It might only be an upper midrange receiver, but the Pioneer VSX-LX51 looks every inch a high-end product.
Offering a pokey seven-amp powerplant capable of delivering every HD sound format available, could the VSX-LX51 actually offer all the functionality and performance you need for upmarket home cinema?
It certainly seems to have the credentials. There's onboard upscaling to 1080p, scads of audio trickery and THX post-processing – albeit the more sedate Select2 certification rather than the cavern-filling Ultra level.
It's also got balls, at least in stereo mode; two-channel power output was measured in our labs at 99W into 8ohms. And, like all good AV receivers these days, it comes with auto calibration, here in the shape of MCACC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration), not to mention a USB socket for your iPod (Doh! I wasn't going to mention that!).
But there are a few things missing from the package that keep this Pioneer receiver in its place. There's no DAB tuner or Ethernet connection that you might find on higher-end models; no flash universal remote control; and no fancy onscreen graphics to help you get set up.
All of these I could live without, but the fact that there are also only three HDMI inputs is difficult to ignore, and I suspect a lot of home cinema fans planning a serious installation will stop reading at this point.
With virtually every AV source – including games consoles and even digital cameras – adopting HDMI as the standard connection, three inputs is simply not enough on an AVR that aspires to be more than budget. This rules out any notion of Pioneer's VSX-LX51 being a forward-looking media hub.
Frustratingly, there are seven analogue video inputs, including four composites, that will probably remain unused.
Connectivity aside, there's no denying that this is a well-built machine. The frontpanel and the obligatory huge volume and source-select knobs are plastic, unlike the aluminium favoured by most of the competition, but the unit feels solid nonetheless, and it's built to Pioneer's own 'Advanced Direct Construction' parameters to assure reliability.
The glossy, double-decked styling matches the rest of the brand's LX components, such as the BDP-LX71 Blu-ray player and LX6090 plasma TV that I'm using for this audition.
Keeping the entire system all Pioneer means you can, of course, use Kuro (CEC) Link to operate all three components from one remote.
The handset itself is very simple. There is no touchscreen or learning facility for other brand's components, and all the buttons it on a long, narrow body. The useful 'Tools' button lets you change relevant settings without delving into the setup menu.
When you do get to the onscreen area in order to assign inputs and inform the receiver how many speakers you have connected, you'll find it's the bog-standard text menu of AVRs past. Shudder!
The populous list that appears on each page isn't very explanatory and it can be a confusing task if you're doing it for the first time. Rival brands, including Denon and Sony, have abandoned this crude default interface for slick easy-to-understand graphics. Pioneer has done the same, but only on its more expensive models – with the VSX-LX51 you just have to persevere and refer to the manual if necessary.
The good news is that the MCACC microphone does a sterling job with the auto calibration routines, setting all the speaker levels and phase.
Another timesaving feature is the iPod dock. Jack your MP3-spinner into the front USB port and the menu appears on your TV, where you can control it using the Pioneer remote. In a neat touch, the artist and track name scrolls across the receiver's own display as well as the screen.
With five channels firing, the Pioneer amp reveals itself to be a moderate, if not over-muscled, performer.
The thrilling DTS 5.1 mix on the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End Blu-ray comes across as dynamic and suitably visceral. In multichannel mode, there's less oomph on tap, but this is still enough to pull incidental sonic detail from quiet passages, like the scuttling crabs of Davy Jones' Locker. And the Pioneer had no problem delivering transients during the chaotic battle sequence in the last reel.
This final maelstrom is a complicated mix, punctuated by cannon ire, but it is all untangled reasonably well by the LX51, with each booming shot delivered with a satisfying and carefully-placed thump. A powerful active subwoofer is needed to provide LFE, but the VSX-LX51 is able to give mainstream speakers the push they need.
Onboard amplification extends to seven channels; if space permits, connect two rear surrounds to complement the side surrounds, and you'll be able to appreciate 7.1 PCM mixes, like The Bank Job (Blu-ray) – with all seven speakers interacting you'll get a more involving mix.
In use, I found the receiver reasonably accommodating. The fascia display helps you find your way around the cornucopia of soundmixes available on Blu-ray discs.
It defaults to Surround Auto and plays the DTS or Dolby track as it is presented; while I generally preferred the native mix, there are some interesting and atmospheric DSP modes to choose from. Spice up a flat stereo track with Stereo Extended, or bring in the rear speakers with the Unplugged or Game modes.
Perhaps the most interesting processing mode, and something Pioneer is seemingly quite proud of, is called Front Stage Surround Advance. This algorithm is for those who, for whatever reason, cannot place their rear speakers in the usual position.
Instead, you can line all your satellites up alongside the TV ('neat and elegant' according to the blurb) and the receiver will bounce sound to deliver a pseudo surround effect. It's quite divorced from genuine surround, and more suited to simple all-in-one systems than an AVR at this price point, but the end result struck me as a step up from the usual virtual tomfoolery two-speaker systems are encouraged to engage in.
The tone of the Pioneer VSX-LX51 is just on the warm side of neutral; what you have is a bass-rich character that makes for mellifluous home theatre; musical scores receive a broad atmospheric push and crashing sound effects get heavy reinforcement. But this AVR is handy with music too, especially the uncompressed variety.
The Super Audio CD release of Depeche Mode's Violator, for example, commands real presence through five speakers and exhibits an openness that many will appreciate. This is not an amp predisposed to classical musings.
Onboard video processing is par for the course. Full 1080p upscaling means all your standard-def sources can be given a boost in density before being squirted out of the HDMI port. This is fast becoming a standard AVR convenience feature.
Deep Colour is supported, too, which is at the moment handy for the six people who regularly watch AVCHD files.
Pioneer's power over features
In terms of picture and sound quality, this AVR is a reasonable effort, and it makes an obvious partner for Pioneer's LX Blu-ray player. But, I have reservations. Its positioning is difficult and there are rival models available which will give it a strong run for its money.
The clunky GUI looks date compared to the competition and the lack of HDMI inputs is an irritation.
However, if your system is primarily analogue kit, then I'd wager Pioneer's VSX-LX51 will make a good enough centrepiece.