High-End AV Receiver Group Test
They're all excellent AV receivers but only one can be our winner
What are we testing?If you're looking for high-end surround sound performance you have two basic choices - an AV pre-amp processor combined with separate amplification or an AV receiver, with all the processing and amplification built in. The former can deliver exceptional results but is often expensive and means a minimum of two boxes and possibly a lot more depending on the system you choose. We have recently reviewed some very impressive pre-amp processor and amplifier combinations including the Yamaha CX-A5100/MX-A5000 and the NAD M17/M27.
However for most people the idea of a single box that meets all their AV audio needs is very appealing and just because you choose an AV receiver there's no reason to compromise on sound quality. All of the receivers in this group test represent the flagship model for their particular manufacturer and they all support the new audio formats of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, whilst one of them also supports Auro-3D. Unfortunately the ever increasing number of channels used in modern immersive audio means it is increasingly difficult to fit all the amplification into one box. Only one receiver on this list manages to include all eleven channels necessary for a full 7.1.4 setup, most require two more and one will need an extra four channels of amplification.
In this group test we will be taking a look at the Anthem MRX 1120 11-channel AV receiver, the Arcam AVR850 7-channel AV receiver, the Denon AVR-X7200WA 9-channel AV receiver, the Pioneer SC-L89 9-channel AV receiver and the Yamaha RX-A3050 9-channel AV receiver. All these units have been reviewed in detail on AVForums, so in this group test we will provide an overview of their key features and performance and decide which of the five is the ultimate winner. It won't be easy, all offer exceptional performance at differing price points and they all contain cutting-edge technology and future-proof features. However there can only be one winner, so which is it?
Anthem MRX 1120The MRX 1120 is Anthem's flagship AV receiver and, as the name suggests, it includes eleven channels of built-in amplification. It's the only receiver in this group test that manages to offer a single-box solution for anyone wanting to run a full 7.1.4 setup and thus makes the 1120 something of a rarity. So if that's your basic criteria, then this group test is over before it has even started and the MRX 1120 is the receiver for you and at £3,999 it isn't ridiculously expensive either. When it comes to looks the MRX 1120 isn't as pretty as some of the other receivers in this group test and isn't as well-made as many of them either. Nor does it boast the same extensive feature-sets or power levels but it does deliver in the areas that matter.
In terms of features, Anthem's emphasis has always been on audio and video quality and that is what ultimately matters, the rest is just window-dressing. So you get high quality DACs, powerful DSP and capable built-in amplification; along with Dolby Atmos and, in the near future, DTS:X. You also get ARC, which remains one of the best room correction systems available. You even get a calibrated microphone and a dedicated stand to ensure you achieve the best from your MRX 1120. In terms of the video specifications Anthem have ensured the MRX 1120 should remain relevant for the foreseeable future and the HDMI 2.0a inputs and outputs support Ultra HD 4K 24/50/60, HDCP 2.2, HDR, BT.2020 and 4:4:4 subsampling at 18.2 Gbps.
The 1120 is the only receiver on this list with all 11-channels built in, not to mention Anthem's superb ARC room correction
For this latest generation, Anthem have also added wireless capability and DTS Play-Fi but we found in testing that the former wouldn't connect with certain UK routers, even when using a wired connection. This made running ARC problematic and it's something that Anthem really need to address as soon as possible. Of course features and specifications are all well and good but what really matters is the sound quality and in this regard the MRX 1120 doesn't disappoint. It delivered a wonderfully open and spacious surround sound experience during our testing, regardless of whether it was 5.1-, 7.1- or a full 7.1.4-channel soundtrack. The precision with which objects were steered around the room was remarkable but the receiver retained an impressive level of clarity and dialogue always remained clear.
ARC offers bass management on all channels, including the four overhead speakers, which is something that even Dirac Live doesn't currently offer. As a result the bass performance of the 1120 was impressive, with the lower frequencies extremely well integrated within the rest of the sound field, retaining definition and impact where necessary. The MRX 1120 is also very musical for an AV receiver, making it one of those rare beasts that is able to deliver a barnstorming performance with films and an equally subtle and effective performance with music. Anthem may have more competition these days than in previous years and the company's receivers are not quite the bargains they once were, but there's no denying they still deliver a lovely sound regardless of the characteristics of your room.
