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The VSX-528 is Pioneer's entry-level network home theatre receiver. That is, it is the lowest-cost unit that still allows you to access online and local network music. Locally, that means playback of DLNA music on your servers and computers and Apple Airplay from portable iOS devices and iTunes. More widely, you get vTuner internet radio and Spotify Connect.
It comes with the same number of amplifiers as actually used by most people: five. Seven is all well and good and offers some flexibility with zones and such, but by keeping the extras down, this receiver comes in under AU$700.
What about 7.1 channel Blu-ray tracks? The receiver mixes the two extra channels — the left and right surround back ones — down into the respective normal left and right surround ones so you don't miss anything except, perhaps, for some precision in the localisation of surround sound.
Each of the amps is rated at 100 watts into 8 ohms (two channels driven). Each is rated only into 6 ohm or higher impedance speakers. Using 4-ohm speakers, and there are plenty of these around, could cause warranty troubles, so they're best avoided or at least used very cautiously.
You get six HDMI inputs, USB plus a limited number of old-fashioned inputs (one optical digital, one coaxial digital plus some analog audio and composite video). The front USB socket supports playback and control of iPods and iPhones.
The receiver doesn't incorporate a wizard to guide newcomers through the set-up, but it's all pretty straightforward. Wire up according to the manual. Plug the supplied calibration microphone into the socket on the front, and put it where your head would normally be. Hit the menu ("Home") key, and let it make noises to assess and adjust itself for your speaker system and room.
In my case, it made the same mistake as many systems do, setting my centre and surround channels to "large" when they ought to be "small". I made that change manually afterwards. There is only one crossover frequency that can be applied to all the "small" speakers, so you might have to compromise if you have speakers of different capabilities.
In addition to calibrating the speakers, it also works out equalisation to iron out any marked problems with frequency balance in your room.
I also found it necessary to update the firmware. Pioneer has issued new firmware for most of its models to provide support for Spotify Connect. With this unit you can't update via the Net but have to download the file with a computer (12MB) and put it on a USB stick to load it in.
There isn't much to say about the picture because, basically, the receiver does nothing with it other than to switch between the different inputs. All the usual standards, including 3D and 4K are supported. The one thing it does do is overlay a little information panel showing what's happening when you adjust the volume or change some setting or other. This can be switched off if you don't like it.
The sound performance was pretty much the same as more expensive Pioneer receivers. Their EQ tends to produce a full-bodied, powerful sound, and that's what this one did. The amplifiers were fine with the loudspeakers I used (8 ohms for the front stereo pair, 6 ohms for the other three), delivering nicely high levels and very listenable sound.
For my more critical listening, I used high quality FLAC files from a network server, and initially, they sounded pretty lousy. The culprit was Pioneer's "Sound Retriever" processor. This purports to restore stuff lost by lossy compression, which, of course, it can't do because what's lost is lost. What it really does is fiddle with the frequency response, making the sound a bit scratchy and irritating. It isn't very nice with MP3 and is totally inappropriate with FLAC, which is lossless. Do yourself a favour and hit the "Audio Parameter" key on the remote when you're streaming audio of any kind and switch "S.RTRV" to Off.
Once I'd done that, the sound quality was excellent.
The full-blown Pioneer iControl A/V apps for iOS and Android don't support this receiver, but a cut-down Pioneer Control App does. This only offers volume control, surround mode and input selection, but that's mostly what you want it for. Importantly, the input selection section drills down to lists of media available on your DLNA servers, making choosing songs for playback a much more pleasant experience than wielding the regular remote control.
If you install the app on Android devices, then you can also choose the receiver as a playback device from the share facility of your music player app (eg, with Samsung devices you're looking for "All Share"). Basically, you're streaming from Android in an Apple Airplay-like way.
That's not needed for the iOS version because, of course, you might as well just use Airplay.
If you're accessing media the "old-fashioned" way — using the receiver's remote and the on-screen display — Pioneer has made it more useable this year thanks to the provision of page skip keys, greatly speeding up the ability to scoot through long lists of media. The music formats supported this way (and also from USB storage) are MP3, WMA, AAC (ie, iPod format), Apple Lossless, FLAC, WAV and AIFF. With the lossless codecs, 24 bit 192kHz was supported (it played my test Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 at that resolution, for example) in two channels, except for Apple Lossless, which was limited to 96kHz.
Apple Airplay worked normally, throwing music at the receiver via the network. Spotify Connect was a bit flaky. At first glance, this looks like you're streaming from the Spotify App on your iOS device (Android's version became available just moments before I finalised this review) to the receiver, but what actually happens is that when you switch via the app to the Pioneer receiver as the playback device, the receiver connects direct to the Spotify servers. You can switch off your device, power it down completely, and the playlist will continue to play. But best to leave it on just to use it as a controller (although play/pause works on the regular remote).
When you choose it, the receiver is supposed to switch directly to it, but to make it work, I had to cycle through the "Network" options using the remote until the Spotify screen appeared. And sometimes it would connect first time, while sometimes it would need me to stop the playback at the app and restart it to get it going.
This stuff is very new, so I imagine it will mature in coming months. And do note that you need a paid Spotify Premium subscription to use this.
You also get the excellent vTuner for internet radio — tens of thousands of stations and podcasts are available.
Choose your loudspeakers wisely, and the Pioneer VSX-528 will act as a reasonably priced centrepiece of a home entertainment system. Add a Premium Spotify subscription and you'll have ready access to just about any music you could want.