“Onkyo seeks to create a new niche with this upper midrange A/V receiver, but we don”
- Great sound; THX Loudness Plus; five HDMI inputs; phono input; Ethernet port; Audyssey MultiEQ calibration system
- No multi-channel analog inputs; no digital audio outputs; only one HDMI output
Onkyo has a well-earned reputation for building A/V receivers with fabulous price/performance ratios, and at first glance, the feature-laden HT-RC180 looks to be no exception. But we can’t recommend this 7.2-channel receiver to anyone who owns a home theater PC or an older DVD-Audio player because the HT-RC180 lacks the multi-channel analog inputs needed to establish a proper audio connection with those devices.
Strangely, we can’t understand the disconnect between consumer electronics manufacturers and PC manufacturers, as it’s not as though home theater PCs are new. And yet this is the third new receiver we’ve encountered this year that doesn’t take PC audio connections into account. The HDMI input on Sherwood’s RD-7503 won’t sync properly with a PC’s HDMI video output, so it will never work with a PC. Yamaha’s RX-V665 won’t allow you to assign its multi-channel audio input to its HDMI video input. The only solution, at least for the Yamaha and Onkyo, is to invest $200 to $250 in an HDMI PC sound card, which – in the latter case – may make the system a hard sell.
Before we dive into a detailed discussion of the HT-RC180’s feature set and performance, we first need to talk about its place in Onkyo’s overall lineup, because it’s more than a little confusing. Until now, Onkyo’s HT series consisted solely of home theater-in-a-box systems: A/V receivers with pre-matched speakers. The HT-RC180 (list price $1,049) doesn’t include speakers, and its feature set is nearly identical to that of its slightly more expensive cousin, Onkyo’s TX-NR807 (list price $1,099). Look closely, however, and you’ll notice several crucial differences.
The most obvious departure lies in each amplifier’s power rating: The TX-NR807 delivers just a wee bit more (135 watts per channel, compared to 110 watts). Would you be able to perceive a 25-watt power difference in the real world? Probably not. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll uncover a few details that will matter greatly to hardcore enthusiasts (and custom installers). The TX-NR807 has an RS-232 port, for example, which makes it easy to control the receiver using a high-end, third-party remote control (think Crestron or AMX); and there’s an infrared input, which you could use to control the receiver using an IR remote in another room (you’d have to mount an IR receiver in a wall, of course). The TX-NR807 also has two 12-volt triggers that can be used to power up devices in second and third zones (said devices would need to be equipped with 12-volt inputs for this to work). The TX-NR807 also has six HDMI 1.3a inputs to the HT-RC180’s five (both have only one HDMI output).
Looking at list prices, the TX-NR807 is easily worth an extra 50 bucks. But when you compare street prices (we averaged those of eight online retailers), that price delta explodes to $225. If you don’t think you’ll ever use the advanced features we’ve just described, the HT-RC180 is the better value. But how does it compare to the rest of the market? Let’s tackle issue that now.
The HT-RC180 is capable of driving seven discrete channels, plus high and wide front speaker pairs, and it has outputs for two self-powered subwoofers. It is THX Select2 Plus certified, which means it incorporates THX Loudness Plus, which automatically adjusts the relationship between front and rear speaker volume levels when you set the receiver’s volume control below studio reference level (0db for THX-certified receivers). In our listening tests, this feature had a remarkable impact on our perception of ambient sounds (rain, thunder, bird noises, etc.) in Blu-ray movie soundtracks.
The receiver is also capable of bi-amplifying the primary left and right front speakers (driving their woofers and tweeters independently to achieve better treble and bass response) and driving stereo speakers in second and third zones. These choices, however, entail trade-offs: If you bi-amplify your front channels or connect speakers in zone two, for instance, you must give up your surround-back channels. Similarly, connecting speakers to zone three means you can’t connect left and right surround speakers. Even without bi-amplification or surround-back speakers, activating zone two turns off audio to the high and wide front speaker pairs. You can’t send video to these other zones, either.
