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General Asylum: REVIEW: Pioneer vsx-811s Receiver by Joe Blow

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REVIEW: Pioneer vsx-811s Receiver

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Model: vsx-811s
Category: Receiver
Suggested Retail Price: $475.00
Description: A/V reciever
Manufacturer URL: Pioneer
Manufacturer URL: Pioneer

Review by Joe Blow ( A ) on January 21, 2003 at 09:20:44
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If you are reading this review, you might wonder why I'm bothering with it. Have I lost my mind? Have I abandoned "high end"? Their is a reason for my madness, please bear with me. Most of the people here are interested in high quality music reproduction, and I am certainly no exception. My integrated amplifier alone cost 4x what this receiver did. So what's the point? The point is just because I really enjoy fine music does not mean I don't enjoy the occasional movie. After setting up a similar receiver for my dad to watch movies in Dolby Digital, I'm here to tell you it brings a whole new dimension to movies. If nothing else, it just seems to make them more fun.

How does one "merge" home theater into a high quality 2 channel audio only system? Having thought about it for a while, the answer is deceptively simple, and you don't stand to loose a thing from your 2 channel system as nothing here changes. System placement does, however, become a bit less flexible since video components are now thrown into the mix. A modest HT receiver provides all the facilities necessary to do this task. It serves as a surround processor (for Dolby Digital, DTS, Pro-Logic, or whatever) and a three channel amplifier (for center and rear surrounds) only. Only the audio signals from video devices need go through our hypothetical receiver (no video or dedicated music sources), thus leaving true music sources as they currently are. The left and right pre-out signals feed the existing two channel system, which in turn provides amplification for the R/L channels just like any other source. The key is that because pre-outs from the receiver are used, the volume of all channels are completely controlled by the receiver. And because my main music speakers now serve double duty for home theater, I don't need duplicate R/L speakers or any kind of speaker selector in the chain. Those costs can instead be put toward a pair of surround speakers and perhaps a center speaker too.

The receiver in question, the Pioneer VSX-D811S, is Pioneers flagship model in their non-Elite line up. I selected this receiver based on one main facet. It was the cheapest I could find with R/L pre-amp outputs. I ordinarily do not select components based on price (on sale at Best Buy for $299), but increasingly on the video side I have been. The rate of obsolesance on this stuff is almost as bad as computers. It's difficult for me to invest in video technologies when I know that in a few years much of it will be dinosaur technology. Considering that movie watching is a very small percentage of my free time just makes it more difficult to open the floodgates.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This review concentrates on the use of this receiver from the afore mentioned aspect only. It is therefore not a thorough review of this receiver by any means. If adding home theater to a music system is a priority, this review will interest you. If your intent is to use this receiver as the receiver that it is, then you probably need more information.

For surround decoding the VSX-D881S does it all from humble Dolby Pro-Logic through at least Dolby Digital and DTS 6.1, including Pro-Logic II and Neo:6, each with separate modes for Movies and Music. It also claims to do 7.1 but since this unit only has six channels of amplification I'm not sure just how this is accomplished. It also throws in some DSP simulated surround modes, which I found to generally sound gimmicky and their usefulness therefore questionable.

For devices it has a staggering array of RCA (analog) jacks for CD, Aux, CDR/Tape, DVD, Satellite, VCR, and an extra set of "Video" inputs on the front. The last four are accompanied by composite and S-Video inputs. The VCR has yet another set of composite and s-video jacks for output. There are 3 coax and 2 optical digital inputs. Any of these can be assigned to the CD, CDR/Tape, DVD, Satellite, or VCR inputs. A third lone optical audio input is for the front panel "Video" input only. There are two component video inputs which, like the digital inputs, can be assigned to the DVD, TV, or VCR inputs. It also has a set of 6 analog inputs for connecting a DVDA or SACD player (or a DVDV player that has it's own decoder, if so inclined). These inputs are mapped only to the DVD input. Video can be routed to a TV through the composite, S-Video, or component video outputs. A CD-R or MD can be digitally connected via an optical digital output. There is also, of course, the six channel pre-amp outputs. Last, but not least, there is also the built in tuner as well. This unit lacks a phono input which is probably just as well. It's hard to imagine with everything crammed into a six channel HT receiver that it would be anything more than a highly compromised and distant afterthought.

