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Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K review: Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K

OVR
8.4

Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K

The Good

Outstanding sound quality for the price; four HDMI inputs; can connect an iPod/iPhone directly to its USB port and browse music using onscreen graphical user interface; analog video upconversion to 1080p, with acceptable image quality; onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding; Sirius-ready; automatic speaker calibration.

The Bad

Advanced controls can be difficult to setup; confusing manual.

The Bottom Line

The Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K delivers an excellent feature set and outstanding sound quality for its price, making it our top midrange AV receiver pick so far.

Editors' Note: Pioneer has announced that this 2009 product will be replaced by the Pioneer VSX-1020 as of April 2010.

The iPod is the most popular audio gadget of the decade, which is why it's incredibly frustrating that it's not easier to use it with your AV receiver. Either you're stuck using a patch cable and getting up from the couch to make playback changes, or you have to shell out for a pricey proprietary iPod dock. That's why we were so excited when we saw the Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K (and its step-down cousins) at CES 2009; just plug your iPod into the front panel USB port using the included iPod cable and you can navigate your music using your TV screen. That's a unique feature in this price range and the VSX-1019AH-K also has a full suite of standard features, such as four HDMI inputs, 1080p analog upconversion, and multiroom functionality. Even better, we were blown away by the sound quality of the VSX-1019AH-K for a $500 receiver, despite our initial worries that it weighs significantly less than last year's VSX-1018AH-K. With no major shortcomings, outstanding sound quality and its unique iPod-friendly USB port, the VSX-1019AH-K is our top midrange AV receiver pick and thus earns the Editors' Choice award.

Editors' note: The review has been updated since publication in June 2009 to indicate that the VSX-1019AH-K has earned the Editors' Choice award.

Design
It's tough to make an AV receiver stand out from the pack, but the VSX-1019AH-K is likely to catch your eye on a retail shelf. That's mostly because of its glossy black front panel finish, which gives it a high-end feel, although it picks up plenty of fingerprint smudges. There are two large knobs on each side of the unit, one for volume and one for selecting inputs. Toward the bottom is a push-out cover that reveals more inputs, including the USB port for easy iPod connectivity. The LCD screen features bright white lettering and we had no trouble reading it from about 9 feet back. As long you keep the VSX-1019AH-K looking fingerprint-free, we think it's one of the best looking receivers in its price class.


Just push off the cover to reveal the USB connectivity and another AV input.

The included remote control is decent, although a bit cluttered. The clicker does a good job of separating functions like the directional pad and playback controls, but the master volume buttons should be more prominent. Some of the buttons also serve dual functions, which can get confusing, but that's pretty standard on AV receiver remotes. As always, you can alleviate many of these problems with a quality universal remote.

User interface
Many receivers in this price range still include a basic text-based onscreen display, but the VSX-1019AH-K includes a full graphical user interface. Pioneer refers to it as "full color GUI," but that's a bit of a stretch; the color palette is limited to grayscale and some occasional blue for standard menu functions. Still, we found that the GUI made it easy to do most of the basic setup chores, such as setting speaker levels or assigning inputs.


The Pioneer's GUI may not truly be color, but it makes it easier to carry out simple setup chores.

Even better, the GUI works seamlessly if you plug in an iPod/iPhone to the front panel USB port. The GUI pops up and lets you browse your music collection using the standard iPod categories, such as artist, album, or genre. Movies and photos can also be played back, but only if you use the "iPod control" scheme, where you use the actual iPod for navigation, rather than the GUI. Yes, we would have liked if movies and photos were also accessible via the GUI, but it's not a big deal unless you plan on watching a lot of movies/slideshows on your TV.


We loved navigating our iPod using the graphical user interface, especially without needing a proprietary iPod dock.

As nice as the GUI is for functions like iPod navigation and assigning inputs, we really wish it handled more of the functions available on the VSX-1019AH. For example, when we wanted to activate the VSX-1019AH's "sound retriever" mode (which claims to make compressed audio formats sound better), we were forced to navigate menus using the unit's single-line LCD screen. Even then, we couldn't find it and had to spend way too much time digging through the lousy manual to discover that it only worked on particular sources. The good news is that all the basic functionality of the VSX-1019AH is easy to access via the GUI of standard remote buttons, but those looking to use all of the receiver's functions will encounter some headaches.

