Pioneer VSX-831 review: Pioneer's feature-laden receiver a top value
The Pioneer VSX-831 offers a plethora of features, excellent ease-of-use and fine sound quality making it one of the better buys for the money.
It's been a period of adjustment for the Pioneer brand. Two years ago, Pioneer Japan announced it was selling its AV division to competitor Onkyo. This resulted in a number of changes, including the loss of speaker designer Andrew Jones to ELAC America.
The 2016 line of gear is the first that's been fully assimilated into Onkyo, but the VSX-831 is still recognizably a Pioneer receiver. This "Ponkyo" offers audio features that the Onkyos at the same price don't, including an upgraded digital converter (DAC) and internet streaming features.
Although its sound quality is very good overall, like Pioneers of the past, the VSX-831 is voiced more towards movie playback than music. That's not a bad thing, as it's certainly capable of exciting home theater bombast, but if you are looking for a receiver with melodic chops then you may find that Sony's STR-DN1070 (yes, Sony!) or Marantz's NR1506 might suit you better.
On the other hand, both cost more than this well-priced Pioneer. The VSX-831 is available now for a list price of $449.99, £449.99 in the UK and AU$999 in Australia.
The Pioneer VSX-831 offers a familiar fascia design with two main knobs -- one for each source selection and volume -- and a bunch of feature buttons between. Unlike Onkyo receivers and even some older Pioneers, there are no direct input buttons, sadly. Gone are the days of orange LEDs for Pioneer receiver displays. Like all its modern brethren, the VSX 831 features a pale blue LED.
The remote is stripped down to the essentials and is very usable as a result. You could almost say it's "good looking" for a receiver remote, but that's about the lowest possible bar.
Speaking of low bars, the onscreen display of a receiver is not usually something to crow about, but the VSX-831 offers a full-color interface which is actually kinda fun to navigate. For us, at least.
The Pioneer VSX-831 is a 5.2 channel receiver that boasts 80 watts of power and a wealth of inputs for the money. Most impressive is the provision of six HDMI inputs, three of which offer 4K (60P) and HDCP 2.2 support.
As you'd expect now that Pioneer is now part of Onkyo, there are some technological similarities between the two brands' receivers. One is the FireConnect multiroom system, based on BlackFire as used in Harman Kardon products. FireConnect is a multiroom platform that offers playback across both Pioneer and Onkyo products and includes services such as TuneIn, Deezer and Tidal. The feature will be coming in a future update.
If multiroom and cross-brand compatibility are your thing, the receiver also offers Google Cast, which will work with other brands including Sony, LG and Raumfeld, as well as Google Chromecast devices. It's essentially Google's answer to Apple AirPlay, but it works with both iOS and Android devices (and if you do want AirPlay, the Pioneer has that, too). If all else fails, at least you have Bluetooth. If you collect hi-res files, the AK4458 DAC is capable of reading up to 11.2MHz DSD files natively.
Here's where we mention that Google Cast and FireConnect aren't yet available. Pioneer says that both will come by the fall of 2016.
Other features include Pioneer's own Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration System (MCACC), "Phase Control" for solving "phase lag between the subwoofer and main L+R speakers", a dedicated phono input for vinyl enthusiasts, and (of course) Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoding. There's no Atmos or DTS-X, however.
While the VSX-831 comes equipped with Pioneer's MCACC automatic setup system, we found the manual setup straightforward enough, and it took only a few minutes. We used ELAC Debut F5 towers in the front-left and -right spots, the ELAC Debut C5 center-channel speaker, ELAC Debut B5s as surround speakers, and a Klipsch R-110SW subwoofer. We ran the front ELAC F5 towers as "large" speakers; for the "small" center and surround speaker channels, the subwoofer-to-speaker crossover points were set to 80 Hz.
We first listened to the VSX-831 in stereo, with just the Debut F5 towers sans subwoofer, to get a direct fix on the receiver's sound. It was clear and clean with plenty of detail when playing back Radiohead's terrific new album, "A Moon Shaped Pool." Thom Yorke's vocals were natural, the band was fully present, and bass from the F5 speakers was eminently satisfying.
The one thing we missed was soundstage depth, so we popped on a few high-resolution audiophile albums, namely "Llama" and "La Segunda," and confirmed the VSX-831's sound was lacking in dimensionality compared with what we heard from a Sony STR-DN1070 receiver. The VSX 831's stereo was wide, but the STR-DN1070's was equally wide and had a more three-dimensional presence. There was more "there" there.
Next it was time to play a few movies so, starting with "Avatar," we cranked the volume way up. The VSX-831 easily supplied the necessary oomph, but in the quieter jungle scenes "ambience" -- with bugs and birds that should sound as if some of them are off in the distance -- were too close. The Sony STR-DN1070 restored the spaciousness to the soundtrack we know so well. We also felt the VSX-831 consistently sounded brighter than the mellower STR-DN1070, though the magnitude of these differences between the two receivers are subtle. Careful listeners would likely prefer the STR-DN1070.
Once we ceased with the comparisons and simply played music and movies, we liked the VSX-831 well enough. The scenes in the Broadway theater on the "Birdman" Blu-ray made us feel like we were in the theater, and the film's music soundtrack, which largely consists of drummer Antonio Sanchez' beats punctuating the rhythm of the scenes, kicked butt and had great energy.
As the streaming features of the Pioneer are yet to come fully online, we tested the VSX-831's ability to stream from a networked computer. We pitted the Pioneer against another multiroom receiver, the Yamaha RSX-479, which was one of our picks from last year. Given a selection of music from Interpol to Dead Can Dance, neither were particularly "musical" though the Yamaha offered a tad more refinement and warmth.
The Pioneer VSX 831 is a handsome, up-to-date, fully featured midprice receiver, offering a ton of value. Sound quality was very good for the money, and comparable to our favorite receiver last year, the Yamaha RSX-479. As good as the Pioneer is, it pays to keep in mind that a truly "musical" receiver, such as a Marantz or Sony, will cost you another $100 or so.