Arcam AVR850The Arcam AVR850 isn't cheap, in fact it's the most expensive receiver in this group test, retailing for £4,199. That's a lot of money for an AV receiver, especially one that only includes seven channels of built-in amplification; meaning you'll immediately need to add four extra channels in order to run a complete 7.1.4 setup. However once you take a closer look at the AVR850, things start to make more sense. First of all those seven channels are Class G, meaning you get a powerful and responsive receiver that can drive even the most demanding speakers. Secondly, and most importantly, you get Dirac Live room correction which is quite simply the most powerful room EQ software available. Unlike Anthem's ARC, Dirac doesn't currently offer bass management but, thanks to a Swedish supercomputer performing all the calculations, it can effectively correct the negative aspects of almost any room.
What this essentially means is that you can buy the AVR850, run a 7.1-channel setup and immediately start enjoying the benefits of Dirac Live and Class G amplification. After all, not everyone will want or be able to add upward-firing or overhead speakers and should you wish to enjoy Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, you can always add more channels of amplification later. Arcam plan to offer a 4-channel Class G power amplifier for just such a purpose but given the nature of the overhead channels you could easily employ much cheaper amplification. It's worth pointing out that if you're happy to forgo Class G amplification, then Arcam also offer the AVR550 7-channel AV receiver which is identical to the AVR850 in every other way, including Dirac Live room correction, but will only set you back £2,399. There are some very good AV receivers available at the moment but few that can offer the audiophile engineering and cutting edge room correction found on Arcam's 2016 line-up.
As if the inclusion of Dirac Live room correction wasn't enough, the AVR850 also boasts Class G amplification
Some may find the design of the AVR850 a little plain but we rather like it's understated minimalism. The front panel is clean, the layout attractive, the display is easy to read and the build quality is excellent. Arcam have sensibly eliminated many of the unnecessary legacy connections, concentrating on the ones that you might actually use. So you get seven HDMI inputs and three HDMI outputs and crucially they all support HDMI 2.0a, HDCP 2.2 and HDR (High Dynamic Range). The AVR850 comes with a useful if idiosyncratic remote control and a handy remote app with a well-designed user interface that reminds you it's about time Arcam updated their menu system. There's no built-in WiFi, Bluetooth or AirPlay but you can use an Ethernet cable for a wired connection, allowing you to stream music and access Internet radio stations. There's also a built-in FM/DAB tuner and Arcam have made a number of audio improvements including a redesigned platform with a new DSP stage and DACs.
The AVR850 supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which will be added with a future firmware update, and the addition of Dirac Live is a real coup for Arcam. The results were simply stunning in terms of the software's ability to correct any audio degradation caused by the room or the speakers. The receiver sounded great without Dirac but as soon as we applied the room correction the sound took on an entirely new characteristic, delivering an impressive level of realism to the overall sound field. When it came to movie soundtracks the AVR850 was a stellar performer, delivering a detailed, expansive and visceral listening experience. The receiver's performance with Dolby Atmos soundtracks was the best we have heard in our home cinema to date, really showing the full potential of multi-dimensional audio. The Arcam also sounded wonderful with music, making it the ideal choice for anyone who wants a receiver for both two-channel and multi-channel sources. Ultimately the Arcam AVR850 is a fantastic AV receiver, so if it's in your price range you should arrange a demo as soon as possible.
Denon AVR-X7200WADenon have been one of the dominant players in the AV receiver market for years, releasing some classic models and often being the first to adopt new audio technologies. The AVR-X7200 is their current flagship 9-channel receiver and retails for £2,199 putting it in the middle of the price range for this group test. It was originally released as the X7200W before being replaced by the X7200WA, which adds HDMI 2.0a with support for 4K 24/50/60, HDCP 2.2, HDR, BT.2020 and 4:4:4 subsampling at 18.2 Gbps. Owners of the X7200W can get their units' HDMI boards upgraded for a small fee and it's a fairly painless process. The Denon supports Dolby Atmos, whilst for a fee you can also add Auro-3D and it was the first AV receiver to be upgraded to DTS:X back in January. It is the only receiver in this group test that can decode all three immersive formats - Atmos, DTS:X and Auro.
Denon's experience in terms of AV receivers is immediately obvious and the X7200WA is both beautifully designed and well-engineered, with a solid construction, a classic layout and a black brush metal finish. The front plate is machined from solid aluminium and retains a minimalist appearance with all the controls and inputs behind a drop-down flap. The large display is well-designed and informative and the receiver also has an excellent on-screen display that identifies the incoming signal and the speakers being used. Denon offer a comprehensive set of connections but they have made efforts to simplify the layout and add colour-coding, as well as make the speaker terminals easier to access. The menu system is excellent, the remote control is well designed and intuitive to use, whilst the remote app is very effective.