Overall I am quite impressed with the flexibility of signal routing with this unit. The assignable digital and component inputs means you probably will not be stuck with using "the wrong input" because the output format of device 'X' does not match the input of device 'X' on the receiver. I am not impressed however with this units lack of signal conversion. What I mean is what goes in is only what goes out. A digital PCM audio signal from, say, a CD player will not be present on the analog outputs to a tape deck. For this you must also run the analog output from the CD player. Likewise video signals are not converted. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to run a single video connection from the receiver to the monitor and have the receiver convert the composite video from my VCR into S-Video (for my dated TV)? Yes, it would, but it doesn't. To be fair I should point out I don't know if any receiver does this. I assumed they all would, but maybe this one is a cop out because it is inexpensive. Running video through this receiver will otherwise require you to also switch inputs on the TV the appropriate video format, so what's the point? You got me.

In my setup I connected only the audio outputs of my video sources using coax digital from the DVD, optical from the Satellite, and RCA analog from the VCR and PVR. I chose to continue to switch video and analog audio to the TV through my existing bank of mechanical switches, in part because of the afore mentioned lack of signal conversion, but also because I don't want to have to have the receiver on just to watch ordinary television.

For outputs I connected the AUX input of my Musical Fidelity A3 integrated (which drives my stereo speakers) to the R/L pre-out from the VSX-D811S. My center and two surround speakers connect directly to the binding posts of the receiver. Setup proved to be remarkably smooth and easy. I just followed the 5 minute setup followed by the complete setup in the front and about half way to the back of the manual. I was done in perhaps 15 minutes, including adjusting the levels between all speakers. I found by adjusting the L/R levels to the max (+10dB) the volume of my A3 only needs to be at about 10:00 to provide equal sound output across all channels. This is nice because if you change inputs on the A3 you don't have to worry about speaker cones whizzing across the room should you forget to turn it down first.

This receiver happily steps down from 7.1 to 5.0 which calls for five speakers (Left, Center, Right, Right Surround, Left Surround, and no subwoofer) as used in my old pro-logic decoder. 7.0 adds two rear surround speakers (called L/R rear surround, of which I question if they are really necessary), and in any setup, x.1 adds a subwoofer channel. Since all my speakers are full range they are set to "Large" in the setup. If using small center and surround speakers in a .0 setup the bass from these speakers are sent to the L/R channel (unless these are also small) where presumably a subwoofer, if used, would be slaved off the stereo amplifier for normal two channel listening. When connected to a music system with full range speakers (or monitors w/sub), I can think of no reason the subwoofer ".1" output from the receiver would have to be used at all.

The front panel of this unit is spartan with most of the controls hidden behind a flip down front panel. This is ideal for it's intended function in my system as it essentially is just another component. The simple appearance seems to convey that illusion quite well. My only real beef with appearance is it is not available in silver. In a time when controls seem to be moving off control panels in favor of remote control, it is refreshing to see that almost all functions can be controlled from a panel hidden behind a flip down door. You could easily use this unit if you lost the remote, sans the convenience it provides.

Speaking of remote, it's not high on my list of favorites. There are far too many keys that do double or even triple duty depending on the device controlled. Although all functions are labeled in small print above the key, the assignments are not particularly logical and you are hosed if you need both the auxiliary and primary functions of the key for a device. It's a smidgeon too wide to fit comfortably in the palm, although the button size and spacing is reasonable. It also completely lacks codes for Apex devices and none of the Echostar codes work with my Dish Network IRD. At best, codes for my Mitsubishi TV only half work. Even the learning functions turned out to be of limited value as I cannot get this remote to reliability control my A3. I found it very confusing overall and of limited value for much more than controlling the receiver.

The built in dimmable display provides adequate feedback on setup and operation. The display is however at times confusing and contradictory. For example if the unit is receiving a Dolby Digital signal an indicator lights. If the unit is decoding Dolby Digital, a second (red) indicator lights. For whatever reason I frequently see the unit claiming to receive Dolby Digital, but the pro-logic II decoder indicator is lit. I believe this is because the Dolby Digital received indicator is in error (all the movies I have that truly state they are Dolby Digital and not just Dolby Surround do in fact trigger the red Dolby Digital decoder indicator). Also the 'II' in the Dolby Pro-Logic indicator is always lit, even if normal pro-logic is selected.

