A superb amp, well worth the 4 year wait
Stunning clarity and power
Versatile, comprehensive connectivity
Demanding to set up
MCACC results need tweaking
No 'net radio
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And Lo, the towering Pioneer SC-LX90 amplifier finally arrives in the UK!
In development for four years – the usual turnaround for an AVR is 18 months – it's not difficult to conclude that this isn't going to be your run-of-the-mill music centre.
Affectionately referred to as Susano, after the Japanese god of storms, it's the most significant audio product from Pioneer since the VSA-AX10, and in terms of complexity and ambition it leaves that model in the kindergarten.
In truth, the LX90 is not really an integrated amplifier at all. It's really a pre-power combo confined to a single metal cage. The power plant, comprising 10 digital modules co-developed with Bang & Olufsen, has its own power supply, with signal routing and audio processing meticulously organised above it.
I've been keeping an eye on the Susano project since its inception. The brainchild of Keiichi Onodera, then a senior audio engineer within Pioneer, it was envisaged as a radical multimedia hub built around state-of-the-art digital amplification.
The project almost derailed when Onodera left the corporation, but was subsequently adopted and refined by Product planner Yoshiyuki Yamada.
Tim Vine-Lott, Technical Director of AIR Studios, the world-famous recording facility which fine-tunes Pioneer's high-end audio products, confided to me that he had his doubts about the brand's decision to adopt digital amplification. But months of fine-tuning allayed his fears. The LX90 is the first product to win AIR's Reference Monitor status endorsement – and with good reason. It's a scorching performer.
Pioneer's caped Crusader
Once its settings have been massaged, the LX90 is capable of sensational imaging, delivering snake-tongue fast transients and articulate multichannel effects. During the review period, I've been shocked by the depth and reach of the low-end bass on offer, and have often found myself having to rein in the bludgeoning LFE, even while mid-range vocals remained nuanced and tangible.
Music or movies? This storm god seems just as happy with both.
When it comes to widescreen audio action, the LX90 can fight crime with the best of them. The Batmobile chase sequence from Batman Begins (Dolby TrueHD, Blu-ray) mixes helicopter blades with panning police sirens and hi-octane front/back/front image steering. The LX90 never sounds muddled, despite the chaos. It just seems to want to go... louder.
The Dark Knight Prologue (an extra on the Batman Begins BD) is equally thrilling. The sequence has a Dolby TrueHD mix that opens with portentous LFE, and employs a frantic pulsing riff that insidiously takes you hostage. Soundtracks become a visceral thing with the LX90.
It isn't all about heavyweight harrumphing though. For evidence of the amp's often tantalizing delicacy, listen to Emi Fujita's surround sound rendition of All My Loving (from the Super Audio CD Camomile Best Audio, a Japanese import on Leafage).
Engineered by Sony's Chief Distinguished Engineer Takashi Kanai, the record's seductive, smoky vocals and perfectly placed jazz-club accompaniment is conveyed with almost holographic realism.
The Beatles Love DVD-Audio (which might be easier for you to get your hands on) is to my mind one of the most sublime multichannel discs ever made – here it sounds fittingly jaw-dropping. Tim Vine-Lott tells me that he considers Love 'spiritually at least' an AIR album.
No hot Air
Although none of the record was mixed at AIR Studios (EMI wouldn't allow the master tapes or digital clones to leave Abbey Road), record producers George and Giles Martin used a system specified by the AIR technical team to remix the original source tracks into stereo and 5.1.
On the Pioneer Susano, the album feels as if it's finally come home. From the birdsong ambience and harmonics of Because to the chopping riffs and multi-tracked rear-channel handclaps of Revolution, these virtual Beatles are a pure joy.
The boffins at Pioneer rate the LX90's power plant at 200W per channel, but they're being conservative. In our Tech Labs, we measured a constant 250W into 8 ohms when five channels are driven simultaneously. Its fidelity firewall, our measurement of absolute, distortion-free muscle, is 228W per channel at 0.05 per cent THD. This is a weapons-grade performance.
