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Published December 1, 2003


Onkyo TX-SR800 Audio/Video Receiver

Since the advent of DVD, The Dark Side has seduced many of you. You first think, "Nah, not me," but you can’t help yourself. At every visit to the local Gigantic Electronics Store, you see the boxes beckoning you. The big, bad home-theater industry first reels you in with Dolby Digital 5.1. Then it’s DTS. Pretty soon, five speakers aren’t enough. You’re told you need six speakers, and then seven. What’s next -- 10 speakers and two subwoofers?

I don’t blame you -- I’ve gone down the same path. But home theater is a wonderful hobby -- I so love watching movies at home that I rarely step out of my hermit hole to watch movies at the local Cineplex. I’ve even traded in my beloved two-channel integrated amp for a lowly receiver.

Yes, the receiver has an inferiority complex. Audiophiles have slammed them for years, and in some cases the bad press has been deserved -- many mass-market receivers of the past were poorly made, with tinny sound. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that many receivers are very well constructed and sound great. That’s the case with the subject of this review, the Onkyo TX-SR800 ($1000 USD).


The TX-SR800 sits near the middle of Onkyo’s receiver range, with the TX-NR900 and TX-DS989 above it. It’s a full-featured receiver that includes all current processing formats, including DTS 96/24. It is also certified THX Select, which means that it meets THX’s quality and performance standards and includes THX’s proprietary circuits to enhance home-theater sound. The power rating is a substantial 100W to each of its seven channels.

There are various modes that will enhance your experience of listening to two-channel recordings; the most intriguing for audiophiles are Direct and Pure Audio. In Direct mode, the analog signal is routed to the front left and right speakers only, with minimal signal manipulation and no analog-to-digital conversion. Pure Audio mode is the same, but blacks out the front-panel display and shuts off the video circuitry to minimize any signal-degrading noise to the left and right channels. Whenever the volume is turned up or down, the front-panel display lights up briefly so you can see what the volume level is, and then turns off again. The Stereo mode is similar to Direct, except that the subwoofer (if you’ve got one) is activated.

There are various DSP modes to simulate discrete multichannel audio. Dolby Pro Logic II (DPL II) uses a sophisticated digital circuit to extract center-channel and surround information from a two-channel source, and routes it to the appropriate speaker or subwoofer for 5.1-channel playback. There are two settings in DPL II: Music and Movie. The Music mode has three user-adjustable parameters: Center Width, Panorama, and Dimension. Center Width allows you to determine how much of the derived center-channel signal is sent to the center speaker and how much is sent to the front left and right speakers. This feature helps blend the center-channel better with your front main speakers. Panorama expands the front soundstage to the rear speakers, and Dimension is much like a fader control in your car stereo -- it allows you to adjust the sound more toward the front or the rear soundstage.

DTS Neo:6 is very much like DPL II, with one important difference: the two-channel information on your CDs is extracted into 6.1 channels, so your back surround speaker or speakers will be used as well. As in DPL II, there are Music and Cinema settings, and the Center parameter can be adjusted in the Music setting.

As if 6.1-channel playback weren’t enough, Enhanced 7 mode uses the DSP circuit to simulate 7.1 channels from two channels. The Orchestra mode simulates a large hall, using the main and surround channels while cutting out the center-channel signal. Unplugged gives the feel of a smaller jazz club, and Studio-Mix simulates the acoustics of a rock concert. Finally, All Channel Stereo sends the front left and right signals to the surround speakers for a stereo effect between each speaker pair.


One of the more important characteristics for me when choosing a receiver is ergonomics. This is doubly important for two-channel playback, because I’m used to simple integrated amplifiers with few controls -- volume, source selection, and on/off are the only ones I really need. Fortunately, the Onkyo TX-SR800’s front panel is fairly clean. There are quite a few buttons, but they’re well-organized and clearly labeled. I have two complaints: the numbers that designate volume level are too small to see from across the room, and viewing the setup menus requires a TV or other display device. However, once setup is complete, nearly all functions are accessible via the remote.

The remote control itself is a model of simplicity. There are individual buttons for selecting inputs, such as DVD or CD, and you can select modes, such as Stereo or Pure Audio, without having to scroll through menus. And the buttons are backlit, which makes it easy to operate the TX-SR800 in the dark. The remote can learn other remote codes and can be programmed, thus allowing you to consolidate your collection of remotes into a single unit.

