Editors' note: As of April 2011, this product has been replaced by the Pioneer VSX-1021-K, which offers additional iOS compatibility options, including AirPlay support.
Pioneer ran away with our Editors' Choice in the AV receiver category in 2009, with the VSX-1019AH-K delivering an unmatched combination of performance and features in its price class. Pioneer hasn't slowed down with the new 2010 model, the VSX-1020-K, upping the HDMI connectivity to six inputs while keeping the same excellent sound quality we loved on last year's model. Our main knock is that the VSX-1020-K lacks some of the newest HDMI features that are available on competing receivers, such as audio return channel and standby pass through. We're also not thrilled that it's the only receiver at this price level with a one-year warranty--the rest have two or more. Still, those are small nitpicks on what is overall an excellent value for a midrange AV receiver. Just note that competitors have caught up in areas like iPod connectivity and graphical user interfaces, so the Pioneer is no longer the easy pick of the litter.
Pioneer's look hasn't changed much from last year, with the front panel featuring a glossy, black finish. There are two equally sized knobs on both sides of the unit, giving it a symmetrical feel, with a large LCD display toward the top in the center. There's a removable cover in the lower right, revealing some additional connectivity, including an HDMI port and an iPod-compatible USB port.
Aside from the aesthetics, the VSX-1020-K is a full-size AV receiver. That means you can expect it to take up plenty of space in your AV cabinet, and it comes in at 16.55 inches wide by 6.23 inches high by 14.93 inches deep. It's not large compared with competing receivers like the Sony STR-DN1010 or the Yamaha RX-V667, but we've been spoiled by the slimline look of the Marantz NR1601.
AV receiver remotes tend to be cluttered and difficult to use and the VSX-1020-K's clicker is no different. It's littered with small, similarly sized buttons, which make navigating by feel practically impossible. The volume controls are smallish and awkwardly placed, toward the upper right, instead of falling easily under the thumb. The main issue is the remote tries to do too much. Every time you select an input, such as DVD, the remote defaults to controlling that device, so you'll need to press receiver again to control the receiver. Save yourself the headache and get a universal remote.
If the VSX-1020-K is connected via Ethernet, it can also be controlled via Pioneer's iPhone app, iControl. We had our doubts about the app when we took the demo version for a spin back in March, but we found it slightly more useful in actual practice. The mainly useful part of the app is the "Control" section, which lets you do basic functions like adjust the volume, switch inputs, and choose different surround modes. Less useful are the precision, emphasis, and balance sections, which focus more on adjusting sound quality by tilting the remote--something we prefer to have more precise control over. Unfortunately, many of the functions that are difficult to do with a standard remote, like renaming inputs or adding Internet radio stations, aren't adjustable using the app. Overall, it's still more of a gimmick than a useful feature, but it's a step in the right direction and a more refined version of the app could make it much easier to operate an AV receiver.
The 2010 graphical user interface is largely unchanged from the previous version. Though it's not very colorful and the graphics are woefully standard definition, we still appreciate having an onscreen display to make changes, such as assigning inputs or manual speaker setup. On the other hand, some tasks are still needlessly difficult. Inputting URLs for Internet radio stations without an onscreen keyboard is more tedious than it needs to be. (At least you have the option of adding stations with a connected PC, but even that process is going to be tough for tech novices.) In addition to making adjustments, the GUI can also display album art and track information when playing music from a connected iPod or Bluetooth device. It's far from eye candy, but it's functional and enhances the iPod connectivity feature.
|Channels||7.1||Analog video upconversion||Yes|
|Graphical user interface||Yes||Automatic speaker calibration||Yes|
The VSX-1020-K's key feature set is largely comparable to other receivers' in this price range. Features that used to be considered major upgrades, like analog video upconversion and graphical user interfaces, are now standard, so this Pioneer doesn't stick out from the pack as much as last year's VSX-1019AH-K did. The only demerit is the one-year warranty; every other receiver offers at least two years. We're not aware of long-term issues with Pioneer receivers, but an extra year of protection doesn't hurt, especially with AV receivers, which most people hold onto for several years.
|HDMI version||1.4a||3D pass-through||Yes|
|Audio return channel||No||Standby pass-through||No|
HDMI 1.4 has given manufacturers the ability to add more functionality to their HDMI ports, but since many of the features aren't mandatory, seeing "HDMI 1.4" doesn't necessarily guarantee you anything. For example, the VSX-1020 has HDMI 1.4 ports, but lacks audio return channel capability, which is available on every other competing receiver at this price. That's not a huge omission in our opinion--especially since you need a newer HDTV with HDMI 1.4 to take advantage of it--but it may be confusing for buyers who assume it's automatically included with products with HDMI 1.4. The Pioneer also lacks standby pass-through capability, which many competitors are offering.
|Dolby TrueHD||Yes||DTS-HD Master Audio||Yes|
|Dolby ProLogic IIz||Yes|
Like every other receiver in this price range, the VSX-1020-K offers decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, plus decoding for Dolby's Pro Logic IIz format, which uses "height" channels, rather than additional back surrounds. Whereas some competitors, such as the Denon AVR-1911, the Marantz NR1601, and the Onkyo TX-SR608, feature Audyssey's suite of sound-processing modes, the VSX-1020-K sticks with proprietary technology such as Pioneers Auto Level Control and MCACC. More on these in the setup and performance sections.
|HDMI inputs||6||Component video inputs||2|
|Composite video inputs||4||Max connected HD devices||8|
Video connectivity is excellent on the Pioneer, most notably with its six HDMI inputs, including one front-panel input. There are more than enough input labels to go around (such as "BD", "DVD", etc.) and it's possible to switch between eight HD sources at once--enough for nearly every home theater. The six HDMI inputs gives the Pioneer the edge over the Sony STR-DN1010, the Denon AVR-1911, and the Marantz NR1601, which only include four at this price level.
|Optical inputs||2||Coaxial inputs||2|
|Stereo analog audio inputs||6||Multichannel analog inputs||No|
As home theater becomes more and more focused on video, manufacturers have scaled back on audio-only connections, although the VSX-1020-K is still well-stocked overall. Four total digital audio inputs is standard for midrange AV receivers, although some competitors have scaled back even more; the Marantz NR1601 only has three digital inputs and the Denon AVR-1911 only has two.
