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Onkyo TX-NR535 review: Plenty of features, lesser sound

Onkyo's TX-NR535 receiver offers decent home theater performance and a useful number of streaming features, but better sound quality can be had for the price.

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Ty Pendlebury

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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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6 min read

If you're looking to buy a receiver to pair with a set of surround-sound speakers, then the sweet spot is probably in the $400-to-$500 region. Spending this amount of money will usually give you a smattering of decent features and a step-up in sound quality from the budget models.

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7.1

Onkyo TX-NR535

The Good

The Onkyo TX-NR535 offers home-theater thrills in an affordable package; Onkyo's Bluetooth and streaming features are still uncommon at this level; six HDMI 2.0 inputs are very much welcomed.

The Bad

Music can sound a little thin and shouty compared to competitors; Bluetooth streaming sounds poor; user interface is lost in the text dark ages; remote control could be simpler to use.

The Bottom Line

Onkyo's TX-NR535 receiver offers decent home-theater performance and a useful number of streaming features, but it's not the last word on value.

The NR535 sits a bit below this sweet spot, and while it offers even more features than the previous NR525 , not all of them are worth using. For example, the Bluetooth streaming suffers from poor quality and the user interface is outdated and ugly. On the other hand, its connectivity is great at this price, with six HDMI inputs.

Meanwhile, sound quality is much the same; that is to say, more oriented to home theater than music. If you're looking to spend money in this range, models like the Sony STR-DN840 and Marantz NR-1403 will give you better performance for a similar price.

Design

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You could call it "brand identity" or you could call it "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," because while things change yearly on a receiver's insides, its outsides just don't budge at all.

Apart from Marantz with its porthole design, none of the big receiver manufacturers have changed the looks of their products in at least 10 years. Imagine a Denon, you get a Denon; imagine a Pioneer and you get one. Same with this Onkyo. Green LED display, vaguely austere looks and solitary volume knob are all in place.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

As with the TX-NR636 , my favorite part about the front panel of the NR535 is the direct shortcut buttons to each input. Denon has started bringing back numbered "favorites" with its newest models, but Onkyo has always bucked the dial trend and kept the old-school buttons. I prefer buttons because dialing an input selector until you hit the right source seems imprecise and clumsy.

It's 2014, and while you can pay $70 for a Blu-ray player with a colorful user interface, giving Onkyo $400 (or £399 and AU$594 in the UK and Australia) for this receiver delivers a menu closer to DOS. But looks aside, it's easily navigable and the settings are sensibly arranged.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While some companies are slimming down their remotes, or "KISS"-ing, Onkyo presents a classically overwhelming AV receiver clicker with 57 separate keys (including two sets of volume controls). It's not quite a calculator, as it lacks a screen, but at least a calculator lets you add stuff up and, you know, spell "SHELLOIL." Hey, at least its buttons are well laid out.

Features

Sure, Dolby Atmos is getting some press, but a basic 5.1-channel system should suit most rooms short of a commercial cinema. That's exactly what the Onkyo TX-NR535 delivers -- well that, and an extra subwoofer output. The receiver's wattage is rated at 65 per channel.

Unlike the bigger NR636 , the NR535 lacks Atmos and a phono input but keeps features people buying at this price level are arguably more likely to use, such as Bluetooth and streaming support. It supports Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Slacker, Sirius XM and Internet radio.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Onkyo does offer a good number of HDMI inputs though (six), and all support compatibility with HDMI 2.0. Other inputs include one optical and two coaxial digital, wireless and Ethernet, plus a front-mounted USB input.

Hi-res audio is one of the buzzwords of 2014 -- thanks to some guy called Shakey -- the Onkyo will support most formats including DSD, Double DSD, FLAC and ALAC. If you're a home-theater train-spotter then the receiver includes a Burr Brown 192K/24 Bit DAC.

Setup

The TX-NR535 is one of the first Onkyo receivers we've tested in years that doesn't feature Audyssey's automatic speaker calibration system. That's fine -- Onkyo's AccuEQ system is easier to use and achieved more accurate results. It determines how many speakers are connected to the receiver, then adjusts the volume level of each speaker and the subwoofer as well as the time delay/distance settings for the speakers and sub, and it determines the speaker "sizes" and the speakers/sub crossover settings.

To get started, we plugged the included calibration microphone into the TX-NR535 and placed the mic in the main listening position. Unlike the Audyssey approach, which suggests you move the mic to five or more positions in the room, AccuEQ gets the job done from just one spot. The speaker setup starts with a question on the onscreen display, "Do you have a subwoofer?" If you select 'yes', the receiver responds by sending tones to the sub.

After that, AccuEQ sends a sequenced run of test tones to all the speakers and the sub; the whole process takes a couple of minutes. When we checked the results, we were pleased to see AccuEQ identified all of our speakers as "small" speakers and came up with a 100 Hertz crossover setting for all five speakers. Onkyo defines any speaker with smaller than 6.5-inch woofers as "small," but you can manually change the crossover setting for all the speakers, from 40 to 200 Hertz.

We felt AccuEQ did a better job than many of the Onkyo and Denon receivers that featured Audyssey calibration over the last few years. Some of those calibrations were so far off we had to do a complete manual calibration to continue with the review. Our one criticism of the AccuEQ settings was the subwoofer volume was a little too high, so we turned the sub's volume down using the control on the sub.

Performance

The TX-NR535 sounded fine from the start with our reference Aperion Audio speakers and Hsu Research VTF-1 MK2 subwoofer. We cued up the horror flick "The Ring," which is loaded with creepy sound effects, and the scene where a panicked horse breaks out of its stall on a ferry boat and jumps overboard made heavy demands on the receiver's power reserves.

The TX-NR535 didn't flinch; it could easily play the scene as loud as we wanted, but the there was a lean, upfront quality to the sound. Boosting the sub volume added bass, but then the sub's contributions dominated the sound. Scaling the sub's volume back to where we started evened out the balance, but the TX-NR535's sound was thinner than what we heard from the Onkyo TX-NR636 and Sony STR-DN1050 receivers. We're not claiming these differences are massive, just that when we compared those two with the TX-NR535, we liked the NR535 least.

We next listened to Jack White's new "Lazaretto" album with 44.1 kHz/24-bit, slightly higher than CD-quality audio FLAC files. The drums sound had good power and kick, and the stereo soundstage was reasonably spacious, but again, the TX-NR636 and STR-DN1050 receivers outpaced the TX-NR535 in terms of gravitas and warmth. That was even more apparent when we watched "Avatar" and the Samson helicopters swooping over the jungle. The TX-NR535's front-to-rear surround field never fully gelled; we were always aware of a gap between the front and surround speakers.

Unlike the Marantz SR5009, which required numerous aborted attempts and fiddling about, I was able to pair with the Onkyo NR535 very easily via Bluetooth. Despite this ease, Bluetooth music quality was fairly awful. With the predominantly vocal-based Adult Jazz, the result was a bit shouty -- in a bad way. The Onkyo also made a hash of the Arctic Monkeys: there was plenty of midrange bluster and some low-end, but the cymbals become sharp bursts of white noise. It wasn't an issue with Bluetooth signal quality, because with the same source the Marantz SR5009 communicated the song without the pseudo-static noises.

Conclusion

Overall, the TX-NR535 is good and offers a decent number of features, but better sound is available for a bit more cash. Then again, if you don't fret over the subtleties of sound, the TX-NR535 should suit you just fine.

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Onkyo TX-NR535

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Sound 6Value 8