Our review of Pioneer’s VSX-70 Elite A/V receiver didn’t exactly go as expected. Right out of the box, the VSX-70 didn’t have the feel we’ve come to expect from the Elite line. As it turned out, it didn’t sound that way either. Still, the receiver offered a ton of features, and sound quality was still in line with (if not a bit better than) what we’d expect from a $600 receiver.
If you’re looking to up your man-cred in the home theater department, this receiver is a pretty good place to start.
The experience got us thinking: Pioneer’s Elite moniker has always stood for excellence; it’s been attached to some of our favorite A/V receivers for decades. But, if you take a look at the Elite line now, you might tend to think it has become a little diluted. There are now seven models in the top-tier lineup, five of which have model numbers starting with SC, feature Pioneer’s own D3 digital amplification, and sport $1,000+ price tags. The other two, the aforementioned VSX-70 and the budget-friendly VSX-43, just don’t seem to fit in. Maybe tagging them as “Elite” was just a bad call, and maybe expectations going into our VSX-70 evaluation were a little high. We figured the best way to find out was to shoot straight to the top and see what Pioneer’s flagship Elite receiver, the SC-79, had to offer.
Billed as the Audiophile’s choice in A/V receivers, the SC-79 was originally introduced at $3,000, but can now be had for as low as $2,000 online (at the time of this article’s publication). The SC-79 might look just like many of the sleek, black boxes that have come before it, but under its hood is a bevy of cutting-edge technology, including versatile multi zone output using HDBaseT, 32-bit Sabre DACs, an asynchronous USB DAC input, 4K pass through and upscaling, and 150 muscular watts delivered into 9 channels. Indeed, this receiver appears ready to work hard all day in up to four different rooms without breaking a sweat. So, we ran it hard – really, really hard. Turns out, there’s nothing “diluted” about this Elite A/V receiver; not by a long shot.
Out of the box
The Pioneer SC-79 is a beast. Take it out of its box with anything less than the utmost of care, and you’ll destroy the protective foam that surrounds it. It is large, heavy, and just flat-out mean looking, in the best possible way. It measures 17.13 x 7.31 x 17.38 (W x H x D – in inches) and weighs 38.75 lbs. Considering the SC-79 uses digital amplification and is naturally lighter in weight than similarly-powered class A/B receivers, the SC-79 is a relative tank. If you’re looking to up your man-cred in the home theater department, this receiver is a pretty good place to start.
On its front, the SC-79 looks familiar: Two large control knobs flank a smoked-glass display. Underneath the display, a selection of inputs, outputs and control buttons hide behind a fold-down door. But the back of the receiver, which has seen the addition of several inputs, actually looks better organized than ever. The untrained eye likely sees a dizzying collection of ports, but audiophiles and installers will see a refreshingly well thought-out place to connecting cables and wires.
The remote, while perhaps less easy to read, is at least comprehensive … and backlit! A quick press of the “light” button at the remote’s bottom right-most corner sets the remote aglow with an orange-red backlight, revealing each button’s primary function clearly. The good news here is that Pioneer hasn’t stripped the remote of any of its utility, keeping a button in place to accomplish nearly any task. The downside to that element is that there are a lot of buttons that play dual roles, and sorting that stuff out in the dark is nearly impossible.
In the box with the SC-79, we found a remote control with batteries, an auto-setup microphone, AM and FM antennae, some product literature and a manual on CD-ROM.
Features and design
In order to keep this review under 5,000 words, we’re going to have to skip going over the usual suspects in the features department (like decoding every surround format there is) and focus on some of the newer stuff Pioneer has included that could have an impact on the user.
The Pioneer Elite SC-79 is both a comfortable, yet brutally awesome A/V receiver.
Pioneer (along with most every other receiver manufacturer) is quick to point out its receivers are capable of 4K Ultra HD pass through and, in the case of the SC-79, upscaling of non-4K Ultra HD content. But it doesn’t say anything about the receiver’s ability to adapt to the forthcoming HDMI 2.0 standard. If 4K Ultra HD does end up relying on HDMI 2.0, that might eventually be a concern. Otherwise, we consider it a non-issue. By the time 4K Ultra HD is prevalent enough for someone to want to pass the signals through their receiver, they’ll probably be looking at a receiver upgrade anyway.