The sound quality actually pleasantly surprised me in some ways but overall it's level of performance is on par with expectations. It proved to be very dynamic and doesn't seem to strain while driving three full range speakers full tilt. I can easily rattle windows without a subwoofer (I should also add at this point that if desired, this receiver can be set to attenuate or even turn off the low frequency effects). It does have that typical "Japanese" sound to it (thin, bright, and not terribly detailed) but in a world of excess that is movie sound tracks, it doesn't really seem to matter. I'm not saying that better would not be appreciated, just that I generally didn't find it bothersome. It can be annoying on dialog though, where the brightness on female voices does tend to sound unnatural. I also found having the acoustically opposite A3 doing duty as L/R not a problem either. There are differences for sure, but I found if I stopped analyzing the sound and just enjoyed the movie the sound field was convincing enough.

All it all, this is an incredible buy based on features alone and the performance is respectable for home theater. Unfortunately it starts to fall apart from here. It aspires to be a $5-600 receiver with this feature set but upon close examination it's obvious where the cost savings come from. The workmanship seems fine, but the materials and design scream cheap, although there is probably nothing out of line with what should be expected at this price point. The front panel is plastic, although it does a convincing job of appearing like a thick panel of brushed aluminum. The sheet metal on the chassis is extremely thin. So thin in fact that it bows when making connections on the back panel. The binding posts are flimsy feeling and will not accept spades. It's either pins, bare wire, or banana plugs. The antenna connection for the tuner is a spring loaded clip, much like those used for speaker connections on bottom of the barrel lines.

A look in the top of the receiver shows a power supply that looks about 1/4 the needed size for the claimed 100Wx6 output power. The single pair of filter caps are very likely less than 10,000uF each (just guessing based on size). A quick peek on the back panel reveals this 600 watt receiver only consumes 300 Watts. Either the power ratings are, achem, slightly exaggerated or there is a small nuclear reactor in this thing. A quick look at the power amplifier section itself though shows a heat sink that is a little more than sheet metal with fins rivited to it. Maybe those bricks attached to the heat sink are some kind of cryo cooler? Nope, those are the amplifiers. Two hybrid modules provide the output power for all six channels. To be fair Pioneer does not claim discrete output devices in this unit, this is just another way to keep costs down. There is also a fan in this unit that blows into the heat sink. I can't say how loud it is because I don't believe it's ever kicked in (on the other hand, if it has, it's darned quiet). No doubt a good deal of the performance I obtained in my system was a result of the load of two channels having been removed from the VSX-D881S's amplifier section and that the two rear surround speakers (the 6 and 7th speakers) are completely disabled. That leaves more power available for the remaining three channels which this receiver satisfactorily handled.

For grins, I did attempt to use this receiver in two channel mode. In "stereo" mode the result is absolutely horrid. I don't think I could listen to it for more than a few minutes, even though the audio was still routed through my main stereo amplifier and speakers. It's extremely harsh and even hissy. Direct (analog bypass) mode is worlds better, but still suffers. This appears not to be just me, as owners on audioreview and epinions have apparently noticed the same thing. Their solution is to switch the receiver to "Midnight mode" for two channel. This does "fill in" the signal but now sounds boomy and artificial. Actually this is by design. The Midnight mode adds a loudness contour and compresses the dynamic range significantly. The idea is you can watch a movie at low volume an not loose the audio on soft passages for late night listening while family sleeps. For this function it is fine. Using it to make two channel audio "acceptable" for music listening I do not think is acceptable. It is clear that for critical music listening, the VSX-D881S is, unsurprisingly, not going to be stealing any time from the rest of my system.

For use as a home theater decoder/amplifier integrated into a dedicated music system as described above this receiver has met or exceeded my expectations. While not perfect, it does a completely acceptable, even respectable, job. It is inexpensive and high on features per $$$ but clearly many of the design choices were driven by a low target price point. If the intent is for something different, audition carefully.

Product Weakness: Many corners cut in design to make price possible. Music reproduction a real sore spot.
Product Strengths: Compares feature wise to receivers that cost twice as much. Good way to add surround sound to an existing two channel system. Sound quality adequate for HT.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Musical Fidelity A3, Pioneer VSX-D811S
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Pioneer VSX-D811S
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Apex DV1500 DVD, ReplayTV 3060
Speakers: Boston T-830II (R/L), Phase Technologies PC (Center), Boston CR-6 (R/L surround)
Cables/Interconnects: The cheapest I could find
Music Used (Genre/Selections): DVD: Stargate Season I DVD set, Star Wars II. ReplayTV: U571
Room Comments/Treatments: Irregular shaped room w/cathedral ceiling, carpeting. Used as and furnsihed as living room.
Time Period/Length of Audition: ~1 month
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): Panamax MAX1000+ and MAX500DBS
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Pioneer vsx-811s Receiver - Joe Blow 09:20:44 01/21/03 ( 0)