Pioneer's SC-LX81 is the coolest AV receiver on the market, with two HDMI outputs, Dolby True HD, THX certification, DTS-HD, 1080p upscaling, MCACC calibration, oh, and did we mention its gorgeous?
Not only does its gloss black finery give it a sub-zero rating in the style stakes, its array of Bang & Olufsen ICEpower digital amplifier modules ensures it runs only marginally warmer than a clock-radio.
Adding a frost-bite level of coolness is an awesome GUI onscreen display, stylish remote control with automatic blue backlight and sound tuning by London's acclaimed AIR Studios. But what really makes the LX81 fresher than a polar bear's dangly bits in the middle of winter is its sound. This is the best-sounding receiver around £1,500 – bar none.
Pioneer took a bold step by introducing ICEpower modules into the performance-driven end of the AV market. Early incarnations of the ICEpower all-digital amplifiers were not everyone's cup of tea sonically, but they do offer a lot of well-controlled power for very little electricity expenditure, and are hence about green as amplifiers get. Recent versions of the module, with power claimed to be a staggering 190W into 8 Ohms for each channel in the LX81's case, are staggering.
Supported by Pioneer's own substantial power supply, the sound is clean, potent and wonderfully crisp without harshness. Bass digs deep without any bloom or excess, and low-bass to the main channels leaps positively gazelle-like out of the speakers.
The electrifying battle scene in the dock in Matrix Revolutions (Blu-ray) explodes into the room in a huge cornucopia of effects. The rush of the Squidies and the APU's heavy machine guns have stunning transient power. From the cycling of the gun's reloading mechanism, to the percussive blast of each shot strung together in a torrent of sonic violence, the effect is wholly believable and totally engrossing. Push the volume knob deep into ASBO territory and the sound grows into a huge, room-filling, dynamically astonishing soundstage that remains poised right up until your speakers beg for mercy. Man, what a ride!
The ensuing silence after the Hammer crashes into the dock and fires the EMP blast is just as impressive. The LX81 does quiet scenes well; dialogue projects out with all the emotion and inflection that the actors can muster. Lawrence Fishburne's baritone voice is perhaps not quite as deep or fulsome as it is on some of rival AVRs, but it is remarkably precise and accurate.
In fact, that dichotomy sums up the sound of the LX81. While it doesn't have the warmth or sheer mid-bass body of some of its competitors, this perceived lack of 'richness' lets the rest of the sound breathe like never before.
Some of this lack of mid-bass bloom is down to the LX81's MCCAC auto set-up and EQ system doing its thing and relieving the sound of room-induced problems. As I'm so familiar with my room's inherent sound, the MCACC adjusted set-up (which did some quite heavy filtering around 125Hz in my room) is invariably going to sound a bit light to my professional lugholes.
Suspecting this might be the case, I set up a mic and RTA (real time analysis) freeware on the lap-top and measured the room response. The resulting plot was, by a country mile, the flattest I have ever seen a 20Hz to 20kHz sweep in my room!
No wonder Pioneer dedicates half the LX81's brochure and several chapters of the manual to the MCACC system – because here it is simply brilliant. Conversely there is a very small mention, somewhere around page 96, of the analogue video up-conversion to 1080p. Funnily enough this is mediocre at best, although chances are you will have a decent scaler in your source or display anyway, so no major bother.
No major bother also describes the beautiful LX81 GUI and its day-to-day operation. The interface makes an incredibly complex and well-featured receiver supremely easy to set up, tweak and use. There is access to just about every facet of the MCACC filtering (allowing me to bring back some mid-bass bloom – hey, I like it) and the easiest network set-up of any Ethernet-enabled receiver I have tested to date. I simply plugged the cable in, pressed 'OK' a few times and – hey-presto! – full internet radio and access to the THX Neural network of surround sound audio streams. Bring it on Pioneer, bring it on...
Having simultaneous output HDMIs is a gift for multi-room, or those of us with both a TV and projector, and needless to say the rear panel of the LX81 lacks nothing. Badge-hunters and serious big-room bruisers will salivate over the THX Ultra2 Plus post processing, too.
But nuts to all that spec-talk and feature trumps, because this receiver's real unadulterated magic is what it makes your speakers do. The sheer dynamic impact, the huge uncluttered soundstage, the clarity and fine detail, and the subtle textural information it ekes out of any movie, adds up to a sound that is more addictive that crack cocaine. Probably.
Even with sonic masterpieces like John Stevenson's Kung Fu Panda (no relation – John or the panda) the LX81 continues to impress. Dialogue is clean and voices with heavy accent or overt character – like Jack Black's Po – are rendered with incredible intelligibility. As the pace picks up in those heady Zhang Yimou-inspired martial arts moments, the LX81 is so blisteringly fast it keeps the movie pace at warp velocity and never lets up.
This Pioneer is no slouch if you like a bit of retro two-channel, non-video entertainment either. CDs are rendered equally crisp and articulate even if the mere thought of RoomEQ sends your average hi-fi aficionado apoplectic.
The same high-speed dynamic that works so well with all-action movie sequences does wonders for rock and pop music, while the attention to fine detail and tone-perfect dialogue works equally well with complex music and subtle vocals. If you happen to have a current-range Pioneer Blu-ray player, CD sound is likely to be even better, as Pioneer implements a clocklocking system (PQLS) to reduce jitter in the HDMI audio data stream.
Choose your weapons
So, what's the downside to the LX81? Well, because it fights well above its price point you are really going to need a suitably serious speaker package to make the most of it. Hook up your old speakers or sub-sat package and the LX81's unbridled potential will have you reaching for the plastic quicker that you can say 'credit crunch'.
Of course, the awesome EQ system and ICEpower amps will elicit the very best from any speaker array you care to hook up, but this is a receiver that begs for a suite of floorstanding speakers and a top-flight sub. Looking at it another way, buying this receiver now will see you through several major loudspeaker upgrades into the future.
Pioneer's SC-LX81 sets the current AVR standard at the £1,500-£2,000 price point by a comfortable margin. It's stunningly well-equipped, has fabulous sound and is damn near future-proof as well. How cool is that?