Pioneer's VSX-2021 is a receiver for the Apple generation. It's all but intrinsically linked to the company's wares with iPhone/iPad control Apps, dedicated music sharing for multiple iPods, remote control of the latest OS devices and full AirPlay integration. Even the user manual and set-up navigator are fully interactive iPad Apps.
Okay, this £800 receiver can be operated with its own remote control and you can ignore the Apple-centric features, but that would be like buying a BMW and never using the iDrive. Even those VSX-2021 buyers with a penchant for Android devices (there is an app for that platform, too) might find themselves considering an iPad for its Pioneer-centric features alone.
Where that Pioneer/Apple allegiance really excels is in the control interface. Pioneer's iControl AV App of a year or so back was so far ahead of the curve that no AVR maker has yet caught up.
The latest iControl AV2 App adds a raft of new gizmos alongside the truly inspired, tilt-sensitive level adjustments and gorgeous animated App UI from the first edition. You now have access to a wider range of the AVR's features including finer adjustment of phase control, PQLS, group delay, virtual speakers for depth, height and virtual rear back and access to Pioneer's Auto Sound Retriever, which spruces up lossy MP3 and low bitrate net radio streams.
For those social ravers out there, another Pioneer App called AirJam can be used in conjunction with the optional AS-BT200 Bluetooth adaptor, allowing up to four Apple devices to be simultaneously paired to the VSX-2021. Each user cues up songs from their device to form a giant multi-party playlist, which is simultaneously displayed on the screen of each device. Among my friends, I reckon this would lead to complete bun-fight by track three.
However, the ultimate widget among widgets award goes to iControlAV's Finger EQ feature. This brings the concept of a graphic equaliser into the iPhone age by mapping a frequency response curve to the sweep of your finger across the screen. Great fun.
More sensibly, the App also affords Zone 2 and Zone 3 control, videos explaining various features (see these on Pioneer's excellent YouTube channel) and a readout of precise audio and video signal information.
While all this works beautifully on an iPhone/iPod, the dedicated iPad version of iControl AV2 is even better. It makes you realise why Crestron and AMX touchscreens have always been so popular. And, frankly, a decent App on an iPad is both better and cheaper than dedicated controllers.
Just to prove I haven't turned into an Apple freak overnight, my ability to get iControl AV2 to turn the VSX-2021 off but not back on again was really annoying [Pioneer reckons you need to fiddle around in the Network Setup Menu – Ed].
Respect to the spec
Apple sauce aside, the VSX-2021 is a very solidly specified receiver and well paced with rivals at this price point.
The THX Select2 badge is proudly displayed at the top of Pioneer's features list, followed closely by the class-leading seven HDMI inputs and twin simultaneous HDMI outputs. These are v1.4 configuration so they support Audio Return Channel from your TV back to the amp, 3D pass-through and, at some point in the future, 4K2K video.
Sadly, there's no Ethernet channel embedded in the HDMI ports to exploit the IP networking feature of v1.4, but you wouldn't currently find many devices to connect an Ethernet HDMI cable to anyway.
The Pioneer offers hardwired Ethernet as standard (with optional Wi-Fi adapter), offers vTuner net radio and is Windows 7 and DNLA-compliant, just to prove that the world doesn't end at Cupertino.
Under the hood are seven channels of power and processing for all our favourite HD-audio movie formats plus Dolby ProLogic IIz for height channel output using terminals at the expense of rear-back speakers. Processing for anything remotely Apple is a given, including Apple Lossless (via Airplay at least), and this is also one of the first AVRs to offer support for ultra-high 192kHz/24Bit FLAC recordings.
For EQ duties you get the latest version of Pioneer's MCACC room EQ system. Alongside the auto-setup and auto calibration features, deep, deep, deep in the advanced EQ Professional menus you will find audio controls of mind boggling complexity.
More equal than others
You can vary the EQ time positioning to best adjust for room nodes that build up over a short period and can run the calibration with different output biases. The EQ emphasis can be put on pure frequency response, phase characteristics, multi-point standing wave control or even balance the surround speakers to match the front main pair.
There is no simple tweaking of frequencies as a manual option, but you do have control over channel levels to +/- 0.5dB and speaker distance in 1cm increments. Quite who keeps their head that still during a movie is a mystery to me, but for the sake of absolute accuracy you can't beat Pioneer's MCACC.
