Let me pose to you a potentially leading question: is there any piece of home-theater equipment less sexy than a receiver? Useful, oh yes -- and it pays to get a good one -- but most of them are very, very unsexy. The Onkyo TX-NR636 isn't quite an eyesore, but as it turns out, its looks aren't what you're paying for anyway. With talk of 4K starting to filter into the market, this is one of the most up-to-date receivers available, with support for HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, and Dolby Atmos.
Despite an overloaded feature count, the designers of the NR636 haven't let the specification tick boxes overshadow outright performance. This is a capable performer with both movies and music and a smattering of useful music services sweetens the deal.
The reason the receiver doesn't get top marks isn't because of something Onkyo has done wrong necessarily, but what its competitors have done right: the Sony STR-DN1050 offers better performance and a better interface. Still for the money -- $599 in the US, £499 in the UK and (gulp) AU$1,199 in Australia -- the Onkyo TX-NR636 is a very proficient and comprehensive package.
While the rest of the AV world opts for designs that are smaller and sleeker, Onkyo's 2014 receivers remain defiantly colossal. Onkyo has done little to change the design it's used in previous years for its NR636; the green LED display is still there, as is the very macho faceplate.
Onkyo is still the only mainstream receiver manufacturer to include individual buttons for each input on its front panel. I found them eminently more convenient than the dials its competitors use.
Following in the "if it ain't broke" mindset, the NR636's remote is also identical to last year's. Compared to more modern-looking, streamlined clickers, such as that of the Sony DN1050, it looks overstuffed with buttons and feels overly complicated to use.
If there's a single device that has routinely disappointed us with poor On Screen Displays (OSD), it's the AV receiver. However they are progressively improving, with Sony's latest crop of machines in the lead. So if the usual black-and-white receiver fare is the equivalent of DOS and Sony's interface is Windows Vista (slick in places but not in others), then the Onkyo NR636 is stuck in the middle, somewhere around Windows 3.1.
All information, bar the Home screen, is presented as long lists of white text on a black screen with a scroll bar. There also appears to be a problem with scaling the default font; it looked soft when we tested it on a 720p TV and a 55-inch 4K TV.
The Onkyo TX-NR636 is a 7.1-channel receiver rated at 115 watts per channel and features all the home-theater decoders -- Dolby, DTS, and so on -- that you'd expect. It's also very well equipped with cutting-edge features (and old features that are cutting-edge again), including support for 4K, Dolby Atmos (forthcoming), and even a phono pre-amp for connecting your (new) turntable.
If you're looking for relative future-proofing then the NR636's ability to support HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 might help assuage your concerns. Neither means very much right now but should come in handy once we all switch to 4K screens with Blu-ray 2.0. If that ever happens.
Like most audio products released recently, the Onkyo includes a Bluetooth connection, but it misses out on aptX support. As an added bonus the model includes onboard Wi-Fi with DLNA and a host of audio services including TuneIn, Sirius, Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, and Slacker. By comparison, the Sony DN1080 adds Apple AirPlay to the mix but loses out by including only half the streaming services, most significantly omitting Spotify.
If you want to kick it old-school then the device offers a host of inputs including seven HDMI inputs (one more than the Sony DN1050), two optical and one coaxial digital, component video, and six analog RCA jacks.
If you're an aficionado of hi-res audio files, then you'll be happy to note that the receiver includes the ability to play DSD, Double DSD, WAV, FLAC and ALAC up to 24-bit/192kHz quality.
The TX-NR636 features Onkyo's new AccuEQ speaker-calibration system, which is much easier to use than the Audyssey systems that haven't always produced accurate results over the last few years. AccuEQ determines how many speakers are connected to the receiver, adjusts the volume level and time delay/distance for each speaker and the subwoofer, determines the speaker "sizes," and sets the speakers/sub crossover point.
To get started, plug the included calibration microphone into the TX-NR636 and place the mic in the main listening position. Unlike the Audyssey approach that suggests you move the mic to five or more positions in the room, AccuEQ gets the job done from just one spot. The TX-NR636's speaker setup starts with a number of options on the onscreen display, "Front Speakers, Normal or Bi-amp," "Power Zone 2, Yes or No," "Back or Height" surround speakers, and "Do you have a Subwoofer, Yes or No."
After you make those selections, AccuEQ sends a sequenced run of test tones to all the speakers and the sub. The whole process takes a few minutes. When we checked the results, we were pleased to see AccuEQ correctly identified all of our speakers as "Small" and came up with a 100Hz crossover setting for each one. 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 200Hz.
We felt AccuEQ did a better job than many of the Onkyo and Denon receivers that have featured Audyssey calibration in recent 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 that the subwoofer volume was a little too high, so we turned it down using the control on the sub.
The TX-NR636 made its capabilities known first with a heavyweight sound on the "Gravity" soundtrack score. The ultra-deep rumbles and throbs coursing through the music were mighty impressive. The TX-NR636 had none of the bass leanness we heard from Onkyo's less expensive TX-NR535 receiver. The TX-NR636 has a sweeter and warmer sound that flattered all types of movies and music.
The higher-end Onkyo faced stiff competition from Sony's STR-DN1050 receiver; those two sounded nearly the same, but the STR-DN1050 eked out more spatial depth from the densely mixed jungle scenes on the "Avatar" Blu-ray disc. The TX-NR636 brought all the insects and birds sounds close; the STR-DN1050 placed those sounds further away, which sounded more natural to us. The layers of depth were less apparent over the TX-NR636.
The best receivers just go about their business without calling attention to the sound, the speakers "disappear," and you focus on the movie. That was certainly the case with the TX-NR636 -- its competence was never in doubt.
For our stereo trials we listened to the 96kHz/24-bit high-resolution files of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" album, and noticed there was a three-dimensional body to the sound of the drums, acoustic guitars and Jeff Tweedy's vocals. CDs also sounded fine, but well-mastered, high-resolution albums had a slightly more natural sound. It's not that they had more clarity per se, just that they sounded more natural than CDs. The TX-NR636 was definitely up to the job of delivering the best from high-resolution files.
The receiver's network functions worked as advertised, and the Bluetooth connection was relatively painless. The selection of apps are good and having Spotify is an ace in the hole, but if you're looking for streaming as your main source of music, then the receiver's barren interface may frustrate in comparison to the slick interface of a dedicated streamer, let alone your phone or tablet.
With a less-than-stellar interface and only slightly less impressive sound than the Sony STR-DN1050, the Onkyo TX-NR636 is nonetheless an excellent receiver that offers a great selection of features. And if you're looking for peace of mind, the Onkyo is about as close as you can get to "future-proof" at this price.