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.
Onkyo TX-SR501 Competition in the A/V-receiver market is so fierce that we've come to expect $500 units to be loaded with extras. But formerly high-end features in an entry-level model, such as Onkyo's $300 TX-SR501, are an eye-opener. Unlike with last year's budget TX-SR500, the engineers managed not only to goose the number of channels from five to six but also to throw in Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES 6.1-channel surround processing, in addition to adding HDTV-capable component-video switching. Three bills never bought so much technology. Nothing about the SR501's brushed-aluminum faceplate screams budget. The receiver is available in either black or silver. Sure, the display could be a bit larger and easier to read, but it's not all that different from the ones on Onkyo's pricier offerings. Another positive is the size: measuring just slightly less than 15 inches deep, the unit will fit in places out of bounds for most of today's larger receivers. However, the box does run hot, so it won't be happy crammed into a closed cabinet.
The SR501 lacks onscreen displays, but that omission slowed down only our setup routine. The remote control will strike you as decidedly low-rent and is indeed the same clicker Onkyo bundles with its home-theater-in-a-box systems. The little guy is loaded with too many awkwardly placed buttons. The receiver's 6.1 Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES processing adds a center-rear surround channel to create more-enveloping effects than standard 5.1 surround. The SR501 also includes Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6, which can create 5.1 and 6.1 multichannel sound from CDs and the radio.
The six power-amplifier channels deliver 65 watts into 8-ohm loads, and 80 watts into 6-ohm loads. We appreciated the versatile speaker setup's customizable satellite/subwoofer crossover control. You can select from 60Hz, 80Hz, 100Hz, 120Hz, and 150Hz crossover options--important for fine-tuning your speakers' sound.
With component-video switching--rarely seen on $300 receivers--the SR501 can accommodate two component-equipped video sources, such as an HDTV cable box and a progressive-scan DVD player. We also counted four A/V composite/S-Video inputs and two matching outputs, 5.1 DVD-A/SACD inputs, and two stereo inputs for a CD player and a cassette deck. You get three digital-audio ins (one coaxial, two optical) but no digital outs. The cluster of front-panel A/V inputs provides easy connection to camcorders and other portable devices. Robust banana-plug-compatible speaker-binding posts are available for all the main channels, but the spring-clip connectors for the other speakers were obviously a cost-cutting move.
The SR501's main competition in this price range is Pioneer's VSX-D912K, which includes a nifty automated speaker setup and costs about the same. The juicy new Steely Dan DVD-Audio disc, Everything Must Go, had us grooving to the duo's weird tunes. To get the most out of this music, you really need to feel the band's tight ensemble playing. Walter Becker's extrafunky bass lines were awfully sweet, and those trademark soulful background singers sounded great crooning in the surround speakers.
We next put the SR501 through a brute-force test with From the Front Row, Live, a DVD-Audio concert from Iggy Pop. All our Iggy favorites, such as "Lust for Life," "China Girl," and "Nightclubbing," bounded out of the speakers. The band lays down sledgehammer rhythms, and the disc's perfect 5.1 mix accurately duplicates the club's sound. We had been present at the 1986 performance, and this recording brought it all back home to us.
The quieter jungle scenes on the Thin Red Line DVD had a nice sense of texture and subtlety; the low-level rustles and wind noise all came across well. When distant gunfire interrupted the stillness, the menacing score rose up and added to the suspense. Pushing the volume to extremes during the heavier battle sequences strained the SR501 a bit.
Finally, we compared the SR501 with its big brother, the TX-SR601. The family resemblance was obvious in the sonics, though the SR601 was a tad fuller-sounding. You might want to consider moving up to the SR601 for its more-flexible connectivity and its multiroom options.