Surround sound receiver
For All the ability of the TX-SR605, plus much more flexibility
Against Still not the most musical receiver; styling still a matter of taste
Verdict Take an Award-winning bargain, bolt on lots more features without affecting the sound, and keep the price the same: the ‘606 is a steal
The term ‘eagerly awaited' is so overused in hi-fi circles these days as to be all but meaningless. Every new pair of speakers, amplifier or – dare we say it – mains cable gets hyped up with claims of anticipation which would do justice to the Second Coming, and if you believed the PR people, you'd imaging people queuing around the block to grab the first units into the shops.
But since news broke of the impending arrival of the Onkyo TX-SR606, the replacement for last year's What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision Award-winning – and best-selling – TX-SR605, it seems people have been tying themselves in knots searching websites for the smallest nugget of information.
What's more, they've been seeking out retailers willing to take their hard-earned plastic to secure one as soon as possible, and keeping the website Forums abuzz with discussions of where they can find one.
That looked to us like a risky business. After all, this wouldn't be the first time a manufacturer had replaced a cracking product with a so-so successor. And all the fuss being made seems to have taken Onkyo somewhat by surprise; the people at the UK office just couldn't believe why we were so eager to get hold of a sample and test it as soon as possible.
Well, the long and the short of it is that the product we're reviewing here was bought, with our own money, from a friendly local retailer.
Anyway, enough of the back-story – the ‘606 is here, and first impressions are that it looks just like the ‘605, which won't please those who find the Onkyo aesthetic somewhat challenging. Or ‘pig-ugly', as they usually put it.
The new stuff is almost all hidden under the skin, but the obvious changes are the four HDMI 1.3a inputs on the newcomer, against the two HDMI sockets on the old model, and a much more ergonomic remote control in place of the somewhat ‘bricky' old one.
The receiver also now does RIHD – remote control via the HDMI link –, with Onkyo claiming compatibility with Panasonic's Viera Link, Toshiba's RegzaLink and selected Sharp Aquos Link products. That means the remote can, in theory at least, drive an entire system via HDMI links; it also has a preprogrammed remote, able to control a large range of other components.
All of that should make the new model easier to use and more flexible, especially in a world where there are increasing numbers of products with HDMI outputs, all needing to be switched and fed to a TV or projector. And Onkyo could probably have left the revamped model at that, kept the price at £400, and still had a top-seller – after all, sales of the TX-SR605 showed no signs of flagging.
The good news is that the engineers haven't left well alone – for those obsessed with specification, they've thrown a whole load more new ‘stuff' onto the product. And for those of us looking for genuinely useful features, there's still plenty to appeal.
The simplest thing would be a bit more power, always attractive for those who like to play the numbers game. OK, so you take the power figures on products like this with a pinch of salt, as they're usually quoted in the most flattering way possible, but the new model in fact delivers exactly the same output as the old one: it's claimed at 7x140W, but actually delivers something like 90W all round when the figures are quoted against meaningful parameters of frequency response, impedance and distortion.
And like the TX-SR605, the new model can also be switched, when in a 5.1-channel system, to biamp suitable speakers on the front left and right channels; this is done by reassigning the rear surround channel amps.
There's still the Onkyo Wide-Range Amplifier Technology, a feature of the company's products for many years, and Audyssey 2EQ automatic set-up and calibration, meaning you need only plug in a microphone and press a button to have the receiver run a set of test-tones and adjust speaker delay and level to suit your room and speaker positioning.
Better sound at low levels
What's new in the improved version of 2EQ found here, however, is another bit of Audyssey technology, Dynamic EQ: this adjusts the equalisation, and thus the frequency response, and the surround level, so you get more convincing results when playing the system at low levels without having to set the rear channels so high that they're obtrusive when playing much louder.
Also added on the audio side is a new Music Optimiser, designed to make more of compressed music played into the receiver from an MP3 player, or from an iPod via Onkyo's DS-A1x or DS-A2x docks. This works by enhancing the higher frequencies usually lost in compression, thus giving a more open balance.
As with the TX-SR605, the new arrival is able to receive and decode all the current surround sound formats, including the HD flavours of DTS and Dolby Digital, as well as accepting LPCM from players unable to output native bitstreams, and DSD should you have an SACD player able to output this (such as the PS3 or Oppo's DV-980H).
