When we visited with Pioneer at the CEDIA 2011 expo, our primary goal was to learn more about its new partnership with Sharp, its recent decision to license out the Elite brand name and have a look at the new Elite displays. But, as beautiful as the new Elite TVs were, we just couldn’t help but be distracted by Pioneer’s line-up of A/V receivers; especially the new Elite SC-57 and it’s fancy new digital amplification (which we will be reviewing soon).
The Elite receivers weren’t all that caught our eye, though. Pioneer’s standard line is now supporting some network features and iPod/iPhone/iPad integration that include-and go beyond Apple’s AirPlay – all at a nicely competitive price point. To us, that’s an indication that Pioneer is dedicated to keeping up with the times by providing advanced functionality in a receiver most folks can afford. We had to wonder though: Did Pioneer have to skimp on sound quality to bring in all these new features while still keeping the sticker price low?
We have our review of the Pioneer VSX-1021-K A/V receiver which, while not at the top of Pioneer’s standard line, is still loaded with features and what appears to be ample power, too. Does it deliver the goods? Read on to find out.
Out of the box
The VSX-1021-K is one big, shiny, receiver. It measures in at 6.6 x 17.16 x 14.27 inches (H’ W’ D’) and flirts with the lighter side of receivers at 22 lbs. To put the weight in context, Pioneer’s flagship model VSX-1121-K comes in at over 30 lbs. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear as if Pioneer skimped on the power supply, since the lion’s share of the 1021-K’s weight seems focused toward the rear of the receiver, right where the power supply is.
A/V receivers usually come with the same bag of tricks: A manual, remote control, remote batteries, AM and FM radio antennae and a registration card or two. The 1021-K comes with all of that and then adds in a couple of unique extras.
The first is an iOS device cable terminated with both USB and composite video tips. This allows for TV, Movies and music to be routed to the receiver without the need for a separate dock…and it’s free with the receiver.
The other interesting piece (albeit less useful) is a setup CD that can be used with a network-connected laptop or desktop PC as a setup assistant. The setup wizard on the CD takes novice users through a series of questions supplemented with graphics to help them understand what it is the software is doing as it goes along. Though we weren’t totally wowed by the wizard, we appreciate the efforts Pioneer is putting toward making their products user-friendly – a fact that was echoed by other design points we would discover and will discuss later.
As is often the case when designing electronics, a series of trade-offs must usually be made. In Pioneer’s case, it would seem that the company has opted to focus on designing its receivers to be as Apple-friendly as possible. As a result, what you get with the VSX-1021-K is one of the least expensive receivers on the market to include Apple’s Airplay feature, Bluetooth compatibility (adapter sold separately) and that free iOS device cable we just mentioned. The trade-off seems to be that the 1021-K misses some of the features that its similarly priced competitors include.
For instance, the Onkyo TX-NR609 offers a sixth HDMI port on the front panel, a second subwoofer output, and access to additional internet audio such as Pandora, Rhapsody, Last.fm and now Spotify. Plus, the Onkyo’s wireless network adapter is just $30 whereas Pioneer’s is a hefty $150. Yet, the Onkyo doesn’t support Airplay or Bluetooth.
The Denon AVR-1912, also similarly positioned and priced, includes Airplay, access to Pandora, Rhapsody and Flickr, has a 6th HDMI input and boasts a two-year warranty, besting Pioneer’s one-year protection. On the flip side, Denon doesn’t offer a wireless adapter (though wireless bridges can be had for about $60) and the AVR-1912 doesn’t support Bluetooth. The AVR-1912 also currently averages over $100 more on the street than either the Onkyo model or the Pioneer 1021-K.
In the battle of features among these mid-level receivers, it seems there’s no clear winner, per se. All three have their strong suits and we believe buying decisions will ultimately come down to individual preferences. With that in mind, let’s run through some of the more compelling features the 1021-K has to offer.
Regular readers of our reviews know we’re not big fans of auto-calibration, so it may come as a surprise that we would mention one as a positive design point. The thing is, so long as manufacturers are going to integrate these auto set-up systems into their receivers, they may as well be flexible and customizable. Pioneer’s MCACC happens to be both.
Though we won’t go so far as to say that we thought the EQ results the MCACC came up with sounded amazing, the truth is they didn’t sound terrible. That’s more than we can say for other calibration systems we frequently test and we can see users enjoying this flavor of sound. More impressive, though, is the fact that Pioneer’s system allows 6 different memory settings so that users can customize their own EQs and save them for use on demand. There’s also a copy feature which will let the user move either all of the calibration settings or just the distance and level settings over to another memory slot, allowing them to play with the EQ curves and filters as they see fit, then switch among them at the press of a button.
Apple’s iOS Integration
The 1021-K’s level of iOS device integration is pretty impressive; we appreciated being able to quickly and easily control our iPhone with the receiver’s remote while it was connected to the 1021-K’s USB input. We were able to navigate through songs by playlist, song title and artist much like we would on the phone itself. Though scrolling took a little more time on the receiver than it would on the iPhone, this was the fastest navigation experience we’ve had so far with a receiver at any price.
Of course, it’s probably fair to say that most people these days would rather have it the other way around and use their iOS device as a remote to control the receiver. It turns out Pioneer, like Onkyo and Denon, have developed an app for that and it’s a pretty good one too. Users can change inputs, control volume, access music stored on networked PCs, browse internet radio stations and draw their own EQ curves at the swipe of a finger.
