Pioneer SC-LX86 AV Receiver Review
Is Pioneer's SC-LX86 AV receiver the current state-of-the-art?
The Pioneer SC-LX86 is less of an AV receiver and more of a technological statement of intent. It has been designed from its isolated feet up to deliver an uncompromising level of audio performance, whilst remaining ahead of the curve in terms of features and design. Pioneer's engineers have followed what they refer to as an "advanced multi-channel stereophonic philosophy" that uses high-grade components to deliver as precise a performance as possible. Pioneer's ultimate objective is to deliver a "truthful expression of the artist's intent" - which is certainly an admirable goal. To achieve this, Pioneer has combined the latest amplifier designs with advanced DSP technology, including their proprietary MCACC acoustic calibration software. The resulting SC-LX86 AV receiver has also been built to meet all of THX's strict standards and tuned by the engineers at Air Studios.
Of course pure audio performance isn't enough in today's competitive receiver market, so the SC-LX86 includes just about every feature currently available including 9-channels of built-in amplification and 11.2-channel pre-outs, allowing you to take full advantage of the latest sound formats like Dolby Pro Logic IIz and DTS Neo: X. There is also built-in video processing along with the ability to pass both 3D and native 4K. In terms of home networking, the SC-LX86 comes with a wireless LAN converter, DLNA certification, Apple's AirPlay, MHL compatibility, built-in AM/FM tuner, USB-DAC, Internet Radio, lossless file support and remote apps for both iOS and Android. In fact we're struggling to think of anything that the SC-LX86 doesn't include, except perhaps built-in Bluetooth, but you can even add that with an optional adapter and the SC-LX86 is Air Jam App Ready. So let's head out to the cutting edge and find out just how good the Pioneer SC-LX86 actually is…
The Pioneer SC-LX86's design is pure minimalist elegance with a black brushed metal facia that is free of any unwanted clutter. The build quality is excellent, the entire chassis has a beautifully machined look and the controls a well-engineered feel. It uses the classic AV receiver layout, two dials either side of an informative display with a drop down flap below. The display is well designed but the characters are quite small making it hard to read from a distance, although there is also an OSD. Behind the drop down flap are a number of useful controls, along with a USB port for an iDevice and an additional HDMI input with MHL. At the rear there is a very comprehensive set of connections including another seven HDMI inputs and three HDMI outputs. The remote is well made and comfortable to hold but the small size of the buttons makes it hard to use in a dark despite the inclusion of a backlight.
The SC-LX86 offers an incredible choice of speaker configurations, from basic 2-channel to the full 9-channel output with width and height speakers to any number of variations in between. The inclusion of 9-channels of amplification means the receiver can also run up to three extra zones, as well as bi-amp the front, rears or centre if you so wish. There's even a complete set of 11.2 pre-outs for those that wish to take full advantage of DTS Neo:X. The setup is relatively straightforward considering the possible complexity and there is a choice of basic or expert setup, depending on how comfortable you are with the myriad functionalities. Pioneer's MCACC proprietary auto calibration software is very effective, allowing for a high degree of accuracy and flexibility. There is also a comprehensive set of data screens in the menu system, allowing you to check the settings and room EQ. The menus themselves are informative and easy to navigate but they do feel a little dated compared to some of the competition.
The SC-LX86 has a vast set of features that really represent the state-of-the-art when it comes to current AV receiver design. There's digital class D amplification coupled with a high-power simultaneous multi-channel drive to deliver the 9-channels of amplification. There's AIR Studios Sound Tuning and THX Ultra2 Plus certification, along with support for all the main audio formats including DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, as well as Dolby Pro Logic IIz and DTS Neo: X. The SC-LX86 also includes DSD (Direct Stream Digital) via SACD or USB drive and you can play back up to 192kHz/24-bit high resolution FLAC and WAV files, along with MP3, WMA and AAC compressed music files. You can even connect a PC or iDevice directly to the SC-LX86 using USB connections at the front and rear. The SC-LX86 includes Apple's AirPlay and is also DLNA certified allowing you to connect with your home network and use it as a digital media player and as a digital media renderer. There's even a built-in AM/FM tuner and Internet Radio (vTuner), although the online capabilities are somewhat limited compared to the competition. Pioneer also offer a free remote app for both iOS and Android, which is very well designed and highly effective.
