Pioneer Elite SC-95 A/V Receiver Review

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PRICE $1,600

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Latest-gen audio and video processing
Fine-performing nine-channel Class D power
Cooler-than-ever free phone/tablet apps
Extensive proprietary auto-setup/EQ
Minus
Uninspired supplied remote
Occasional streaming audio glitches

THE VERDICT
All the good stuff—including Dolby Atmos/DTS:X, 4K/HDR with upscaling, and HD-remote-room ability—in a nicely usable, fine-sounding, fairly priced package.

It has been more than two years since Onkyo bought—or merged with, depending on your financial-accounting philosophy—Pioneer’s home-audio unit, but so far there has been no sign of their brands melding into a single entity. (Piokyo? Onkioneer?) And in all seriousness, we’ve no such expectation. For its part, Pioneer still retains two more or less discrete A/V receiver lines, the more quotidian VSX range and the higher-end SC models. More or less: All of the SCs reside in the brand’s specialist-oriented Elite series, while most of the VSXs remain in the “regular” Pioneer lineup. Yet a few sub-$1,000 VSXs, including two new ones, nestle in among the SCs on the Elite side of the ledger.

Confused? Yeah, me too. Happily, my task here today is not to make order out of Pioneer’s model nomenclature, but to examine one of the brand’s latest standard-bearers, the Elite range’s third-from-the-top SC-95. This address puts the new Pioneer squarely in what I consider the sweet spot of most receiver lines: far enough down to avoid the “every-feature-that’ll-stick” price penalty, but far enough up to ensure you get the important stuff at a fair price.

This means the latest in HDMI 2.0a fashion, i.e., HDCP 2.2, with Ultra HD HDR-readiness and 4K (2160p/60) passthrough plus video scaling to 4K. It also means nine channels of amplifier power assignable to 11 speaker terminals, distributable among height speakers for Dolby Atmos (and DTS:X, with a promised firmware update) plus width speakers, rear surround speakers, Speakers B extension duty, HDZone and Zone-2/3 outputs, and biamplification options in a truly bewildering array. The SC-95 manual, supplied on a CD, includes 11 full pages just of speaker-wiring diagrams, many of which themselves have several options. Pioneer claims up to 760 simultaneous watts (8 ohms, 1 kilohertz, 1 percent THD), which works out to, let’s see, two from six is four, carry the one, uh, 84.444 watts per channel with all channels driven—a pretty bold claim in my experience, but one that Pioneer’s efficient Class D power amps might be able to deliver (we’ll see what MJP finds in the lab). The SC-95’s stereo spec is 135 watts per channel. [Ed. Note: We are only able to test seven channels simultaneously, but at 1 percent THD, the SC-95 delivered a quite hefty 108.5 into 8-ohm loads with seven channels driven.—RS]

The long, long features list begins with Pioneer’s proprietary MCACC Pro auto-setup/EQ system and continues to high-end ESS Sabre 192/32 digital-to-analog conversion for all channels, both Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay wireless readiness (the receiver packs dual-band Wireless-b/g/n on board), and a full complement of network-audio streaming, including 2.8/5.6-megahertz DSD file playback. There’s a lot more, of course, including “hooks” for the most popular home-control systems, such as AMX, Control4, Crestron, and Savant. Phew.

The Setup
The SC-95 is conventionally laid out, with the drop-down door on the front that has become all but universal regardless of brand. The Pioneer’s is plastic but operates smoothly, and the unit’s overall finish and feel are crisp and reasonably elegant. With the receiver up on my rack, I began by bundling nine speaker-wire pairs into position: the usual five channels of LCR and surrounds plus two pair of Atmos ceiling-bounce elevation modules plopped atop my everyday fronts and surrounds. (This required moving my surrounds from their usual high shelves to stands a bit behind and astride the listening position.) Here I encountered a problem. Puzzlingly, among the receiver’s literally dozens of speaker-setup options, a 5.1.4-channel Dolby Atmos layout (“5.2.4” in Pio-speak, since the SC-95 features two sub outs) was missing in action. I chose 7.2.4, which requires an external amp to power either the main fronts or the rear surrounds, involving yet two more speaker wires to a pair of small two-ways pressed into service as back surrounds, which my everyday setup does not employ. (I subsequently discovered that by setting surround rear to “None” on the SC-95’s manual setup page, I could have gotten, effectively, a sanctioned 5.1.4, but nowhere in the manual is this made explicit.)

