Onkyo TX-DS777 A/V Receiver
Doing a decent review of an A/V receiver is one of the most difficult tasks in all of audio journalism. It used to present a challenge because receivers sounded somewhere between uninspiring and awful. In the mid 80s, I purchased an 80W receiver to use in our bedroom and it blessed us with male vocals that sounded like Smurfs. Exchanging it for the 100W model merely made male vocals sound like king-sized Smurfs. It was not until we got to the 125W model that male vocals sounded unmolested enough to be recognizable. Im not exaggerating; there really was an awful sound coming from those receivers.
Today the difficulty of reviewing an A/V receiver arises from the fact that there is staggering array of capabilities built into a single box. It would probably take a full year for a reviewer to explore all the capabilities of todays better A/V receivers and to give you definitive answers to every possible performance capability of the receiver compared to several similarly priced competitors. By then the product under review would be out of production, superceded by next years model. Therefore, in the interest of time, I chose to limit my evaluation to the most commonly used listening modes, which included stereo (with LFE sub), direct stereo (no sub), DTS, Dolby Digital, THX Home Cinema, and Cinema Re-Eq.
The $1050 TX-DS777 is at the top of Onkyos standard receiver line (please note: Onkyo has just begun shipping of their new top-of-the-line TX-DS989 A/V receiver). It is literally packed with features, as you can see in the features box accompanying this review. Onkyos premium Integra line offers "step-up" performance for those interested in ultimate receiver performance.
Who wants a receiver anyway?
There are two kinds of people who are attracted to A/V systems built around a receiver. The first group simply must use a receiver due to their system budget. But dont assume that these receiver buyers are building systems on the cheap. The Vandersteen home-theater speaker system used during this review sells for $3450. By the time you add a DVD player, some speaker cable, and a decent direct-view monitor, you are looking at a home-theater system price of $6500, potentially the most expensive item in most peoples lives after their house and car. Even dropping down to the $1800 Clements 5.1 loudspeaker system, youd still have a system price near $5000 a very substantial purchase.
The second group of people attracted to A/V receivers are those for whom a single-box centerpiece is desired or required to keep the system from taking over their room. Fortunately for both of these categories of receiver owners, todays better sounding A/V receivers can be the basis of a remarkably satisfying sound system for movies and music. They are good enough, in fact, to challenge the performance of entry-level separates or integrated amplifiers. High-enders who have been sticking up their noses at receivers for decades will be truly surprised by the capabilities of todays better sounding A/V receivers. Does the Onkyo TX-DS777 qualify as one of the better sounding A/V receivers? Lets find out!
A modified Pioneer DV-525 DVD player was set to 24/96 output and connected to the Onkyo receiver via Cardas Lightning digital coax cable. This was the main source component used during the evaluation of the TX-DS777. Although the Cardas digital cable costs more than the DVD player, it provides an impeccable digital signal to the Onkyo receiver, which eliminates the possibility of the "sound" of the digital coax cable being mistaken for the sound of the receiver. The Onkyo receiver easily reveals the differences in the sound of different digital coax cables.
The $1800 Clements 5.1 loudspeaker system included the 207di mains, 106di surrounds, 266c center, and Richter 10 subwoofer. The $3450 Vandersteen system included 1C mains, VCC center, VSM surrounds, and the V2W subwoofer. The speaker cable that was preferred with both speaker systems was JPS Labs UltraConductor ($199/8 pair, $87/6 center channel, $349/20 surround pair). This moderately priced speaker cable was capable of producing all the audiophile characteristics, such as width, depth, clarity, detail, harmonic richness and balance even when used with a receiver. Imagine that!
Nordosts inexpensive 2Flat speaker cable was also tried, but when used with the Onkyo receiver, a local radio station was heard in the front left and right speakers. That did not happen when the 2Flat speaker cable was used with the NAD T770 receiver and the same two sets of loudspeakers. There must have been an interaction specific to the 2Flat cables and the Onkyos main channels. There was no problem with 2Flat when used with the center channel or surround speakers, where a 30 pair was used. The JPS UltraConductor and two more expensive cables showed no similar problems when used with the Onkyo receiver.
If you arent familiar with the loudspeaker binding posts on modern A/V receivers, you should know that using any kind of connector other than a banana plug on the end of the speaker cables, is probably more trouble that its worth. To make your life as easy as possible, get your dealer to install banana plugs on the receiver end of your speaker cables and use whatever connector you need to use on the speaker end. The Vandersteen speaker system required banana plugs on the 1C speakers, but would accept only spades on the center and surround speakers. The Clements speakers have binding posts, but the post is too fat to accept most spades, so banana plugs worked the best.
