On the downside, there's no video up-conversion, leaving you at the mercy of any scaling circuitry in your source components, and no on-screen display. Having to use the receiver's fairly small display to make big adjustments is something of a trial.
The VSX-521 uses the same design and power supply as last year's VSX-520, but it's been retuned by Pioneer's engineers in Kawasaki, with some success. The result is a faster and more exciting listen than last year's model, with the receiver more than capable of delivering highly dynamic sounds.
By default, all low-frequency sounds below 100Hz are sent to the subwoofer, rather than the main speakers. That setting is too high, leaving the main speakers sounding thin. Lower the setting to 80Hz, however, and the unit delivers deep, non-localisable and controlled bass. Pioneer rates the power output of the AV receiver at 130W per channel, which seems slightly optimistic. But, while it's not a volume monster, it doesn't readily run out of puff either.
Indeed, the overall performance of the VSX-521 sparkles for the price. It may be more cubic zirconia than diamond, but two-channel Super Audio CDs over HDMI sound delightful. Its light touch makes short work of complex classical pieces -- Mozart's Violin Concerto in D Major is a blast -- but this receiver is just as happy with bombastic multi-channel action movies. Surround-sound panning is fast and accurate.
The VSX-521 is fully compatible with all the key Blu-ray codecs -- Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, Dolby Digital EX and Dolby Digital Plus, as well as DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS 96/24, DTS-ES and DTS Neo:6. There are also ten generic digital-signal processing modes to experiment with. Should you ever feel all over-processed, there's also a 'stream direct' mode.
It's easy to see where Pioneer's cut corners with the VSX-521 to keep the price down. The calibration tool isn't as precise as Advanced MCACC, and the lack of an on-screen display means you have to depend on the front panel's awkward screen. There's really no excuse for the low-grade spring clip on the centre channel either.
But the VSX-521 is a surprisingly capable performer all the same. Also, having pre-outs for 7.1-channel surround sound is a welcome refinement. If you're after an entertaining 5.1-channel AV receiver with a distinctly musical tone, then this is definitely one to consider.
Edited by Charles Kloet