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Pioneer Elite VSX-91TXH review: Pioneer Elite VSX-91TXH

Pioneer Elite VSX-91TXH

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Matthew Moskovciak Steve Guttenberg
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Matthew Moskovciak

Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.

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Steve Guttenberg

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.

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11 min read

Design
All AV receivers are basically big, black boxes, but Pioneer Elite receivers are distinguished by a glossy-black front panel that's accented by bright orange lights. That might sound a little tacky, but the VSX-91TXH manages to pull it off with class. The receiver also has a bit more button clutter than some of its more minimalist competitors--such as the Onkyo TX-SR805 or the Sony STR-DA5300ES--but it gives it a bit of a retro feel. Toward the top in the center is the LCD display, which is large enough to be read comfortably from about seven feet away.

7.9

Pioneer Elite VSX-91TXH

The Good

HDMI 1.3 compatibility; converts analog video sources to HDMI; onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding; excellent automatic speaker calibration; switches as many as six high-definition video sources; the VSX-91TXH AV receiver is compatible with Sirius and XM radio subscriptions.

The Bad

Only two HDMI inputs; subpar video processing for analog video sources; lackluster onscreen interface.

The Bottom Line

The Pioneer Elite VSX-91TXH AV receiver delivers excellent audio quality and a host of cutting-edge features, but competing models offer even better values at this price point.
In consumer electronics, timing can be everything. Take the Pioneer VSX-91TXH, the second of four models in the company's high-end Elite line. With such cutting-edge features as HDMI 1.3, onboard decoding for next-gen Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD soundtracks, analog-to-digital video conversion, and XM and Sirius satellite radio compatibility, the AV receiver would've been hailed as a breakthrough--if it had been released anytime before the middle of 2007. But just a few short months later, those same features are run of the mill for most mid- to high-end receivers. But the bigger problem is the VSX-91TXH's price: $1,000. Not only is it double that of the --which delivers nearly the identical feature set--it makes it harder to overlook some of the Pioneer's foibles, such as its lackluster processing of analog video sources and the fact that it only has two HDMI inputs. In other words, the Pioneer VSX-91TXH is a fine receiver overall--it just needs a price cut to fare better in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The VSX-91TXH is 16.57 inches wide, 6.81 inches high, and 18.31 inches deep, so you'll need plenty of room in your AV cabinet to handle it. That said, the VSX-91TXH runs relatively cool, so it's more conducive to confined spaces than competing models such as the Onkyo TX-SR805, which tend to generate quite a bit more heat.

The setup menu on the VSX-91TXH is bare-bones. You won't find any of the fancy graphics featured on new Sony and Denon receivers, and it doesn't even offer the minimal graphical upgrade of Onkyo's new receivers. Instead, you're stuck with the blocky, white text on a black background that will remind you of the VCR era. From the setup menu, you can run the MCACC autosetup program, manually adjust your speaker, and configure your inputs. Like most other midlevel receivers, you can reassign inputs to your liking and rename them, although instead of a virtual keyboard, you're forced to scroll through every letter to make your choice. Pioneer is definitely behind the curve compared to the competitors in this regard, but keep in mind that once you go through the initial setup, you probably won't go into the setup menu that frequently.

Pioneer VSX-91TXH
The Pioneer Elite VSX-91TXH's included remote won't win any awards for ease of use, but it gets the job done.

The included remote on the VSX-91TXH, like all other AV receivers, is cluttered with buttons. For the most part there's decent button differentiation, as it's easy to find the volume rocker and the directional pad to navigate menus. On the other hand, there are a ton of secondary functions on this remote, so you'll be hitting Shift plus another button to do something as simple as select the HDMI 2 input. Put that together with the lack of backlighting, and you'll probably want to spring for a good universal remote in order to use it in a darkened home theater.

Pioneer VSX-91TXH
Plug in the included microphone and follow the easy onscreen instructions to automatically calibrate your speakers.

The VSX-91TXH's MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration) is a surprisingly easy to use automated setup system. Plugging in the supplied measuring microphone automatically brings up the onscreen display in MCACC mode. Push a few buttons on the remote and the system automatically measures your speaker sizes as well as the speaker-to-listener distances (including the subwoofer); sets the volume levels of all of the speakers and the sub; sets the subwoofer crossover point; and creates a room/speaker-correcting EQ program to improve sound quality. The MCACC seemed to spend more than the usual amount of time sending test tones to our speakers, but at least we didn't have to move the mic to a few different positions in our room. We're not always happy with the equalization changes autosetup systems provide, but the MCACC's was truly beneficial.