I experimented with JPSs even less expensive 14-gauge Super Blue wire ($1.50 per foot without termination, which is available for an extra charge), cutting lengths from a supplied spool. I left both ends of these wires bare to see how much trouble someone at home would have connecting bare wire to the binding posts on the receiver and on the speakers. I would say that the job is do-able if you can strip wire carefully, and if you have pretty good hand/eye coordination. However, you need to be careful to avoid stray wires shorting against adjacent binding posts on the receiver and on the loudspeakers. Super Blue performed very well for the price and would make a good choice for a more restricted budget. JPSs more expensive UltraConductor still had the edge in soundstage size, transparency, detail, dynamics, and harmonic richness
I Cant Believe I Heard the Wh---o---le Thing
The Onkyo TX-DS777 produced a surprisingly satisfying listening experience. The music soundfield was compact by high-end standards, yet there were no obvious colorations or aberrations. Well-recorded surround-sound environments were made convincingly realone of the acid tests for rewarding home-theater listening. Specifically, transitions from outdoors to indoors, and from larger reverberant spaces to smaller spaces were convincingly rendered. Bass from 70-100Hz could be a little lightweight, but you can tune that out with a subwoofer that has flexible setup facilities like the Clements Richter 10.
Because the bass could lack a little punch at times, your attention can be focused a little too much on the mids, upper mids, and lower treble. Therefore, you really want to get the subwoofer tuning optimized. In comparison, the $1699 NAD T770 A/V receiver was fuller and warmer in the bass, which required a very different subwoofer setup in order to avoid boominess in the 70-100Hz range. In smaller rooms than the ones I used while reviewing the TX-DS777, the leanness in the 70-100Hz range could actually be an advantage. Medium to small rooms tend to get boomy in that frequency range due to room dimensions. With the TX-DS777 having a lighter character in that range, it could be easier to achieve a pleasing overall balance through the bass with the Onkyo. So do not take my description of the lean bass to be a fatal flaw, it could very well be a considerable blessing in many systems.
The transparency of the Onkyo is a far cry from A/V receivers of yesteryear. In fact, it was very close to the level of transparency you get with entry-level separate components. My reaction to receivers in the past would have been more like "What transparency?" The TX-DS777 is remarkably better than the dull, flat, gray, congested sound that used to be the hallmark of receivers in years past (five years ago or more). The TX-DS777 definitely crosses the line, and lands clearly on the threshold of high-end sound where transparency deficiencies melt away sufficiently that they can be ignored by all but the most obsessive and demanding listeners. This is strong praise for a do-almost-everything product like the TX-DS777.
Pushed very hard when listening to 5.1 movie soundtracks, the TX-DS777 would get harsh sounding. When this happened during the review it was because I had intentionally pushed the volume beyond the levels normally used. Set to the THX calibrated sound-pressure reference level for movies, there was never any evidence of the amplifiers being stressed. The THX reference level is still rather loud. This indicates that there is sufficient power in all five amplifier channels, as long as you use loudspeakers that are a sensible load, i.e. 6 to 8 ohms rating, and you are not trying to fill a ballroom with sound. There is an internal cooling fan apparently controlled by a thermal sensor on the internal heat sink; however, I never heard this fan in operation during the review. If the fan ever came on, it was completely inaudible. Playing music in two-channel mode at normal listening levels never revealed any amplifier power shortage.
The staggering variety of listening modes can produce many different listening experiences. The only way to get a handle on what the Onkyo sounds like without the pickles, lettuce, onion, special sauce and sesame seed bun, is to use the Direct stereo listening mode and compare that to the NAD T770 receiver in Stereo mode (with LFE off). This way you hear only the DACs and amplifiers with as much other circuitry removed as possible. The NAD was warm, refined, detailed, balanced, and had a solid foundation on the bottom end. The Onkyo was a little less refined on top, a little more lightweight on the bottom, and a bit more forward in the middle. Yet the Onkyo was still eminently listenable and enjoyable. The presentation was different and could arguably be considered one step down from the performance of the NAD T770. The $649 price difference between the two products is ample compensation for the small difference in sound quality. And dont forget the bass issue could be a blessing in disguise.
Dolby Digital sound was on par with moderately priced separate surround processors. DTS sounded especially good, producing some of my more memorable movie and music listening sessions with the TX-DS777. THX Home Cinema mode was most useful when viewing movies which carried the THX logo. You would get slight enhancement of dialog intelligibility even when there were complex high-volume sounds happening at the same time. Certain special effects in THX movies also seemed to have a slight edge in realism when using THX mode. This was apparent even without THX-certified speakers. THX mode for non-THX movies detracted from the soundtrack slightly. Cinema Re-EQ mode exists to make annoyingly bright movie soundtracks sound correct in the home environment. No DVD I tried benefited from Re-EQ, but some laserdiscs did.
SSurround SSound, SSir!
