capsule review

Onkyo TX-SR805 Home-Theater Receiver

At a Glance
  • Onkyo TX-SR805

    TechHive Rating

    Brawny, great-sounding home theater receiver has the (for now) unique ability to decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio tracks.

When Onkyo introduced its TX-SR805 home-theater receiver last fall, it was the only receiver capable of decoding high-definition audio formats--Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio--which are part of the Blu-ray and HD DVD specifications). These formats are to audio as high definition is to video, allowing discs to deliver extremely high-quality soundtracks.

Unfortunately, no Blu-ray or HD DVD player could output audio in Bitstream format, so the player--not the receiver--had to decode the Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio audio, And that situation made the TX-SR805's unique capability worthless (temporarily, anyway). Since then, however, a few players capable of outputting Bitstream have reached store shelves.

I tried out the $800 Onkyo TX-SR805 with a $480 Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray Disc player, which can output Bitstream through either its HDMI port or its digital audio ports, thus enabling the receiver to decode high-definition audio. The combination results in phenomenal audio--possibly the best you can get in your living room today. The Onkyo's $800 price seems very reasonable given its capabilities.

Audiophiles want their best piece of gear to handle decoding so they can enjoy optimum audio quality from their system. Presented with a high-end DVD player and an inexpensive receiver, an audiophile would set up the system so that the DVD player, rather than the receiver, performed the video upscaling. Many Blu-ray and HD DVD players pale in comparison to high-end home-theater equipment; if you're using one of these players with a surround-sound setup, it  makes sense to have your receiver do the audio-decoding work.

Using the powerful, well-decked-out TX-SR805 for decoding makes sense. It outputs 130 watts per channel, can drive up to 7.1 channels, and has three 1080p-compatible HDMI 1.3 inputs (plus one HDMI 1.3 output for connecting a TV). The unit's massive transformer and heat sink contribute to its anvil-like weight of 51 pounds (the Blu-ray player I used with it weighs only 7.3 pounds).

The receiver works with Sirius and XM satellite radio, and can power stereo speakers in a second room (to handler that, however, you'd have to string speaker cables, probably through walls). The TX-SR805 lacks an HD Radio tuner and can't pull in digital audio over a network (Onkyo's $2000 TX-NR905 adds network features to the mix).

The receiver comes with an adequate plastic remote that has backlit buttons. I occasionally had trouble using the center thumbwheel to navigate menus. And just before I returned the receiver to Onkyo, the spring-loaded catch for the panel that conceals lesser-used controls broke; the plastic retainer should be sturdier than it is.

I connected my Blu-ray player to the TX-SR805, and used a Pioneer PDP-5080HD HDTV and NHT Classic Three 5.1-channel speakers as outputs. The receiver comes bundled with a speaker-calibration utility and a microphone. To calibrate, you plug the mic into a port on the front of the receiver and start the utility (which you can view on the TV screen). The receiver produces "blat-blat-blat" test noises through each channel, measures audio level through the mic, and sets appropriate speaker output levels automatically. The calibration, which took about 10 minutes to complete, worked very well: Output seemed perfectly set, even from the surround channels. You also have the option of adjusting the output manually via the receiver's onscreen controls. The controls aren't pretty--they look like a DOS screen--and they have almost no explanatory text.

The TX-SR805's biggest problem is that it's such a complicated product. For example, when I tried to play DTS Master Audio tracks from a Blu-ray Disc, I could get the receiver to output simulated surround-sound formats--but not the DTS Master Audio--until I turned off the HDMI Monitor (video output) feature. But that meant I had to choose between watching a movie and listening to its high-definition audio; I couldn't do both at the same time. After scouring the 120-page manual and fiddling with every setting I could find, I gave up and contacted Onkyo. A rep instructed me to turn off a setting that directs audio to be sent through the HDMI output connected to the TV; this setting was buried in one of the on-screen menus.

After I set everything correctly, the receiver showed a 'DTS-HD MSTR' message in LED text, confirming that it was driving five channels, plus the subwoofer. I couldn't find any Dolby TrueHD content in our library of Blu-ray discs, but I found several movies with DTS-ES and DTS Master Audio tracks.

I am at a loss to describe how amazing the sound from my setup was. The bass from an action movie's explosions and music sounded thunderous--but very tight, not muddy--and I could hear a wide range of sound at high volume without feeling that I was punishing my ears. And even as all of this loud stuff was coming through, I could hear distinctly different sounds coming from different speakers. Even whispers emerging from the NHT center-channel speaker sounded incredibly clear. The "'ppphht" emitted by a streaking rocket moving from the right side of the room to the left side was even more thrilling than the subsequent explosion.

On the other hand, when I fast-forwarded through Blu-ray movie scenes with DTS Master Audio enabled, I could often hear static and what sounded like feedback, loud enough to be unpleasant. The manual says that these effects are not a malfunction, but a result of technology used inside the receiver. If I were Onkyo, I'd try to fix the feedback issue.

I also listened to Blue Man Group's The Complex DVD Audio disc on the Panasonic player (music-only Blu-ray discs don't exist yet). Like most Blu-ray players, mine didn't recognize DVD Audio discs; the disc I tried had DTS 96/24 (5.1-channel, 96KHz/24-bit) audio tracks, and features lots of funky sounds emerging from different channels--sometimes at once, and sometimes overlapping. Because the audio had been encoded for discrete channels, I could easily tell where individual sounds were coming from, and this gave the music a thoroughly enjoyable, surreal quality.

Altogether, the audio was the best I've heard outside a theater.

The TX-SR805 is an impressive product. Compared with other receivers in or out of its price range, it's a steal. Some audiophiles may sneer at the TX-SR805, because Onkyo is a midtier brand. It's certainly no NAD or Mcintosh, for example. But the TX-SR805 costs a fraction of what a receiver from one of those companies costs--and neither of them makes receivers capable of decoding high-definition audio.

This story, "Onkyo TX-SR805 Home-Theater Receiver" was originally published by PCWorld.

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At a Glance
  • TechHive Rating

    Brawny, great-sounding home theater receiver has the (for now) unique ability to decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio tracks.

    Pros

    • Decodes DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD
    • Very powerful

    Cons

    • Extremely complex, with poor on-screen help
    • No HD Radio tuner or network capability
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