Pioneer Elite SC-57 Review

Pioneer-Elite-SC-57-front
Pioneer Elite SC-57
“What we have in the case of the SC-57 is a super-powerful, very musical sounding receiver that should satisfy those who value listening to music as much as they do blasting the latest blockbuster movie.”
Pros
  • Extremely powerful (THX Ultra 2 Plus)
  • Great sound
  • Great iPhone/iPad integration
  • Excellent video processing
  • AirPlay
Cons
  • Cluttered remote
  • No zone 2 remote
  • GUI needs work
  • Complicated operation

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).

Pioneer-Elite-SC-57-review-front-face

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.

Pioneer-Elite-SC-57-review-rear-inputs

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?

Pioneer-Elite-SC-57-review-front-controls

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.

Performance

The test bench for our Pioneer Elite SC-57 review included an Oppo BDP-95 Universal Blu-ray player, Marantz SR6005 AV receiver, Aperion Audio Verus Grand towers, Aperion Audio 633 Concert HD system, an iPhone 4S and Pioneer PL-61 turntable with Ortofon OM-5E cartridge.

For all the bells and whistles the SC-57 offers, we knew that the meat of our review would end up being centered on whether or not its D3 amplification really was as remarkable an improvement as Pioneer would have us believe. In order to make our determination, we pitted the SC-57 (in two-channel Pure Direct mode and standard stereo mode) against the Anthem Integrated 225 and Marantz SR 6005 in a sort of three-way stereo shootout.

Lest anyone get all riled up over what they think is an unfair comparison, we wanted to put it right out there that we were well aware the 110-watt-per-channel (wpc) Pioneer multi-channel A/V receiver with all its additional electronics stood little chance of sounding quite as good as the Anthem integrated with double the power and a fraction of the electronics.

We went into the comparisons looking to see how close (or different) the SC-57 would sound next to our favorite integrated amp and how much more powerful it really was than our mid-level receiver. The testing took several hours over the course of several days and made for a few uptight neighbors, but it was totally worth it.

The verdict is in: The Pioneer SC-57 really is a big leap forward for high-powered digital amplification and, perhaps just as importantly, a big hop in the right direction for what could become Pioneer’s new signature sound.

Pioneer-Elite-SC-57-review-front-face-angle

Not only did the SC-57 sound great on its own merits, it also got surprisingly close to matching the natural, transparent and muscular sound of the Anthem integrated. The fact that we had to spend so much time picking apart the differences between an A/V receiver and an excellent two-channel integrated is a pretty big endorsement on its own. We had expected for the receiver’s limitations to reveal themselves rather quickly, but it does such a great job of presenting dynamic, powerful sound with little coloration that it made our job a lot more difficult.

The SC-57 doesn’t just sound good for a Class-D digital amp, though. We think it sounds more natural, lively and just a tad warmer than any previous Pioneer Elite receiver. It struck just the right balance for us.

The advantages of the SC-57’s power reserves were audible while listening to music, but became even more obvious once we switched over to DTS Master-HD tracks on Blu-ray disc. As we compared the Pioneer to our Marantz SR6005, we found the two receivers were pretty evenly matched, save a few differences in the treatment of high frequencies. However, when both receivers were pushed to higher SPLs and taxed with explosive scenes that used all 5 or 7 channels, the Pioneer’s pure brawn shone through in a big way. The level of support to each channel sounded evenly matched and we’re pretty sure our ears would have bled long before any audible distortion would have come through. We have no doubt the SC-57 has the brute strength needed for even the largest home theaters.

We really came to like this receiver over the course of our testing, but there are a few quirks worth mentioning. First, we’re not into the remote control at all (save the fact that it is backlit). It doesn’t have a good hand-feel, the buttons are really small and several buttons serve multiple purposes with little indication as to what changes the buttons function. The volume control also seems to be in an odd place; a fact which had us constantly looking at the remote and reminding us that we just didn’t care for it.

Pioneer-Elite-SC-57-review-remote

Our second gripe is that there is no obvious way to turn MCACC off completely. If not by way of a button on the remote control, we would like to have seen a clear and obvious way of turning off the EQ, reverb and other MCACC settings not related to the essential distance and level settings.

Finally, we found that the SC-57 was a little slow with some tasks. It seemed as if switching between inputs took unnecessarily long and navigating through different menu tiers was a sluggish was well. Sometimes we found ourselves wondering if we had actually missed a button until the receiver finally executed our command.

The Pioneer Elite SC-57 compares nicely with the Denon AVR-4311ci and the Yamaha RX-A3010, all of which are similarly priced. In terms of sound signature, we’d have to put the Denon on top with the Pioneer a very close second and the Yamaha just behind. In terms of raw power and the ability to drive speakers to ear-splitting levels without distortion, the Pioneer is a clear winner with the Yamaha at second and the Denon just behind. In terms of features and flexibility, we feel like the race is too close to call amongst the three, especially since it really comes down to personal need.

Conclusion

Pioneer has made a genuine advancement with its D3 Class-D digital amplification. The new technology provides for extremely high power delivered over extended periods of time with very little distortion. The fact that D3 uses less energy and generates less heat is a bonus, but the real benefit here is that the digital amplification that brings all these benefits no longer sounds artificial. We don’t know what Pioneer did exactly, but it is plainly obvious that it has worked.

What we have in the case of the SC-57 is a super-powerful, very musical sounding receiver that should satisfy those who value listening to music as much as they do blasting the latest blockbuster movie. While this receiver caters well to those with really large listening spaces, we think just about anyone could find something to appreciate about this receiver.

Highs:

  • Extremely powerful (THX Ultra 2 Plus)
  • Great sound
  • Great iPhone/iPad integration
  • Excellent video processing
  • AirPlay

Lows:

  • Cluttered remote
  • No zone 2 remote
  • GUI needs work
  • Complicated operation

Editors' Recommendations