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.
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 "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.
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.
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 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.
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|
|iPod/iPhone features chart|
|AirPlay||Yes||Connect iPod/iPhone via USB||Yes|
|iOS remote app||Yes||Proprietary iPod dock||No|
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 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.
|HDMI inputs||5||Component video inputs||2|
|Composite video inputs||4||Max connected HD devices||6|
For all but the most elaborate home theaters, the Pioneer VSX-1021-K should have plenty of inputs to handle all your gear. Still, it's worth pointing out that the Denon AVR-1912, Onkyo TX-NR609, and Yamaha RX-V671 all offer six HDMI inputs. If your home theater cabinet is always stuffed with new boxes, you may want to opt for that extra HDMI input. We also appreciate that both the Onkyo TX-NR609 and Yamaha RX-V671 offer one of those inputs on the front panel, which makes it easy to connect a digital camera, camcorder, or PC that has an HDMI output.
|Optical inputs||2||Coaxial inputs||2|
|Stereo analog audio inputs||7||Multichannel analog inputs||No|
While the Pioneer's total of four digital audio inputs compares favorably with the two offered by the Denon AVR-1912, we honestly can't think of enough audio-only devices that we'd use to make it a compelling upgrade. And audiophiles take note: none of the 2011 midrange receivers we've seen offer multichannel analog inputs or a phono input. You'll need to step up to a more expensive receiver if you want those features.
There's plenty of red in the above chart, but it doesn't tell the whole story. While it's true that the VSX-1021-K does not have built-in support for many music streaming services, it can play those services via AirPlay if you have an iOS device. So if you plan on mostly using the VSX-1021-K with, say, an iPhone, you're not losing out on much. If you don't have an iOS device, you can still get streaming media services from a separate device (like a Blu-ray player or an Apple TV), which, as we mentioned before, may be the smarter choice anyway.
Also note that the VSX-1021-K is DLNA-compliant, so you'll be able to stream music from compatible networked devices running a DLNA server. If you have an Android phone, you can use a DLNA app like Skifta to enable AirPlay-like functionality. We tried it and it works fairly well, with Skifta recognizing the Pioneer and streaming music to it with no problems.
|Audio decoding features|
|Dolby TrueHD||Yes||DTS-HD Master Audio||Yes|
|Dolby Pro Logic IIz||Yes||THX Neural Surround||Yes|
Like virtually every receiver these days, the VSX-1021-K supports all the standard HD audio codecs. The VSX-1021-K doesn't support any of Audyssey's audio processing features, but we don't consider that a big loss since Pioneer has proprietary sound modes that offer similar functionality.
|USB port||Yes||Bluetooth dongle||$100|
|Other: IR input/outputs|
Many AV receivers are ditching traditional satellite radio support, but the Pioneer still has a port for connecting an external tuner. Pioneer also sells a Bluetooth dongle, although it's pricey at $100. Note that there are quite a few features missing from all 2011 midrange receivers that home theater enthusiasts may be interested in: pre-outs, HD Radio, and RS-232. Again, you'll need to spend more if you want those features.
|Line-level 2nd zone outputs||Yes||Powered 2nd zone outputs||Yes|
The VSX-1021-K supports second zone audio via both powered and line-level outputs, so you don't need an additional amplifier in the second zone. Do note that there are some significant limitations on what sources you can use for multiroom functionality. Page 20 of the manual lays it all out, stating that you can't output audio from HDMI or digital audio inputs to a second zone. Practically, we imagine Internet radio would be the most useful second-zone audio source under these restrictions.
Pioneer's MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration) automatic speaker calibration system determines speaker sizes and speaker-to-listener distances, sets the volume levels of all of the speakers and the sub, and calculates the subwoofer-to-speakers crossover points. That's what the basic MCACC does, but the VSX-1021's "Full Auto MCACC" adds nine-band equalization to each speaker and room-tuning adjustments. While Onkyo's, Marantz's, and Denon's Audyssey calibration autosetup requires taking microphone measurements from six or more positions in the room, MCACC gets the job done with just one microphone position (and it's as accurate as the Audyssey system). The entire autosetup operation took less than 7 minutes.
Once the Full Auto MCACC was completed we confirmed that it had correctly identified the sizes of all the speakers in our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD reference speaker system. It also accurately measured the distances to all the speakers. The subwoofer distance measurement was off by 2 feet, but that's still more accurate than most autosetup systems we've tried.
Darren Aronofsky's Academy Award-nominated film "Black Swan" has a beautifully recorded soundtrack. With the VSX-1021-K, we could hear ballerina Nina's (Natalie Portman) every breath, every rustle of her costume, and her feet moving across the rehearsal studio floor with remarkable clarity. The sound of the studio musicians' piano and violin filling that room was so realistic we felt like we were in the space with the dancers. In one scene where the piano is off-camera, over to the right, the instrument was projected forward, well ahead of the right-hand speaker in the CNET listening room.
When we went back and listened to those scenes with a Denon AVR-1912 receiver the music sounded somewhat warmer than it did with the VSX-1021-K. That is, the VSX-1021-K seemed to emphasize the midrange and treble more, so the instruments sounded more immediately present than they were with the AVR-1912. So we can't say one receiver sounded better than the other; they sounded different, although if we were forced to choose between them, we'd go with the Denon. Later in the film when the ballet is performed in concert with an orchestra, the string tone was excellent with the VSX-1021-K. Listening in the dark we weren't aware of the five Aperion speakers' locations; the soundstage floated free of the speakers and filled the listening room.
To judge the VSX-1021-K's power reserves we called upon Led Zeppelin's high-resolution "How the West Was Won" DVD-Audio disc. This music sounds best turned up loud, and while "Whole Lotta Love" and "Dazed And Confused" were thrilling on the VSX-1021-K, to us the Denon AVR-1912 receiver sounded better at very high volume levels with those tunes. The VSX-1021-K sounded strained when played really loudly. With the acoustic Zeppelin tunes like "Going to California" it was a closer call between the two receivers. The VSX-1021-K's bass definition was excellent, which we attribute to Pioneer's MCACC finely tuned equalization and sound processing features.
Taken at a more reasonable, but still loud, level the VSX-1021-K handled the "I, Robot" Blu-ray's hard-hitting action sequences with ease. When Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) tangles with the homicidal robots in 2035 Chicago the gunfire exchanges and high-speed car chases in Spooner's Audi sports car came through with a vengeance.
Playing Bon Iver's "Flume" on Apple Lossless files from an iPod Classic over the VSX-1021-K sounded more or less on par with what we heard from CDs on our Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player. Iver's acoustic guitar and multitracked vocals were vivid and clear.
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.