Everybody wants everything these days. Each year the consumer electronics industry feeds us with new reasons to render our latest pride and joy obsolete, which gives us ever-lengthening lists of features that (we think) we need. The problem is that expectations are so high we get upset when we don't get it. Receivers seem to be bearing the brunt of this, as they, not the TV, are at the centre of our AV systems these days, and this is where the burden of expectation tends to lie.
There seems to have been two main changes to receivers that brought this about. The first wave was video switching (and processing), so that the source is selected by the audio part of the system, rather than the video side. The second wave was the introduction of high-definition audio and video, and the HDMI interface that supported it.
This is the wave that Onkyo have been riding for a few years now. Implementing HDMI interfaces and HD audio decoding has been a hurdle that many well-established audio companies have stumbled on. Not Onkyo; they saw it all coming and realised the opportunities that existed to develop HD-capable receivers. Just being able to develop a receiver with Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, plus a bit of video switching for good measure, was no indicator to being able to succeed with the next, and much more difficult step.
Onkyo appear to have bitten the bullet early on, and made sure they had the expertise and resource to produce these products. They have since reaped the rewards, with several generations of popular HD receivers and processors over a wide range of the market. The TX-SR 607 was a particularly successful benefactor of this capability, and brought solid HD-audio functionality to the lower end of the market. It cleaned-up, becoming the most popular receiver in the UK. It is now superseded by the TX-SR608, and expectations, as always, are high.
The problem is that TX-SR608 customers will only be paying £450 for the privilege, and that doesn't go very far when you have so many functions, so many channels, and hopefully a fair dose of power in a modest box. So what has to give, and how have Onkyo chosen to spend their precious budget?
Onkyo receivers have had "essential" HD format decoding for some time now – that is:
- Dolby TrueHD
- DTS-HD Master Audio
- Dolby Digital Plus
- DTS-HD High-Resolution Audio
Beyond these, the SR608 includes all the latest must-haves:
- HDMI V1.4
- 3D video compatibility
- HDMI Video up-scaling to 1080p
- Faroudja DCDi Cinema video processing
- Audyssey DSX
- Dolby Pro Logic IIz
- Audyssey 2EQ
- Audyssey Dynamic Volume
- Audyssey Dynamic EQ
- Audio Return Channel
- Deep Colour/x.v.Colour
- Lip Sync
So there's a pretty good list of features that lifts the SR608 above the level of a basic HD receiver, and which that deal fairly well with the needs of audio and video processing. However, there are also a few surprise additions:
- THX Select2 Plus certification
- Analogue PC / VGA video input
- Two zone line level and speaker outputs
- Two subwoofer outputs
THX Select2 means the receiver must be able to perform EQ, de-correlation and other processes to meet the needs of home theatre instead of cinema, plus meet a set of performance requirements. The Select2 requirements are less onerous than for Ultra2, and are appropriate for rooms up to 2000 cu ft (ie: European rooms, rather than US rooms!). Still, this is good going for a budget receiver. What Select2 Plus means isn't quite clear – it means having THX Loudness Plus.
The VGA input is a pleasant surprise. Although many desktop PCs have DVI outputs that can be connected to an HDMI input, Onkyo recognises that a lot of people use laptops for home entertainment these days, and they usually have VGA outputs. Nice feature.
Modern receivers have so many connections that there's barely space to fit them all in. But connections cost money, and the SR608 is in a cost-sensitive part of the market, so there's no luxury of adding the kitchen sink. I have a receiver with ten s-video inputs, and guess how many of them I have ever used? You guessed it. The SR608 has no s-video connections at all – hurrah!
In fact it's probably instructive to consider what the Onkyo doesn't have. There are no analogue multi-channel inputs or outputs, no Ethernet, no s-video, no second HDMI output, not even an IEC power socket.
What it does have are six HDMI inputs, (one at the front), two component inputs (1080p-capable according to the manual!), two SPDIF, two toslink and a minimal set of stereo audio and composite video inputs. It's also good to see speaker cable binding posts instead of spring clip terminals at this end of the market. Since this is the digital audio/video age, I'd say that was exactly what was needed, and your money hasn't been wasted on interfaces that you won't use.
