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Pioneer VSX-816-K/S Review

Highs

  • Reasonably priced; full of features; plenty of power; simple setup

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 7

Lows

  • Some operations could be smoother; remote is hard to operate in the dark
The VSX-816 packs the requisite seven channels at a generous 100 watts each ...

Pioneer bills the VSX-816 audio/video receiver as the perfect choice for a small- to medium-size home theater. I don’t know too many “small” home theaters that would accommodate the seven loudspeakers and 700 watts that the VSX-816 supports, but these days a receiver manufacturer has to super-size power even at the lower end of the lineup if they hope to make a sale.

Like many value-priced audio/video receivers on the market today, the VSX-816 is chock full of features, many of which the average consumer will never use. Your eyes will glaze over before you finish reading all the decoding options. This baby plays ’em all from Dolby Pro Logic through Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES and others in between.

The VSX-816 is the second model in Pioneer’s latest audio/video receiver line, coming in at $299 above the entry-level $199 model. Among other things, the extra hundred bucks nets you built-in XM HD Surround with Neural Surround, a 5.1-channel format that XM says it will utilize for special live performances. You get 700 watts of power in both models, qualifying both for the designation bang for the buck.

But at those prices (starting price on the Web for the VSX-816 was $228 at press time), something’s gotta give. A few things had to give, in fact. The paper in the owner’s manual is made of coloring book-stock which doesn’t give the impression it will last a long time. The binding posts lack the threading holes of higher end types, making it more difficult and less secure to make a solid connection. It sure would be nice to have HDMI, but not at this price. Check out our full review.

Design and Features

Although the VSX-816 is your basic A/V receiver–a squarish black box with a boatload of bells and whistles–it has a groove running around its middle giving the slight appearance of separate components. Among the most notable features are three assignable component video inputs and one assignable output, four audio inputs including the AM/FM tuner, four A/V inputs with S-Video terminals (one on the front panel along with a digital optical in), five digital inputs (a generous two coaxial and three optical), and one digital output. If the 100 watts into seven channels isn’t enough beef for your small to medium room, there are pre-outs for connection to external amps.

Simulation and surround are major themes of the VSX-816. In addition to the popular ones you’ve heard of, Pioneer has tossed in a few of its own. One music mode simulates the acoustic environment of a concert hall and one called Advanced Movie simulates the environment of a movie theater. Huh? Isn’t that what Dolby and DTS are there for? There’s also TV Surround to bring enveloping effects to old mono and stereo movies, Sports for bringing background action to the front channels, Advanced Game to juice up left to right action in video game soundtracks, and a mode called 7 Stereo, which puts a stereo signal through a simulated surround effect. (Again, why bother when you’ve got multiple versions of Dolby Pro Logic IIx and DTS NEO:6, which do the same thing, only better?). Another Pioneer mode, Expanded, claims to broaden the soundfield of Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby Digital.

Oh, and if you don’t have surround and rear surround speakers, Virtual Surround creates an effect as if you did. If you retreat to headphones, you can be surrounded there too with Phones Surround. Additional decoders include hi-res DTS 96/24 for the audiophiles and WMA-9 PRO for the compressed crowd (assuming your CD or DVD player is compatible).

If you want to tone it down altogether, Midnight Mode boosts overall surround sound effects at a low volume setting. The good news is that you can select Midnight mode directly from the remote, the bad news is you’ll have to hunt around awhile to find the button. It’s a must feature for new parents who don’t want to wake the baby.

You can biamplify speakers with this receiver, which I thought was an odd feature to include at the expense of others (like better binding posts). That’s typically an audiophile-type feature not associated with a consumer in this price range.

A few Pioneer-slanted features round out the package. A special mode for Pioneer plasma TVs, for instance, automatically switches the video input of the TV when the input is switched on the receiver (special SR connecting cable required). There are also Pioneer SR jacks on the back panel that enable you to control other Pioneer SR components from just one remote. There’s no RS-232 output or IR jack for external control options though.

Pioneer VSX-816
Image courtesy of Pioneer

Setup and Use

Like most A/V receivers today, the VSX-816 has an auto-calibration feature that handles the surround-sound setup for you. You plug a microphone into a jack on the front panel and string it to the listening position (I placed the mic on a plant pedestal) where it takes acoustical measurements based on signals it receives from the speakers. Then the system automatically calibrates volume and delay settings for your particular setup and room. The process was straightforward and the results were fairly accurate. The distance measurement for the surround speakers was off by a foot or less, but that was easy enough to correct in the manual setup (there for those who like to tweak). A lot of buyers at this price segment will welcome the handholding.

The setup menu also includes a no-nonsense process for assigning component and digital audio inputs to your components. What the black-and-white text setup screens lacked in visual appeal, they made up for in efficiency. Setup was a breeze.

