Pioneer's high-contrast Kuro Plasma TVs, have been grabbing all the technology headlines of late, but while the PDP division has been discovering new shades of black, the less-celebrated audio team has developed a thumping new line-up of AV receivers.
The VSX-LX60 slots in toward the top of the range, packing in all of this generation's key HD features, but hovering below the crucial £1,000 price barrier. Like the rest of the new line-up, it's had a radical makeover, too, with a fashionable gloss black finish - designed to match the Kuro TV range - replacing the silver that is now sooo last year! But the real changes here aren't cosmetic, they're much more significant than that.
I know what you're thinking, with every new product cycle we are promised dazzling 'next-gen' features that we'd be crazy to pass up, but this year does mark something of a paradigm shift in home cinema as we make the transition to high-definition.
With HD media beginning to show signs of commercial life, a whole new level of functionality is required; and that receiver you bought a couple of years ago might not be able to hack it any more. Can it switch a 1080p signal or decode a Dolby True HD soundtrack?
If the answer is no, then sooner or later you're possibly going to need a 'Full HD friendly' model, like this one.
Third time's a charm
The most fundamental differences arrive with the third-generation HDMI connectivity. Version 1.3, implemented for the first time here, can channel a Full HD 1080p signal and all of the latest lossless audio formats from Dolby and DTS.
They can even accept a multi-channel DSD stream from a Super Audio CD player. Earlier HDMI incarnations would stop at 1080i and simply refuse uncompressed audio. And there's something else that last year's models couldn't manage - the VSX-LX60 has the ability to upscale any video source (analogue included) and output it as 1080p via HDMI.
So the LX60 is bang up-to-date in terms of new age techno-trickery, but how does it compare with the rest of the AV competition? Like most Pioneer amps, it's remarkably powerful, with seven discrete analogue amplifiers producing upwards of 175W apiece, and it meets the criteria for THX Select 2 certification. On the test bench, the LX60 is a powerhouse.
Overall muscle drops to around 100W (into 8O) with five channels driven - which is more than enough to earn the THX Select badge - but in two channel mode it is a beast. The fidelity firewall figure (a measure of usable power before distortion) is particularly good at 165W.
The LX60 also incorporates a few sound-enhancing features such as 'phase control', which compensates for mismatched speakers in the system and 'sound retriever', which restores some of the quality of compressed formats like MP3s from your iPod by intelligently 'rebuilding' the signal.
I suspect the new plastic fascia will divide opinion. The high-gloss is certainly in tune with the current trend for consumer electronics, but last year's brushed silver looked classy, while the plastic looks, well, a bit plasticky. Perhaps Pioneer should factor this into its next round of design meetings? This is a sturdy beast though, standing nearly 19cm tall and weighing in at 17kg.
This all leaves plenty of space for connections around the back, which looks like a BT switchboard. The HDMI inputs and output are the most noteworthy additions, but frustratingly, there are only three of these, which doesn't seem very generous.
I'd trade all of the composite video inputs for one more HDMI socket. And while I'm on the subject, why not have two HDMI outputs instead of one? That would be instantly useful for anyone with both TV and projector in their home cinema setup.
Included in the box are a universal remote control and a microphone. The remote looks baffling, with cramped buttons, many of which fulfil more than one function, but then this is quite a sophisticated piece of kit.
The onscreen menu is very utilitarian - though Pioneer has showed fast-track improvements in this area, in order to come up with a more friendly OSD - and it will take you a while to set up all of the inputs to suit your system. But then, I guess that's half the fun of owning a behemoth like this.
The onscreen menu is where you can assign inputs and set speaker levels, and this is where the supplied microphone comes into play too.
Plug it in and place it in the prime listening position and the MCACC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration System) will take over and optimise the speaker levels and delay for you.
MCACC has generally enjoyed rather mixed reviews but I found it accurate. I calibrated the system for my 6.1 speaker configuration and derived a wholly coherent soundstage after about 10 minutes of listening to the amp record its own test signals.