The TX-DS777 has a slew of surround and stereo listening modes: Dolby Digital, DTS, Home Cinema THX Surround, Dolby ProLogic, Cinema Re-EQ, Late Night mode, Action movie mode, Musical movie mode, Mono movie mode (reverb in all speakers but center), Orchestra music mode, Unplugged music mode, Studio-Mix music mode, Five-channel stereo for background music listening, TV Logic for TV programming, Direct Stereo, Stereo. You can further explore DSP modes by setting them up to better match your room by adjusting them for room size, front effect on/off, reflection level, and reverb level. This means that if you find TV Logic interesting, but not quite right for your room, you can tune it to make a better match. Of course some listening modes disable some of the DSP functions because they just dont make sense in those modes. European models of the TX-DS777 include MPEG surround decoding.
As usual, I wasnt overly impressed by DSP listening modes when I tried them without adjustments. My large-ish listening room was not well suited to the standard DSP settings. By selecting "large" room size and adjusting reverb and reflection levels, I was able to get DSP listening modes that were surprisingly entertaining. The DSP modes never replaced the conventional modes, but they did become occasional diversions.
When used with high-quality external amplifiers, the TX-DS777 essentially becomes a stand-alone surround-sound processor. In that mode, the sound quality was even more surprising than when the internal amplifiers were used. I found myself almost driven to distraction the sound was so good. I would find myself constantly thinking "This is a receiver?" Even in the big rig I couldnt hear anything to complain about in the sound quality of movie soundtracks. That isnt to say this is the best surround processor heard to datecertainly there are products at much higher price points which sound betterbut amazingly there are no nits to pick. Sure it could be a little more transparent and dynamic, maybe even a bit more refined and detailed, but you dont sit there thinking "This isnt _______ enough" or "I wish there was more ________." The Onkyo reaches a plateau where whats missing is unimportant until you put something more expensive up as a direct comparison. That is a rather lofty achievement at this price point.
Onkyo includes two features on their remote control that move it from the mundane to highly useful. First, an illumination button lights up the keys. You still cant see secondary descriptions silk-screened above or below various buttons, but you can read the text on each button. Second, Onkyos remote can learn commands from other remotes. This allows you to setup the controls for each device in your system the way you want them setup, rather than relying on some pre-programmed setup. This is especially useful if you happen to have components which are rarely found in tables of pre-programmed codes.
The one negative about the remote control is that there are no pre-programmed codes to select. This means you have to custom configure the remote for each component you wish to control. This can take an hour or so the first time you try it, if you have to enter commands for several components (TV, VCR, DVD player, Cassette, MD or CD recorder, etc.). And you may want to change the setup after you get used to Onkyos remote control by fine-tuning the controls you have access to.
Onkyos menus are easy enough to use. Navigation is simple with a little familiarization. Speakers can be set to Large or Small independently. Speaker distances can be set independently and to any reasonable distance, as it should be but is not always (i.e. NADs T770 wont allow surround speakers to be set to distances farther away than the main speakers). Levels adjust from 12dB to +12dB, which should be adequate for almost any combination of equipment and room. On-screen displays can be S-Video or composite via a rear-panel switch. Volume levels for each input can be matched so that switching from input to input does not cause playback level to go up or down. Digital inputs can be assigned to any appropriate input, i.e. Digital Coax 1 can be assigned to DVD and Digital TosLink 2 can be assigned to CD. If you prefer using the front panel to setup various functions rather than the remote and on-screen menus, you can do that. The extensive front-panel setup capabilities are done using just a few controls and all remote/menu setups can be done there.
I was pleasantly surprised by the overall sound capabilities of the Onkyo TX-DS777. There is a broad spectrum in sound quality, from boom box to the ultimate in high-end sound. I would place the box-stock TX-DS777 right at the threshold of entry level high-end sound quality. Used with a good set of 5.1 speakers, you can get an enveloping 3-D soundstage and very satisfying stereo music listening. While the Onkyo may not equal the refinement and balance of the NAD T770 receiver, the 38% lower price is certainly substantial compensation for the small deficits on the part of the TX-DS777. Some medium to small rooms could potentially sound better with the Onkyos lean balance in the bass, offsetting the rooms tendency to get boomy. The Onkyo includes a number of features not available in the more expensive NAD T770 like DTS decoding, an array of DSP modes, lighted learning remote, and more flexible speaker distance settings. Used as a surround processor only, the TX-DS777 performed amazingly well for its modest price. The amplifier section needed only a little more refinement for this to be an all-out rave review. At the Movies With dB gives the Onkyo TX-DS777 A/V receiver two maximum extension thumbs up for its combination of moderate price, complete feature set, and fine sound quality.
I suspect that many, perhaps most A/V receiver owners consider themselves improperly equipped to be worried about pursuing better sound quality by using high-end accessories. My experience with the TX-DS777 has proven that this outlook is just wrong. The TX-DS777 is just as sensitive to cable selections and high-end accessories as any expensive high-end component, and sometimes more sensitive (i.e. improved more than a more expensive component). Outfitted with a selection of sensibly priced high-end accessories and cables, the TX-DS777 produced a sound quality that definitely crosses the threshold solidly into entry-level high end. See the May 2000 Max dB column for more details about enhancing the sound of your receiver.
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