With both Yamaha and Sony deciding not to release new models in 2019, it may seem like AV receivers are in a holding pattern right now. It's up to brands like Denon, Marantz and Onkyo to keep the traditional black box alive against increasing competition from soundbars and smart speakers.
Last year Onkyo manufactured our favorite receiver under $500: The TX-NR585 , which has no direct replacement in 2019. Instead, the TX-NR696 is the brand's new mid-level offering, and it's a winner. The '696 packs a high level of performance and a fully loaded feature set at a relatively affordable price. The Denon AVR-750H sounds a bit better with music and costs a bit less, making it a solid second choice, but the Onkyo offers more features and a more well-rounded, dynamic sound overall. With the features, audio sure-footedness and flexibility of the best models at its price, the TX-NR696 earns CNET's Editor's Choice.
Read more: Best AV receivers of 2020
A lot under the hood
The TX-NR696 is a 7 x 100-watt-per-channel receiver with an exhaustive list of features, including support for the atmospheric Dolby Atmos and DTS:X formats. Compared with competitor Yamaha, which only includes four HDMI inputs on the rear of models such as the RX-V485, the Onkyo includes a healthy six at the back. The ports offer pass-through of the latest 4K standards, including HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Other connections include pairs of component and composite video inputs, six analog audio inputs, three digital audio inputs (two optical and one coaxial) and a USB port.
Vinyl is in the middle of a revival right now and the NR696 enable users to take advantage thanks to a dedicated phono input for turntables that lack an onboard phono preamp.
Large and imposing at 6.81 inches tall, the Onkyo keeps one of my favorite design touches of previous years: Direct source buttons on the front panel. If you misplace the remote a lot, you'll appreciate being able to tap a button on the receiver to get the source you want.
The Onkyo's bevy of streaming protocols including Chromecast built-in, DTS Play-Fi, Spotify Connect, AirPlay and Bluetooth. The receiver uses the proprietary FlareConnect system which is essentially "mirror casting" for audio. It lets you "mirror" what's playing on one FlareConnect system to another, whether singly or throughout a whole house. The most useful application of this would be streaming a turntable or other analog source, though the onboard Play-Fi system also has this feature and a lot more besides that.
The Onkyo offers a dedicated powered Zone 2 out if you're looking to set up another room with a set of speakers.
The remote control isn't quite up to the standard of previous years and it feels a little more bloated, a little less refined. The tone control is the same size as the volume rocker and I hit it several times instead of volume which I found annoying. The receiver offers a full-color, high-definition interface (unlike the Denon AVR750H).
Most people buying a receiver do so because they want something versatile -- something that's as comfortable playing music as it is with movies and streaming video content. If I had to sum up the sound of the Onkyo TX-NR696 in one word it would be "fun." It offers enjoyable sound whether you're watching a superhero blockbuster or relaxing to some gentle folk music.
I compared the Onkyo against two-similarly priced rivals -- the Denon AVRS740 and the Sony STR-DN1080 and found it to be the most entertaining of the three. While the Denon was the most comfortable with music, the Onkyo gave the most balanced presentation regardless of content.
I began my listening sessions peacefully, with Field of Flowers by Australian musician Grand Salvo. The tune starts with a finger-picked guitar and solo voice, then swells to incorporate chorus and percussion as the tale of childhood friendship and lost innocence unfolds. The Onkyo had more "air" but also had more tape noise from the guitar. When the chorus kicked in the song grew to completely fill the room in a goosebump-inducing way.
The Denon AVR-S740 stripped out a lot of the ambience and tape noise I heard to make the vocals more present. As a result, the extended outro was more enveloping, if not as dynamic-sounding as the Onkyo made it.
I compared the Sony STR-DN1080 next, a former Editors' Choice winner and Thee Oh Sees' The Daily Heavy sounded better on the Onkyo. The track begins with a drummer stomping on some squeezy toys as if they're hi-hat pedals, a sound that uncovered a weakness in the Sony. Though the ensuing rock track was exciting and visceral, I kept having the sense that the music was "too loud", that I needed to turn it down -- even when it was at a moderate level. In comparison, the Onkyo made the throb of the rubbery bassline a little more insistent and more enjoyable. As I'd heard before, the Onkyo offered more atmospheric details and gave me a better sense of whatever kind of psychedelic grotto the band was performing in. And at no point did I want to turn it down, I wanted it louder, I wanted more!
I watched a number of movies through all three receivers and found they were all very similar at producing room-shaking sonics. My favorite was Chapter 9 of the video-game adaptation Rampage: A literal thrill ride starting on the top of a Chicago's Willis Tower. As The Rock and his scientist companion try to exit the roof in a helicopter, the Onkyo captured the groaning, splintering collapse of the skyscraper best. From the thwap thwap of the helicopter blades to the roar of the monstrous alligator the Onkyo laid down a consistent bass bed emanating from the doomed building adding to the menace and danger. The Sony emphasized the tinkling of the breaking glass but it didn't have the oomph of the Onkyo. The more subdued Denon was somewhere in the middle, but also offered plenty of deep bass effects.
Should you buy it?
The Onkyo TX-NR696 has something for everyone. For music fans, no other receiver at this price matches its flexibility letting you connect the sources of your choice -- CD, streaming, Bluetooth and even vinyl. If you're a movie fan, the Onkyo offers a thrilling, balanced performance and includes more HDMI ports than rivals like the Yamaha RX-V485 . Whether you want to listen to music in stereo or stream in Dolby Atmos, the Onkyo is one of the best buys in AV right now.