Dolby Atmos AV Receivers Group Test
Three of the best Dolby Atmos AV receivers but which one came out on top?
Which receivers are in the test?In this group test we’re looking at three mid-range audio/video receivers, all of which are around the same price and offer a similar set of features and specifications. They are also among the first receivers to include Dolby Atmos, the new immersive surround sound format with additional overhead speakers. The receivers being compared are the Marantz SR7009, the Pioneer SC-LX58 and the Yamaha RX-A2040.
All are 9-channel AV receivers with support for most of the various audio formats, video features and networking capabilities. The Marantz and the Pioneer both initially retailed for £1,399, whilst the Yamaha was slightly more expensive at £1,499. However the Marantz SR7009 has since dropped to just £999 which makes it even better value than when it won a Best Buy badge in its original review. All these prices were correct at the time of the group test in December 2014.
DesignIt should comes no surprise to discover that all three receivers follow the same basic design, with an input dial on the left, a volume dial on the right, a display in the middle and below that a drop down flap that hides additional controls and inputs. At least Marantz have tried to jazz things up a little bit with a curved front facia and a small round display above the drop down flap. There is an additional, more detailed display behind this flap, along with the usual controls and inputs.
Aside from that design flourish on the part of Marantz, it’s business as usual with all three sporting a black colour scheme and a brushed metal two-tone finish. In terms of overall build quality, it’s neck and neck between the Pioneer and Yamaha, with the latter just edging it in terms of construction. However both are built like tanks, with a very heavy and well engineered feel; whilst the SR7009 feels slightly less substantial despite it’s flagship status in the Marantz line-up.
It's business as usual as far as design goes with all three sporting a black finish, display and big dials.
ConnectionsIt’s business as usual around the back as well, with both the Pioneer and Yamaha sporting more connections than you could possibly need. This is an area where Marantz have shown some common sense, eliminating many legacy inputs that most people just won’t use, simplifying the layout and making the speaker terminals easier to access by putting them all in one line. Pioneer and Yamaha take a more traditional approach to speaker terminal placement and in the case of the Pioneer it can only accept the smaller banana plugs - which made wiring it up for the review a real nuisance.
In terms of the most useful connection - HDMI - the Marantz also wins, with eight inputs and three outputs. The Yamaha comes second with eight inputs and two outputs and the Pioneer picks up the rear with seven inputs and three outputs. Both the Marantz and the Yamaha have built-in WiFi, along with included antenna to boost reception if necessary, and they connected to our network with ease. The Marantz, Yamaha and Pioneer all include built-in Bluetooth, which is a handy addition, but the Pioneer uses a wireless adapter for connecting to your network and setup was extremely frustrating.
Marantz have tried to simplify the connections and, along with Yamaha, included built-in WiFi.
Remote ControlsAll three receivers include a remote control but once again Marantz has shown some initiative by trying to simplify the remote, making it easier to use. It’s also comfortable to hold and includes a backlight, which is handy in a darkened room. Conversely both Pioneer and Yamaha fall victim to the complex remote control that is festooned with tiny buttons but at least the Pioneer version manages to include a backlight.
Thankfully there is an alternative these days and all three manufacturers offer a free remote app for iOS or Android. Here the Marantz design team have dropped the ball slightly, with a fairly basic app that is functional rather than pretty. The Yamaha app is well designed, attractive to look at and highly effective to use. However the winner is Pioneer who have created a very impressive remote app that is both intuitive and comprehensive.
Marantz also simplified their remote compared to Yamaha and Pioneer, although the latter has a great control app.
Features & SpecsThese days the average AV receiver has so many features that you would almost need a separate article just to cover them all and the three under review are no exception. In fact they all had very impressive feature sets with most offering similar or identical capabilities. So all three are nine-channel receivers, although only the Marantz is capable of delivering a full 11.2-channel performance when combined with an additional two-channel power amplifier. There's support for all the main audio formats, including Dolby Atmos of course, which means the three receivers can be configured in 5.2.4 or 7.2.2 configurations. The Marantz also adds possible 7.2.4 and 9.2.2 configurations by virtue of its eleven channel processing and, since these reviews were conducted, Marantz have also added support for Auro3D.
The Marantz uses Audyssey MultEQ XT32 for the room correction whilst the other two use proprietary systems - YPAO in the case of Yamaha and MCACC in the case of Pioneer. On the video side, all three receivers can pass Ultra HD 4K at up to 60p and even supports image processing for 4K 60p, 4:4:4 and 24-bit video. They can also upscale lower resolution video, including analogue video and standard definition content, at up to 4K (3840 x 2160) resolution over HDMI. In the case of the Marantz SR7009 there are eight HDMI inputs and three HDMI outputs, with the Yamaha RX-A2040 there are eight inputs and two outputs and for the Pioneer SC-LX58 there are seven inputs and three outputs. All three receivers provide video support over HDMI for additional zones, as well as support for ARC (Audio Return Channel) and all three will pass-thru 3D video.
