Almost 20 years ago matrix-encoded Dolby Surround videotapes and laserdiscs brought surround sound to home theaters. Almost 15 years ago Dolby Pro Logic decoding raised the ante by extracting a center-channel signal from Dolby Surround recordings. And more than half a decade has passed since Dolby Digital brought discrete digital 5.1-channel surround sound home. So the arrival of Dolby Pro Logic II seems right about on schedule, and Onkyo's TX-DS696 is one of the first receivers to offer it.
Pro Logic II (or PL II, as I'll call it) aims to deliver a 5.1-channel-like listening experience from Dolby Surround-encoded sources (the format is still used for videotapes and TV surround) and even ordinary two-channel stereo sources. To that end, the decoder chip can steer discrete surround effects to the appropriate left or right surround speaker. Because it was designed primarily for listening to movies and TV shows, the original Pro Logic tends to emphasize dialogue in the center channel. With stereo music, though, this can lead to too much emphasis on the center. Pro Logic II was designed from the outset to bring a surround experience to music.
The TX-DS696 also has a full suite of other goodies, including two wideband component-video inputs, which will let you connect both a progressive-scan DVD player and a digital TV tuner. Even more unusual is built-in composite-to-S-video signal conversion for all of the video inputs and outputs, which can simplify your system hookup substantially. Equally valuable is the inclusion of THX Cinema Re-Equalization (Re-EQ), which gently rolls off the treble in the front channels to compensate for the bright, sometimes harsh quality of many movie soundtracks.
The front panel has only a handful of buttons and knobs, including a Smart Scan Navigator that's a multifunction knob for setup, mode selection, and more. Once you understand the logic, it's easy to use. A bit surprisingly, the receiver lacks any front-panel A/V convenience inputs for a camcorder or game machine - at least there's a headphone jack.
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