Hands up how many of you bought an HD Ready TV long before there were any meaningful HD sources? Yah, me too - it's all about wanting the best and future-proofing your home cinema system. Anyway, if that is a philosophy to which you subscribe, then have I got something for you...
Onkyo's TX-SR875 is the first AV receiver to feature on-board decoding for all the key sound formats appearing on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs - namely Dolby True HD and DTS HD of the Master-Audio variety.
In true Onkyo tradition this receiver is ahead of the game, well-specified and, in terms of more traditional features per pound, competes head-on with models from other manufacturers up to £1400. Fabulous, put me down for one. No, make it two - I'll get one for the bedroom as well.
Long live analogue
Well, I would if I could find anything to play through it. Just like buying that HD TV a few years back, Onkyo's on-board HD sound decoding is hamstrung by a critical lack of anything to feed it.
Yes, all Blu-ray and HD DVD players handle these formats, but at the time of writing not one of them output it as a bitstream over HDMI to the amp.
They all decode these formats internally and output as multichannel LPCM or, slap me around the face with the ancient-history fish, analogue 7.1 channel, albeit in new glorious uncompressed form. I'm not actually sure I have that many phono audio leads anymore...
Come Christmas this year there will be a few HD disc-spinners in the shops able to do HD-audio bitstream output over HDMI, with probably an Onkyo model being the first to market. The good news for anyone with a Blu-ray or HD DVD player now is that many (but not all) are capable of taking a firmware update later on that will enable the bitstream output.
Thankfully HD audio decoding is not the only feature to get star billing on the SR875. It packs a THX Ultra2 badge - a rarity on receivers below £1,000 - plus Audyssey's full MultEQ Room EQ system and Hollywood Quality Video (HQV) processing courtesy of a Reon-VX chipset, the world's first AV receiver to sport one.
For those keen to put another three letter acronym in their home cinema vocabulary, HQV is a high-quality de-interlacer with pixel-based noise reduction and detail enhancement. What does it do for HD video coming into the SR875, I hear you ask? Not a lot, basically. On the other hand, it does a very fine job of upscaling standard-def video sources, so that your HDTV or projector makes them look damn near as good as the genuine article.
The worse your display is at handling standard-definition television fare - and there are plenty of complete SD dogs out there - the better a picture you should get running your video sources (Freeview, standard Sky, DVD etc) through the Onkyo. There is some fabulous irony in the fact that this receiver's star technology feature, namely HD audio decoding, is currently unusable, while it's most jaw-dropping ability is too improve a duff standard-def analogue picture. Progress - you got to love it.
Hot stuff baby
Damn this receiver is hot. No really, it gets hot - and I mean 'pass me two eggs and a couple of rashers for a fry-up' hot. This may have something to do with a per-channel power output of 150W in 5.1 mode; the enormous transformer; or more likely what Onkyo describes as 'Dual Push-Pull amplification with three-stage inverted Darlington circuitry.'
This uses different transistors to separately amplify the positive and negative halves of the waveform, with the Darlington circuitry removing any distortion. (Two sets of transistors instead of one is why it runs so hot!). I accidentally sat back on the SR875 whilst unplugging some cables and the missus has been laughing about the waffle-print on my cheeks ever since.
There are warning stickers on the casework to the effect that the top gets a little toasty - but during a swap around I placed a DVD player on top of the SR875 (okay, not recommended) and within a few minutes the receiver got so hot its HDMI stage simply shut down. Ergo - don't place this amp in a tight cabinet as it needs plenty of room to breath, and will allow you to knock back the central heating a few degrees this winter.
The good news is that everything else about this receiver is hot as well, but in an entirely good way. The onscreen menu system is a delight to use. It's simple and informative without over-egging the GUI and the setup is a doddle. Manual configuration is a quick romp through the menus, while auto setup will add half an hour as the MultiEQ system demands you do the whole setup in a minimum of three mic positions.
As per usual with Audyssey setup, the system promptly applied at least -9dB to every channel in my system. This is an attempt to bring my very efficient Tannoy speakers back to textbook standard zero-dB output! And while I'm ranting, once the Audyssey has done its thing and applied RoomEQ filters, the Onkyo won't display the actual filter results or allow you to fine tune them.
It's just as well it sounds marvellous without any EQ at all.
Behind enemy sofa
The Blu-ray of Behind Enemy Lines is an utter bullet-fest, and the power and precision with which the Onkyo places each effect is amazing. With the standard DTS soundtrack it offers a clean, tight sound with punchy bass effects that really hit home.
There is no shortage of volume (having re-set the channel balance attenuation) and the whole soundstage is solidly etched in 360º detail. The sheer presence of every film justifies the TX-SR875's price tag alone. The bulk of the Blu-ray catalogue features uncompressed LPCM sound mixes and these sound fabulous too, offering enough space and realism to get you ducking behind the sofa on a regular basis.
And speaking of realism, or rather lack of it, Alien vs Predator on BD is even more stunning. The entire film is chock full of larger-than life motion effects (whooshes of heavy aliens moving at momentum-defying speed) and blood-curdling screams that are frighteningly convincing.
The outstanding dynamic range of the SR875 really gets a movie out of the speakers and into your room - blood, guts, ludicrous plot et al. Even the Audyssey gets an unusual nod of appreciation, being more subtle than some implementations, but the effect will be wholly 'suck-it and see' room-dependent.
A romp-a-thon through my DVD collection reveals a sure-footed sound with anything you throw at the SR875. It's potent and solid without being a head-banger, and is clean and refined enough to portray even tricky period dramas with superb atmosphere.
Two-channel sound is best through the analogue direct inputs, although the stereo music performance slips well below Arcam's AVR350 in this respect. Then again, the Onkyo is £500 cheaper and packed with home cinema technology...
So, do I still want one for every room in the house? Well, okay, not every room - but certainly one for my movie room.
The TX-SR875 isn't a jack of all trades but it is a master of one - and that is creating cracking home cinema sound with every genre of movie and every surround sound format you throw at it. When I get a chance to hook something up to those onboard True HD and DTS HD Master Audio decoders I suspect it will sound even better - we'll let you know.