The listening experience

I performed my listening sessions using the Axiom M60ti and Mirage Omni 260 speakers, a JVC XV-721 DVD player, and a Mirage OM-200 subwoofer. One of the CDs I used to evaluate the Onkyo TX-SR800 was an early, poorly remastered version of Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold [Vertigo 800 088-2]. In Pure Audio mode, the tinny sound of "Telegraph Road" was quite evident through the Mirage Omnis. However, in Stereo mode, pressing the remote’s Re-EQ button activated the re-equalization circuit, which removed this recording’s brightness. Although Re-EQ is designed for home-theater playback, it performed well with this particular CD. The sub is activated in Stereo mode, which nicely filled in the lean midrange of the Mirage Omnis, giving a fuller, more satisfying sound.

Another great mode for enhancing two-channel music is Dolby Pro Logic II. The settings I used were Music mode, with Panorama set to Off, Dimension to 0, and Center Width to 3. Dire Straits’ "Private Investigations" sounded clear, and DPL II breathed new life into this recording. The subtle use of the surround channels gave more atmosphere to the music, and the center-channel enhanced the spread of sound across the front soundstage. When I turned off DPL II and switched back to Pure Audio, the soundstage collapsed to the front left and right Omni 260s -- surprising, because these speakers normally throw a deep soundstage on their own, without the help of DSP. The collapse was even more noticeable with the Axiom M60ti speakers. Aimee Mann’s voice on "Wise Up," from the Magnolia soundtrack [Reprise CDW 47583], was steered firmly to the center channel in DPL II. Switching between DPL II and Stereo, I preferred the straight stereo playback; there was a bit too much reverberation with DPL II.

DPL II seemed to make more use of the surround speakers than DTS Neo:6, even though Neo:6 makes use of the back surround channel. With Supertramp’s "Goodbye Stranger," also from the Magnolia soundtrack, the front channels were louder than when listening in DPL II. Although they sounded similar, I thought that DPL II sounded a bit better -- the front and rear soundstages seemed more complete and less disjointed than with DTS Neo:6.

Using "Wise Up," I tried out the other modes. In Enhanced 7, the front soundstage had a bit more reverb and the surrounds were not as prominent, although the left and right surrounds and the two back surround channels were active. The Orchestra mode gave the impression of a large venue, Mann’s voice taking on a small, distant quality. I don’t know if this actually enhanced my listening experience, but it was interesting. The Unplugged mode, on the other hand, had very little reverberation, for a more intimate portrayal of "Wise Up." The sound seemed more compressed in Studio Mix mode, which rolled off a good portion of the high frequencies. This mode seemed to have the most manipulation, and I didn’t find it pleasing.


I compared the Onkyo TX-SR800 with Sony’s STR-DA5ES receiver, comparably priced ($1200) though discontinued. The Sony features nearly all of the same processing as the Onkyo, though it lacks DTS 96/24 and THX Select, and has only six channels of amplification versus the Onkyo’s seven. On the other hand, the Sony has certain features that the Onkyo lacks, the most important being independent crossover selections for the main, center, and surround channels. The Onkyo is much easier to use than the Sony, with direct buttons accessing functions and modes as opposed to scrolling menus. However, the Sony can be set up without the use of an onscreen display.

In terms of sound quality, both receivers were smooth operators. "Heatwave," from Holly Cole’s Shade [Alert 6152810392], sounded similar on both, but the Onkyo TX-SR800 seemed punchier through the midrange. Tonally, the Onkyo was a tad smoother as well. Putting my ear up to the front speakers with no music playing, I could hear very little noise with either receiver -- a good sign of quality. And both receivers are well-made overall.


I really enjoyed my time with the Onkyo TX-SR800 receiver. Using it and listening to it in its various modes, I didn’t miss my old integrated amplifier. Sure, I recall that my integrated sounded a bit more airy and sweet, but the Onkyo wasn’t far behind. And the TX-SR800 has many more advantages than a simple integrated amp, including the superb Dolby Pro Logic II, an easy-to-use remote, and a whole home-theater side when you want to watch DVDs. If you want a great-sounding receiver that’s equally at home with audio-only music, I highly recommend the Onkyo TX-SR800. The receiver no longer takes a back seat to the integrated amplifier.

...Vince Hanada

Price of equipment reviewed

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