If you can live without some of the more advanced frivolity infiltrating the AV receiver market, there are some remarkable bargains to be had. Straightforward multi-channel amplifiers that used to cost around £500 now routinely sell for less than £300. This is great news if you need an upgrade principally for HDMI connectivity or 3D compatibility. Pioneer's 5.1-channel VSX-521 is one such cheapie. It will set you back around £280.
Design and connectivity
At a glance, you'd never think the VSX-521 costs less than £300. It shares the same glossy black aesthetic and build quality as step-up models in the Pioneer line. There's some flex to the chassis but, overall, the finish is of a high standard.
Connectivity is also decent. You get four 3D-friendly HDMI 1.4a inputs -- one more than the even cheaper VSX-421 -- plus two component, four phono AV, two analogue stereo and three digital audio (two optical) inputs.
There's also a subwoofer output for the low-frequency effects channel, plus pre-outs for hooking the VSX-521 up to a second amplifier, which is then hooked up to an additional two speakers, if you want to get 7.1-channel surround sound. The VSX-521 supports Dolby Pro Logic IIz too so you can feed sound to seven channels, rather than five.
This may be a five-channel amp, but only the main stereo speakers benefit from decent binding posts. It's disappointing that both the centre and the surround speakers have to use spring-clip terminals.
The VSX-521 lacks any media-streaming talents. Indeed, you won't even find a USB port for local media playback. But you do get a front-mounted 3.5mm mini-jack for your portable music player, and a rear-placed Bluetooth port. If you pay around £50 for Pioneer's AS-BT200 adaptor, you'll be able to stream music wirelessly from a Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone or another compatible device.
The VSX-521 may be a budget option, but it's not devoid of extras. For a start, Pioneer includes the entry-level iteration of its MCACC calibration tool. This is designed to balance and equalise the AV receiver to the acoustics of your listening room. It's simple enough to use -- just plug in the supplied microphone and follow the display prompts.
One feature that's easy to overlook but that's well worthwhile is HDMI standby pass-through. This allows kit to be routed through the VSX-521 via HDMI, without requiring the AV receiver to be powered up all the chuffing time. We suspect this feature will be a godsend for family users.