One feature that will probably get less attention than most is actually one of the LX90's neatest tricks. Pioneer's proprietary Full Band Phase Control technology has been designed to compensate for variances in speaker configurations and drivers. If your system is built with different enclosures front and back, the amp uses innovative DSP to create a coherent, balanced image.
My Definitive Technology reference system actually has good timbre-matching, but just for fun I listened with an odd assortment of boxes and was amazed at how seamless the soundstage became. Given that most living rooms are far from symmetrical in layout, and tend not to use perfectly matched speakers, it's a significant attraction, and one that should be left on at all times.
The amp is not particularly demure. Its most striking aspect is, of course, the LCD 'confidence monitor' on the front panel. This conveys the unit's GUI and allows you to tinker without recourse to a TV screen.
It doesn't relay video delivered via HDMI, though. You'll also need to lace up an analogue feed from your HD component to see video. It's a great way to navigate DVD-A discs without turning on the TV.
When you place the receiver on your home network (via the LAN port on the rear) you can also browse connected PCs for audio and video files, but this Home Media implementation actually feels a bit like a bolt-on. The gallery's graphical style is different from the main GUI and you even have to toggle your remote control from Amp to Source mode to navigate.
Even more perplexing, given how the Susano is so network-savvy, is the lack of support for internet radio. I rarely, if ever, listen to AM/FM on receivers, and can even live without DAB, but no internet radio on this baby is a missed trick.
Naturally, the unit supports CEC control via HDMI – although I'm increasingly finding this a bind. Perhaps CEC is handy in a simple system, but if you have multiple components, annoying things happen (turn off the TV to listen to a CD, and you'll shut down your disc-spinner in the process. Doh!).
Ultra violent amp
It goes without saying that the LX90 can decode all high-rez audio bitstreams. It also comes with a plethora of sound-processing modes, many surprisingly good, plus the very latest in THX post-processing.
If you've not experienced the latest flavours from the THX canteen, you're missing out. The THX Ultra 2 Plus cinema mode is probably the best cinematic post-processing I've ever heard: as rich and taut as Paris Hilton, with pitch-perfect vocal EQ and brilliantly theatrical surround imaging.
Like Clyde the Orangutan, the SC-LX90 can be hooked up any which way. I used the amp in a 7.2 configuration, but even this left digital power modules spare. For those with larger rooms, a 9.2 pattern is possible (using two sets of side speakers).
Alternatively, cinephiles may want to bi-amp the front soundstage for a high-grade 5.2 system. Or you could run a 7.2 home cinema system, with a second two-channel package in a different room, or the same room feeding different speakers (creating a dedicated two-channel music system).
Return of the MCACC
But despite all this lavish praise, I do have a caveat. Pioneer's MCACC (Multichannel Acoustic Calibration System) technology is extremely clever, but running the program produced a disappointingly moribund soundstage.
I'm generally appreciative of electronic EQ, but MCACC's predilection for giving a flat response means that you'll need to tinker. Still, there's plenty of scope to refine the results, which is what I ended up doing. For those that like to get their hands dirty, there's a lifetime of tweaking to be had.
It may have been a long time coming, but ultimately Pioneer's LX90 doesn't disappoint. Not only is it massively powerful, it's also beautifully refined. The ICE power digital modules give it a character quite unlike its main analogue rivals, but the precision, speed and separation they offer is remarkable.
With the SC-LX90, Pioneer's engineers haven't just created a monster amp; they've created audio-visual art.
Steve has been writing about AV and home cinema since the dawn of time, or more accurately, since the glory days of VHS and Betamax. He has strong opinions on the latest TV technology, Hi-Fi and Blu-ray/media players, and likes nothing better than to crank up his ludicrously powerful home theatre system to binge-watch TV shows.