I'll freely admit to using the manual to set-up receivers and processors the first time, and I had to do the same with the SR608. However, that was only because I didn't have enough light to see the speaker connector labels clearly. Otherwise it was the easiest receiver to set-up that I've encountered, and I think that's a big step in the right direction. These things can be so complicated that many people don't even attempt it, and fail to realise the potential. Although all the HDMI, component, spdif and toslink inputs are assignable, you can actually take the SR608 out of the box, make the connections you need, switch on, select the volume and input and start playing, not unlike a stereo amp.
Of course there are lots audio and video configuration options available, but I didn't come away wanting a training course to make the most of it, unlike some Meridian or Lumagen processors. Auto set-up kicks-off automatically when you plug the microphone in, and you get a nice on-screen graphic to help you along. Since Onkyo went to such effort, I thought it would be nice to illustrate where to put the mike, but that's really nit-picking. The Audyessy 2EQ worked OK, but it's obviously a cut-down version. There are only five bands in the frequency EQ, which I don't think is enough, and it thought my AE Aegis Evo3 front speakers should cross over at 40Hz. I found the THX setting of 80 Hz to work much better. Speaker levels are set in 1.0 dB units, and distances every 30 cm, which isn't very precise, but is par for the course.
What helps the set-up is a sensible default configuration for the main interfaces, and a logical automatic input selection system. This confounded me to begin with, but only because I was trying to do irregular things to poke the Onkyo into doing what it wouldn't normally. You don't actually have to assign video or audio connections to each source, the Onkyo will perform automatic signal selection of the audio and video connection formats for you. It selects HDMI where connected, and lesser connections in decreasing order of preference. So it won't try to chose an unused input, which is a common beginner's mistake, and it will chose the best input where more than one is connected.
Finally, although the SR608 gives you a couple of options for Front High, Front Wide, Surround Back, Zone 2 or Bi-amp speaker connections, ultimately it still only has 7 power amplifier channels, so you have to make a choice over which to use. It's good to have the choice, but there are some restrictions.
Blu-ray tends to flatter a lot of equipment these days, allowing even modest gear to look and sound good. In some ways there's more art and science to getting the most from CDs and DVDs, and this is what tends to separate the best equipment. I usually start off with CD playback, as this seems to be a difficult nut to crack for HD receivers and processors. I used HDMI, spdif, toslink and analogue audio inputs, and got some variable results.
HDMI is often the worst case, and even using my Denon A1UDCI as the source, the results weren't great. The SR608 seemed to skip over the surface of the music, and gave a rather superficial reproduction. It was reasonably well-balanced, but didn't resolve well at the frequency extremes, and didn't make me want to keep listening. Switching to an LG Blu-ray player made things worse, with a two-dimensional sound stage, and a plodding and characterless presentation. This was interesting, as Onkyo claim to use jitter-cleaning circuit technology. My impression was that the SR608 was just as vulnerable to poor players as the previous generation of equipment was, so the new PLL doesn't seem to be as effective as it is with the better Arcam or Pioneer equipment in my experience.
Switching to spdif or toslink was rather better, which is often the case, giving a bit more transparency and clarity, and this was a better input for CDs. Sometimes the analogue inputs could sound better still, but there were some qualifications to this. Use a poor player, and that's what you hear, and the LG proved the point. Using the Denon put SQ up quite a notch, especially with the pure audio mode selected, which made quite a worthwhile improvement. This is rather academic though, as an SR608 user is hardly likely to use an expensive player. However, a modest CD player with a direct analogue connection is likely to give the best stereo performance. Although the SR608 didn't maintain its confidence or authority with loudspeakers that were difficult to drive, it had quite good dynamic capability with average speakers, and I didn't feel it was lacking muscle for a budget receiver.