Features like multichannel analog inputs and phono inputs used to be expected, but, like most of its competitors, the VSX-1020-K doesn't have them. More surprising is the lack of a minijack input, which is available on the Marantz NR1601 and Onkyo TX-SR608.
|iPod connectivity||via USB||Satellite radio||Sirius|
|USB port||1||IR input/output||Yes|
The rest of the VSX-1020-K's features are strong, too. You can connect an iPod/iPhone directly via the USB port, and Pioneer even includes a cable to do so. You can also stream music directly from a Bluetooth device using the AS-BT100 adapter, although you'll need to purchase it separately. The VSX-1020-K also has an Ethernet port, which is unique at this price level. However, the Ethernet port's utility is limited to streaming Internet radio stations and even that is cumbersome. Because of the limited functionality, we don't consider it a major feature.
|Line level 2nd zone outputs||Yes||Powered 2nd zone outputs||Yes|
Like most midrange receivers, the VSX-1020-K has second-zone functionality, using either line-level RCA audio outputs or powered, speaker-level outputs. It's a step up over the Sony STR-DN1010, which doesn't have traditional second-zone functionality. (It does support a second zone using Sony's proprietary S-Air products.)
Pioneer's MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration) automatic speaker calibration system 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. That's what the basic MCACC does, but the VSX-1020-K's "Full Auto MCACC" adds extensive speaker equalization and room-tuning adjustments to the setup program. Even so, all of the MCACC measurements are taken from just one microphone position, so it's easier to implement the "Full Auto MCACC" course than Onkyo, Marantz, or Denon's Audyssey calibration routine that require the user to repeat the setup procedure three or more times with different microphone positions.
For best results, Pioneer recommends placing the supplied calibration mic on a tripod. Since we didn't have one, we used a small speaker stand placed on the center of the CNET-listening room couch, and raised the mic to the ear height of a seated listener. Plugging the mic into the receiver automatically brings up the MCACC's onscreen display. Begin the calibration and the receiver will send an unusually wide variety of tones, whooshes, and thumping sounds through all the speakers and the subwoofer. The whole operation takes about five minutes.
Once it was done we confirmed that the MCACC correctly identified the sizes of all of the speakers in our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD reference speaker system, and accurately measured the distances to all the speakers, etc. We also liked what the equalization and room-tuning did for the sound. In fact, the results we achieved with MCACC were superior to the various Audyssey autocalibration systems we've used with Denon and Onkyo receivers. When we tried to "refine" the MCACC's sound balances in the manual setup program, our attempts resulted in altering the sound, but never bettering it.
The VSX-1020-K's thoughtfully implemented technology really works, and helped produce first-rate sound quality with the Grateful Dead's "American Beauty" DualDisc, 24 bit/96 kHz, high-resolution album. Sure, the 5.1-channel mix unnaturally scatters the Dead's acoustic instruments throughout the room, but that's not the VSX-1020-K's fault. The sound of those instruments and vocals were remarkably natural, and the bass was deep and clear. The skinny Aperion 4T tower speakers had the hefty oomph of a larger speaker, thanks to the VSX-1020-K's perfectly adjusted bass management system.
When we compared the VSX-1020-K with a Sony STR-DN1010 receiver we were surprised just how different the two receivers sounded. The Sony had a warmer and richer tonal balance; the Pioneer was leaner, but we subjectively judged it to be more accurate. The Sony's bass was muddy and indistinct; the Pioneer's seemed to have greater control and go deeper. Both receivers did a good job of producing a room-filling surround experience with the Dead disc, but the Pioneer's imaging specificity was more precise.
We used the "Flight of the Phoenix" DVD's plane crash scene to test the VSX-1020-K's power reserves. As the plane plummets towards the sandy desert most of the low-frequency thumps, tremors, and rattles heard by the plane's passengers (and by us) were reproduced over the surround speakers. That's amazing because the little Aperion 4B surround speakers weren't making any bass; the bass was coming from the subwoofer in the front of the room! The VSX-1020-K's bass management so deftly handled the illusion that the bass seemed to be coming from all around us. When the plane finally smashes into the desert the impact was tremendous. "The Flight of the Phoenix" is a brutal test of receiver's and its speakers' home theater stamina, and as good as the VSX-1020-K is, higher-end, more powerful receivers and separate components produce even more visceral experiences. So yes, there are still reasons to spend more for a receiver, if you want the very best sound.
The VSX-1020-K's Midnight mode reduced movies' soft-to-loud volume changes without overtly affecting sound quality.
CDs sounded excellent. A great recording, like the soundtrack to the film "Perfume," was so big and spacious we thought for a second that we were playing it in Dolby Pro-Logic II surround, but no; it was stereo. The orchestral score was lush, and the strings had just the right blend of sweet refinement and exacting presence.
Summing up, the VSX-1020-K's excellent performance on music and movies makes it top choice for sound-quality conscious midprice receiver buyers, although we didn't find it quite as good as the competing Denon AVR-1911.