Setup
We're generally big fans of Pioneer's MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration) automatic speaker calibration system because it's easy to use and gives excellent results. The system automatically determines speaker sizes, speaker-to-listener distances, sets the volume levels of all of the speakers and the sub, and calculates the subwoofer crossover point. We also like that all of the measurements are taken from just one microphone position.


Pioneer's MCACC automatic speaker calibration starts up as soon as you plug in the included mic.

Plug in the included mic and the receiver automatically brings up the autosetup onscreen display. Commence MCACC and the receiver sends an unusually wide variety of tones, whooshes, and thumping sounds through all the speakers and the subwoofer. The whole operation took about 5 minutes.

Checking the results, we were surprised to see MCACC misidentified our Aperion Intimus 4B surround channel satellites as "large" speakers. Since the 4B satellites have 4-inch woofers (with limited deep bass capability) we classify them as "small" speakers. When a receiver recognizes a speaker as small it redirects some of the bass that would normally go to the speaker to the subwoofer. That's what bass management is all about. So we had to go to the manual setup menu to correct that mistake, which is easy enough to do. Never assume autosetup is perfect. We almost always have to correct some aspect of speaker setup after running autocalibration programs.

For once we were perfectly happy with an autosetup's handling of subwoofer volume and the way the sub's sound melded with the satellite speakers. We didn't feel the need to change anything regarding the sub setup.

Features

Key features
Dolby TrueHD + DTS-HD MA Yes Onscreen display GUI
Analog upconversion 1080p Source renaming Yes
Selectable output resolution Yes Satellite radio Sirius

The Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K is one of the most fully featured receivers in its price range. As mentioned before, it has a full color graphical user interface, which is better than the text-only onscreen displays on the comparable Onkyo TX-SR607 and Yamaha RX-V665BL. It's also capable of upconverting analog signals up to 1080p, and unlike most midrange receivers, it actually has acceptable image quality--more on this in the performance section. The VSX-1019AH-K only support Sirius (and not XM), but that's less of an issue since the merger of the two satellite radio companies.

Connectivity
HDMI inputs 4 Optical audio inputs 2
Component video inputs 2 Coaxial audio inputs 2
Max connected HD devices 6 Stereo analog audio inputs 3
Composite AV inputs 4 Analog multichannel inputs 5.1
Max connected video devices 8 Phono input No

The VSX-1019AH-K's connectivity is also a strong point. Its four HDMI inputs should be enough for almost every home theater, although the comparable Onkyo TX-SR607 offers six HDMI inputs. There are two component video connections and the VSX-1019AH-K has enough input "slots" so you can use six high-def sources at the same time. One slight step-down compared with the competition is its 5.1 analog inputs; most midrange receivers offer 7.1 analog inputs.


Manufacturers are notoriously skimpy when it comes to including cables, so it was a surprise to see Pioneer throw in an iPod cable.

We mentioned the iPod graphical user interface before, but it's worth stressing again that it's an excellent feature at this price range. Sony, Yamaha, Denon, and Onkyo all charge extra for iPod dock accessories, while the VSX-1019AH-K includes a USB port that works out of the box with most recent varieties of iPods. (According to Pioneer, its cable is compatible with the following models: iPod Nano, iPod fifth generation, iPod Classic, iPod Touch, and iPhone.) The included cable is a huge plus as well--we were genuinely shocked to find it in the box.

Multiroom features
Line-level 2nd zone outputs Yes Line-level 3rd zone outputs No
Speaker-level 2nd zone outputs Yes Speaker-level 3rd zone outputs No
2nd zone video output Composite 2nd zone remote No

Multiroom functionality is a little better than average on the VSX-1019AH, with second-zone functionality offered using line-level or speaker-level outputs. Note that using the second-zone speaker-level outputs require you use the would-be surround back channels of a 7.1 configuration; you can't have a 7.1 setup and a second zone. Unlike all other receivers in this price range, the VSX-1019AH-K also includes a second-zone video output (composite), enabling you to view the GUI in a second room. If you're thinking of running a full-time second room off one receiver, it's a nice touch.