In terms of its video capabilities, the SC-LX86 sensibly avoids 4K upscaling but does include native 4K pass-through, thus providing a degree of future-proofing. The receiver can also pass-through 1080p and 3D and includes some very effective detinterlacing and scaling along with a number additional picture controls. The audio performance of the SC-LX86 was superb, especially when it came to multi-channel film soundtracks where the powerful amplification really came into its own. The receiver is more than capable of driving some quite big speakers and it can happily fill a large room with a spectacularly expansive sound field. The ability to drive 9-channels means you can easily add width speakers which we find genuinely helps to open up the front soundstage and the surrounds delivered a truly immersive experience. If you like your movie soundtracks to have impact, then the SC-LX86 won't disappoint, but it was also capable of subtlety and offered plenty of detail. The performance was equally as assured with stereo and multi-channel music but, as is often the case with Japanese receivers, it lacked a little warmth and musicality, sometimes coming across as a bit too clinical.
This is a minor complaint though and overall we found it hard to fault the Pioneer SC-LX86 in any department. Pioneer has avoided the temptation to include pointless gimmicks and have instead concentrated on delivering impressive audio and useful features, and for that they are to be commended. We doubt you will find a better sounding or more feature packed multi-channel receiver at this price point - Highly Recommended.
Design and Connectivity
The SC-LX86 is a definite thing of beauty with a minimalist black brushed metal facia and a suitably industrial level of build quality. The entire chassis has the heavy, solid and well-engineered feel that you would expect from a premium product and measures 435 x 185 x 441mm and weighs a hefty 18kg. The front facia layout is classic AV receiver but that is in no way a criticism and for those that like their AV kit understated, the SC-LX86 certainly won't disappoint. On the left hand side is an input selector dial and on the right is the master volume control and aside from the on/off button there are no more controls visible. In the middle is the main display and beneath that a drop down flap behind which you will find various controls and front connectors.
The display itself is sensibly laid out and informative but, as always, the more informative the display the smaller the characters, making it difficult to read at a distance. The display can be dimmed or even turned off, with is useful if the SC-LX86 is to be positioned within view or at the front of the room. Under the drop down flap there is a headphone socket, a jack for the setup microphone, a USB port for connecting an iDevice and an HDMI input with MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) capability. There are also navigation controls and buttons for accessing the Home page, Audio Parameters, Video Parameters, THX, additional zones, the built-in tuner and direct iDevice control. The buttons are tactile and solid, whilst the input dial and master volume control offer a pleasing level of resistance when turned, reinforcing the overall feeling of a quality product.
At the rear is an extensive set of connections, including seven HDMI inputs (eight if you include the one at the front) and three HDMI outputs including one for zone four. There are speaker terminals for the 9-channels of built in amplification, along with 7.1 multi-channel inputs and a full set of 11.2-channel pre-outs. Other connections include outputs for zones 2, 3 and 4, a USB-DAC In (B-Type), phono in, composite video in/out, component video in/out, optical digital in/out and coaxial digital in/out. There are also aerial sockets for the built-in tuners, IR connectors, two 12V triggers and an RS232 connector for serial control. Finally there is an Ethernet port, along with a USB charge port for the included AS-WL300 wireless converter and a port for the optional AS-BT200 Bluetooth adapter.
The provided remote control is made of black plastic and is both comfortable to hold and comprehensive in terms of the buttons available. There are controls for input selection and volume, along with audio and video parameters, the home menu and navigation. There are also controls for the other zones, the built-in tuners, for controlling a connected iDevice and for accessing other features. Although the remote does have a back light, the buttons are quite small which means we still found it difficult use in a darkened room.
Setup and Menus
In terms of setup, the SC-LX86 offers a wide selection of possible speaker configurations including using the full 9-channels, either as 7-channels plus either height or width or 7-channels with bi-amping. You can also use 7-channels with an alternative set of front speakers or a second zone and 5-channels with front or width speakers and a second zone. There's even the option to run 5-channels with two zones or 5-channels with bi-amped front and rears or bi-amped front and centre. Whichever configuration you choose will largely depend on factors such as the practicalities of installing up to 9 speakers and 2 active subwoofers in your room! However, once you have wired the speakers up and attached the various sources and displays, you can then run through the setup process, which is relatively straightforward considering the potential complexity.
