Pioneer's Brawny SC-09TX

I'm still mourning Pioneer's decision to drop out of the HD television market. I found their Kuro-branded plasma sets simply stunning. But for the past couple of months, I've found some solace by reviewing Pioneer's flagship audiovisual receiver, the Pioneer Elite SC-09TX. It's a hulking 78-pound system that delivers monstrously good sound and video—at a massive $7,000 price. It's not for everyone, but if you're able to spend lavishly on a high-quality in-home entertainment system that covers all the bases and then some, the SC-09TX may be for you.

The look of the system conveys both elegance and brawn, with its shiny, piano-black finish and stunning 5-inch front-panel color LCD screen, bordered on the left by an input knob selector and on the right by the volume knob. Rather than clutter the front with all the technology logos you normally see, Pioneer moves them to the top front border.

There's a reason for the system's heft. Company engineers chose to separate the circuit boards for digital, analog, audio, and video into a dual-chassis structure that adds several inches in height. Separating digital processing and amplification reduces the chance of cross-signal interference.

If you want options in your audiovisual experience, then the SC-09TX is for you. It offers a whopping six HD multimedia inputs and two outputs for multi-room viewing (though only one is active at a time). There are another five component video inputs for connecting HD sources such as cable and set-top boxes, HD TiVos (TIVO), and Blu-ray players. And there are 11 connections for older-generation set-top boxes, VCRs, and the like.

As with many high-end receivers, the SC-09TX offer Sirius XM (SIRI) satellite-radio support and has a dedicated input terminal that lets you control and play back audio and video from Apple's (AAPL) iPod. It does not, however, include support for the young HD Radio format.

And like previous generations of Pioneer audiovisual products, this one also connects with the company's Home Media Gallery software, which lets you access movies, music, and photos from Windows PC and other products that hail from the DNLA alliance of companies in computing and consumer electronics. It's a nice add-on, but not a feature I expect will be used widely.

There are 10 pairs of speaker terminals on the bottom third of the back panel, and they're spaced well enough apart that I had the easiest time ever hooking up speaker wires.

Unfortunately, it got harder when trying to figure out the proper speaker setup. Because of a strange speaker labeling system that uses R1-5 and L1-5 instead of the more common left, right, and center designations, I had to peruse the hefty online manual several times.

An Audiophile's Dream The SC-09TX is built for sound. It's the first receiver to use the so-called sampling rate conversion found in professional studio equipment to sample audio signals in real time and deliver jitter-free playback. Pioneer also uses Class D amplifier technology developed in conjunction with Bang & Olufsen to reduce distortion and boost efficiency. In turn, that reduces the amount of power the receiver draws and conserves energy. The 10 amplifiers have so many configurations that an audiophile could happily play with them for months before being satisfied.

My own midrange Pioneer receiver has suited me well for the past couple of years, but the sound pumped out of the SC-09TX put my unit to shame. The flagship system supports Dolby TrueHD 7.1 lossless surround, DTS-HD Master Audio, and THX Ultra2 Plus.

To take full advantage of those features, you'll have to spring for a relatively new Blu-ray player or another device that also supports decoding from discs and other sources. I used Pioneer's high-end SC-05 Blu-ray player and was amazed at the in-the-room feeling I got while listening to the first movement of Trondheim Solistene's recording of Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony in Dolby TrueHD at 192kHz.

Lossless tracks, where none of the information is left out of the disc or digital recording, also are handled by the system with aplomb. Even Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks on HD sources from television shows somehow sound clearer, with more fidelity. The addition of THX's Loudness Plus feature helps by delivering those sounds at much lower volume levels, which I'm sure my neighbors appreciated among the booming bass and soaring acoustical highlights. You can also crank the volume without the distortion that often occurs.

Pioneer's backlit remote, which comes with the system, is functional and easy to use. It improves upon previous models by cleaning up the clutter and improving the overall layout. Gone, for instance, are the two confusing side-by-side volume rockers for the receiver and TV, replaced by a single rocker and a toggle switch that lets you choose among the pieces of equipment. There's also a new dedicated button for HDMI control and forward and back buttons for quick switching among various sources. During my review, I connected a Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox 360, TiVo HD, Samsung Blu-ray player, and Dish (DISH) and DirecTV (DTV) receivers, so I greatly appreciated the ability to quickly flip among them.

There are many additional features on this receiver that truly make it an audiophile's dream, though its price is too steep to make this a mainstream seller. For the more budget-minded who have their hearts set on a Pioneer chock-full of the latest technology, I'd recommend taking a look at two new receivers that made their debut in August, the $2,000 SC-27 and the $1,700 SC-25.

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