The Marantz and Yamaha both include built-in WiFi and setup was very quick and easy; whilst the Yamaha also includes built-in Bluetooth. The Pioneer uses a wireless adapter that was considerably less easy to setup but, along with Yamaha, includes support for MHL (Mobile High Definition Link). Yamaha also includes support for HTC Connect and all three include support for AirPlay and Spotify Connect. The three receivers can playback a number of file formats via USB or over your network, including FLAC (up to 192 kHz), WAV, ALAC, MP3, AAC, AIFF and WMA; whilst Marantz also include support for DSD (2.8 MHz) and the Pioneer can handle DSD 2.8MHz and DSD 5.6MHz via USB or network, along with DSD from SACD either from USB-A or HDMI.
All three receivers had a wealth of features and excellent specs with no one brand dominating.
What is Dolby Atmos?Before we start comparing the performance of the three receivers, let’s quickly explain how Dolby Atmos actually works. It is a new object-based surround sound format that tries to create a more immersive experience by adding overhead speakers. The idea behind Dolby Atmos is to create a bubble of sound around the viewer and then smoothly pan sounds (which Dolby refer to as objects) around this three dimensional space.
The Atmos information is included within the usual Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and a number of Blu-rays have been released so far, including Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Expendables III. The basic layouts available on the three receivers we are comparing are 5.1.4 (5 channel + sub + 4 overhead) and 7.1.2 (7 channel + sub + 2 overhead). The three receivers also offer the opportunity to add a second subwoofer and in the case of the Marantz, you can add two extra channels of amplification and create 9.1.2 or 7.1.4 configurations.
Dolby aren’t the only company releasing a new immersive audio format, there is also Auro3D which uses additional height speakers and a 'Voice of God' overhead speaker. An upgrade for the Marantz has just been released, although it will cost €149, but as of the time of writing no updates have been announced for either the Pioneer or the Yamaha. There will also be a new format from DTS and we expect to hear more details about this at CES in January 2015.
Marantz provided the best setup process and user-friendly menu system with Yamaha a close second.
Setup and TestingAll three receivers were setup using their built-in auto-calibration features and all three come with microphones for this purpose. Continuing an overall trend, Marantz have sought to simplify their setup process and the wizard they have created is informative and easy to follow, even for a novice. They also include a quick to assemble cardboard stand for the microphone, in case the user doesn’t have a tripod. The menu system is attractively designed, clear, concise and easy to navigate and overall the process was relatively painless. As mentioned previously, setting up the built-in WiFi was very straightforward and Marantz use Audyssey MultEQ XT32 for the room equalisation.
The Yamaha also has a well designed and modern looking menu system and, again, setting up the receiver was relatively simple. The connections were all well labelled and we had the built-in WiFi and Bluetooth sorted in no time. Yamaha use their own proprietary YPAO room equalisation software but, like the Marantz, it was easy to get everything setup, calibrated and working. The Pioneer was a definite disappointment in this area and their menu system is in serious need of an overhaul. Setup was far from intuitive, especially when it came to the wireless adapter; although Pioneer’s proprietary MCACC room equalisation software is impressive.
Our review home cinema now includes four overhead speakers, which meant we were in a position to fully test all the usual audio formats, as well as Dolby Atmos. We tested all three receivers with 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks before moving to both 5.1.4 and a 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos speaker configurations. We had Dolby’s own Atmos demo disc, as well as the Blu-ray of Transformers: Age of Extinction, which was the first film to be released domestically with an Atmos soundtrack. We also listened to an extensive amount of music, with the the three receivers in a more purist two-channel configuration.
Movie Sound Quality
The Marantz created a subtle and quite sophisticated sound when it came to movie soundtracks; whilst the Audyssey processing worked very effectively, creating a wonderfully cohesive soundstage. The surrounds were tonally matched with the front three speakers, resulting in effective panning and localisation of effects. The bass was also well integrated and regardless of whether we were listening to 5.1 or 7.1 surround mixes the results were equally as impressive. Whilst the front soundstage remained open and the surrounds were immersive, we were glad to find that the centre channel was always clear with well defined dialogue.
The Marantz was the first receiver that we tested with Dolby Atmos and so we were frankly blown away by the experience. The various Dolby Atmos trailers, designed to emphasise the benefits of the format were extremely impressive and highly immersive. However the sensation was just as applicable when watching Transformers: Age of Extinction in Atmos and whilst we would expect the battle scenes to be suitably immersive, we also found the quieter scenes to benefit from the object-based sound design that Atmos utilises.