Which brings me to the overall package and what a big old beast the VSX-2021 is. It is tall and deep in stature although I have no idea why. Inside there is a chunky transformer, several PCBs, a relatively compact rack of cooling fins and enough air-space to pilot a Sopwith Camel.
The mostly empty chassis does nothing for the feel or the build quality either. The case is rather tinny, the front flap feels like it will fall off if a child gets within 10 paces, and the speaker terminals flex alarmingly when you hook up even moderately chunky cables.
That said, the VSX-2021 does look rather lush. It is smooth, sleek and black with the biggest knobs I have ever seen outside of a government conference. The style is pure Pioneer, but if you happen to own a black iPad and squint a bit, there is a cosmetic synergy too.
Maybe because Pioneer pretty much expects you to control the VSX-2021 with a portable Apple device, the supplied remote control is pants. It is a small device with buttons so bijou I can hit nine at once with my sausage thumb. On the plus side, it is fairly logical in that it emulates most standard remotes and offers a red backlight for fumbling around in the dark.
If you do already own an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch you might as well leave the standard remote in the box – you won't even need it for set-up.
Pioneer's MCACC is not the quickest auto set-up system these days but it is thorough, has a progress bar and explains what it is up to every step of the way. There are memory slots for different set-up balances and configurations, and the system hand-holds you through the deeper features nicely.
The manual is actually a fully interactive program supplied on PC DVD-Rom and is also available as an iPad App... you won't be surprised to hear. This runs a step-by-step connectivity guide followed by information on using the MCACC setup.
The MCACC knack
Then the AVNavigator gets really cool. It allows you to configure your connectivity, the MCACC features and settings on a PC or iPad and then download them to the AVR over your network. Post setup, the EQ data graphs are displayed in AVNavigator software with ongoing ability to tweak and adjust.
And, even cleverer still, the interactive manual reacts to button presses on the receiver itself. So if you press Phase Control, for example, AVNavigator immediately jumps to that page in the manual. If you keep the program running on your iPad or PC, Pioneer automatically loads updates and information on firmware upgrades.
Running on a PC, AVNavigator is incredibly slick; on an iPad it is the blueprint not just for all future AVR user guides, but probably all connected electronic goods too, from Smart TVs to digital radios as well. It is that good.
And finally, you might just get around to playing a movie, which is immensely rewarding. Running with the MCACC EQ and full-band phase control on, the VSX-2021 is crisp, clean and blessed with a hugely spacious soundstage.
The balance is one of detail, accuracy and special effects etched into the room with laser-like precision. Bass is tightly controlled with breathtaking slam and absolutely no bloat or overhang. Other AVRs may sound weightier, but the breathy-clarity that the Pioneer exhibits right across the spectrum is revealing – not unlike really good hi-fi in fact.
Switch off the phase control and MCACC and you get a relatively cloying and congested sound that is far from ideal. The whole front soundstage is squished together and there is a sluggish malaise that just won't budge no matter how many times you shift the speakers around. Clearly the VSX-2021 is built from the ground up with MCACC in mind and it is essential to use it.
As Leonardo Di Caprio speaks to Ellen Page in her first lucid dream in Inception (Blu-ray), the Pioneer paints an atmospheric portrait of the bustling city and coffee bar, complete with passing traffic and clinking cups. The dialogue is perfectly articulated and projected well out into the room with intonations and accents faithfully reproduced.
As Ariadne realises she is in the dream with the scenery exploding around her, the Pioneer digs deep into its reserves of power and punches out each explosion as a cacophonous mix of bass power and fragment effects. The snap back to the scene in the laboratory immediately focuses the scene on the dialogue and music playing gently in the background. It is as close to genre agnostic as AVRs get, being damn good at them all.
Upping the ante
The VSX-2021 sets new standards of operational flexibility in the AV receiver genre and does so backed up with stunning audio engineering. The latest MCACC is nothing short of a revelation for a sub-£1,000 receiver, and works miracles on the Pioneer's slightly lacklustre un-EQ'd sound in my room.
The rather lightweight build quality aside, the VSX-2021 offers class-leading features, performance and flexibility. In fact, it is truly in a class of its own.
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