Budget receivers that exceed mere functionality are pretty rare, and truly outstanding budget models such as Onkyo's latest, the TX-SR500, are something else again. The design engineers not only wrung out every last bit of sonic performance from this one, but it's also a joy to use, and it looks nice. Budget receivers that exceed mere functionality are pretty rare, and truly outstanding budget models such as Onkyo's latest, the TX-SR500, are something else again. The design engineers not only wrung out every last bit of sonic performance from this one, but it's also a joy to use, and it looks nice.
The essential receiver
Onkyo didn't load up a pile of engineering breakthroughs, but all home-theater essentials are present and accounted for; you get Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS 5.1-surround decoding. The receiver delivers 65 watts to each of its five channels, and the power stage uses all-discrete output devices with extruded aluminum heat sinks for high-current capability. This is one budget receiver that can handle low-impedance (less than 8 ohms) speakers without distress.
The 5.1-speaker setup doesn't use the standard naming conventions of Large and Small, so we were a bit puzzled at first. The lack of onscreen menus didn't help the situation either. However, once we read the manual, we had the TX-SR500 up and running in less than 30 minutes.
Connectivity choices are ample for basic home-theater fun. Onkyo managed to sneak in 5.1 DVD-Audio/SACD inputs, as well as front-panel-mounted A/V and digital inputs for easy connection of camcorders or game consoles. Absent are component/HDTV-video switching, preamplifier outputs, and a phono input, so vinyl fans are out of luck. Onkyo makes up for that loss by throwing in a set of color-coded speaker cable labels that match the receiver's color-coded speaker connectors. You can hook up a second set of remote B speakers, but they're relegated to spring-clip fasteners rather than the more secure binding-post-style connectors used for the rest of the speakers.
The smallish, silver-faced preprogrammed remote is far from the best we've seen, but it is fairly easy to read and use.
Sounding out the TX-SR500
We mated the TX-SR500 with our Energy Take 5.2 satellite/subwoofer system and cranked up the Fight Club DVD. This disc has it all--fearsome dynamics, very natural-sounding dialogue, and lots of low-level detail--and the TX-SR500 took the sonic assault in stride. Its easygoing acoustics also brought out the best in less than pristine-sounding DVDs such as Jaws and Vertigo.
As we were dialing in the sound, we noted one rather unusual feature in the TX-SR500's setup menu. You can select one of three sat-to-sub crossover frequencies: 80Hz, 100Hz, or 120Hz. Whereas most receivers are fixed at either 80Hz or 100Hz, the Onkyo's flexibility offers the potential to enhance the performance of sub/sat systems. Our little Take 5 sats, for example, played a bit louder and with more energy when we employed the 120Hz setting.
A brief shoot-out with the next model up in the line, the , proved the superiority of the more expensive receiver. The difference in rated power is a mere 15 watts per channel, but the TX-SR600 put more low-end oomph through our Dynaudio Contour speakers. Relative to the TX-SR600, the TX-SR500 definitely scaled back the action on The Thin Red Line DVD. If your room is large and/or you like to play your CDs and DVDs at fairly high levels, spend the extra money and buy the $500 (list price) TX-SR600. That said, the TX-SR500 carries a suggested retail price of just $320, so we consider it an absolute deal. It's perfectly suited to compact systems in small to midsized rooms.