As we expected, the Yamaha delivered a sound that was free of the harshness and aggression that sometimes affects the bigger AV receivers. What we had instead was a smooth and highly cohesive surround field that truly immersed the listener. The result was that dialogue was always clear and anchored to the centre speaker, whilst music and effects created a wide front soundstage. The surrounds, whether with sides or sides and rears, helped create a nice sense of atmosphere with precise localisation and smooth panning of sounds around the room.
As with the other Atmos receivers in this group test, we had the Dolby Atmos demo disc and Transformers: Age of Extinction but just before returning the A2040 we also had The Expendables III to watch in Atmos. When you consider how much experience Yamaha have with height and presence speakers, we were expecting a good performance here and weren't disappointed. The combination of surround and overhead speakers was seamless, resulting in a highly immersive experience and The Expendables III showed, more so than the amped up nonsense of Transformers, just how effective Dolby Atmos can be when implemented properly.
Pioneer excel at making receivers with a big and powerful sound and in that sense the LX58 didn’t disappoint. Thanks to its digital amplification the LX58 was able to create an impressive sound field with a serious amount of dynamic range. However it wasn’t all bass and power, as the Pioneer proved equally as adept at creating a realistic soundstage; immersing the listener and placing sounds and effects with pin point precision. Sound effects were positioned to match visual cues within three dimensional space and the Pioneer localised them perfectly.
When it came to Dolby Atmos the Pioneer was equally as impressive with a cohesive and totally immersive listening experience. Sounds were highly directional and the LX58 seamlessly panned them around the room; whilst the bass effects were suitably thunderous. In Transformers: Age of Extinction, objects clearly moved overhead and there were plenty of spatial cues to create a greater sense of atmosphere. Dialogue was always clear and the positioning of sound effects was very precise, despite all the other elements within what is a very busy soundtrack.
Pioneer delivered a muscular surround performance, Marantz was more subtle and Yamaha more immersive.
Music Sound Quality
The Marantz handled two-channel music extremely well, with an open soundstage but also a refinement to the overall audio that was unusual in an AV product. As is often the case, the most effective results were gained by running the Marantz in its Pure Direct two-channel mode without the subwoofer, although if you prefer to use your sub with music that also works very well. Aside from streaming music from our nertwork and via Bluetooth, we also tried through USB and AirPlay and, overall, the Marantz delivered excellent results. Where possible we try to keep the resolution of our music as high as possible but we did find that the Marantz could be surprisingly sympathetic to heavily compressed sources.
When it came to two-channel music, the Yamaha delivered enough impact to make it exciting but also managed to retain a subtlety to its top end that is unusual for a mass market receiver. Once you take into account the effective streaming capabilities, the Yamaha is a genuinely able partner for music. We generally found that the best results were achieved in a two-channel configuration with no subwoofer and the Yamaha running in Pure Direct mode but the performance in a 2.1 configuration was also quite impressive. The AirPlay and Spotify Connect functions yielded excellent results and the Yamaha also proved to be an extremely forgiving performer with compressed audio. Ultimately the Yamaha wasn't quite as good as the Marantz but impressive nonetheless.
Whilst the two-channel performance of the Pioneer wasn’t as impressive as its multichannel presentation, it was still very respectable. Turning all the processing off and using the Pioneer as a straight two channel amp removed some of its expansiveness but the results were certainly enjoyable and the performance with Spotify and Internet radio is definitely up to most people’s requirements. The superb file support coupled with the clarity and precision of its digital amplification meant that the Pioneer handled the additional detail of higher resolution recordings with ease. However it sometimes felt a little clinical and lacked the subtlety and musicality of the Marantz.
All three performed well in their two-channel configuration but the Marantz sounded more musical.
Group Test WinnerAll three receivers performed extremely well in our tests but there can only be one winner and the group test award goes to the Marantz SR7009. The design was attractive and the build quality good, although perhaps not quite as solid as the other two. However Marantz had clearly thought about important aspects such as menu systems, connections, remote controls and easy setup. There was built-in WiFi, Bluetooth and excellent file support; whilst the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 room equalisation software was very effective and the SR7009 can process up to eleven channels.
The Marantz was very impressive when it came to all the main surround sound formats including Dolby Atmos. The sound field was well defined and immersive whilst bass was nicely integrated. Unusually for an AV receiver, the Marantz also retained a pleasant musical quality with two-channel audio. The Yamaha RX-A2040 came a close second and even pipped the Marantz when it came to surround sound but ultimately lost out because it's £100 more expensive. Whilst the Pioneer SC-LX58 was also very good but suffered from setup issues, an outdated menu system and a clinical performance with music.
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