SC-91

With a grand total of 12 speaker cabinets and 34 transducers connected and at the ready, I proceeded with Pioneer’s proprietary auto-calibrations and EQ routine, MCACC Pro. This entails the usual parade of clicks and noise bursts, with the SC-95’s Pro edition taking about 15 minutes in all. MCACC is quite a deep and interesting system (though it collects data from only one physical mic location), and even a cursory discussion of its powers would fill these pages. That said, the system nailed my speakers’ sizes, distances, and level adjustments with impressive precision. For my phase test, I deliberately miswired one front main and one rear Atmos speaker to see if the system would catch them, and it did so with flying colors. (I also determined, on a second run, that MCACC discovered and calibrated my 5.1.4-channel setup just fine, setting the nonexistent surround rear pair to “None” of its own accord.) MCACC Pro dialed in a room-EQ curve that, while not entirely consistent with those of other systems I’ve tried (and my own observations), was generally correct in its contours and mild in its equalizations. As always, however, I did all of my evaluative listening with the EQ defeated.

The Hands-On
As usual, I began with straight-forward listening to music, first in plain, two-channel, subwoofer-less (Pure Direct) stereo. My main fronts are long-discontinued Energy Veritas speakers of considerably lower than average sensitivity and impedance alike, and the Pioneer proved plenty powerful to drive them to satisfying levels, not only without complaint but with impressive dynamic conviction on track after track. On a cut like “I’m Tired of Crying Over You” from Jimmy Rogers’ Blue Bird (one of the very few examples of classic blues recorded to audiophile standards), the Pioneer presented the vocal impact, presence, power, and the snare-drum snap familiar to me, along with perhaps an unexpected degree of elegant soundstaging and aural spaciousness.

Multichannel music is an important factor for some of us, and the SC-95 stands ready to deliver here, too. Manually changing to a no-subwoofer five-channel setup to place maximal demand on the receiver’s power amps, I heard a well-produced rock-surround selection like Sheryl Crow’s “My Favorite Mistake” from the SACD of The Globe Sessions deliver plenty of oomph in the bottom octaves coupled with a very convincing presence on the upfront, dead-room vocal. Pioneer touts the SC-95’s latest generation of its Class D power amp topology as D3, with shorter signal paths and reduced complexity for improved performance. Whatever the case, the new receiver boasts very fine amplifier performance all around. On a familiar multichannel reference disc like the Telarc SACD of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the Pioneer had no difficulty delivering all its bells and whistles—and strings, horns, and woodwinds—with all the required realism, both tonal and spatial, at fully naturalistic levels, even with my rather low-sensitivity 5.1 speaker suite.

Moving on to film sound, I quickly determined that the SC-95 aced my rotation of torture scenes (the audio, not the actors!) from movies such as The Fugitive and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with clear, intelligible dialogue, appropriately dynamic music, and well-presented effects. This allowed me to advance to the main event: full 5.1.4-channel Atmos. I began with Dolby’s Atmos demo disc, in particular the “Leaf” trailer. This had wowed me on Atmos’ debut, and it wowed me again via the Pioneer, with its preternaturally lifelike bubble of ambience and overflying birds.

I’m not much for sword ’n’ sorcery, but because Atmos-equipped Blu-rays of Game of Thrones had arrived on my doorstep, I quickly got sucked into the Westeros vortex (a little nudity doesn’t hurt, neither). HBO’s mashup of The Tudors and Conan the Barbarian, with plot lines lifted from I, Claudius (with a tablespoon of Dallas), blurs the production-value line between TV and movies. GOT ’s Atmos soundtrack is less wow-ified than I’d expected, but there are scenes like the tower fight in episode 1 (chapter 5) that showed off Atmos’ value—more worthy in ambience re-creation than gee- whiz flyovers, in my estimation—and the SC-95 to excellent advantage. The new Dolby Atmos soundmark even more so.

