Pioneer VSX-1021-K review: Pioneer VSX-1021-K

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The Good The Pioneer VSX-1021-K's feature set is one of the best, with built-in AirPlay, five HDMI inputs, and DLNA compatibility. It can be networked via its Ethernet port or an optional Wi-Fi dongle, as well as controlled by Pioneer's iControlAV2 app for Apple iOS devices. The GUI, while not great, is better than Denon's. And, most importantly, its sound quality is excellent.

The Bad Pioneer only offers a one-year warranty, while competitors offer two. Many competitors also have one more HDMI port in a handy front-panel location. The VSX-1021-K has little built-in support for streaming music services compared with other models, so it's really geared toward owners of iOS devices that can use AirPlay. And while we like the option to add Wi-Fi, the dongle costs an unreasonable $150.

The Bottom Line Pioneer's VSX-1012-K is an excellent AV receiver with built-in AirPlay and top-notch sound quality, but Denon's AVR-1912 is just a little better.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

Pioneer has undeniably been the main innovator in the midrange AV receiver space over the last few years, for example adding the ability to connect an iPod or iPhone directly via USB--and including a cable--before anyone else. Now Pioneer is making iPod support one step easier with the VSX-1021-K, letting you wirelessly stream music from an iOS device--such as an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch--using AirPlay, Apple's proprietary media streaming format (check out our full hands-on). In addition to AirPlay, the VSX-1021-K features a slew of other attractive features, including five HDMI inputs, DLNA compatibility, and Pioneer's iOS remote control app, iControlAV2. Not to mention the fact that it sounds pretty great, too.

As impressive as that package sounds, it's still not quite enough to make the VSX-1021-K our top midrange receiver pick of 2011. The Denon AVR-1912 edges it out just slightly by also offering AirPlay, plus one more HDMI port, a two-year warranty, more built-in streaming media services, and slightly better sound quality. That still makes the VSX-1021-K our second-favorite receiver of the year and it could be the top choice for some buyers if they really can't stand the Denon's inferior onscreen display.

We could get into all the subtleties of the VSX-1021-K's design, but the reality is it looks a whole lot like other AV receivers: it's a big, black box. It takes up a lot of space, at 17.2 inches wide, 6.6 inches high, and 14.3 inches deep, so you'll need a sizable chunk of shelf to house it.

The front panel has a glossy finish, and while we prefer the matte finish on the Denon AVR-1912 and Onkyo TX-NR609, that's just a personal preference. We'd like to see more forward-thinking designs from AV receiver manufacturers in general, like last year's Marantz NR1601, but for now they all look pretty similar.

Remote and remote apps
AV receiver remotes are almost always incomprehensible, and the VSX-1021-K's remote is difficult even by those standards. All the buttons are tiny, including even important buttons like the volume up/down controls. Several of the buttons have secondary functions written in blue or white and you need to memorize obscure acronyms like "A.ATT," "MPX," and "PQLS" to know what you're pressing. We definitely prefer the much simpler remote included with the Onkyo TX-NR609, but with either receiver we'd recommend ditching the included remote and purchasing a quality universal remote.

Pioneer VSX-1021-K's remote
The Pioneer VSX-1021-K's remote is tough to use, even for home theater enthusiasts.

The VSX-1021-K can also be controlled via Pioneer's iControlAV2 iOS app. The app looks great, especially on the iPad, but most the functionality feels gimmicky. The "emphasize" and "balance" sections let you alter the sound processing in various ways by either tilting the iOS device or literally drawing an EQ curve with your finger, but we felt it was difficult to control precisely.

The iPad app looks great, but we couldn't see ourselves using it that much.

The "control" section of the app is most useful, allowing you to adjust volume and select inputs. We doubt we'd even use the app much if we had the VSX-1021-K as our home AV receiver, since it's easier to control all your home theater devices from a single universal remote, like a Logitech Harmony. However, if you just want to fire up the VSX-1021-K quickly to use AirPlay, it's nice that you can turn on the receiver using the app, since you'll already have your iOS device out to use as the controller.

