Pioneer's latest receiver combines value and class
IntroductionPioneer have always been strong in the AV receiver market and recently we've had a look at some of their higher-end models. Now it's the turn of their lower budget receivers, kicking of with the VSX-923 which was launched this summer. Intended as replacement for last year's VSX-922, the newer model certainly has an impressive set of specifications for a receiver in the sub-£500 price bracket. There's seven channels of built-in amplification of course but there are also pre-outs for two active subwoofers. There's eight HDMI inputs, one of which supports MHL, and two HDMI outputs - along with ARC, 3D and 4K passthrough. The seven channels are rated at 105W each, the DACS are 192kHz/24-bit and the QDEO video processor can scale up to and including 4K. Once you throw in Pioneer's classy design, solid build and stylish remote app, it starts to look very attractive. Let's see if we can resist the VSX-923's charms?
Design and ConnectivityThe look of the VSX-923 follows the classic receiver layout with an input dial on the right, a volume dial on the left and a display in the middle. Despite its budget nature, the 923 still enjoys Pioneer's classy styling, with a matte black colour scheme and a brushed metal finish. The build quality is very good, with a well engineered finish and Pioneer also offer a silver version for those who don't like traditional black. On the left hand side, along with the input dial you'll find the on/off button, a headphone socket and a jack for the auto setup microphone. On the right side there's the volume control, along with an audio jack, a USB port and a MHL compliant HDMI input. In the middle there is a large, informative and easy to read display, along with a few basic control button.
At the rear is a reasonable set of connections, including seven HDMI inputs (eight if you include the one at the front) and two HDMI outputs including one for a second zone. There are speaker terminals for the 7-channels of built in amplification and these have been positioned to aid easier access from above. There are also pre-outs for two active subwoofers. Pioneer have sensibly dropped most of the unnecessary legacy connections, leaving some basic phono in/out, composite video in/out, component video in, optical and coaxial digital in/out and aerial sockets for the built-in tuners. Finally there is an Ethernet port and IR in/out connections, along with a USB charge port for an optional AS-WL300 wireless converter and a port for the optional AS-BT200 Bluetooth adapter.
The provided remote control is Pioneer's standard model which is made of black plastic 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 second zone, the built-in tuners, for controlling a connected iDevice and for accessing other features. The problem is that there are so many buttons, that the remote becomes a bit crowded and despite having a backlight, we still found it difficult use in a darkened room. The remote is also rather unintuitive to use and, compared to Pioneer's free remote app, it looks very dated and in need of a make over.
Setup and MenusThe menu system uses Pioneer's standard menu system and whilst we found the user interface to be reasonably clear and concise, it did seem rather dated. When you look at the menu systems on some of the competition, it is definitely time for Pioneer to give their's a makeover. The Home page on the VSX-923 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. The third sub-menu is Data Management which allows you to store different MCACC presets, allowing you to calibrate your system for different listening positions or frequency adjustments for the same listening position.
The fourth sub-menu is System Setup and this includes Manual Speaker Setup for those that are more hands-on, allowing you to manually set size, distance and overall balance of the connected speakers. Input Setup allows you to specify what is connected to the various inputs, whilst OSD Language allows you to change the GUI screen's displayed language. The Network Setup covers connecting the VSX-923 to your network, whilst HDMI Setup synchronises the receiver 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 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.
FeaturesThe VSX-923 sits in the budget range of Pioneer's line-up and thus has a fairly limited set of features, especially when compared to some of the competition. There is an Ethernet port for a wired connection and the VSX-923 is DLNA certified allowing you to connect with your home network and use it as a digital media player. The VSX-923 can play back up to 192kHz/24-bit high resolution AIFF, FLAC and WAV files, along with Apple Lossless, MP3, WMA and AAC music files. As well as a built-in AM/FM tuner, the receiver has an 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.
You can connect your iDevice directly to the receiver using the USB connection on the front, allowing you to playback digital audio and video, whilst charging it at the same time. There is support for 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 VSX-923 is HTC Connect certified and compatible with Windows 8, whilst AVNavigator allows for easy wiring and setup through your PC, Mac or iPad. There is MHL support for audio/video playback over Android devices and Gapless Playback for AIFF, Apple Lossless, WAV and FLAC.
Pioneer's latest version of their remote app - iControlAV2013 - is not only excellent but freely available for both iOS and Android, offering a simple and intuitive interface for controlling the VSX-923. You can use the app to control every aspect of the receiver and the stylish user interface is easily one of the best we've seen. The remote app certainly puts the outdated menus system and unintuitive remote control to shame.
Video PerformanceThe VSX-923 can passthrough 1080p/24, 3D and 4K content, as well as support Deep Colour. When it came to handling standard and high definition content, the QDEO video processing delivered an impressive performance, deinterlacing 480i, 576i and 1080i signals and scaling them up to 4K if necessary. We were pleased to see that the Pioneer 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 but since this is best done on your display, leave all these controls in their default zero or off positions. The on-screen video menu is somewhat uninformative and rather annoying to navigate and use. Thankfully the excellent remote app comes to the rescue once again, allowing you to access all the video settings via a well-designed user interface. This not only makes choosing and setting up all the various video options easy but also allows you to check the setup on one simple page.