The menu system uses a revised graphical user interface that has been designed for easier use and includes dedicated screens for each function, along with an onscreen display that shows the current status. The OSD also allows you to change the audio and video parameters on-the-fly. We found the user interface to be a little dated, especially when compared to some of the competition. The Home page on the SC-LX86 has six sub-menus - Advanced MCACC, MCACC Data Check, Data Management, System Setup, Network Information and Operation Mode Setup.
The first sub-menu is Advanced MCACC takes you through the acoustic calibration process using Pioneer's proprietary software MCACC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration) and the second sub-menu is MCACC Data Check allows you to check those calibrated settings in detail. Both these sub-menus will be covered in the Audio Performance section. The third sub-menu is Data Management allows you to store up to six MCACC presets, allowing you to calibrate your system for different listening positions or frequency adjustments for the same listening position. This allows you to use alternative settings to match different sources that you're listening to or different seating positions.
The fourth sub-menu is Setup and this includes Manual SP Setup which allows you to manually set the type of connection used for the surround back terminals and the size, distance and overall balance of the connected speakers. Input Setup allows you to specify what is connected to the digital, HDMI and component video inputs, whilst OSD Language allows you to change the GUI screen's displayed language. The Network Setup covers connecting the SC-LX86 to your network, whilst HDMI setup synchronises the SC-LX86 to other Pioneer equipment supporting control over HDMI. Finally, Other Setup allows you to customise other settings such as auto power down, volume, software updates and multiple zones, whilst MHL Setup changes the settings related to MHL.
The fifth sub-menu is Network Information which provides data on your network connection and the final sub-menu is Operation Mode Setup which is designed to help those users who find it difficult to master all the different functions and settings. In this sub-menu you have a choice Expert, where users can set all the functions by themselves and Basic, where only certain basic settings can be operated.
The SC-LX86 possesses a massive array of features, starting with the sound quality which includes AIR Studios Sound Tuning and THX Ultra2 Plus, which is the highest level of THX certification. Pioneer has designed the amplification to be as transparent as possible, so the SC-LX86 uses direct energy HD amplification with digital class D amplifiers and a high-power simultaneous multi-channel drive, which allows you to simultaneously drive 9 channels at 810W of power output. The amplification also uses a higher efficiency design, better energy consumption, lower heat generation and a low leakage flux power transformer. There is also Hi-bit audio signal processing designed to improve the performance of the 32-bit DAC hardware, along with a digital filter giving you a choice of Slow, Sharp and Short.
Other audio features include full band phase control to adjust for phase lag in a multi-channel speaker setup, standing wave control to decrease resonance and help prevent inaccurate EQ-setting, and precision distance setting down to the millimetre. There is also a precision quartz lock system (PQLS) designed to eliminate distortion caused by timing errors, jitter reduction, advanced and auto sound retriever which are designed to help restore compressed audio, and auto level control to equalise volume level differences between tracks when listening to an iDevice or other source.
In terms of audio format support, the SC-LX86 can decode DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, and also includes Dolby Pro Logic IIz and DTS Neo: X. The latter two formats allow for the inclusion of height or width speakers, whilst DTS: Neo X is the world's first 11.2-channel sound format that uses both height, width, side and rear speakers to create a totally enveloping sound field. Pioneer also include their own Wide Surround Mode to create a wider soundstage using width speakers, as well as a virtual speaker option that can create virtual height, width and back speakers thus allowing you to experience virtual 11.1-channel sound from a 5.1-channel setup. There is also Dolby TrueHD Loudness Management which is designed to stop volume fluctuations when switching channels or input sources.