The X7200WA is the only receiver on this list that can decode Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Auro-3D
In terms of features the X7200WA has just about everything you can think of including built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, both of which were quick and easy to setup, especially with the free remote app. It also includes DLNA, AirPlay and playback of DSD (2.8 MHz) and FLAC 192 kHz files over connected networks or via USB. There's also support for ALAC and WAV, as well as gapless playback and all the usual lossy formats. The Denon includes DDSC-HD32 with 32-bit DACs and AL32 processing, along with Spotify, built-in AM/FM tuners and Internet Radio. The X7200WA is incredibly easy to setup using Denon’s Setup Assistant but it's also very flexible in terms of its possible speaker configurations, with everything explained via an easy-to-understand interface; although if you want to run a full 7.1.4 setup then, like most of the receivers in this group test, you'll need to add an extra two channels of amplification.
The X7200WA uses a left/right-separated monolithic amplifier design and custom made DHCT (Denon High Current Transistors) combined with discrete circuitry that delivers 175W into each of the nine built-in channels. It also uses Audyssey MultEQ XT32 for the room equalisation and we found this to be simple to use and very effective for creating a balanced sound field. When it came to movie surround soundtracks the X7200WA was a stellar performer and with Dolby Atmos the results could often be jaw-dropping. The performance with DTS:X and Auro-3D was equally as impressive, although there are currently fewer films available on Blu-ray for those particular formats. The X7200WA also managed to deliver a highly impressive performance with music and the mono-block design certainly paid dividends. So bang for buck, you won't find a better specified or more impressive AV receiver on the market.
Pioneer SC-LX89The Pioneer SC-LX89 sits at the cheaper end of the scale when it comes to this high-end AV receiver group test and can currently be picked up for a very reasonable £1,799. However you still get plenty for your money and the LX89 is an excellent 9-channel AV receiver that draws on the company's years of experience in this area to deliver an impressive all-round performance. The LX89 uses the classic design and layout of a Pioneer receiver, with a superb level of build quality and a very attractive black brushed metal finish. The front panel is minimalist in its approach, with two large dials and an informative central display sandwiched between them, whilst everything else is behind a drop-down flap.
The LX89 has an extensive set of connections including HDMI support for HDR and HDCP 2.2 but not all the HDMI inputs are 2.0a, so make sure you use the right ones for any Ultra HD 4K sources. Although the menu system has had a make-over, setting the LX89 up still isn't exactly intuitive with a large number of potential speaker configurations. The confusing naming of the HDMI inputs and speaker terminals doesn't really help either, so there's a good chance you'll need to take a look at the manual at some point. There is a new setup app to help you and the remote app is still impressive but despite having had a slight redesign the provided remote control remains disappointing.
The LX89 combines looks, build quality and power with a surprisingly nuanced performance
The LX89 is as feature-packed an AV receiver as you're likely to find and thus it naturally supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, although the latter will be added via a future firmware update. The Pioneer includes high quality DACs and a new power supply, as well as support for all the popular high-res audio sources. The LX89 has built-in Wifi and Bluetooth, as opposed to add-on devices, both of which were easy to setup and a massive improvement on previous years. The Pioneer also has support for AirPlay and Spotify, along with Internet radio and a built-in AM/FM tuner. The receiver comes with a setup microphone and uses Pioneer's proprietary MCACC room EQ system, which we found to be quite effective.
The receiver has nine channels of built-in Class D amplification, with the option to add two more for a full 7.2.4 configuration, and the Pioneer certainly wasn't wanting in terms of available power, with plenty of headroom and a big open soundstage. This doesn't come as a surprise for a Pioneer AV receiver but the LX89 also managed to deliver a decidedly nuanced sound that made it a great performer with both movies and music. Like all the other models in this group test, the Pioneer SC-LX89 received a Highly Recommended award and thanks to its combination of build quality, features, performance and price, it definitely deserves to be on your short list if you're looking for an AV receiver in the sub £2,000 price bracket.
Yamaha RX-A3050Despite the Yamaha RX-A3050 representing the manufacturer's flagship AV receiver for this year, it's also the cheapest model in this group test and can be picked up online for just £1,699. When you consider all that this 9-channel receiver has to offer that's an absolute bargain. The design is minimalist but attractive with a combination of a gloss and brushed metal finish. The construction is very solid, with a well engineered feel to the entire unit. There is an extensive set of connections at the rear, including HDMI inputs and outputs that, thanks to a recent firmware update now support 4K, Rec.2020 and HDR.