I used a Pioneer DVD/DVR as the video source and was disappointed to find that the “universal” remote included with the VSX-816 had no idea it shared a family history with my DVR. I’d have to plug in source codes as though it were any manufacturer’s product. You unlock codes for other products using the remote. A built-in alphabet brings up brand names when you hit a letter, and then you find a code for the brand by pressing Source. When a press turns off your component, you’ve got the right code. When I tapped the letter “P,” first Panasonic came up, then Philips. I finally arrived at Pioneer and found a working code, but not before seeing branding ads for the competition.

Pioneer VSX-816 Rear Panel
Image Courtesy of Pioneer

The VSX-816 remote doesn’t pass the darkness test. You need full light to find the buttons you want and even then it’s a challenge despite some well-intentioned color-coding and outlining. There are just too many buttons, most are smaller than a Tic Tac, and I kept losing the all-important Mute button, which is hidden six rows up (out of 16) on the right hand side.

On the plus side, there’s an LCD to feed back some source info so you don’t have to squint at the front panel.

Performance

With 100 watts all around, the VSX-816 has plenty of punch for the most punishing soundtracks. And in the 5.1-channel setup I used, I was impressed by the chopper sounds in the opening of Apocalypse Now as they cycled from channel to channel around the room. Separation was good and I felt immersed just as I should.

I enjoyed listening to George Harrison’s DVD Video of the Dark Horse Years and it made me wonder what the Beatles would have concocted with the flexibility of multi-channel recordings. The best I could imagine was a resounding version of “Crackerbox Palace” in Neo:6. Doing so took a trip to the owner’s manual for a guide to how to find Dolby Pro Logic IIx and Neo:6, which I discovered were accessible through a button marked Standard on the remote. Surround might have been a better label.

On the music side, Allan Toussaint’s resounding rework of “Yes We Can Can” on the Our New Orleans 2005 Tribute Album transported me to a gospel church on the Bayou in both Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6. Now I’ll never be able to listen to that song in stereo again! But I had to get up and read which version I was listening to from tiny LEDs on the front-panel display since the text display listed DTS and Dolby as simply “Music.” Tiny red print readable from 3 inches indicated Dolby or DTS.

For kicks, I tried Pioneer’s 7-Stereo mode for comparison. The experiment didn’t last long after vocals come out of the surround speakers. My listening partner, Dexter the cat, who had been enjoying the gospel surround sound with me must have felt the same way. He beat it upstairs when Toussaint’s voice unexpectedly jumped out from surround left.

I like that an XM Radio (and especially the Surround version) tuner is built in to this receiver. Setup was a snap and the service sounded clear, albiet a little distant which is tyical for satellite radio. Buyers beware: you need to buy an XM antenna (around $30) and a subscription to the service (currently $12.99 a month) to enjoy the feature.

The 816 has a built in WMA-Pro decoder so you can connect your PC to the receiver directly for Microsoft’s Lossless WMA audio format. You must also have the Windows Media Audio 9 codec installed on your PC and have a soundcard that has been specifically designed to output the WMA Pro signal over a coaxial/optical digital connection. Audiophiles will likely be excited by this feature, but it does require that your PC be relatively close to this receiver. Visit the Windows Media Audio Codes page for a list of sound card requirements.

I tried the FM radio and got reception that equaled that of my Tivoli Audio PAL radio. In my basement, that’s not that great but it’s a tough environment and any tuner would be challenged. The receiver’s direct access option to tap in the frequency of your favorite stations (88.3) is convenient. Plugging in presets, though, is a confusing multi-step process requiring front-panel access. I didn’t have the patience to keep at it, but I guess I would take the trouble if I owned the receiver.

Conclusion

Like so many audio/video receivers in this class, the Pioneer VSX-816 houses a cornucopia of features in its standard size frame. The VSX-816 packs the requisite seven channels at a generous 100 watts each and packs all the surround-sound options you could want. If you don’t need the extra two channels of surround (most people can’t accommodate them) you can create a second zone of audio, and you can add an XM antenna for a third band of radio–both nice adds. I’d love to see HD Radio in this receiver to bring AM and FM into the digital age, but the cost is too high for a receiver in this class.

Not all of the operations of the VSX-816 are smooth and intuitive, but the setup process is simple and that’s huge. Once you’re up and running you can decide how much more you want to experiment with other listening modes and EQ settings. Some people will get into it and others won’t bother, but it’s nice to have the choice. At $299 the VSX-816 is powerful, flexible and a terrific value.

Pros:

  • Loaded with features
  • Plenty of power
  • Very simple setup process
  • Very affordable
  • Can create a second zone with the extra channels

Cons:

  • Does not support HD Radio (but at this price it is not expected)
  • Some operations are not smooth and intuitive

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