Pioneer's 2010 receivers are the best looking on the market, and that applies even to the bottom-end of the range, represented in our roundup by the VSX-520. The build quality is up to Pioneer's usual impeccable standards, too.
Cleverly, most of the front panel buttons are tucked into the cracks and crevices, which makes this AVR look clean and uncluttered despite its fairly high button count. Sadly, there are no AV connections on the front, just a headphone jack and a port for the setup mic.
The Pioneer's budget credentials are further confirmed by the disappointing presence of springclip terminals for the surround and centre channels, which means only the front ones are connected to binding posts. Otherwise, the feature list is pretty solid.
Aside from a healthy amount of audio and video inputs (including three HDMI v1.4 inputs ), there's an adaptor port for a Pioneer Bluetooth wireless adapter that lets you stream music from mobile phones, laptops and so forth (although there's no iPod support via USB), and Dolby Pro-Logic IIz processing, which uses dedicated pre-outs.
The VSX-520 also decodes HD audio (unlike the Yamaha RX-V367) and there's a wealth of DSPs and other sound options, including Pioneer's Front Stage Surround and Phase Control.
Tweaking the sound is easy thanks to the Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration feature, but the lack of onscreen menus makes further adjustment via the front panel display feel laborious. The remote is also fiddly to use due to its tiny keys and cluttered layout. You even have to use a shift key for certain functions, which feels too much like work for me.
Thankfully, the VSX-520 atones for its operational faux pas with solid audio performance. Avatar's DTS-HD MA track is conveyed expansively, firing effects to the far-flung reaches of the room and steering them from speaker to speaker like Lewis Hamilton around Silverstone.
Meanwhile, burly bass tones lend authority to pounding footsteps and explosions, while the elegant high-frequency reproduction ensures that sounds such as tinkling glass and metal on metal sound crisp, but not grating. There's a level of control and cohesion during action scenes that's a joy to behold, and it also displays a deftness of touch that makes quiet scenes absorbing.
The Pioneer does, however, lack a little punch and dynamism.