But the main event on the new receiver is the introduction of video upscaling, even though the specification freaks will moan that it's only to 720p/1080i. The receiver will pass a 1080p signal, for example from Blu-ray players and the like, though ‘as is', but will also upconvert and upscale lesser formats and resolutions.
The big question, though, is how the Onkyo performs. Has adding on all this functionality while maintaining the price had an impact on the sound quality? Is the video upscaling and upconverting capability worth having, or just a marketing feature? Or has Onkyo turned what was a serious home cinema bargain into an absolute steal?
Well, the simple answer is that, for all the extra ‘stuff', the new Onkyo sounds every bit as good as the old one. In fact, it sounds identical, as you might expect given that the specification of the amplification section is the same.
And that's good news all the way down the line, meaning that the TX-SR606 is a real powerhouse of a receiver for the money, capable of slamming out everything from the airport chase sequence in Casino Royale to the bombardment in Letters from Iwo Jima with real room-shaking thump, provided your speakers can hack it. At the same time it has all the openness and finesse required to make even small effects clear, and sometimes startling, and keep dialogue crystal clear.
There's never the sense of everything being thrown at you that's sometimes apparent with lesser receivers; instead, the Onkyo manages to combine an enveloping soundfield with superb effects steering and plenty of bite.
And that Dynamic EQ works superbly, too: it's totally unobtrusive when you're playing the receiver at serious volume levels, but when you back off a bit there's none of that diminution of excitement or sense of envelopment. The system is subtle, but very definitely effective - and much better than those often crude 'midnight' modes you find on many receivers.
If there's a ‘but', it's that this isn't the most musical amplifier you can buy, with a slightly brash and bright presentation across a range of musical style. But then that's par for the course for AV receivers at this level, and was certainly true of the TX-SR605, too, so it's no real cause for criticism.
If you want a receiver that'll mainly be used for watching Blu-rays, DVDs or TV, or hooking up to a games console, the 606 will serve you every bit as well as the did the 605, while still being perfectly respectable for the occasional blast of music.
The scaler is a worthwhile addition for those without an exclusive diet of Blu-ray discs and Sky HD: it's not as good as the amazing Reon HQV system in the TX-SR875, which after all costs 150% more, but it is more than adequate when it comes to upscaling standard definition TV broadcasts and DVDs for viewing on a plasma or LCD screen.
We found it works extremely well with standard definition video, such as that from DVD – it won't fool you you're watching ‘proper' HD material, but it does process the signal without any obvious signs of all the adding up, taking away and multiplying by your birthday that''s going on under the hood.
We really pushed it to the limits by running a Blu-ray player down to 480p and feeding it in through the Onkyo's component video inputs; while the results would never fool anyone they were watching full 1080p, the picture is pretty respectable, even when run onto our huge main viewing screen via a top-notch projector.
So, the sum-up is this: if you were expecting us to say that the new Onkyo receiver is better in every way, you're going to be disappointed. If, however, you're happy with the fact that it sounds every bit as good as the model it replaces, and has added functionality and flexibility, then you'll understand why we say that the TX-SR606 is an even better buy than its Award-winning predecessor.
Power of three
The TX-SR606 is one of three new Onkyo receivers, the new models starting at just £250 with the TX-SR506. This has a claimed 7x130w output, three HDMI inputs and one output, able to pass through 1080P, decoding for all the DVD-based Dolby Digital and DTS formats, and the same Music Optimiser and Audyssey 2EQ/Dynamic EQ set-up found on the TX-SR606.
The TX-SR576 costs £50 more, and adds onboard decoding for Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-ES and the RIHD control system via its HDMI 1.2a connections, which can also accept audio from suitable sources. Both receivers also have 7.1-channel inputs for use with Blu-ray players having analogue outputs.
Onkyo TX-SR606 specifications
Surround Modes Dolby Digital/EX/Plus/TrueHD/Pro-Logic IIx; DTS-ES/96 24/HD/Master Audio/Neo:6; LPCM; stereo
Tuner FM RDS/AM, 40 presets
Auto set-up yes
Room EQ yes
Video upconversion yes
Video scaling 720p/1080i
HDMI 1.3a yes
HD audio via HDMI yes
Learning remote no
Multiroom 2 Zone
Network capable no
Coaxial digital 2
Optical digital 2
Analogue audio 5
Multichannel analogue input 8ch
Coaxial digital no
Optical digital no
Analogue audio 2
Dimensions (wxhxd) 43.5x17.5x37.5cm