It is hard to believe it’s been six months since we first laid eyes on Pioneer’s new Class-D digital amplification technology at CEDIA last year. At the time, we were pretty excited because, based on the conversation we had at the show with Pioneer’s Executive VP of home electronics, Russ Johnston, it seemed as if the new technology the company had developed involved real technical advancement rather than just a cleverly brewed vat of marketing stew.
Pioneer asserts that the limitations inherent to conventional class A/B amplifiers are stunting the growth of the A/V receiver. The high-definition audio found on Blu-ray discs, for instance, has untapped potential; what we need is a more powerful, stable amplifier to better deliver the highly dynamic, uncompressed audio contained on the discs. Class-D digital amplification can deliver that kind of power in spades, but has endured criticism for sounding sterile, bland or just plain unmusical.
So, Pioneer consulted with ICEpower and the audio engineers at Britain’s renowned Air Studios and got to work redesigning it’s own proprietary Class-D digital amps from the ground up. The result is what Pioneer calls D3 amplification and, according to the company, it offers sound on par with A/B amps but provides far more potent power. In the case of the SC-57 receiver, that would be 770 watts of power with all channels driven continuously.
On paper, this all appears really promising but, as our mantra goes: We’ll believe it when we hear it. In this Pioneer Elite SC-57 review, we put a critical ear on this cutting-edge receiver in an effort to determine if Pioneer’s new invention really does represent the future of home audio.
Out of the box
Our last experience with the flagship of Pioneer’s Elite line was in 2008 with the SC-09TX, a lumbering 70-pound chunk of consumer electronics that very nearly made us permanent residents at our chiropractor’s office. The SC-57 is, thankfully, much lighter, but at 40 pounds, still a very respectable weight. It’s also a much more manageable size at 17.13 x 7.28 x 17.36 (W x H x D, in inches).
The SC-57 is a fine-looking receiver with its aluminum faceplate, tinted-glass display and clean façade, thanks to an array of controls kept tucked behind a drop-down door. With that said, we do feel like Pioneer’s line of A/V receivers could do with just a bit of a face lift. The amber-colored display feels a little dated, as do the perfectly squared-off edges. We just think it would be nice for Pioneer to adopt a fresh new look in the near future.
Inside the box with the SC-57 receiver, we found an iPod USB/Video cable, remote control, batteries, radio antennae, and calibration microphone.
Features and design
As the flagship of Pioneer’s Elite A/V receiver line-up, the SC-57 offers just about every feature you’re likely to find crammed into any receiver’s singular case. At this level, you might assume the receiver will decode every available surround sound format and offer every manner of streaming audio; and you’d be right do so. Rhapsody, Pandora, Sirius, and vTuner are all covered here as is, of course, Apple’s AirPlay. If that’s not enough, Pioneer offers an optional Bluetooth adapter ($99) for yet another wireless music option. The Internet access needed for all the aforementioned services can be channeled through a hard-wired Ethernet connection or an optional wireless internet adapter ($149).
The SC-57 is THX Ultra 2 Plus certified — the only Class-D digital multi-channel amplifier to achieve THX’s top tier certification — meaning it can provide reference level audio in rooms up to 3,000 square feet and provide all the THX post-processing you could possibly want.
Speaking of processing, the SC-57 packs some pretty advanced video processing under its hood, too. This receiver will upscale any video sent its way to 1080p via HDMI, of course, but some added processing features have this receiver looking as capable as a top-tier TV. An advanced video processing section allows users to take into account what kind of display is in use and optimize the video stream for that display be it LCD, plasma or front projection. Internet video can also be made to look better using a “Stream Smoother” feature and even 1080p video from less expensive Blu-ray players or noisy satellite boxes stands to look better.
Other notable features include component video support for zone 2, powered zone 2 and zone 3 audio (with 5.2 audio in main room) 7 HDMI in and 2 HDMI out, phono input and, lest we forget, the receiver ships with a 30-pin Apple dock cable for some pretty sweet iPhone and iPad integration.
Setup and calibration
The problem with building a receiver that does everything is that using the thing can get really complicated, really fast. Pioneer clearly knows this as it has taken a few measures to try to smooth out the user experience.
The first measure is Pioneer’s A/V Navigator setup software. The idea is to slap a CD-ROM into a network-connected laptop or desktop computer and let the setup wizard guide you through the setup process, making adjustments to the receiver along the way. It’s a good idea, especially for anyone that hasn’t tried to set up an A/V receiver in the last seven years. But we can’t help but feel like a receiver of this caliber really deserves an experienced hand when it comes to exploring all it is capable of, especially when it comes to multi-zone operation, video processing or control applications. Also, we think that even then most experienced installer would really appreciate a more seamless and intuitive graphic user interface (GUI) than is available in the SC-57. The GUI found in most receivers tends to leave something to be desired. Maybe we’ll some improvement on this with forthcoming gear?
The second tool Pioneer offers to make the setup process a little easier is its Advanced MCACC sound and room calibration system. We were impressed with the system when we tried it with the VSX-1021-K and we’re impressed with its performance in the SC-57, too. The routine takes a while (about 10 minutes) but the results it turns out are pretty impressive. Once done, the resulting settings can be copied over to up to six memory bays, and then tweaked to suit preferences for games, movies, music, Internet radio, etc. We still don’t care for some of the EQ settings that end up getting made, and maintain that altering the room is far more effective than altering the output of a naturally great-sounding speaker to try to work with a room’s limitations.