The Pioneer SC-LX701 has a lot to live up to. It follows an auspicious line of Award-winning amplifiers at this price.
From 2010’s SC-LX53 onwards, every incarnation of this amplifier has gone on to win an Award, including last year’s SC-LX59 – which we have used as part of our reference system in the What Hi-Fi? listening rooms ever since.
The new SC-LX701 is a replacement for the LX59, and comes packed with all the latest technology a 2016 amplifier should have. But can it live up to such formidable forebears?
Every year, Pioneer adds on more muscle to its predominantly precise, articulate and agile sound.
The SC-LX701 continues that trend, with the added brawn giving a huge amount of grunt to the various ships in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as they swoop around the screen.
The thwacks of Rey’s staff hit hard, the metal clanks from inside the Falcon are loud and solid, and explosions are punchy – it’s a thrilling performance.
Detail abounds in the spacious soundfield. As the Millennium Falcon flies about, ducking and weaving to avoid the TIE fighters, you can feel the ships whooshing in from behind and around the room.
BB-8’s bleeps, hums and buzzes are all clearly decipherable, piercing through John Williams’s soaring orchestral soundtrack.
There could be a touch more flourish and drama to the score when the Falcon is first revealed, though, and the sprightly tune of Rey’s theme needs a more precise, delicate touch than the SC-LX701 can muster.
Keep the Pure Direct sound mode on, and you’ll get the best results from the Pioneer.
Voices are crisp and direct. But they need more body and nuance to really feel human-like.
The amp isn’t quite revealing every last ounce of detail and depth from the soundtrack, and you lose a portion of the humour, sarcasm and interplay between the characters.
Once we compare the Pioneer to its rival Yamaha RX-A1060 (£1100), the chinks in its armour start to appear.
The Yamaha delivers a more layered, nuanced sound and is more dynamically fluid, from the convincing way the ships zoom past to the way the voices sound completely solid and natural.
The Yamaha delivers a much bigger, grander scale of sound, too. It does a finer job of revealing the differences in spaces.
When we first meet Rey scavenging inside the wreckage of an old star destroyer, the acoustics of the immense interior aren’t fully conveyed by the Pioneer.
But the Yamaha makes us fully aware of the ship’s silence and enormity. When she moves outside, the Yamaha opens up even further, conveying the vast, barren desert landscape of Jakku.
The Pioneer SC-LX701 doesn’t make that leap as well, which takes away a bit of the awe and tension when watching films.
The longer we listen, we realise that the Pioneer amplifier isn’t being as articulate as we’ve come to expect.
Because while the SC-LX701 has piled on the extra muscle, it seems to have pushed all the celebrated hallmarks of a premium Pioneer amplifier – precision, subtlety and agility – to the backseat.
And that’s a shame, as that light-footed timing and accuracy gave Pioneer the edge over its competitors.
If this AV receiver looked significantly different from the rest, that would be our headline story.
However, Pioneer hasn’t embarked on a revolutionary design change for the SC-LX701; it’s very much the sturdily built black rectangular aluminium chassis you’d expect.
You’ll need a lot of space on your AV rack for the SC-LX701, but the amp’s heft gives a reassuring sense of stability.
All the buttons work as you’d expect, with the two dials – one for input selection, one for volume – turning smoothly.
The display is sharp and clear, too. The remote control is not as solid as previous SC-LX remotes, but is more intuitive to use.
Only the most important buttons are displayed, and the response times are instant, so it’s much quicker than using the iControlAV5 app. The large volume buttons are easy to find in the dark, which is handy since the remote has no backlighting.
After taking the SC-LX701 out of the box, we first run the automatic MCACC calibration, then go grab a snack.
At almost 10 minutes long, Pioneer’s calibration is one of the most exhaustive we’ve come across, but the upshot is that it’s largely accurate. Once you’re happy with the settings, it just needs a couple of nights’ running in to sound its best.
This home cinema amplifier comes packed with so many features and connections, it’s almost easier to list what the Pioneer amplifier doesn’t do.
On the AV side, the SC-LX701 supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X formats for object-based soundtracks. As a 9.2 channel amplifier, the Atmos combinations available are 7.2.2 or 5.2.4 (five speakers, two subwoofers and four Atmos speakers).
There are a total of eight HDMI inputs, five of which are HDCP2.2 with 4K/60p and HDR (High Dynamic Range) support so you can play your 4K Blu-ray discs from a compatible player. Two HDMI outputs with ARC (Audio Return Channel) are also available.
An exhaustive spread of connections furnishes the back panel, from digital inputs (three optical and two coaxial) to a host of legacy analogue connections. There’s even a moving-magnet phono stage.
The SC-LX701’s file compatibility is extensive, from 4K Blu-ray discs and hi-res 24-bit/192kHz music to all other popular file formats.
The front panel’s USB port can play DSD files from a memory stick, and also charge your smartphone. With wi-fi and wired ethernet connections, you can stream from just about any smartphone or tablet.
Bluetooth and AirPlay makes streaming quick and easy via Android or Apple products, and Pioneer also supports music streaming apps, such as Spotify Connect, Tidal and Deezer, while TuneIn internet radio gives you access to even more music.
A software update later in the year should activate Google Cast, letting you stream audio from supporting apps over your network without fuss.
Having dominated at this price point for so long, it’s a shock for Pioneer to lose out to the newly-crowned Yamaha RX-A1060.
The Pioneer balances punch and precision superbly, but has opted for a relatively blunt, muscle-heavy approach. The rival Yamaha offers a more immersive, cinematic sound, and for £300/$450 less.
But that shouldn’t take away from the big leaps made by the SC-LX701 – from the powerful and rumbling performance that still thrills us in a surround sound atmosphere, to the huge spread of features that’s sure to tick every AV enthusiast’s box of requirements.
Give it a whirl, and you’ll find plenty to enjoy.