The SC-LX86 also has DSD (Direct Stream Digital) via SACD or USB drive and can play back up to 192kHz/24-bit high resolution FLAC and WAV files, along with MP3, WMA and AAC compressed music files. You can connect a PC directly to the SC-LX86 using a USB connection which includes an asynchronous transfer mode, which controls the transfer process using the receiver's clock instead of the PC's clock. You can connect your iDevice directly to the receiver using the USB connection on the front and you can playback digital audio and video. There is also Apple's AirPlay which allows users to have complete access, control and playback of their entire iTunes library, including song information and album art. The SC-LX86 is also DLNA certified allowing you to connect with your home network and use it as a digital media player and as a digital media renderer. As well as a built-in AM/FM tuner, the SC-LX86 also has Internet Radio (vTuner), which means access to literally thousands of global channels and if you find any good ones, you can save them to your favourites.
Pioneer offer the iControlAV2012 app, which is freely available for both iOS and Android and offers a simple and intuitive interface for controlling the SC-LX86. You can use the app to control functions such as volume, input, mode, balance, level control for subwoofer and centre speakers, PQLS, phase control, virtual speakers and auto sound retriever. Album information and the receiver's input/output status can also be displayed. The latest version even allows you to draw EQ curves with your finger and load and view MCACC measurement data. Another cool feature of the app is Sound Explorer which allows you to adjust sound parameters and shows the description and status for each setting. Pioneer's iControlAV2012 app is easily one of the slickest and best looking remote apps we have seen to date and it's very effective.
The SC-LX86 includes an extensive set of video processing features, some of which are actually quite useful. First of all Pioneer have sensibly avoided including pointless 4K upscaling but the SC-LX86 can pass-through a native 4K signal which means the receiver is future-proof, to a degree. It can also pass 1080p/24 and 3D content as well as support Deep Colour and x.v.Colour. When it came to handling standard and high definition content, the SC-LX86 delivered an impressive performance, deinterlacing 480i, 576i and 1080i signals and scaling up to 1080p/24/50/60 over both component and HDMI. We were pleased to see that the SC-LX86 also had no problems detecting both 3:2 and 2:2 cadences, as well as scaling standard definition content without introducing unwanted artefacts or jaggies.
There is a function called stream smoother and numerous noise reduction features for reducing macro blocking and mosquito noise on highly compressed video content. Pioneer has also included a feature called advanced video adjust which directly affects the video signal, you need to choose PRO to make sure that the video signal is being passed through untouched. The Picture Adjustments sub-menu includes various image controls such as Contrast, Brightness, Chroma (Colour), Hue (Tint) and Detail (sharpness feature) but it is best to leave all these controls in their default zero or off positions. Thanks to the inclusion of two HDMI outputs, you can also use the SC-LX86 to feed a signal to two different displays, perhaps a TV and a projector.
The SC-LX86 includes Pioneer's proprietary Advanced MCACC system which includes a custom microphone for automated setup and acoustic calibration. The first sub-menu in the Home menu is Advanced MCACC, which takes you through the acoustic calibration process using MCACC (Multi-Channel ACoustic Calibration). Within this sub-menu, you can choose between a Full Auto MCACC, Auto MCACC, Manual MCACC and Demo. We chose to perform a Full Auto MCACC setup and calibration, taking advantage of the full eight measurement points to improve the accuracy and effectiveness. We used points from the three listening positions, as well as additional points at different heights in front and behind the listening positions.
Once you have completed the auto calibration process, the second sub-menu MCACC Data Check allows you to check the calibrated settings on the SC-LX86 in detail through a series of menu screens. The first shows you the Speaker Settings, including the number of speakers, their crossover frequency and their configuration. You can use this to check that the settings made by the MCACC software are correct, as these are applied to all the presets. The next data screen is Channel Level and this allows you to check the levels that all the channels in the system have been set to by the MCACC software. If you need to, you can manually change the levels to adjust the overall balance of the system using an SPL meter. Then there is the Speaker Distance screen which shows all the delays set for each speaker by the MCACC software, depending on their distance from the main listening position. Again you can manually adjust these distances by taking the measurements yourself and these adjustments can be made in increments of 0.01m.
The next screen is Standing Wave and this shows the low frequency response of the room graphically and the available filters. Standing waves occur when, under certain conditions, sound waves from your speaker system resonate mutually with sound waves reflected off the walls in your listening area. This can have a negative effect on the overall sound, especially at certain lower frequencies and depends on speaker placement, your listening position and, ultimately, the shape of your room. The Standing Wave Control uses filters to reduce the effect of overly resonant sounds in your listening area. During playback of a source, you can customize the filters in the Standing Wave Control for each of the MCACC presets. The next screen is Acoustic Cal EQ Professional which shows the different equaliser settings used for the main frequencies to correct for the room itself. This setup minimises the unwanted effects of room reverberation by allowing you to calibrate your system based on the direct sound coming from the speakers. The final data screen shows the Group Delay, with the delay in milliseconds for each speaker both before and after calibration.