With over 100W flowing to six speakers, this Pioneer can achieve a remarkably dynamic and punchy performance, especially from Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. Thanks to the v1.3 HDMI inputs, you no longer need make an analogue multi-channel connection to hear the high-resolution soundtracks.
On the Blu-ray release of Curse of the Golden Flower you can actually listen to the uncompressed Chinese 5.1 PCM soundtrack and hear the fully extended bass chant of the palace monks emanating from somewhere deep within your room. This contrasts well with the delicate clink of the empress's jade teacups.
Another good test is the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track on the Blu-ray release of Kingdom of Heaven. We haven't heard much of this audio codec so far, but the LX60 recognised the flag and flicked into DTS mode in a trice, displaying the mode and the number of speakers it employs on its front panel.
This high-res DTS soundtrack is very close to the studio master and it sounds fantastically open here, and will give your speakers a really good workout when you turn the volume dial up a few dB.
This is a seven-channel amp, which means you can choose either one or two surround back speakers for 'EX' extended 6.1 and 7.1 soundtracks and input your choice in the menu. Another hard button behind the drop-down fascia flap tells the amp to use it only when it sees a flag in the 'EX' soundtrack, or to enhance 5.1 soundtracks as well.
Sony's PlayStation 3 was way ahead of its time with HDMI v1.3 outputs on its launch last year, and only now is the rest of the industry catching up. Thankfully, I am able to play an SACD and hear the uncompressed multi-channel version through the Pioneer amp via a single cable.
Listening to the 5.1 mix of Groove Armada's Vertigo album shows just how musical the Pioneer can be too. The tone is clear and descriptive without being cold or brash. A bassier sound can be achieved by tweaking, if you prefer more fullness to your music, and this tends to improve things with classical and jazz music.
In two-channel mode, the Pioneer does a fine job of driving resolutely hi-fi speakers. Thanks to this amps flexibility, it is possible to re-assign the surround rear channels, if you are not using them, in order to bi-wire the front pair and harness an additional amp module.
This is perfect for getting the most out of difficult hi-fi enclosures. And well done if you spotted the 'air' logo on the front panel; this indicates that the Japanese designers of the LX60 travelled to the world-renowned Air studios, once owned by Sir George Martin, and used the facilities and expertise there to fine tune the audio character of the receiver.
In this new world of Full HD, the ability to upscale standard-def sources to 1080p is often billed as a major selling point. In reality, the Faroudja scaler used here actually lacks some of the finesse evident from the best on the market, so you may well find yourself leaving the video processing switched off.
What is more important, certainly if you intend to use the LX60 as a video switching unit, is that it passes an unadulterated 1080p signal from source to screen without adding any noise or jitter. The Pioneer achieves this particularly well.
There is no doubt, in fact, that this receiver betters all Pioneer models that have gone before it on the strength of its contemporary connectivity and features. Rivalry from the ever-innovative Denon and the aggressively marketed Onkyo stables has made this competitive ground, though, and nearly all of these features are now available on competing mid-priced models. There's simply no room for weakness.
The Pioneer's lack of a DAB tuner is excusable. Only Denon, it seems, are capable of implementing this cost effectively, and media streaming from your PC is a high-end luxury that more traditional users can likely live without, as is an Ethernet port for receiving intenet radio channels. However, just three HDMI inputs at this price point may dictate the addition of a separate switching box into your stack at a later date.
There is no doubt that the LX60 is a powerful, advanced product. But where it particularly scores over the similarly specified, but cheaper, receivers, is in audio quality. Despite a wealth of muscle, it's as musical as it is exciting, but it fills a room with less effort in order to produce a more cohesive soundstage.
In short, this is a fine receiver, but if you want even more features, including another HDMI input, you could consider Pioneer's own step-up model, the VSX-LX70.