Time was, a receiver was simply that, a hub which received the signals from a variety of audio sources, amplified them and enabled them to share a single set of speakers. The advent of home theater brought with it a need for video inputs as well, particularly as source components evolved from VCR to laserdisc to DVD to Blu-ray. New and competing audio formats have cropped up as well, to the point where the A/V receiver is now more akin to a Swiss Army knife, a complex gadget called upon to tackle a myriad of entertainment challenges.
This is most assuredly the era of high-definition, and now many people are buying into Blu-ray only to find that their old receivers aren’t quite up to the task. Onkyo had met the demand for an affordable, versatile home theater receiver with last year’s TX-SR605, a truly impressive offering for the modern age, with HDMI switching and the latest audio codecs. And after listening to consumer and industry feedback, they have addressed the 605’s few limitations to make its successor even better, resulting in the killer TX-SR606.
Design and Features
I performed my review on the silver-chassis version and, once my infatuation with its looks wore off, I set about connecting all of my components to the well-designed rear panel. More than enough inputs awaited me: five composite video and four S-video with shared analog stereo, in addition to two component video inputs, assignable to any of the two digital optical and two digital coaxial audio inputs. What really got my juices flowing were the four HDMI inputs, up from the 605’s two. HDMI-switching receivers such as these use what’s known as an HDMI repeater, which essentially regenerates the audio/video signal sent by the component over the original HDMI connection before passing it out again over another cable, to the HDTV.
The TX-SR606 passes a full 1080p signal (1080 lines, progressive scan, the best that HD currently has to offer) and is HDMI 1.3a-compliant. The higher bandwidth of 1.3a means that it accepts the raw digital bitstreams of the high-resolution Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats, in addition to supporting up to 48-bit color depth (the current standard is 24-bit) and potentially higher frame rates. So right away we know that the TX-SR606 is a good investment today, and one that will provide headroom for the future of consumer electronics as the quality continues to improve. Onkyo has also added Remote Interactive over HDMI (RIHD), their own proprietary spin on the more common Consumer Electronics Control (CEC), to better allow the operation of multiple connected HDMI devices from different manufacturers with a single remote.
Pumping out a solid 90 watts for each of its seven channels (left, right and center front, left and right side surround plus left and right rear surround), the TX-SR606 accepts spade, banana, and bare wire speaker wire terminations. A sub pre-out also passes the dedicated low-frequency directly to a powered subwoofer. In a keen bit of rear-panel economy, the back surround speaker terminals can be repurposed to bi-amplify the left and right mains, if you have fancier front loudspeakers and no rears. Additional push-terminal speaker hookups are provided for a powered stereo Zone 2, for remote listening in a different room, even from an alternate source, should you want a movie in the home theater and music up in the kitchen at the same time, if that’s your pleasure.
AM and FM antennas are in the box, and the receiver provides a total of 40 station presets. The TX-SR606 is also Sirius-ready, meaning that if you are a subscriber with your own SiriusConnect Home tuner and antenna, you can plug into the eight-pin jack and enjoy satellite radio through your home theater, quickly and easily. As this is also the MP3 age, Onkyo has added a Music Optimizer circuit, a generally successful effort to restore some of the sound quality and visceral impact lost when songs are compressed down to small digital files. To this end, Onkyo is also selling the optional DS-A2X Remote Interactive iPod Dock ($109).
Image Courtesy of Onkyo
Testing and Use
I was able to perform all basic setup and tests using just the simple blue LED readout on the face of the unit and the clean, ergonomic remote control. The same information can also be displayed bigger and brighter on the screen of a connected TV. Also here is Audyssey 2EQ, a smart room calibrator that automatically determines the number, size, and crossover settings of the connected speakers, to work best with the subwoofer (if you’re using one) and factor in room size and listening position. If you can plug in a cable–the jack is on the front panel, people!–and move the small microphone thrice to different spots on your couch, and press a single button as many times, you can do this. It’s pretty empowering to custom-configure your own home theater in less than the ten minutes estimated in the manual. Audyssey 2EQ also plays well with the newly added Audyssey Dynamic EQ algorithm, which provides real-time loudness correction to compensate for a variety of sonic anomalies in your home theater. When it’s engaged, you’ll probably never know what you’re missing, and that’s a good thing, as it results in truer, more natural sound.
Stereo music CD’s via the TX-SR606 were as clean and lifelike as I’ve ever heard within my walls, but of course the most revealing performance tests would be done with Blu-ray’s Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. Touted as “lossless,” these formats can be bit-for-bit identical to the original master recordings created by the studios. The receiver automatically detects whichever sound format we choose on a disc and decodes accordingly.
So much of what I was hearing was what I was not hearing: After more than a decade of DVD watching, my principle complaints remain frequently muffled dialogue and the occasional distortion of high frequencies. Across a slew of demo discs, these problems not only disappeared, but I experienced a revelation akin to my first discrete Dolby Digital 5.1 review: I thought I knew what a great cinematic surround environment was supposed to sound like, but now the effortless reproduction of all channels and their blend into a seamless whole, combined with the abundance of organic detail, brought me closer to the movies than ever before.
Of course it also supports the best that DVD has to offer, including Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and DTS-ES 6.1. While a variety of after-the-fact processing modes is provided (Orchestra, Unplugged, Studio-Mix, etc.), each represents another step away from the creators’ original intent, and so they should be used with discretion. The 90 available watts per channel are more than enough to fill a medium-to-large home theater without introducing distortion.
We live in a world of multiple, disparate video sources, and one of the most attractive features of the TX-SR606 is its ability not only to switch between its different inputs and use a single output to the TV (my display ran out of inputs years ago) but what it does with all of those signals. The onboard Faroudja Directional Correlational Deinterlacing (DCDi) chip turns standard 480i video content into smoother, more pleasing 480p. Popping in an old Faroudja/Sage DCDi demonstration disc, I found the effect is most pronounced on “jaggies,” those stair-step edges on difficult-to-reproduce diagonal lines, and it can be a real boon here to all of your standard-quality source material, particularly if your DVD player does not offer its own progressive scan output.
Image Courtesy of Onkyo
New for this model is 1080i upscaling on all analog signals, even measly 480i composite. It’s not quite the blessing that is sounds like, as it cannot magically turn your standard-def video into perfectly believable HD. It can pull heretofore unseen detail from movies and TV, but it can also introduce new artifacting, a digital haze that some viewers might find unpleasant. This is a feature you will want to experiment with, to see firsthand if the good outweighs the bad, but kudos to Onkyo for including the option.
While the $579 price tag qualifies this product as “mid-range” and not “entry level” in the grand scheme of receivers, such value in an HDMI-switching Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD Master Audio all-in-one is hard, maybe impossible to match. For me, the two extra HDMI outputs alone make this receiver worth the increase from the previous generation’s $499. The additional refinements of the Music Optimizer, 1080i upscaling and Audyssey Dynamic EQ loudness compensation are delicious gravy.
So you have your HDTV, your Blu-ray player, and a bunch of speakers: Everything you need to complete the home theater experience is right here. Well-featured, reasonably priced, and high-performance, the Onkyo TX-SR606 AV receiver is a sound investment.
• Full support for the latest high-def audio formats
• Ample power, including a powered second zone
• Generous inputs, including four HDMI
• 1080i video upscaling is good, could look better
• No backlight on the remote