The great thing about today’s A/V receivers is that they can do just about everything except scratch your back and make a cheese sandwich. The not-so-great thing about today’s receivers is trying to figure out how to make everything work before you scratch your head, throw your hands in the air, and go make that cheese sandwich yourself. I found, however, that the multiple options and outcomes possible with the Onkyo TX-NR808 were initially daunting but not painful to navigate; that, once up and running, it pretty much ran itself; and that, in the end, all its features, instructions, and stickers made sense.
The TX-NR808 ($1099 USD), the latest mid-level fire-breather from Onkyo, is a behemoth by any standard, but it’s actually fourth in Onkyo’s pecking order. Ahead of it are three 9.2-channel monsters, the TX-NR1008, TX-NR3008, and TX-NR5008, each loaded with successively more amazing and sophisticated audio and video options. In Onkyo’s parlance, “NR” means “network receiver,” which in turn means that these things all have Ethernet ports with which to connect your amp to the Internet. The advantage of this, as we’ll see, is that it theoretically gives you direct access to vast oceans of content. No longer are you restricted to hard media -- your CDs, DVDs, BDs, and LPs (bless them, Onkyo still offers a phono preamp on each of these models) -- the TX-NR808 and its brethren are designed to access soft media via the Internet. Another advantage to Networthiness is something that’s become commonplace in computing: software upgrades. When Onkyo upgrades or changes something, a GUI interface accessible through the receiver’s menu makes the connection and initiates the upgrade for you. You don’t even have to log in. Pretty cool.
The TX-NR808 pumps a rated 135Wpc RMS into each of seven channels from a package that measures 17.13"W x 7.81"H x 17.13"D and weighs 40.3 pounds. The height measurement is important, because the standard height of a nonadjustable entertainment-center shelf is 8”. In short, it fits. The front panel has three basic sections: a row of source-selection buttons, a massive volume pot, and a display window that tells you which source component has been selected, which sound algorithm is being deployed, which speakers are engaged, and the volume level. Flip down an unobtrusive panel and you find a headphone jack, tone and zone controls, extra sets of analog and digital inputs, a USB port, an HDMI input, and the setup array, including a jack for an Audyssey microphone. The rear panel has six HDMI 1.4a inputs and an HDMI output, an equal number of analog inputs and outputs, and an equal number of separate digital inputs and outputs, including multiple S-video, composite video, and component video. In addition to five-way binding posts for each set of speakers, including those for a second zone, each speaker is also represented by a preamp out. Suffice it to say that whatever source and display equipment you have, the TX-NR808 can deal with it -- and deal with it well.
The TX-NR808 packs ’em in. First, it's certified THX Select 2 Plus level. The TX-NR808 is iPod- and HD Radio ready, though both of those functions require satellite devices running into the receiver’s universal port. The iPod device is of course a docking station, which is nice, but necessary only if you want to use the dock to recharge the iPod’s battery. Otherwise, a mini-jack-to-RCA cable can connect the iPod to any of the receiver’s analog inputs -- even those on the front panel. (I connected the Aperion HAL Receive unit to the front panel’s analog inputs and streamed the iPod signal from the HAL’s Send unit. Who needs a dock?) You can also connect your iPod via USB, which enables access to the Onkyo's DAC section (this connection takes the digital signal from the iPod), and theoretically improves sound quality. The TX-NR808 can stream music from a PC running Windows 7, a USB flash drive, or from a number of Internet sites, including Pandora, Rhapsody, Napster, vTuner, Sirius Internet Radio, MediaFly, and Slacker. The PC/server and USB streaming support versions 11 and 12 of the Windows Media Player, and the MP3, WMA, WAV, FLAC, Ogg, Vorbis, AAC, and LPCM file formats. The Dolby sound decoders include TrueHD, DD Plus, and PLIIz, and the DTS decoder is DTS-HD Master Audio. TrueHD and DTS-HD MA support the most current Blu-ray soundtracks. On the video end, the TX-NR808 supports 1080p upsampling courtesy the Faroudja DCDi Cinema decoder. Anticipating the next wave of video iron, the TX-NR808 is also 3D-ready.
I’ve always had suspicions about the efficacy, indeed the wisdom, of introducing extra switches into a signal chain -- best is a straight wire with gain, right? Always, given the option of sending a direct signal from a source component (say, a DVD player) to a display component, in this instance a 42” Dell plasma TV, I would choose a direct connection over routing the signal through a receiver, even though receivers are designed to act as switches that are as neutral as possible. Yes, I gave up cascading through the receiver’s menus on a monitor screen vs. the inky-dinky scrolling display on the receiver’s front panel; the integrity of the signal was more important to me than better menu access.
