Onkyo has long been a major supporter of high-end home cinema, but for some reason hasn't really made it to the top of the barrel; but that hasn't stopped it developing a very complete and in some cases genuinely distinctive range of models at virtually all prices.

Under the microscope in this test is the freshly minted top-dog in the Onkyo range, the TX-NR5000E receiver. It's conventional looking, but on closer examination there are some important features which set it apart from the crowd.

Constant evolution

A look beneath the lid reveals just how innovative Onkyo's design approach is. The unit has an internal architecture developed to enable it to adapt to and grow with evolving technology. Plug-in replaceable circuit boards are used for all the TX-NR5000E's key audio and video processing and interfaces. This concept will be familiar to users of PCs, and is the main reason why that platform has continued to thrive against the comparatively inflexible Mac.

Consequently, this is a home cinema receiver that could be serving you well when the original buying price is long forgotten, but there remains a question mark over what upgrades will be available. Onkyo is suggesting that a DAB tuner board, and one supporting new video interface features will appear later this year. It would be nice to know what treats lie in store. The receiver's internal firmware is also fully upgradeable.

The other point that sets this flagship apart from its peers is a TCP/IP network interface and proprietary Net-Tune client protocol which will allow access to MP3, WMA, WAV files and internet radio stored on a linked PC. Onkyo is planning to offer client Net-Tune receivers, up to 11 of which will be connectable simultaneously on a single network to extend this capability over your home.

Even without these cool USPs, the unit is impressively endowed. It is a 7.1 channel THX Ultra 2 receiver. The power output is rated by the brand at 200W per channel into 6O, with a 1kHz DIN rating. In practice, courtesy of HCC's Tech Labs, the actual power output is 175W with two channels driven, dropping to 140W when all channels are in full flight.

The Onkyo is particularly well endowed when it comes to connectivity. In addition to an extensive range of analogue socketry (moving magnet phono included), the Onkyo is equipped with HDMI digital encrypted interfaces (v1.1, which includes full bandwidth multichannel audio from PCM sources) and i.Link which is audio only, but also allows DSD data from Super Audio CD discs to be streamed digitally as well.

If required, the Onkyo will drive two sets of up to 7.1 speakers in different rooms, but with restrictions - they cannot be used simultaneously.

Onkyo takes great pride in its ability to design high quality amplifiers. Its wide bandwidth WRAT (Wide Ranging Amplifier Technology) provides the key to the sound quality equation, along with a massive torroidal transformer with quality reservoir capacitors and other passive components, specialist output devices and careful earthing, plus video bypass and display-off modes.

Movie lover

There's no doubt that this receiver has celluloid blood running through its circuits. It's a movie-monster first and foremost. It offers clarity and articulation, alongside the ability to rise to the occasion with dynamic, incident-rich soundtracks, as I discovered with the well recorded Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Whatever the onscreen action, this huge Onkyo has no problem rising to the occasion. The TX-NR5000E constantly delivered 11 out of 10 thanks to its open, spacious quality, near holographic imagery and bold dynamics. However, circuits which sound enveloping and ultimately completely engrossing with most film soundtracks, especially some of the real heavyweight magnum opus discs, such as Saving Private Ryan and Hero, make music sound rather glassy and sometimes a tad unmusical.

I say this because results are, when used with quality audio sources in stereo and multichannel modes (primarily using CD and SACD sources), less satisfying. Certainly music is detailed and as clear as a pane of glass, but it also tends to be rather hard and unforgiving, which made known good recordings sound rather edgy, with a rather lean tonality. This was so even via the HDMI and i.Link digital inputs using the excellent Denon DVD-A1XV DVD player as source

Connectivity is excellent - the receiver's ability to upscale all video inputs to the HDMI link is unusual but convenient, although, bizarrely, this won't work if your display requires an HDMI-DVI adaptor - and build quality first class.

This is an outstanding piece of AV receiver design, and if music playback is secondary to the visceral thrills of home cinema, then the case in its favour is very strong indeed. It is well made, has a great remote control, is powerful and well equipped aside from some obvious omissions, such as an auto setup feature (see our Practical Tip). However, what sets it truly apart are its network audio capabilities, for which it is better equipped than any of its rivals, and the promise of longevity thanks to its open architecture.

It's a curious fact that while it seems a good buy today, this big Onkyo might seem like an even better proposition a coulpe of years down the road.