The A3050 supports Dolby Atmos and, along with the Denon X7200, is one of the few AV receivers to currently support DTS:X, thanks to the same firmware update. The receiver includes built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, along with a host of features and extensive file support. It also forms part of Yamaha's MusicCast multiroom system, which proved to be easy to setup, very flexible and highly effective. Our only real complaints are that the remote control lacks a backlight and the menu system is less than intuitive, but the excellent remote app certainly goes some way towards mitigating both of these issues.
The A3050 has already had a firmware update to add DTS:X, as well as support for Rec.2020 and HDR
The confusing menu system aside, setting up the A3050 was relatively straight forward, although the YPAO sound optimisation feature didn't handle low frequencies very well. However the A3050 proved to be a class act with both 5.1- and 7.1-channels, delivering an assured performance with plenty of detail and dynamic range. The receiver produced a cohesive sound field that effectively steered effects around the room, whilst retaining a sense of tonal balance. The front soundstage was open but retained clarity when it came to dialogue, whilst the bass was nicely integrated.
All of these attributes were merely expanded when we moved on to Dolby Atmos, although you will need to add two more channels to create a full 7.1.4 setup. However, whichever configuration you choose, the A3050 is capable of creating a sonic hemisphere that adds to the reality of the audio experience. The Yamaha also proved to be very adept with two-channel music, making it a great all-round receiver. In fact we doubt you'd find a better AV receiver at this price point and with its combination of power, processing and features, the Yamaha RX-A3050 easily won a Highly Recommended award when we originally reviewed it and can be considered the best value receiver amongst this group test.
Group Test WinnerSo which is the best overall? Well before we decide on the ultimate winner there are a number of areas where specific receivers stand out. In terms of pure audio performance the Arcam AVR850 takes the crown thanks to its combination of Class G amplification and Dirac Live room correction. You will have to add extra amplification for a full 7.1.4 immersive audio experience but the results are definitely worth it. Alternatively the Anthem MRX 1120 gives you everything in a single box and comes a very close second in terms of sound quality thanks to the excellent Anthem Room Correction.
However these are both expensive receivers and somewhat lacking in the design and features department. So if you're looking for a high-end bargain then Pioneer's SC-LX89 and especially Yamaha's RX-A3050 are exactly what you need. They both have a gorgeous design and a tank-like construction coupled with nine channels of serious amplification; not to mention a host of features including built-in WiFi and Bluetooth. They each have proprietary room correction software with Pioneer's MCACC being rather effective and both can deliver a great performance with movies and music.
For its combination of design, build quality, features, performance and price there can be only one overall winner in this group test...
By a process of elimination you can probably work out that the overall winner is the Denon AVR-X7200WA. This 9-channel AV receiver sits right in the middle of the price range for this group test and it delivers in every single category. In fact in our original review we struggled to find anything to criticise and the best we could come up with was that the remote app was a bit basic. Aside from that Denon have simply knocked it out of the park as far as the X7200WA is concerned. It's gorgeous to look at and beautifully constructed and engineered. The menus, rear connections and remote control are all well designed and intuitive to use. The setup procedure is simple and easy to follow and even the way the receiver is packaged has been carefully considered.
The X7200WA has every feature you could possibly think of including Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Auro-3D. The HDMI inputs and outputs are fully future-proofed and the receiver includes built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, along with support for DLNA, AirPlay, Spotify, Internet radio and high resolution audio. There's even a phono stage for a turntable and an AM/FM tuner for those who want to go old school. The X7200WA is the only receiver in this group test that uses Audyssey room correction but we found it to be simple to use and quite effective. You will need to add two extra channels of amplification to get the full benefit of immersive audio but the Denon is extremely flexible in terms of speaker configuration and amp assignment.
The combination of a mono-block amplifier design, custom-made transistors, discrete circuitry and 32-bit DACs certainly paid dividends, resulting in a receiver that has both power and precision. The Denon was a superb performer with both movies and music, whilst it handled all the various immersive audio formats with ease. As we mentioned earlier in this group test, the X7200WA delivers more bang for your buck than any other AV receiver that we've reviewed. There might be receivers that do certain things better than the Denon AVR-X7200WA but nothing else does everything so well and for that reason it's our group test winner.
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