Where most A/V receivers use conventional analog amplifiers, digital units employ an all-digital amplification process that's more efficient and results in smaller chassis sizes. Digital receivers have been around for years, but they have yet to surpass or even match the sound quality of analog designs. So we approached Panasonic's latest digital darling, the SA-XR70S, with low expectations. To our surprise, it sounds sweet and delivers ample punch, although it still isn't as powerful as some conventional designs. In addition to its digital amps, the XR70S is one of the first receivers to offer the latest advance in the connectivity wars: HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) ports. That's a big deal because HDMI can route all of your video and audio signals through one skinny cable--although the XR70S's implementation of HDMI is pretty limited. While it isn't the perfect receiver for big home theaters or multi-HDMI-source setups, the $499 Panasonic SA-XR70S still represents a decent value with a great feature package and solid performance. The biggest benefit of the Panasonic SA-XR70S's all-digital amp approach is that it's smaller and lighter than standard 100-watt-per-channel receivers. The sleek Panasonic measures 3.25 inches high, 17 inches wide, and 14.75 inches deep, and it weighs a mere 9.4 pounds.
The XR70S's slim faceplate isn't cluttered with buttons, so it should appeal to buyers who appreciate a less-is-more design approach. We like the buttery-smooth volume control, which lends the receiver a luxurious touch. Setup chores won't faze experienced home-theater buyers, but novices may struggle to make sense of the onscreen menus' less-than-intuitive logic. (For hassle-free setup, check out the ) The trim remote can adjust subwoofer bass level on the fly and sports a full set of DVD player controls.
Bargain hunters take note: Panasonic's SA-XR50 ($299) lacks the HDMI feature, but in other respects, it looks as if it's a clone of the XR70S. So if you don't have an HDMI-equipped DVD player or TV or if you feel comfortable using a standard digital-audio cable between your HDMI device and your receiver, then you might want to save the two bills and go for the XR50. Panasonic claims that some of the XR70S's sound quality improvements come about through the elimination of the digital-to-analog conversions that take place in all-analog amplifiers. That logic might seem a little confusing, but remember that analog receivers are almost always hooked up to digital audio sources, such as DVD players. Keeping the signals in the digital domain is a good idea.
The Panasonic SA-XR70S's digital amps generate 100 watts for each of its six channels, and the receiver sports a full contingent of Dolby and DTS six-channel processing modes. Since the digital amplifiers are more efficient than conventional amplifiers, they produce a little less heat.
The XR70S is the first receiver we've tested that includes an HDMI input and an HDMI output. Using just a pair of slender cables, its HDMI connection can pass standard or high-definition video to an HDTV and carry Dolby, DTS, and DVD-Audio (but not SACD) signals to the speakers. Just be aware that in order to take advantage of the XR70S's HDMI connectivity, you'll need an HDMI-equipped device--a DVD player or an HDTV receiver--and a television with an HDMI input. If you have two HDMI sources, however, the XR70S may be a disappointment: since it has only one HDMI input, it cannot switch between two HDMI devices connected to one display. The main practical function of the XR70S's HDMI connection is to ease cable clutter by eliminating the need for a separate digital-audio connection between the receiver and the source. It would have been nice for the unit to feature a second HDMI input or even to upconvert the analog video inputs (component, composite, and S-Video) to HDMI for even simpler connectivity, but that's too much to ask from a $500 receiver these days. Give it a year.
We also noted four A/V inputs (two with component video); a set of front-panel A/V inputs with S-Video; 5.1 DVD-A/SACD inputs; two stereo inputs; four digital inputs (two optical and two coaxial), and one optical output. The front-speaker A/B connectors can be reconfigured to biamplify compatible speakers--that's a rare feature, even on grown-up receivers. Those sturdy binding posts accept banana plugs or bare wire ends, but as a space-saving measure, the center- and surround-speaker connectors are relegated to far-less-secure clamping wire connectors. And they accept only the skinniest of bare wire ends--the clamping connectors are a real pain to use. We were a little concerned that the hard-hitting Kill Bill, Volume 1 DVD might rough up the slim-and-svelte Panasonic SA-XR70S, but it came through without a scratch. The fight scenes' gut-wrenching body blows, vivid swordplay, and blood-curdling screams all loomed large when heard through the XR70S. The Moulin Rouge DVD's majestic score unleashed a remarkably spacious soundstage, though we felt the music's dynamic range was scaled back a bit. Overall, we'd say that was impressive performance from a 9.4-pound receiver.
Medeski, Martin, and Wood's Uninvisible DVD-Audio disc is loaded with funky jazz grooves, and the XR70S's sound is deliciously warm and inviting. The surround mix places the keyboards between the left-rear and left-front speakers, the bass in the center speaker, and the drums between the right-front and right-rear speakers. The little XR70S pulled its weight, but when we compared it with the $399 , we were taken aback by what we heard. The Denon sounds pretty good on its own, but the XR70S was more refined, with bigger, fatter bass and a sweeter overall balance. But when we cranked both receivers to higher volume levels, the XR70S's sound hardened--while the Denon was unfazed. Filling our home theater with the sound of Metallica's St. Anger CD, the XR70S kept every instrument distinct and clear--as long as we didn't lean on the volume.
On choice CDs such as Miles Davis's classic Kind of Blue, it was the immediacy of the sound that made the biggest impression. Davis's horn was positively gorgeous, and John Coltrane's sax presence was remarkable. Goosing the low frequencies with the XR70S's Bass Enhancer added a subtle warmth to the sound that we liked.
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