Setting aside the SC-79’s video capabilities, let’s take a look now at how it supports its claim as the audiophile’s choice in receivers. First, the SC-79 will process pretty much any audio file type you might want to throw at it, and do so up to 192 kHz / 24 bit. WAV, AIFF, FLAC and Apple Lossless with gapless playback are all supported. For disc-based playback, the SC-79 bypasses a Blu-ray player’s audio clock and handles the audio using its own master clock, thus providing supposedly less jitter and a purer sound. Finally, the SC-79 will also play back DSD streams delivered over HDMI, provided it is connected to a compatible player. All of those signals are processed into the analog domain for amplification by 32-bit ESS Sabre DACs, one for each audio channel. Spiffy!
The SC-79 is one of the few receivers we’ve tested which supports both a 7.1-channel surround sound and bi-amplification of the front left and right speakers at the same time. Of course, doing so precludes the user from using on-board amplification for anything else, say Zone 2 audio or front height speakers, but having the option is nice for those who really have no use for the multi-zone capabilities and want to use all the on-board amplification to their advantage in the way that they like.
Of course, if multi zone is your thing, the SC-79 handles that nicely as well. It can offer 5.1 surround in the main room with amplified stereo sound in zone 2 and 3 and an HD video output (up to 4K, actually) to zone 4 via HDMI or HDBaseT. So, if you want, you can use the receiver to deliver four different types of content to all four rooms. Flexible enough for you?
Frankly, if we had to control all of that multi-room mania with the SC-79’s remote control, we’d probably tear our hair out. Fortunately, Pioneer’s free iControlAV2013 app is one of the better A/V receiver control apps available, despite its unfortunate name. Not only does it make sense out of the multi zone stuff, it makes receiver setup a lot easier.
As for wireless streaming capability, the SC-79 offers none out of the box. Those wanting Bluetooth or wireless LAN connectivity will need to purchase adapters separately. You’d think a receiver of this caliber (and price) would offer that right out of the box, wouldn’t you?
If you do connect the receiver to a network, wireless or not, it does offer on-board support for Windows 8, Airplay, Spotify Connect and Pandora. There’s also VTuner if you’re into Internet broadcast radio. There’s actually plenty more to discuss, but we’ll leave those bits to be discovered by you. For now, suffice it to say, if it involves networking or MHL, or an HTC mobile phone, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
We have don’t have many negative things to say about the Pioneer SC-79, but you’ll find most of our gripes in this section. Our first issue is with the auto setup, calibration and EQ software that Pioneer uses, called MCACC. Now, as any regular reader of our receiver reviews can tell you, our negative opinion of auto setup, calibration and EQ systems is not limited to MCACC. We pretty much dislike all of them, though we will say that Paradigm and Anthem seem to have cracked some sort of code the others haven’t – or maybe they just don’t try too hard. In any case, our experience with the SC-79 did nothing to change our opinion.
…a modern audiophile marvel, as powerful as it is sophisticated.
MCACC did well judging the distance from each speaker to our listening position; actually, it was scary how accurate it was, down to half an inch. If it weren’t for the fact that the routine took so long to run (we quit counting at 10 minutes) we’d say it was worth running just to get the distance in without having to wildly wield a wily tape measure. Speaker level settings were close, but not as accurate as we were able to achieve using analog and digital decibel meters. This was odd because speaker levels are usually right on with these systems. From there, though, it was all downhill. Speaker size settings were a little off, but the worst was the EQ settings the system made, which we’ll dig into a little in the performance section.
Second, we just can’t understand why the SC-79 offers a single crossover point for all speakers. Sure, THX prefers that all speakers be crossed over at 80Hz, and that’s fine, but most folks we know like to customize crossovers to fully take advantage of the capabilities of each individual speaker. Our Marantz SR6004 and 6005 let us do this, why can’t Pioneer’s flagship?
