Onkyo TX-SR501Onkyo's $300 entry, the TX-SR501, is an unassuming, conventional-looking receiver, but it incorporates almost all the important stuff you'd expect from a far costlier, far fancier model. Like the other two receivers, it includes six-channel power, 6.1-channel surround modes from Dolby and DTS alike, component-video switching, and a multicomponent system remote control.
The face the SR501 shows the world is an unpretentious one, with a single large volume knob and the remaining controls - all pushbuttons - arranged around a fairly crowded multifunction display. The front panel's white-on-black lettering is fairly crisp but small and hard to read.
17 1/8 inches wide, 5 7/8 inches high, 14 3/4 inches deep
WEIGHT 20 pounds
Around back, the SR501 provides all six speaker outputs on standard-spaced multiway binding posts, the only one of our three receivers to do so. (The wide spacing of the Yamaha's binding posts makes them incompatible with dual-banana plugs.) Otherwise, the back panel had the expected features, except that, as with the Yamaha, there's no digital audio output at all. So for digital-domain dubbing (say, from CD player to CD recorder), you'll have to make the link directly between components, which could become inconvenient if you make a lot of mix discs.
Setting up the Onkyo was easy enough, though (as with the other receivers) you need to use the front-panel readout for feedback since there's no onscreen display. I was a bit surprised by the Onkyo's speaker-setup routine. Unlike most receivers or processors, it doesn't ask you to set the speaker "size" in each channel. Instead, you set Speakers Adjust to specify the number of speakers present (two through six) and then Subwoofer Mode to 1 (all speakers "small"), 2 (center and surround only "small"), or 3 (subwoofer/LFE only). This amounts to the same thing, mostly, and is likely to be less intimidating and confusing than the more usual, menu-driven "large/ small/none" choices. Better still, the SR501 lets you set the subwoofer crossover point at 60, 80, 120, or 150 Hz, a well-considered set of options. The first is perfect for systems like mine, in which every speaker can give a good account of itself down to that point, as it pushes the crossover that critical half-octave further from the sensitive vocal regions.
I was pleased to hear just how good the Onkyo sounded on the important jobs. Stereo playback was clean and detailed, especially on the high-resolution stereo layer of SACDs. Multichannel power and dynamics were first-rate as well, as a Telarc SACD of the Stravinsky warhorses Petrouchka and The Firebird Suite demonstrated abundantly. The Onkyo made a very convincing presentation of the demandingly wide-range opening of the Scherzo à la Russe that's also on this disc, while displaying to great effect the delicate detail of Petrouchka's vast array of exotic percussion instruments. One example was the arresting naturalness I heard from the triangle, something that a plain-vanilla CD can't quite match.
Along with the usual bass and treble adjustments, the SR501 includes a Cinema Filter control you can engage in its movie modes. This sounded a lot like THX Re-Equalization to me, and it proved valuable for the occasional too-bright soundtrack. I was also pleased to find that the Onkyo includes the basic user controls for DPL II and Neo:6, namely, Center Image/Width, Panorama, and Dimension. The SR501's four DSP modes for stereo listening are fairly ordinary, but only one (Orchestra) was offensively "reverby."
The remote control is complete and compact but neither easy to use nor elegant. For example, putting the tiny master volume keys at the very bottom, arranged left-right instead of vertically, borders on the ergonomically criminal. Otherwise, the remote's close-packed keys are fairly well organized, and its black-on-silver graphics would be decently legible if they were larger. As it was, I had to look carefully to locate much of anything beyond volume and mute - and I often had to use the forefinger of my other hand to pick out the desired button from among the crowd.
Of course, this shortcoming is easily remedied by one of the many third-party system remotes. And in any event, the TX-SR501's compensations are many: excellent sonic transparency, a generous set of basic audio and video inputs and outputs, and a surprisingly solid flow of multichannel power.
Actually, the above summation applies to all three receivers. Each has its faults - the Onkyo's unhandy remote, the Panasonic's minuscule panel graphics and controls, the Yamaha's byzantine setup routines - but really, at this price, who cares? I was thrilled to discover just how well today's entry-level A/V receivers perform. Put 'em behind a screen, and I'd challenge the most discerning audiophile among us to name that price.
Sure, if you're assembling a serious, dedicated home theater, you're probably going to want to look upscale a bit - or a lot - depending on your budget. But if $300 is all your A/V receiver line item can support, don't worry: you can get performance that won't disappoint you.
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