The arrival of the TX-NR808, coupled with my purchase of Oppo’s sublime BD-83 universal Blu-ray player, gave me an opportunity to accomplish two things I previously hadn’t: 1) use the receiver as it was designed to be used (i.e., as a central switchboard), and route through it all incoming and outgoing signals; and 2) upgrade all A/V signals, including audio-only signals, to HDMI (i.e., digital) cabling. Our last receiver, the venerable Onkyo TX-SR800, lacked HDMI capability, much less six inputs. Further, both our cable provider’s digital HD box and the neat little Roku digital video player are HDMI-enabled, so we were presented with a clear choice: The old-school way was to input each video signal individually, directly to the plasma display (doable, but mostly analog) and output the audio from each component to the receiver, again with a pure digital connection, optical or coaxial connection. After all, a receiver’s primary job is to amplify audio signals. Leaving aside, for the nonce, signal-upgrading capabilities, you really don’t need video switching; but if you’re going to do without it and you start piling up input devices, you better have a TV or video display that can accommodate them all. The obvious streamlined solution is a switchboard -- which is what any good A/V receiver provides.
After connecting all my input devices (digital cable converter box, BD player, digital video player) and the MartinLogan Motion speakers, ordinarily I would use the amplifier’s onboard pink-noise generator and measure the output with a digital sound-pressure-level meter. However, every Onkyo A/V receiver now includes some version of Audyssey’s equalization system, which has a terrific number of capabilities and removes from the equation the imprecision of a handheld SPL meter. Well, sort of -- as we’ll see later on.
The Audyssey applies EQ algorithms to the output of the receiver’s amplifier section. Audyssey EQ, depending on which version is installed on the receiver, can control any of 11 different sound-reproduction factors, from room EQ to the relative volume of television commercials. The TX-NR808 takes advantage of four of these: MultEQ, Dynamic Volume, Dynamic EQ, and Audyssey DSX. Dynamic Volume ensures that the volume levels between programs -- or, more to the point, between programs and commercials -- are leveled out, so you don’t get that abrupt and annoying spike when the OxyClean ad pops up. Dynamic EQ ensures the clarity of the bass and surrounds, regardless of the volume level. Audyssey DSX adapts a 5.1-channel signal -- the current standard for DVD and BD sound engineering -- for 7.x, 9.x, and 11.x speaker systems. The TX-NR808 is 7.2-channel capable, so the DSX algorithm would integrate the two rear-channel speakers uniquely into the playback array.
The Audyssey feature most useful in setup is MultEQ, which functions similarly to measuring pink noise with an SPL meter. You connect an omnidirectional microphone to the dedicated input on the TX-NR808’s front panel, push the Start button, and MultEQ identifies how many speakers you have, where they are in relation to the microphone, and the effects of the reflective surfaces around them. It takes the room into account. I put the Audyssey microphone on a tripod (the mike has standard threading on its bottom) at ear height at the primary listening position and watched with rapt fascination as a series of sweep tones located the MartinLogan Motion speakers and calibrated their output for the room. MultEQ lets you do this for up to six listening positions -- which means, of course, that so long as a listener/viewer is seated in one of those positions, the sound has been tailored to arrive there in full bloom, just as if that listener were sitting in a stereo sweet spot. Sweet. I calibrated the MartinLogans for the three positions in which I, Mrs. East, and our daughter typically sit while watching TV or a movie together. While MultEQ’s first pass attempted to locate 11 speakers and two subs, it knew for the latter two passes that there were only five speakers and one sub. Cool.
The TX-NR808’s setup program lets you stipulate the kind of sound you want for each component, and for each medium played through that component. For instance, the Oppo BD-83 will play, among other things, BDs, DVDs, and CDs. The TX-NR808 lets you stipulate, say, that you want DVDs to be played with Dolby Digital EX, BDs with DTS-HD, and CDs in simple stereo. But the sound options don’t stop there. Within each parameter you can further define how you want to shape the sound by drilling down through the Listening Mode menus. So many options are available for each mode in each of four predefined genres (Movie/TV, Music, Game, THX), including the normal parade of DSP options (Theater, Unplugged, etc.). The variations are possibly endless.
Like most remote controls, the TX-NR808’s replicates the operating functions on the receiver’s front panel, including source selection, listening mode, volume, and so on. It also controls the onboard tuner. And like most of Onkyo’s remote controls, the TX-NR808’s can also control a TV, BD/DVD player, and VCR, if they’re also Onkyo models and, preferably, interconnected via Onkyo’s proprietary RI technology (though that’s not necessary). The good news is that, in one form or another, all of the TX-NR808’s functions are found on the remote, and vice versa, with one exception: the Mute mode is the sole province of the remote control.
Engaging the TX-NR808 is as simple as hitting the On button, selecting a source, sitting back, and enjoying a TV show, a movie, or some music. Indeed, with integrated audio and video, whole new experiences opened up to us. Because 5.1-channel surround sound is becoming more commonplace with HD broadcasting, ordinary TV programs took on a novel dimension as enveloping sound accompanied fare as fun as Burn Notice or Psych, or as banal as a raft of run-of-the-mill sitcoms. The real ear-openers were live sporting events, from the World Series to college football. The network sound engineers have cleverly relegated crowd noise to the surrounds, and there we ran into the first problem: The surround channels were considerably and annoyingly louder than the play-by-play from the three front speakers.