Finally, we were a little disappointed to learn that the SC-79 didn’t offer 7.1 pre-amp inputs. What kind of $3,000 receiver doesn’t get that right? Here’s the thing: The Pioneer already has impressive 32-bit Sabre DACs already built right in, and 7.1 pre-amp inputs only make sense if the source component (Blu-ray or DVD player) has significantly better 7.1 DACs. While we’re very fond of our Oppo BDP-95 and its DACs and processing in general, only its dedicated stereo output is run through comparably fancy Sabre DACs. Advantage, Pioneer.
The Pioneer Elite SC-79 is a both a comfortable-sounding and brutally awesome A/V receiver. Some of it has to do with its prodigious power and high dynamic range, and some of it has to do with its outstanding audio signal processing, but you’ll never hear what this receiver can do if you rely on the results produced by its MCACC system.
After the auto calibration system had run its course, we checked the settings and cool graphs that it displayed for us. We nodded our head, furrowed our brows and nervously gnawed on our pencil as we pretended to have the faintest glimmer of an idea what it all meant. There were several colors of different lines involved, and some were flatter than others. That seemed like a good thing, except when we got out of the frequency response stuff and into the phase correction stuff – then we just weren’t sure. But it wasn’t because we skipped graph day in math class; there was a stark difference between what the graph suggested we should hear and what we actually heard.
Someone walking into our testing room that day might well have been wowed by what the SC-79 was doing with our blockbuster-movie demo material, and that’s because it sounded very good. But we knew it had to pale in comparison to what the receiver could sound like if it were set up manually. It just didn’t have the life or the flavor we expected. It sounded emotionless and very ritual about the job it was doing. This had to be fixed. We performed our manual calibration and went back over the same demo material. The difference was stark and palpable. Here was the emotion; here was the awesome. And that’s just it: When combined with good speakers set up well in even a modest-sized room, the Pioneer Elite SC-79 can either sound really good, or it can sound awesome. It can either wow people out, or blow them away.
This receiver makes the choice between separates and A/V receivers just that much more difficult…
The SC-79 has a comfortable, warm sound to it that doesn’t forsake detail. It never screeches or pierces, but it sparkles when it is called to. We had more fun listening to our multi-channel music collection than anything else, just because it sounded so incredibly glorious. Perhaps the Anthem MRX 700 and forthcoming MRX 710 sound a little more organic, but what Pioneer has done with this receiver is pair up incredibly musical sound with advanced technology, making it a modern audiophile marvel, as powerful as it is sophisticated.
Naturally, movie soundtracks were a thrill as well. Wide, sweeping surround effects danced from one speaker to the next, perfectly underscoring the on-screen action. And though we were running full-range tower speakers in six of seven speaker positions, with volume cranked up to reference levels, the SC-79 barely flinched. Distortion was always kept to a bare minimum, and, as we said before, harshness isn’t in this receiver’s vocabulary.
Dynamics? Oh yes. The SC-79 offers up wide dynamic swings quickly and nimbly that, with the right material, it might just take your breath away.
Not only does the Pioneer Elite SC-79 A/V receiver redefine the Elite moniker, it redefines what an A/V receiver is capable of. For that, Pioneer should be very proud, indeed. This receiver makes the choice between separates and A/V receivers just that much more difficult for audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts alike. Sure, Pioneer missed a few obvious points, such as the inclusion of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi out of the box, and we wish the company had put a little more control in the hands of the user by offering a customizable crossover point for each speaker. But at the end of the day, the SC-79 has what it takes to far exceed the expectations of those who choose it, and that makes it a top contender for us. The question on our minds is: How could Pioneer possibly do any better next year? Guess we’ll find out.
- Gobs of power
- Highly dynamic
- Comfortable, warm sound with lots of detail
- Advanced multi zone capability
- Decodes high definition audio files
- Bluetooth and Wi-Fi require accessory purchase
- Single crossover point for all speakers
- MCACC setup robs sound of character