Features
Key features at a glance:

Connectivity   Audio soundtrack capabilities
HDMI inputs 2 Passes Dolby Digital and DTS via HDMI Yes
Component video inputs 3 Passes LPCM via HDMI Yes
A/V inputs w/S-Video 5 (4 rear, 1 front) Decodes Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Yes
Optical inputs 4 (3 rear, 1 front) Video capabilities
Coaxial inputs 2 HDMI version 1.3
Selectable HD sources 6 1080p via HDMI Yes
Satellite radio XM and Sirius ready 1080p via component Yes
Network audio No Upconverts analog sources Yes
Phono input No Deinterlaces 480i via HDMI Yes
Analog multichannel input Yes Selectable output resolution No

The Pioneer VSX-91TXH is a 7.1-channel AV receiver, and Pioneer rates its power output at 110 watts per channel. Similar to essentially every other receiver available, it offers a full selection of Dolby and DTS surround-processing modes. Like the vast majority of new midrange and high-end receivers, the VSX-91TXH also has onboard decoding for the newest high-resolution surround formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

Pioneer VSX-91TXH
The string of logos is a testament to the VSX-91TXH's impressive feature list.

Theoretically, the benefit of having onboard TrueHD and Master Audio decoding is that HD DVD and Blu-ray players can send these soundtracks to the receiver to be decoded, instead of the players needing onboard decoders themselves. At the time of this review, the first HD DVD and Blu-ray players capable of sending Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in bit-stream format are just hitting the market. However, we won't know for sure if these players will work with the new receivers because Advanced Content flags on discs may prevent bit-stream output. The bottom line is we won't know for sure the real-world usefulness of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding until we get our hands on these new bit-stream-output-capable players. In the meantime, however, owners can be confident that having the onboard decoding is as much of a degree of futureproofing as exists in home audio at the current time.

Some--but not all--older HD DVD and Blu-ray players decode the Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks internally, then send the decoded signals to attached receivers via HDMI (in uncompressed linear PCM format) or multichannel analog-audio connections. The few players that can't decode the new formats default to the older DVD-standard Dolby Digital, DTS, or uncompressed PCM soundtracks available on the discs--so you should be able to get some sort of surround soundtrack.

To connect video components to the VSX-91TXH, there are two HDMI inputs, each capable of carrying 1080p high-def video along with multichannel audio. There are also three component video inputs for analog high-def signals, as well, and five AV inputs with S-Video for standard-def video.

There are some limitations on the video connections that buyers should be aware of. The VSX-91TXH cannot convert 1080p component video signals to the HDMI output. You can get around this by connecting the component video output to your HDTV--and this successfully passes a component 1080p signal--but you sacrifice the one-cable convenience that upconverting AV receivers were supposed to offer. (This issue is likely to affect only owners of older, pre-HDMI Xbox 360 models.)

For audio, there are the aforementioned HDMI inputs, plus six digital audio inputs (four optical and two coaxial) and one digital audio optical output. There are two dedicated stereo analog inputs (one with a recording loop) and a 7.1 multichannel analog input. Vinyl fans will be disappointed to note the lack of a phono input, which feels a little cheap when you spend $1,000 on a receiver.

AV connectivity is great, but to really take advantage of it, you need enough selectable AV source names for all your gear. For high-def video, the VSX-91TXH is fully covered as each HDMI input has its own customizable source name, and the DVD, TV, DVR 1, and DVR 2 source names can each be assigned any of the component video inputs. If you use all your high-def inputs, there are two additional standard-def video inputs, one of which is on the front panel. This is a step up over the Onkyo TX-SR805, which offers more connectivity overall but only six total source names.

Additional connectivity is available, including XM and Sirius jacks, so you only need to connect an antenna (the XM Mini-Tuner for XM or the SiriusConnect SCH1 Home Tuner for Sirius) to get reception--with a subscription, of course. There's also a 12V trigger jack, a switched AV power outlet and an RS-232 connector to ease home automation installations. Additionally, an iPod input terminal to be used with Pioneer proprietary iPod cable, which should be included with the receiver (note that some early shipments of the VSX-91TXH, including ours, lack the iPod cable in the box and require you to call the "iPod cable hot line" to receive yours free of charge). Once you connect your iPod, you can browse your music on your TV screen using the receiver's remote.

The VSX-91TXH supports a second zone, using either line-level stereo analog outputs (with composite video) or by dedicating the surround back speakers to a second zone. To utilize the surround back speakers as a second zone, you'll need to change the "surround back speaker setting" in the setup menu. Although we did not test the second zone functionality of the VSX-91TXH, heavy multiroom users should note that the manual says that accessing main zone controls--such as changing the input--will temporarily interrupt service to the second zone.