Audio PerformanceAs is often the case with modern receivers, the VSX-923 includes a number of signal processing features and other enhancements but we tend to find the best approach is just to leave the signal alone. Aside from some judicious room equalisation courtesy of Pioneer's proprietary MCACC software, we left the audio in the safe hands of the sound designers responsible for it. The VSX-923 proved to be more than capable of delivering multi-channel soundtracks in a lively and wholly engaging manner. The built-in seven channels of amplification will be more than capable of filling the average sized living room with a hugely enjoyable soundscape. Whilst the Pioneer's 150 watts per a channel might not be as powerful as some of the competition, what the VSX-923 lacks in brute force it more than makes up for in subtlety.
We found that the audio had a pleasing subtlety to it, delivering a lovely sense of detail and clarity. This made the VSX-923 especially capable of delivering the more subtle soundtracks, creating an immersive surround experience with great placement of effects. In Prometheus, for example, the scenes inside the caves have a lot of atmosphere with echoes and dripping water, all of which were carefully reproduced by the Pioneer. When things kicked up a gear during the sand storm, the VSX-923 was equally capable of handling the complex sound design and whilst the impact wasn't quite as powerful as with others, the steering was precise and refined. The front soundstage, especially with music, felt open and suitably wide, whilst pans were smooth and fluid. When we switched to the sonic assault that is Star Trek Into Darkness the VSX-923 was equally accomplished, resulting in a genuinely entertaining audio experience.
This level of detail and subtlety in favour of raw power means that the VSX-923 proved, for a receiver, to be surprisingly adept at two-channel music. We found that with the more complex orchestral pieces the front soundstage retained the open feel experienced with film soundtracks, whilst also delivered good localisation of sounds and instruments. A record such as Kate Bush's Director's Cut, which is based around female vocals and sparse instrumentation, also benefited from the Pioneer's light touch as did acoustic recordings. When switching to rock or music with a lot of bass, the VSX-923 had slightly less percussive impact, although still found the experience to be enjoyable thanks to the detail and clean delivery. The VSX-923 should certainly prove to be a great all-rounder for anyone looking for a competent surround receiver that can also handle music well.
- Excellent sound quality
- Good connections
- Impressive video processing
- Attractive design
- Robust build quality
- Flexible setup and configuration
- Impressive remote app
- Menus look dated
- Internet functionality is limited
- Remote control is unintuitive
Pioneer VSX-923 7-Channel AV Receiver ReviewThe look of the VSX-923 might be old-school AVR but who's complaining when the design is this attractive. The matt black finish and brushed metal styling certainly don't suggest a budget receiver and the build quality is excellent at this price point. The layout is fairly standard, with an input dial on the left and a volume control on the right. The central display is large, easy to read and informative, whilst the front connections and buttons are kept to the bare essentials - in line with the minimalist approach. The rear connections are impressive, with eight HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs. Pioneer have sensibly ditched most of the unnecessary legacy connections and it's good to see the speaker terminals positioned for easier access. The remote control is comprehensive but crowded and rather unintuitive to use - an upgrade is in order.
Setup is relatively straightforward and Pioneer's MCACC room calibration software makes it even easier, although there are plenty of manual options for those who want to get more hands on. However the menu system is beginning to look very dated and Pioneer really should consider giving it a makeover. The VSX-923 has a fairly basic internet platform, with only an internet radio as the main feature, although there is also a built-in AM/FM tuner. The receiver is DLNA certified and there's an Ethernet port but no built-in wireless capability, although there is an optional adapter. Whilst the media player is rather simple in appearance, the VSX-923 does offer a reasonable amount of file support. The Pioneer also includes compatibility with Windows 8, has HTC Connect certification, supports iDevices and includes AirPlay Wireless Audio. The free remote app is excellent and is available for both iOS and Android.
In terms of its video performance, the VSX-923 includes support for ARC (Audio Return Channel) and can passthrough both 3D, Deep Colour, 24p and 4K. The built-in QDEO video processing is excellent and the Pioneer is capable of upscaling to Ultra HD (4K) resolution. On the audio side, the VSX-923 proved to be a very capable performing, delivering a hugely enjoyable surround sound experience. The Pioneer might not be as powerful as some of the competition but it makes up for it in subtlety and charm. There is plenty of detail and clarity to the audio, with some precise placement of effects and pans around the room. Overall it made for an exciting and lively sound field and the more graceful delivery also meant that the VSX-923 paid dividends with two-channel music.
The Pioneer VSX-923 is a very capable all-round performer, with a level of build quality and specifications that defy its modest price tag. If you're looking for a sub-£500 receiver then this accomplished receiver should certainly be on your wish list.
Value For Money8
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