Like the app integration thing? Pioneer has created a totally unique app which it calls Air Jam. Using Air Jam, up to four users can pair with the 1021-K through the optional Bluetooth adapter and collectively contribute to a playlist. The playlist can be viewed on any connected device and if a user likes a song someone else added, it can be purchased on the spot. It’s an interesting party app idea that may or may not resonate with the public. Either way, we have to hand it to Pioneer for being the first receiver manufacturer we have seen to come up with such a thing.
With a simple, straight-forward remote control app available for iOS devices, Pioneer must have felt it was safe cramming as much as it could onto its standard remote. There are lots of buttons and secondary functions for most of them too, annotated in small blue print. It’s hard to know ahead of time what is going to happen when you press a button. That didn’t stop us from implementing our “point and pray” method of guesswork and, wouldn’t you know it, we had it all figured out in pretty short order. The remote may not be pretty, but it works. [INSERT “is it backlit” answer here]
As we mentioned before, all the slickest features in the world don’t mean much if the sound isn’t up to snuff. We’ve been antsy to hear the VSX-1021-K in action with hopes that Pioneer has pursued an improvement in sound reproduction as aggressively as it has with innovative features.
The test bench for this review include an Oppo BDP-95 audiophile aniversal 3D Blu-Ray player, a Marantz SR6005 for comparison, Aperion Audio 633-T, 634-VAC, 632-LR, 532-LR speakers and Bravus 12” subwoofer, a Pioneer PL-25 Turntable with Ortofon om5e cartridge, Bellari phono pre-amp and Sennheiser HD 598 headphones. Testing material included The Word of Mouth Big Band’s Word of Mouth Revisited on SACD, TOTO IV on SACD The Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over on Laserdisc (yeah, you read that right…Laserdisc!) Dire Straits’ Love over Gold, Steely Dan’s Gaucho in high-resolution FLAC streamed and decoded by the receiver and, for a movie, Batman Begins.
We’ve already discussed our appreciation for Pioneer’s auto-calibration system, but MCACC is just small part of what we found to be a well-designed graphical user interface. We think that those who are new to today’s advanced A/V receives will find the the VSX-1021-K’s menus easy to navigate thanks to clear explanations and graphical representations. Our only knock is that we’d like to have been able to set specific crossover points for each of our speakers – a feature we feel should have trickled down to mid-level receivers by now.
As we kicked off our listening session, we were immediately impressed with the 1021-K’s level of fidelity. Just moments before reconnecting the Pioneer receiver, we had listened to the very dynamic “Telegraph Road” from Love over Gold through our Marantz SR6005 and had that performance firmly entrenched in our mind’s ear. The fact that the Pioneer sounded so close to the more expensive Marantz model was an indication that the 1021-K was going to hold its own in a head-to-head comparison and likely make discerning the differences very difficult.
Our suspicions were correct. It’s been a long time since we did so much switching back and forth between receivers in an effort to sus out fine sound differences. The Pioneer held up nicely indeed; its power supply managed to provide plenty of punch and definition to bass, and the receiver produced uncongested vocals and midrange accompanied by articulate treble with just a tidbit of air and resolution of detail.
“Continuum”, as performed by Jimmy Haslip on Word of Mouth Revisited, can be a real workout for an AV receiver since a hefty dose of dynamic information is focused on the center channel. Jimmy Haslip’s bass work not only weaves in and out of both the lower and upper registers, but involves some tight harmonies with plenty of overtones and later in the cut, a fair amount of percussive playing with well exposed transients. To be honest, it’s the sort of work best cut out for a dedicated amplifier, but the best receivers can usually do a decent job of pulling it off. The VSX-1021-K really hung in there as we cranked the volume. We got a lot more out of it than we expected was possible and the receiver didn’t let us know it was sweating as its power reserves kept clipping to a minimum.
Musically speaking, when compared to the Marantz SR6005, the Pioneer wasn’t quite as open in the midrange section. We noticed some percussion instruments weren’t quite as three-dimensional and some high brass notes didn’t have as clear a ring to them. Keep in mind though, that digging up these comparisons took some seriously close listening by some well-trained ears with a lot of experience at picking apart subtle musical queues. The fact that the VSX-1021-K can hold up so well to receivers with list prices almost double its own should tell you a lot.
For movies, the VSX-1021-K performed very well. Its ability to deliver dynamic power at medium and medium-high volumes was evident as our test clips pushed on it with deep, explosive bass, screeching high effects and plenty of fast movement between seven channels. At the highest volumes, the receiver did show some signs of strain, but no more than any other receiver in this price class would. At the end of the day, we walked away very impressed with what we heard from this mid-level Pioneer receiver.
Pioneer’s VSX-1021-K shows that Pioneer is on top of its game by incorporating unique and innovative features, a user-friendly interface and excellent sound quality in a mid-level receiver that stands as a paradigm for the notion of value. We think the optional wireless LAN adapter is overpriced though and takes away some of this product’s appeal as a budget-friendly network receiver for those that need wireless, but when its iOS feature set is compared to its competition, it’s evident that the VSX-1021-K is a top contender in its segment, easily earning it our recommended product badge.
- Very good sound quality
- Bluetooth Capable
- iOS device cable included
- Handy auto-calibration features
- Expensive wireless adapter
- Limited internet music access
- One-year warranty