Pioneer VSX-91TXH
Most receivers at this price range have more than two HDMI inputs.

Overall, the VSX-91TXH feels pretty light on the features in this price range. The Onkyo TX-SR805 offers more connectivity all around (including a third HDMI input), plus it supports a third zone and THX's Neural Surround processing--for the same price. The Sony STR-DA3300ES also offers three HDMI inputs and Sony's excellent graphical user interface for $1,000 -- although it lacks onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (which may or may not be a big deal, as discussed before). The Denon AVR-2808CI comes in at $1,200 and offers two HDMI inputs, plus has many other step-ups such as the new Denon GUI, component video output for a second source, and THX Neural Surround processing. It's certainly hard to argue that the VSX-91TXH has the best feature set at this price level. Better appointed step-up models exist, of course--the VSX-92TXH and VSX-94TXH offer more HDMI inputs and THX Neural Surround, but they cost $1,300 and $1,600, respectively.

Audio performance
The Master and Commander DVD's naval battles sounded immensely powerful over the Pioneer VSX-91TXH. Even as the 18-pound cannonballs smashed through the wooden ship's sides, and the panicked sailors ran for their lives the Pioneer receiver delivered the sonic goods. Sensing no strain, we nudged the volume higher and higher, but we cried uncle before the VSX-91TXH's 110 watts per channel did.

Bruce Springsteen's Live in Dublin DVD exercised the receiver's surround talents. Instead of the usual band in the front/audience in the rear mix, this DVD puts you in the middle of the crowd so the applause and "Bruuuce" cheers came from all around. The front left, center, and right speakers displayed impressive depth and a spacious quality that added to the realism of the concert. The mostly acoustic band sounded sweet; the Boss' vocal had just the right amount of presence and warmth.

We upped the ante with a new SACD of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The sumptuous sound was exceptionally beautiful, and we noted the Pioneer's deft handling of the orchestra's wide dynamic range. One nitpick: The deepest bass passages felt just a little lightweight.

We finished our evaluation rocking out with Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga CD. The band's supple rhythms came alive, and the guitars crisp detail was a treat for our ears.

Video performance
The VSX-91TXH offers video upconversion of analog sources (composite, S-Video, component) to 480p HDMI output, so we decided to test its performance. We connected the Toshiba HD-A20 HD DVD player to the VSX-91TXH using an S-Video connection, and connected the VSX-91TXH to the Westinghouse TX-F430S with HDMI (in this configuration, the VSX-91TXH is responsible for deinterlacing the 480i signal from the HD-A20). We started off with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on standard DVD, and the results were disappointing. The VSX-91TXH failed to display the full detail of DVDs, as there was not enough detail on resolution test patterns. The next tests resulted in plenty of jaggies, on both a rotating white bar and three pivoting white lines. It also failed a 2:3 pull-down test, which results in moire in the grandstands of some footage of a race car.

We switched gears and looked at some actual program material to see how the VSX-91TXH performed in a more real-world environment. Unfortunately, the limitations exposed with the test patterns were very easy to see in actual movies. For instance, the introduction to Seabiscuit is a tough test for jaggies, and the VSX-91TXH did a very poor job with this sequence. Jaggies were present almost all over the image and even noncritical viewers would notice the issue. Even as the movie continued, the image looked soft and we consistently saw the top edge of the letterbox bars jittering. We also looked at Star Trek: Insurrection, and this disc confirmed that the VSX-91TXH does not have 2:3 pull-down processing. The opening sequence was subject to artifacts on both the railings of the bridge and the curved hulls of the boats, followed by more jaggies on the roofs of the buildings.

We also took a quick look at how the Nintendo Wii looked when upscaled through the VSX-91TXH. While many people may have most of their components connected through HDMI or component-video connections, the Wii is a prime candidate for upscaling as it only comes with a composite video cable (you can buy a component video cable separately, however). As soon as we turned on the Wii, we could see issues on the menu--the different channel buttons were filled with flashing and strobelike artifacts, as well as the animated arrow on the right hand side. We compared the video quality when the receiver did the upconversion to when we connected it directly to the TV, and it only took a few rounds of tennis in Wii Sports to confirm that the TV did a better job of deinterlacing.

While the upconversion capabilities of the VSX-91TXH were disappointing, we should stress that these issues will occur only if you use it to upconvert analog sources. If you are using only high-def sources, or if you use an upscaling DVD player (or a high-def player that also upscales DVDs), you won't run into these performance issues.

7.9

Pioneer Elite VSX-91TXH

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8