At first I thought the Audyssey might have miscalculated, so I reran it, then double-checked the results with the TX-NR808’s pink-noise generator and a digital SPL meter. What I found was that the surrounds were outputting more SPL than the three front speakers, the right surround by about 2dB and the left by about 3dB. It was easy enough to back them off so that the six speakers, including the subwoofer, were running at equal levels. Even then, it seemed that the surrounds were over-accentuated.
I switched over to some movies, notably Up (BD) and the lovely Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live at Madison Square Garden (DVD). Those were more like it. The surround speakers now played a supporting role -- no wino cussing out the umpire at stage left while Joe Buck wondered at the arc of a Tim Lincecum curveball. Then we played some treasured movies on the Roku HD video player, courtesy the Netflix channel, such as the hilarious Hopscotch and the quirky Purple Rose of Cairo. With these, the TX-NR808’s sound was like those of the BDs and DVDs -- the surrounds filled in ambience and offstage cues. We concluded that the problem was with the source, and that the solution might lie in specifying the listening mode when setting up the digital cable input.
Changing the TX-NR808’s listening mode is very easy, and can be done in two ways: In the setup menu, select the mode that suits your tastes. For instance, if you don’t really care that your football game is in 5.1 surround sound, an All Stereo or All Mono setting will send the same signal to both the front-channel and surround speakers. You can also do this on the fly -- choose any Listening Mode button on the remote (Music, Movie/TV, Game, THX) and press it repeatedly to toggle through the available options.
The firmware-update feature worked to perfection. As of this writing Onkyo had issued three updates, all accessible through their website. You can download them to a USB drive on your computer, which in turn plugs into the USB input on the TX-NR808, or connect the TX-NR808 directly with an Ethernet cable. We chose the latter, having installed a modem and router in the A/V center to take advantage of Web-streamed audio and video. So far, Onkyo’s updates have been cumulative -- one operation incorporates all. You call up the update instructions in a PDF file from Onkyo’s website and follow the instructions, which are detailed and easy to follow. The whole operation took less than half an hour.
The ability to update software on the fly, which has become routine in the world of home computing, presents interesting possibilities for home theater. So long as the hardware is compliant, why couldn’t the third-party software -- say, Dolby or HDMI -- be updated similarly? In a technology environment where advances seem to be made annually, I look forward to the day when hardware isn’t quickly rendered outdated or obsolete, if only because of upgrades to ancillary software.
Internet Radio access was astounding. I’ve been listening to various Internet Radio stations for years, most notably Radio Paradise, but the TX-NR808 jacked up accessibility a big notch -- its onboard capabilities include several hundred stations, courtesy vTuner Internet Radio, spread across a heavenly spectrum of choices: jazz, rock, classical, talk, and everything conceivable in and among. Not enough? You can access vTuner via your Web browser and use the browser’s advanced-search capability to choose from over 16,000 stations. The latter method is much, much faster -- for all that the TX-NR808’s onboard interface is, it’s still fairly clunky by PC standards.
The Onkyo TX-NR808 is one hell of a receiver. It handles virtually any audio and video input at the cutting edge of today’s technology. The sheer breadth of its capabilities requires close reading of the owner’s manual -- everything has a purpose, and thoroughly familiarizing yourself with all that it can do will reap the bounties of great music and great movies. I was disappointed with Audyssey MultEQ’s performance, although the Dynamic Volume feature tamed the extra dBs piled on car commercials. However, if you’ve used pink noise and an SPL meter to set up your speakers, that option is still available. Keep in mind that this is a setup issue -- everything else worked spectacularly. Mrs. East and Daughter East immediately leafed back through multiple seasons of Bones and NCIS, their fave raves, via the Roku HD video player. I luxuriated in the BD version of Up. And on Sunday mornings we found a cool retro-jazz station to read the funnies by. Indeed, we marveled at the miracle of the technology, and agreed that adding Internet and server capabilities to the home-theater menu was a world-beater.
If you’re ready to consider a new A/V receiver and you’re ready to integrate your home-theater experience with the wealth of opportunities available on the Web today and, I would think, tomorrow (there’s that sexy firmware-update feature), you owe it to yourself to take a very close look at the Onkyo TX-NR808. This impressive machine deftly opens listening and viewing vistas that will hold you spellbound. Now if I could only get it to make a cheese sandwich. The folks at Onkyo said that they’ll, um, get back to me.
. . . Kevin East
- Sources -- Oppo BD-83 Blu-ray player, Roku HD digital video player
- Speakers -- MartinLogan Motion 10 / 8 / 4 / Dynamo
- Display device -- Dell WD4200 plasma TV
Onkyo TX-NR808 A/V Receiver
Price: $1099 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Onkyo USA Corporation
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (800) 229-1687, (201) 785-2600
Fax: (201) 785-2650