User interface
Pioneer says the VSX-1021-K has a "full-color" graphical user interface, but that's a bit of a stretch. Most of the menus are in relatively low-resolution black-and-white text, although you do occasionally see some blue in the setup menus. While on par with competing AV receivers, it still feels pretty outdated compared with the colorful, high-def interfaces offered on other home theater devices, like a Blu-ray player or Apple TV. Still, the Pioneer's interface is a good deal better than Denon's.

Pioneer VSX-1021-K's home menu user interface
The home menu has a very basic look, but you won't be using it that much.

Pioneer VSX-1021-K's AirPlay interface
When used with AirPlay, the VSX-1021-K can display album art and artist information.

The color aspect of the interface really shows up in the ability to see album art and song information when using AirPlay. It's not perfect--the aspect ratio of the album art is often off and it only works with songs stored locally on your iOS device or networked computer, not third-party services like Pandora or Rhapsody--but it's still a perk. Then again, one of the nice things about AirPlay is you don't need to turn the TV on to use it, so you may not end up using this feature much after all.

Built-in AirPlay lives up to the hype. Once you get the VSX-1021-K on your home network (either via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, using the $150 adapter), getting music to stream from an iOS device is as simple as playing a song, hitting the AirPlay icon, and selecting the VSX-1021-K. Music played using the iPod app will have full cover art and artist information displayed on the connected TV, plus you can adjust the volume of the receiver using your iOS device's built-in volume controls. It's a really satisfying experience to sit on the couch with an iPhone, browsing your music and controlling your AV receiver.

AirPlay and the VSX-1021-K
Using AirPlay is as simple as selecting the VSX-1021-K on your iOS device.

AirPlay also works with a ton of third-party apps, so we were streaming music from Pandora and Rhapsody in no time. And AirPlay isn't limited to music on your iOS device. Fire up Apple's Remote app, select an iTunes library from a networked computer, and you can stream music from that computer using an iOS device or the computer itself as the remote.

Using iTunes as an AirPlay controller
You can also use a computer running iTunes as your AirPlay remote if you don't have an iOS device.

The VSX-1021-K's AirPlay functionality isn't exactly a clone of what you get on an Apple TV, as it doesn't handle video. The lack of video streaming does bring up the strongest argument against the Pioneer: why not just get a cheaper AV receiver and buy a more fully featured separate Apple TV box? It's definitely worth considering, especially because it's easier to replace a $99 Apple TV with an updated model when new features get added.

If you're looking for more detail about the AirPlay functionality, check out our hands-on with AirPlay and the VSX-1021-K.

Key AV receiver features
Channels 7.1 Analog video upconversion Yes
Graphical user interface Yes Automatic speaker calibration Yes
Warranty 1-year
The Pioneer VSX-1021-K matches all of its competitors' key features in every area except the warranty, which only covers one year rather than the standard two years. Granted, we don't hear about many buyers returning AV receivers in general, but for a product this expensive we'd like more assurance that it will last more than year.

iPod/iPhone features chart
AirPlay Yes Connect iPod/iPhone via USB Yes
iOS remote app Yes Proprietary iPod dock No
Other: AirJam

The VSX-1021-K has the most extensive set of iPod/iPhone features available in an AV receiver, going beyond other manufacturers by even including an iPod USB cable--no small favor, considering Apple charges $20 for one. Pioneer also has the AirJam feature, which lets multiple iOS devices add songs to a group playlist. It's a decent idea, but the fact that it requires the optional Bluetooth adapter really limits its appeal.

HDMI features
HDMI version 1.4a 3D pass-through Yes
Audio return channel Yes Standby pass-through Yes

This year all of the midrange receivers we've tested support the major new HDMI features, including the handy standby pass-through mode, which allows the receiver to pass audio and video signal to a TV even when the receiver is off. No midrange receiver that we've seen so far supports HDMI Ethernet channel.

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