The SC-95 offers the streaming audio options we’ve come to expect on midrange-and-up receivers today. Pioneer contents itself with just two pay services, Pandora and Spotify, along with free internet radio via the vTuner interface, and media-server hookup via DLNA or Windows Play To (Win 8.1-certified). Via my Mac OSX–based TwonkyMedia software server, the new receiver cheerfully played every file format I tossed its way, including MP3, AAC, WAV, AIFF, and FLAC. The SC-95 also seamlessly played my growing collection of DSD files (DSDs have tripped up a couple of streaming receivers I’ve tried in the past year), sounding great in doing so via either wired-Ethernet or Wi-Fi linking to my home network. All was not beer and Skittles, however. On a couple of occasions, the Pioneer locked up during DLNA playback, requiring a cold reboot, unplugged, to recover. This seemed to occur when switching inputs from a live-playing DSD file, but the sequence of trying to re-create it deliberately was so laborious and haphazard that I eventually gave up and put it down to one of those things. Nor can I say, definitively, that my DLNA server wasn’t a contributing factor.

I confirmed Bluetooth playback from my iPhone—no problem. AirPlay: ditto, and the Pioneer obligingly switched automatically to its wireless input, requiring no setup (other than a viable wireless network) to work. I also messed about with the Pioneer’s video scaler, which comes with a couple of interesting options, though since I’m not as yet 4K’d on the display side, I can’t speak to its ultimate scaling quality. (I did discover that, for unknown reasons, my admittedly aged Samsung LCD set would not sync to the Pioneer’s 1080p-scaled signal, but it displayed its 1080i output just fine.)

The un-illuminated remote supplied with the SC-95 is familiar from several previous Pioneer models. With small, tightly spaced buttons and generally low-contrast lettering, it’s not my favorite, but it’s sensibly laid out and usable nonetheless. Happily, Pioneer also offers free control apps for both iOS and Android. The iOS version of the latest, iControlAV5, is a well-conceived and occasionally whimsical but quite powerful controller. In addition to the usual parameters of volume, input and mode selection, and so on, this incorporates quite comprehensive zone control, Pioneer’s too-cool four-axis audio balance commander (which involves a rolling ball), individual channel level trims, control over the SC-95’s video converter/scaler, and access to all of its many “sound enhancement” functions, such as digital-audio upconverting, Pioneer’s Sound Retriever-AIR processing, and DNR. And, of course, it lights up in a dark room.

To the usual two-zone multiroom facilities Pioneer adds an HDZone option, with a dedicated HDMI output for a (stereo) HD second room (though for longer runs, you’ll have to add your own HDMI extender). And there’s enough packed into the iControlAV5 app, including its multiroom-control pages, that with an obsolete smartphone (and who doesn’t have one?) or a modest investment in a Craigslist previous-gen tablet, an SC-95 owner with a multiroom setup could have a pretty snazzy touchscreen system for little more than pennies.

Pioneer’s new SC-95 is fairly typical of upper-range A/V receivers today—which is to say, very flexible, substantially powerful, and frankly quite complicated. But beyond those bare facts, and the excellent nine-channel amplification, its many, many features seemed somehow more than usually accessible, and its especially attractive iOS control app raises its likability quotient considerably.

Specs
Power Output: 135 watts x 2 (8 ohms, 1 kHz, 0.08% THD, two channels driven); surround mode, 760 watts total (8 ohms, 1 kHz, 1% THD, all channels driven)
Auto Setup/Room EQ: MCACC Pro
Video Processing: HDR/Rec. 202 passthrough; scales to 2160p/24
Dimensions (WxHxD, Inches): 17.1 x 7.3 x 17.4
Weight (Pounds): 33.25
Video Inputs: HDMI (8, 1 MHL), component video (1), composite video (2)
Audio Inputs: Stereo analog (3), coaxial digital (2), optical digital (2)
Video Outputs: HDMI (3), composite video (1)
Audio Outputs: 9-channel speaker (1), 9.2-channel pre-out (1); record-out, HDZone/Zone 2, Zone 3 stereo line-level outputs, optical digital (1), ¼-inch headphone (front)
Additional: USB (1), Wi-Fi/Bluetooth antenna (2), Ethernet, USB (1), RS-232, 12-volt trigger, IR
Price: $1,600

(soundandvision.com, http://goo.gl/rJXDo4)

 

 

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