In terms of its audio performance the SC-LX86 is real heavy hitter, taking full advantage of those class D amps and 9 channels to deliver a huge soundstage and an impressive dynamic range. When it comes to movie soundtracks, the SC-LX86 really steps up to the plate, delivering a full and immersive experience that genuinely surrounds you with sound. The bombast of a soundtrack like Battleship is delivered with ease, as is the sandstorm in Prometheus, with the SC-LX86 revealing some impressive dynamics. This is especially evident in the soundtrack of The Hunger Games where the SC-LX86 can deliver the big bass moments but also all the detail and subtlety of the forest scenes. The imaging and positioning of sounds throughout the surround field is wonderfully precise and thanks to the excellent setup and room correction, the speakers sound tonally matched and the room itself disappears to just leave the sound design itself.
The front soundstage was equally effective, delivering clear dialogue and the precise imaging of the sound mix was evident, as both effects and pans were expertly rendered. The SC-LX86 was able to deliver the lower frequencies on The Amazing Spider-Man without swamping the rest of the soundtrack, even during very active scenes, and just delivered the necessary impact when needed. It also seemed able to do this even when using a relatively modest subwoofer and as a result the low frequency effects (LFE) channel on film soundtracks was highly effective. Overall the bass was well integrated, supporting the other channels and providing an exciting and visceral experience. There's no question that the SC-LX86 is an exceptional multi-channel performer, combining brute force with both control and precision, to deliver a truly breath-taking performance.
Whilst we have never been completely sold on the concept of height speakers, we have found ourselves surprised by how effective adding width speakers can be. The impact might be helped by the relative narrowness of our home cinema but the addition of a wider front soundstage was a revelation. This resulting large-scale sound boasted impressive dynamics, not just during the action scenes but in the quieter scenes too, creating a truly immersive and convincing atmosphere for the listener. The wider soundfield was strong, focused and cohesive, with no gaps apparent even during front to back pans, and it really matched the widescreen images from our 2.35:1 projector screen. We tried both the DTS Neo: X and Pioneer's own width algorithm and found that we preferred the overall experience with DTS Neo: X. We found ourselves wanting to add another subwoofer and get the full 9.2 experience but sadly time and the availability of a second sub prevented us. However the experience certainly whetted our appetite, especially as the Blu-ray for The Expendables 2 includes a DTS Neo: X 11.1 soundtrack, which the SC-LX86 can take full advantage of if you just add a stereo amplifier and two height speakers.
When it comes to stereo and multi-channel music, the internal DACs do a great job of converting the digital signal to analogue and as a result there’s excellent definition in the bass, while vocals sound clear and direct. As is often the case with Japanese receivers, the SC-LX86 can sometimes sound a little clinical, especially with stereo music, lacking the warmth and musicality of the Anthem receivers for example. However, the performance is still excellent and to a certain extent the sound will depend on your choice of speakers. There are also built-in digital filters which allow you to switch the Pioneer’s sound between ‘slow’ (soft and warm), ‘sharp’ (solid and tight), and ‘short’ (quick and forward). We would recommend that you experiment with the different settings to find which you prefer but note that enabling the receiver’s Pure Direct mode is the only way you can bypass the filters. In our listening tests we found that a track like Suede's Still Life was handled very effectively by the SC-LX86, with the sweeping symphonic arrangement and Brett Anderson's falsetto vocals well rendered. Moving on to ‘old reliables’ like Pink Floyd's Time and again the Pioneer delivered the precise timing and localisation of the effects and music with relative ease. Finally on Adele's One and Only, the combination of piano, female vocals and harmony are all expertly handled, if slightly bright.
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9-channel AV Receiver
Suggested price: £2,099
Reviewed 30th November, 2012 by Stephen Withers
To get the best out of your TV or projector, consider getting it calibrated.