Realistically, the value of the second subwoofer output is limited to filling a low-frequency dead spot in a very large home theater. While you could add a powered subwoofer to zone two or three, it will receive the same signal as the first subwoofer. So if one person wants to watch a movie in your home theater, anyone trying to listen to music in another will hear the low-frequency effects from the movie’s soundtrack coming from the subwoofer in that zone.
Inputs and Outputs
Equipped with five HDMI inputs, the Onkyo HT-RC180 should be capable of handling just about anything in your home entertainment center. But at this price range, we fault Onkyo for not providing a second HDMI output to support a video projector. Projectors, even 1080p models, are dropping in price rapidly, and not even the largest big-screen TV can match their impact.
We’ve already mentioned the lack of multi-channel analog inputs, and we’re happy with the number of digital audio inputs (three coax and two optical, all of which are assignable), but we expected to find at least one digital audio output that would support an outboard digital-to-analog converter. The receiver does have 7.2 analog pre-amp outputs, plus pre-amp outputs for zones two and three. We’re also satisfied with the very full complement of analog audio and video inputs: Two tape inputs and one tape output; four A/V inputs and one output (plus monitor out), including support for both S- and composite video; two component video inputs; and one component-video output. Lastly, the HT-RC180 includes a phono input for those of us who still swear by vinyl.
Front-panel inputs include analog stereo, composite video, and optical digital. We would have welcomed a front-panel HDMI input, even if that meant there were only for HDMI inputs in back. You can also plug in an iPod using one of Onkyo’s optional iPod docks.
The HT-RC180 features a built-in Ethernet port with full DLNA support. In a DLNA ecosystem, any DLNA-compliant device will automatically become aware of other DLNA devices as soon as they’re added to the network. When we plugged the receiver into our wired network, it automatically detected Windows Media Player 11 on our Vista machine, and it could access all the music stored on that machine’s hard drive (or at least the music encoded in file formats that Windows Media Player supports, which includes MP3, WMA, and WMA Lossless). The receiver can also decode music encoded in unencrypted AAC (up to 320Kb/sec), FLAC, LPCM, Ogg Vorbis, and WAV.
Onkyo claims the receiver will also work with Windows Media Connect 2.0, the media server software that runs on Windows Home Server, but we couldn’t get this feature to work. The receiver recognized the server on the network, but it wouldn’t access any of the FLAC files we have stored there. We had better luck accessing Internet radio stations. The receiver has presets for Pandora, Rhapsody, and Sirius Internet radio, but you can easily add other stations and services by accessing the receiver on your local network via a web browser.
We consider ourselves computer enthusiasts, so we’re very familiar with the concept of firmware updates. (Firmware is executable code that resides in non-volatile memory and launches as soon as a device is powered on, and is now a common feature found on Blu-ray players too.) So while we were browsing the receiver’s setup screen, we decided to see if any new firmware was available. Big mistake. The receiver downloaded a firmware update from Onkyo’s website, but it failed to write the new firmware to the receiver’s memory. After leaving the receiver in this state overnight, hoping the problem would resolve itself, we finally pulled the power code (never a good idea when the device is supposedly running a firmware update). The receiver continued to operate when we powered it back up, but it no longer sent an on-screen display to our connected television. No doubt this would be covered by Onkyo’s warranty, but who wants the hassle?
Remote Control and Front Panel
No matter how good a receiver’s remote control might be (the HT-RC180’s is good, but not outstanding), there will always be times when you walk up to the receiver and change settings using its front-panel control. The HT-RC180 falters badly on this point. While we applaud the fact that each of its inputs has a dedicated button on its front panel, and you can access controls for just about any other feature by dropping its front flap), none of the buttons are backlit and are impossible to see in a dimly lit room (we resorted to using a flashlight just to switch inputs).
The receiver’s display, on the other hand, is excellent, using large fonts and icons to indicate listening modes, active speakers, current signal formats, and much more. The display sent to the external monitor (by default, the device connected to the HDMI port) is even better. It’s particularly useful when you’re using network-based resources, such as a media server or Internet radio.