Audio performance
The VSX-1019AH's sounds better than any $500 receiver we can think of. Looking over our notes for last year's Pioneer VSX-1018AH review, the two are similar, but the new receiver sounds like it has more guts and oomph, despite the fact that it weighs almost 10 pounds less.

Part of that can be attributed to two sound-enhancing features: S-Wave and Acoustic Calibration EQ. Both employ equalization to help improve the sound of your speakers, but S-Wave also compensates for your room's standing wave anomalies that can produce boomy or uneven bass response. We found S-Wave to be effective in the CNET listening room, but there's no guarantee it will net a positive effect in your room. We recommend listening to what S-Wave and Acoustic Calibration EQ sound like in your room.

They're both automatically turned "on" after you run MCACC--the menu to turn them off can be found on Page 64 of the owner's manual. As we said before, GUI is nicely laid out, but the VSX-1019AH is so jam-packed with features it can be difficult at times to find exactly what you're looking for. It took us way too long to get the Sound Retriever feature working, but ultimately we didn't find that it made much of a difference.

We had better luck with the VSX-1019AH's Auto Level Control that maintains a consistent volume in music and movies. To test its effect we went straight the DTS Master Audio soundtrack's navel battle scenes in the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray. The Auto Level Control worked like a charm, dialogue and cannon blasts were equal in volume level, so we could listen very quietly and not miss anything.

Of course, turning the ALC off and restoring full dynamic range sounded much better, but we were listening at much louder volume. Then the VSX-1019AH revealed all the tiniest details of sound; the creaking of the floorboards as the sailors in their heavy boots ran across the decks and the front-to-rear ambient sounds of the wind and surf filled the CNET listening room. Dialogue was exceptionally clear and articulate.

Next, we listened to the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack on the "Legends of Jazz" Blu-ray. The VSX-1019AH's clarity was balanced with a beautiful sense of warmth. Stand up basses had terrific weight and definition; each string pluck was distinct. Saxophones had the natural fullness and dimensionality that we can't remember ever hearing from a $500 receiver.

We compared the VSX-1019AH-K directly with Yamaha's RX-V665BL while playing Leonard Cohen's recent "Live in London" concert CD. The Pioneer's resolution presented a vivid sound, and the stereo soundstage was wide and deep. In fact the sound was so spacious, surround enhancement with Dolby Pro Logic II was unnecessary. Switching over to the Yamaha receiver, the soundstage was smaller, flatter, and less you-are-there realistic. The music's dynamics were scaled back.

Summing up, the VSX-1019AH's stellar performance makes it the go-to choice for sound-quality conscious midprice receiver buyers.

Video performance
The VSX-1019AH-K is capable of upconverting analog signals to its HDMI output, so we put it through our video testing suite. We connected the Samsung BD-P3600 via component video to the VSX-1019AH-K, with the BD-P3600 set to 480i output. The VSX-1019AH-K was set to output at 1080p over its HDMI output, connected to the Samsung LN46A950D.

We kicked off our video tests with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD. The first test is a resolution test and the VSX-1019AH was able to pass the full resolution of DVD, although we saw plenty of image instability in the horizontal lines plus other flickering. If this were a DVD player, we'd knock this performance harder, but just passing the full resolution is better than what we've seen on the Yamaha RX-V665BL or Onkyo TX-SR607. The next jaggies tests were worse; both a rotating white line and three pivoting lines were absolutely filled with jaggies. Finally, we looked at the 2:3 pull-down test, and the VSX-1019AH-K passed, as there was no moire in the grandstands as the racecar zooms by.

We switched over to program material and the first disc up was "Star Trek: Insurrection." The Pioneer had no difficulty clearly rendering the opening sequence, with the curved edges of the bridge railing and boat hulls looking jaggy-free. Lastly, we looked at the difficult introduction to "Seabiscuit" and the VSX-1019AH-K actually surprised us with its performance, showing very few jaggies on the slow pans over black-and-white photographs. In all, the VSX-1019AH-K's video performance is far from impressive when compared with quality upscaling DVD players or quality HDTVs, but it's the best we've seen from AV receivers in this price range this year and is probably good enough for those last remaining analog devices in your home theater.

OVR
8.4

Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8