So, as a basic surround-processing-multichannel amplifier, does Onkyo’s $399 NR509 sound as good as the company’s $2,700 reference-class TX-NR5008? Of course not — but you’d never think that if you walked into a dark room with the NR509 playing, say, an Avatar action sequence at a solidly cinematic volume. Instead, what you’d think would be, “Wow — cool.”
In short, it’s incredible just how much A/V receiver $400 today buys from Onkyo (and, doubtless, others). The NR509’s 5 x 80-watt amp had no trouble at all producing convincing levels through my not-particularly-efficient speaker layout in my not-particularly-small (roughly 3,000 cubic feet) studio, and it did so with considerable aptitude. For example, the state-of-the-art soundtrack of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — creaky and rote though the film itself may be — can stress even the most expensive audio system. Yet the value-priced Onkyo accounted for itself with honors, not only delivering legit dynamic punch on the big-action chase scenes (approximately 80% of the film) but offering pretty stunning multichannel symphonic sound on the John Williams Indy “overture” that plays during the closing credits. Notably, the unit also includes Onkyo’s CinemaFilter equalization feature, which is useful for taming any too-bright presentation.
The NR509 also includes — surprisingly, considering the licensing costs implied — both Audyssey Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ, which together offer a promise of much-improved listenability at lower volume settings. (I’m using these with a Red Sox game on low in the background as I write this, and it’s working beautifully to keep the sound intelligible.) With movie soundtracks at low master-volume settings, I found Dynamic Volume to induce occasionally noticeable “pumping” artifacts in very quiet scenes when set to Medium or (especially) High. The effect with the NR509 was a bit more so than I’ve observed previously, but I’m not necessarily ready to blame the Onkyo alone.
The NR509 played streaming audio from my Mac’s DLNA software server without a hitch, including high-rez 96-kHz/24-bit FLAC fi les, which would have been little short of amazing for a $400 receiver as recently as a year ago. And it sounded quite impressive — detailed and spacious — in doing so. Open, clean-lined material like a performance of Berg’s Seven Early Songs that I downloaded from HDtracks.com sounded just a little harder-edged — for instance, on soprano Claudia Barainsky’s more strongly voiced high notes — than I remembered from listening via my everyday separates (which total more than 20 times the Onkyo’s price!). But the sound was impressively transparent and textured nonetheless.
The new Onkyo doesn’t incorporate any video processing. But in my book, no video processing is far better than poor video processing. Anyway, high-def cable boxes and Blu-ray players are in widespread use today, so the NR509 is likely to find itself in an all-HDMI, no-video-processing-required layout.
If you thought that at this price point you might need to juggle six remote controls to manage your system, you’d be wrong: The NR509 arrives with a full-function remote preprogrammed for popular brands of source components. That handset proved quite usable, with a more sensible layout and better legibility than many remotes I’ve seen accompanying receivers three and four times the Onkyo’s cost.
Otherwise, the NR509’s streaming mode worked perfectly, with faster access and crisper “paging” of long station or track listings over its simple onscreen display than I’ve experienced from many costlier Net-ready components. Internet radio is maturing, little by little, with more numerous “high-quality” streams of 112 kilobits per second or better, it seems, every time I revisit it. On the free side, Onkyo delivers the ubiquitous vTuner listings, which you can manage, and augment with your own local or favorite URLs via any Web browser. On the subscription side, Sirius, Pandora, Slacker, and three more services are available.
As mentioned, iPod playability, via a direct front-panel USB port connection, is onboard with basic functionality, including Extended Mode for onscreen browsing of playlists, songs, artists, and so on — all commanded right from the Onkyo’s remote. You can get additional iPod functionality by adding an extra-cost Onkyo dock or by downloading Onkyo’s free iPhone/Touch app.
Additional unexpected niceties include a pop-up Home sub-menu that gives quick and easy access to input and listening mode selections, tone-control and Audyssey settings, center and subwoofer (but not surround) channel levels, and more.
So, what don’t you get for your $400? Well, let’s see — there are no S-video inputs; there’s no powered Zone 2, no sat-radio readiness (as if!), and, as mentioned, no video processing. Nor do you get preamp-level audio inputs and outputs (other than subwoofer and surround-back outs) or multichannel audio inputs.
Function-wise, Onkyo’s new entry-level A/V receiver range does everything flagship models did as recently as 2 or 3 years ago, and the qualitative drop just is not as great as you might think. For those with “only” $400 to spend on an A/V receiver — and let’s remember that for most Americans, $400 is still a lot of money — Onkyo’s new value quotient is off the charts.
See the next page for our extended test bench data