How We Tested
The HT-RC180 is a behemoth of a receiver: Our entertainment center could barely accommodate its 17.125-inch depth, and the revolving shelf we installed (to ease rear-panel access) strained under its 39.7lbs of mass. There shouldn’t be any worries about an undersized power supply here.
We really appreciated the receiver’s back-panel layout while connecting our speakers and gear, having all the speaker binding posts in one row along the bottom made it much easier to plug in everything else. Our HDMI sources consisted of Samsung BD-P1600 Blu-ray player and a Dish Network ViP 622 HD satellite receiver, and an old Sony VCR. We established a digital coax connection to a Sonos ZP80 Zone Player for streaming digital audio from the Internet and from our home server (a vastly superior solution to using the receiver’s own network interface in terms of usability). Our analog audio and video sources consisted of an equally old Sony cassette deck. We connected the HDMI output to a 42-inch ViewSonic N4285P LCD TV. With the obvious exception of the lone HDMI output, we didn’t come close to maximizing the receiver’s inputs and outputs.
Our speaker configuration consists of Klipsch Reference Series RF-35 towers and an RC-35 center channel speaker in front, with Klipsch RS-35’s providing surround sound. A Boston Acoustics PV-800 handles LFE duties.
The 45 minutes we spent calibrating the receiver to our home theater environment using the integrated Audyssey MultiEQ was time well invested. Many calibration systems optimize the receiver’s output based on a single spot in the room; with the Audyssey, you can take measurements in as many as six locations. It’s a very impressive system.
Our source material consisted of the Blu-ray version of Watchmen (DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack); the Blu-ray version of Spider-Man 3 (Dolby TrueHD soundtrack); the Blue Man Group’s The Complex and Frank Zappa’s Quadiophiliac (DVDs encoded in DTS 96/24); and various CDs ripped to a home-built Windows Home Server machine, encoded using the FLAC lossless compression, and streamed over a hard-wired network via a Sonos ZP80 Zone Player.
An onboard Faroudja DCDi Cinema Enhancement processor can upconvert any incoming analog and digital video signal to 1080p, and we saw noticeable improvement in the image quality from our satellite set-top box, which tops out at 1080i resolution. The receiver also provides the option of passing video signals straight through without upconversion (composite-in to composite-out, component-in to component-out, and so on). Any analog or digital audio input can be output via HDMI, and analog-audio inputs can be passed through to analog-audio outputs, but digital audio inputs cannot be routed to analog-audio outputs.
We don’t know whether to credit THX Loudness Plus, the Audyssey calibration tools, or just great amplifier circuitry, but the soundtracks in our Blu-ray movies knocked our socks off. We heard background noises that we’d never noticed before, even though we’ve watched both test movies many times on many different receivers. Listening to high-definition audio sources (the Zappa and Blue Man Group discs) at high volume on the HT-RC180 is probably the closest we’ll ever come to having a live rock band in our home theater. Both discs sounded absolutely spectacular.
If we were judging the Onkyo HT-RC180 solely on its audio performance, we would have scored it much higher. But the absence of multi-channel analog inputs is a major bummer (we would gladly trade multi-channel line-level outputs for PC support) and we’re surprised that Onkyo thinks buyers shopping in this range might not have a favorite outboard DAC. Given the phenomenal price/performance ratios of streaming audio devices like the Sonos Digital Music System and Logitech’s Squeezebox series, we think the value of network connectivity in an A/V receiver is overstated—especially if it comes at the expense of some of the other features we’ve mentioned.
But our biggest disappointment is the single HDMI output; if you have both a big-screen TV and a video projector, you’ll have to buy an outboard switch and signal amplifier. Having said all that, we’re still giving the HT-RC180 a qualified “buy” recommendation, especially if you don’t already have a home theater PC, a video projector, an outboard DAC or a music-streaming box.
- Excellent sound
- Great front-panel display
- Five HDMI inputs
- Photo input
- DLNA support
- Audyssey MultiEQ calibration system
- No multi-channel analog inputs
- Only one HDMI output
- No video in second or third zones
- No digital audio outputs
- Front-panel buttons not backlit