamers), but Onkyo does a better job than most, with its wide support for streaming-audio services and its decent smartphone app.
The TX-NR414 doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi, like the $500 Sony STR-DN1030, but Onkyo does offer a $25 USB Wi-Fi dongle that you can connect to the port on the front panel. The only catch is that's the TX-NR414's only port, so you won't be able to use USB for anything else. Still, it's a much better solution than I've seen from other manufacturers, which only offer pricey Wi-Fi accessories or none at all. Of course, there's always the option of rolling your own Wi-Fi alternative for your home theater.
No built-in AirPlay: At this price, it's not surprising that the TX-NR414 lacks Apple's AirPlay technology. It's a significant missing feature, but it's not essential since you can always add AirPlay later with a $100 Apple TV, which adds much more functionality. And the TX-NR414's very low street price makes it easier to justify buying a second box. If you're not sure whether you should pick a receiver with built-in AirPlay, check out our rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of built-in AirPlay versus buying a separate Apple TV box.
Two-year warranty: The TX-NR414's two-year warranty is standard, although it's better than the one-year warranty offered on Pioneer's competing receivers. And if you're really looking for peace of mind, the
3D pass-through, audio return channel, standby pass-through: The Onkyo supports all three of these HDMI features (each of which is explained in more detail here), but while they're all useful, you can largely ignore them when making a buying decision, since almost every newer receiver supports them.
iPhone/iPad-friendly USB port: The USB port on the front panel supports iPhones, iPods, and iPads, so you can connect those devices directly using a standard cable and navigate your music collection onscreen. We also had success using the USB port with a standard USB drive filled with music.
Unpowered second-zone audio: The TX-NR414 has bare-bones multiroom functionality, with just line-level, unpowered second-zone analog outputs. That means you'll need a separate amplifier in the other room to power speakers. More expensive receivers offer powered second-zone functionality; you'll need to step up to at least the TX-NR515 if you want that feature.
Other features: The TX-NR414 lacks the ability to upconvert analog video signals over its HDMI output, but that feature isn't nearly as important as it used to be, since analog video devices are pretty rare. There is support for Dolby's Pro Logic IIz processing, allowing for "height" channels, but we don't think the minimal sonic benefits are worth the extra effort. The TX-NR414 isn't THX-certified like some of the pricier Onkyo models, but we don't consider that a big loss, since non-THX certified receivers can sound just as good.
Setup and calibration
The TX-NR414 is the first receiver we've tested in a long time that doesn't have an automatic speaker calibration program, such as Audyssey. That means you'll have to calibrate the TX-NR414 manually, which may a little intimidating for some.
Still, the setup process is simple and straightforward. The first questions are easy (Do you have a subwoofer? Are your speakers large or small?), then get tougher, requiring you to measure the distance of your speakers from the main listening spot. Finally you need to measure the relative volume level of each speaker and the subwoofer using a test tone. You can do it by ear or with an SPL meter if you have one. It's all standard fare for home theater enthusiasts, but if you'd rather just plug in a microphone and have the receiver calibrate itself, you should buy a model with automatic speaker calibration, such as Onkyo's own TX-NR515.
Sound quality evaluations for AV receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon. CNET's sound quality evaluations are strictly subjective, with resident golden ear Steve Guttenberg comparing receivers in an identical listening environment using the same speakers.
The TX-NR414 fared well enough when subjected to the usual onslaught of action-movie mayhem. There was a lot of detail and clarity so intelligibility of dialogue was never an issue, even in the midst of heavy-duty battle scenes. Explosions and the violent helicopter crash on the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray were exciting, but the receiver's soft-to-loud dynamic oomph felt a little lightweight.
We next went to Steven Wilson's "Grace for Drowning" music-only Blu-ray to compare the Onkyo TX-NR414's sound with another receiver. The acoustic and electric instruments' sounds came from all around us, and the percussion instruments had plenty of snap. The total surround environment created by Wilson's mix was very good, but not as seamlessly wraparound and spacious as what we heard from the Denon AVR-1912. With the Onkyo, the soundstage between the front three and the two surround speakers seemed more separate, less well-integrated than the Denon's. The Onkyo's low bass also didn't have the weight and power we heard from the Denon. When we cranked up the volume nice and loud, the TX-NR414's sound coarsened more than the AVR-1912's did. Granted, the AVR-1912 is a considerably more expensive receiver.
CDs played in stereo were an easier load and we had no complaints. The stereo soundstage was big and wide, and we felt the TX-NR414 was an accomplished performer with music.
What about Onkyo's other AV receivers?
Onkyo makes a ton of AV receivers and a few of the more expensive models are worth considering, if you're focused on value.
The strongest step-up choice would be the TX-NR515. For about $65 more, you get two more HDMI inputs, 7.1 channels, automatic speaker calibration, powered second-zone functionality, a true GUI, and an additional back-panel USB port -- especially useful if you plan on getting the Wi-Fi adapter. Since an AV receiver is a device you're likely to own for at least five years, we'd personally spend the extra to get a few features that might be helpful down the line. The step-up TX-NR616 is less attractive for value-oriented buyers, as its additional features (THX, more extensive multiroom functionality) aren't really worth it.
If you're on a tight budget, there's no doubt that the Onkyo TX-NR414 gives you the most bang for your buck. We still have some reservations about Onkyo's mixed record on reliability, although our review sample worked well. And if you can spare a little more money, the TX-NR515 offers some compelling upgrades, while not costing that much more.