In keeping with Pioneer's Kuro range of plasma TVs, the brand's new LX50 receiver is dressed in the obligatory piano-black. And yes, the finish looks fantastic, at least until you deposit fingermarks on it.

This THX Select 2-certified 7.1 product, capable of delivering over 120W to five channels, lives at the bottom-rung of Pioneer's LX range, and is positioned roughly midway in the company's overall AVR portfolio.

Trendy features

At first glance, it appears packed with some trendy features, including the ability to interface with an iPod (video and photos can be played, as well as audio) and a USB port for playing MP3, AAC and WMA tracks from plug-in storage devices (with limited support for DRM-protected files). An onboard radio tuner caters for FM and AM, but stops short of DAB.

Then there's its support for DTS Express (a new low-bitrate DTS variant), Dolby's equivalent (Dolby Digital Plus) and WMA 9 Professional multichannel audio - home cinema PC enthusiasts will definitely appreciate the latter.

Other surround modes include Dolby EX, DTS 96/24, and Pro-Logic IIx, as well as the expected DTS, Dolby Digital and 'first-generation' Pro-Logic. Oh, and audiophiles will appreciate that Super Audio CD and DVD-A soundtracks can be digitally-transmitted to the LX50 from a compatible universal player via HDMI.

Naturally Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks can also be routed into the receiver via HDMI from hi-def players. Virtually all current HD disc players decode these in-deck and output lossless soundtracks as Linear PCM.

It's also possibe to deliver multichannel audio via the LX50's rear-panel 7.1 analogue inputs. Your choice of entry will be determined by your HD disc player.

Impressive connectivity

The LX50's video connectivity is also worthy of discussion. Incoming analogue video signals are converted into digital form, so that everything can be passed to your TV via a single HDMI cable. But there's no scaling; in other words, standard-definition sources connected to the composite, S-video and component outputs are output at 576i or 576p (depending on settings).

Analogue NTSC sources like Region 1 DVDs, meanwhile, are output at 480i or 480p. And if you're feeding in HDTV via component, the HDMI output is kept at 720p or 1080i depending on the signal that the source presents to the receiver - you can't deinterlace 1080i to 1080p.

That a number of the VSXLX50's rivals do offer upscaling may be an issue for some buyers, but I would suggest that keeping video in its original state is no bad thing, because it avoids the artefacts that certain scalers tend to introduce. There is 1080p support, too: the player offers two HDMI 1.3 inputs.

I would have appreciated at least three, but you can't have everything...

Getting set-up

Setting up the LX50 takes advantage of onscreen menus and Auto-MCACC auto-calibration, now in its 'advanced' 9-band incarnation. The latter uses a plug-in mic to analyse your room acoustics and the output it presents to your speakers takes into account MCACC's findings.

Sometimes, manual intervention is pleaded for - if it can't detect a speaker or reckons that the sub level is too low, it will grind to an immediate halt so that the necessary corrections can be made.

Overall, I found that the system did a fair job that most would find acceptable - especially if the idea of manually calibrating levels, delays and so on is a daunting prospect. However, it's worth investing some time and effort in understanding what MCACC can do - a manual tweak here and there can work minor wonders.

The onscreen menus are driven by an LCD remote, albeit one that lets the side down with its seemingly over-complex nature. Most buttons have different functions, according to the mode it's in (the handset can also be persuaded to operate a variety of TVs and sources, thanks to preset codes and a 'learning' mode) and as a consequence its fascia is littered with legends. After using it for a while, though, familiarity sets in.

From the menus, you can assign digital audio and component inputs to the various inputs, tweak the surround settings, adjust THX parameters, specify your speakers (bi-amping, 6.1/7.1 surround backs and so on), and more.

Thrusting dynamics

In action, the LX50 is thrustingly-dynamic; I found it a detailed performer that exceeded my expectations. Clint Eastwood's epic Letters from Iwo Jima provides several insights. This Blu-ray release has a stunning Dolby True HD soundtrack (one of the first such titles).

Just before the first American aerial bombardment of the island you can hear a car pulling up in the distance. Although it's behind the dialogue and general military hubbub, these subtle effects can distinctly be made out in the background - together with the shift between speakers.

When the attack begins, the LX50 copes admirably with the True HD onslaught. All of the explosive might of the US Air Force is successfully conveyed without any hint of strain despite the complex soundstaging involved - quite an achievement. To be honest, the receiver also makes a decent fist of the movie's regular DD 5.1 track.

Also demonstrating the LX50's articulation is From Hell's morgue scene - also on Blu-ray disc (and in this case, with a regular DTS soundtrack). The buzzing around of the flies in Victorian London was so realistically-rendered, it had me reaching for the swatter.

Even if you have yet to make a leap of faith with either of the two competing high-res formats, the LX50 does a stirling job with regular bitstreams. Musicality is reasonable. The amount of premium grade amplification is considerable.

Refined presentation

The model has a a fidelity firewall of 165W into 2-channels (this is our measure of absolute muscle with minimal Total Harmonic Distortion - 0.05%). With 5-channels driven, the LX50 steams along at well over 100W per channel, which means it'll feel quite at home with modern blockbusters.

Characteristically, the receiver has a weighty yet refined presentation. Even my iPod, when routed through it, sounds better than expected, thanks to the brand's so-called 'Sound Retriever' compressed-audio enhancer. Of course, it ultimately depends on the quality of the source material, but the results are worthwhile.

For those who like to experiment, the whole roster of Pioneer's DSP modes (including a very appropriate Pro-Logic II Music) can be applied. I was particlarly impressed with the handset-driven onscreen menu, which accurately mimics that of the iPod. USB audio (WMA and MP3) fares slightly better than iPod in terms of delivery, presumably because this takes advantage of the LX50's own DACs.

The video switching and conversion is also good, with 1080i HDTV signals from a Sky HD box losing little of their lustre compared to a direct HDMI connection.

Conclusion

There's much to like about the VSXLX50. But at £800, it's positioned in a precarious part of the AV receiver market; where assorted models both undercut and dramatically outperform it. Overall, it's well specified and not short on firepower, and would suit AV power players. However, shortcomings like the two HDMIs could be difficult to live with.

All things considered, if Pioneer was my brand, I'd almost certainly opt to splurge more and buy the Air Studios-tuned VSX-LX60, priced at £900.