I hadn't expected great things from the stereo performance, and knew that Onkyos tend to fare better with movie playback, with Blu-rays in particular. Things worked out OK with DVD playback, with consistently reasonable audio performance, but rather variable on the video front. The SR608 uses an STM / Genesis / Faroudja video processor, which isn't a top-tier device like the ReonVX processors used in the up-market Onkyos. Although it will de-interlace and scale any analogue or digital video input to 1080p over HDMI, which is nothing to be sneezed at, there are other limitations in performance and flexibility. I generally found it best to use the HDMI inputs and let the player or TV handle the processing. The Onkyo was still an effective switcher, and had some useful picture controls (though nothing to control greyscale, like the top units).
Audio from DVDs presented a rather rosier picture, with more clarity and excitement than I would have thought possible after listening to music. The SR608 seemed to get its act together with films in a way that eluded it with stereo. I'm not sure why this should be, but performance with Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks was quite convincing, and a bit better than expected from a budget receiver. This was quite a pleasant surprise, and DD digital audio from TV sounded reasonably good as well, without scaling the heights of what is really possible from the legacy formats.
Moving up to Blu-ray, things got better again. Video processing wasn't an issue, and bit-streamed Dolby TrueHD or DTS MA was effective and worthwhile. The SR608 sounded pretty good with all sorts of film sound track, and even over a range of volume levels, which is a good sign. DTS MA brought a distinct improvement in soundstage and refinement over DTS for example, and I got the impression that someone upgrading from a legacy receiver would feel they had got their money's worth.
Or would they…?
We often hear in the forums how new-fangled HD equipment fares badly in comparison with old-but-good equipment, and I'm a keen advocate of DTS re-encoding to make the most of past masters. I happen to have two legacy Sony receivers that represent the extremes of their market – a TA-DA9000ES and an STR-DB940, and I compared these with the SR608 using down-converted DTS output over toslink. The DA9000 showed the SR608 how it should be done - there was more of everything, and it showed what you get when you spend more money, but I hadn't been expecting any surprises. I was more interested in the comparison with the DB940, which had been in the 608's part of the market, in the days before HD was a twinkle in everyone's eye.
I was interested in whether Onkyo had spent so much money on all the new audio and video processing, calibration and certification, plus a couple of extra power amp channels, that there wasn't enough budget left for them to do audio right. It was a fascinating comparison, and I wasn't sure of the outcome. Would the SR608 show the fruits of modern progress, or would the DB940 show that good sound quality is nothing new, and we are only seeing "badge-engineering" these days?
Although I hadn't been impressed with the SR608 to begin with, the DB940 sounded constricted, muddled and boring. The envelope of the sound was small, dynamically and spatially, and it was pretty unimpressive. The SR608 was significantly better, even in the areas where it had disappointed. It sounded fresh, transparent and interesting in comparison, and Blu-ray audio only built on this advantage. Although better quality amps and processors show what's possible, and the SR608 only sits at the foothills of what can be done with Blu-ray, someone who had recently made the jump to HD HT would probably be pleased with their upgrade.
- Good up-to-date feature set
- 3D video compatible
- Enjoyable movie performance
- Quite powerful for the money
- Easy to set-up
- Cool and quiet-running
- Good value for money
- Doesn't quite meet all expectations
- Less assured with music playback
- Doesn't suffer poor sources
- Works best with easy to drive speakers
- Video processing adds little value
Onkyo TX-SR608 AV Receiver Review
I came away with the impression that Onkyo had a big tool-box to draw on when developing AV receivers. They decide what the want for each point in the market, then work within a budget to get the best mix of performance and functionality. With too many features to even list in a review, this must be a difficult juggling act. Receivers are the ultimate jack-of-all-trades these days, but it seems the SR608 isn't actually trying to be all things to all men. It focuses on being an HD AV receiver, rather than being a stereo amp or a media player or video processor or whatever. It doesn't try to be good at everything, but gets its act together with what it needs to do – playing movie soundtracks well. It's also relatively easy to set-up and convenient to use day to day. If you have £450 to spend on a movie-centric AVR that won't become obsolete in a year's time, you're unlikely to regret spending it on the TX-SR608
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