There are plenty of very affordable surround sound amps on the market. But what if your sights are set higher? What if your budget is nudging into the thousands and your current speaker package is more demanding when it comes to amplification? You’ll be looking to audition one of home cinema’s heavyweights – such as this, the Pioneer SC-LX86.
The SC-LX86 is the pinnacle of Pioneer’s 2012 range, so it’s been highly anticipated. The company has a habit of saving its most competitive machines for higher price levels and enthusiasts are always keen to see if its latest range-topper is up to the job.
Pioneer SC-LX86: Tech specs
As you’d expect from a high-end amplifier, the Pioneer is loaded to the gunwales. Nine channels of amplification, each delivering 140W provide the grunt. Seven HDMI inputs give you a home for all your sources, including an MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) compatible socket that can accept 1080p video and surround-sound streamed from a compatible smartphone.
If you’re lucky enough to own a 4K display, the amp will allow you to pass 4K content – although no content currently exists commercially.
1080p video upscaling and upconversion are par for the course, but this Pioneer also gives you extensive control over all manner of picture adjustments including ‘mosquito’ noise, contrast and motion handling, while it also has a raft of picture presets to choose from depending on the display device being used.
If you own a Pioneer Blu-ray player, you can also take advantage of the company’s PQLS (Precision Quartz Locking System) technology, designed to reduce audio- and video-jitter during playback.
Pioneer SC-LX86: AirPlay compatibility
Pioneer was one of the first to adopt AirPlay for its home cinema amps, and it’s included on the SC-LX86. You can also charge and stream direct from an iDevice through the USB socket located behind the drop-down panel on the front.
Behind this panel you’ll also find the seventh HDMI input, as well as the socket for the set-up mic used with Pioneer’s Advanced MCACC room calibration system. You can check the settings and alter readings using Pioneer’s own control app.
Besides using the amp’s ethernet socket, you can get the Pioneer online using the supplied wireless dongle, although we’d recommend wired for the most stable music stream. The SC-LX86 can stream an extensive range of music file formats (including FLACs, WAVs and high-res 24bit/192kHz tracks) stored on a computer or NAS device, or you can use vTuner to stream internet radio into your home.
Besides these features, the SC-LX86 has a couple of neat extra touches to help differentiate itself from rival machines. The inclusion of not one, but three HDMI outputs allows HD video and audio to be sent to three different zones, giving custom installers added flexibility.
The SC-LX86 has also been equipped with its own asynchronous USB input, similar to that found in Pioneer’s impressive N-50 streamer. Just plug your computer or laptop into the Type B USB socket, clearly marked on the rear of the amp.
Pioneer SC-LX86: App control
If you don't want to use the standard remote, Pioneer offers its own iOS and Android app, the iControlAV 2012. It's well designed and executed.
You can check the readings from the amp's MCACC speaker calibration system; you can then manipulate and tinker with the speaker settings in great depth, or experiment with the basics such as level, equalization and tone settings.
There's also a piece of software to make sure your speakers and sources are wired up correctly, the AV Navigator (iOS only). There's a disc provided for a computer, or you can download the free app from iTunes (there's no Android version at th emoment). It's a logical, smooth-running process that keeps confusion at bay.
Pioneer SC-LX86: Sound quality
Pioneer works closely with George Martin’s Air Studios, its top amps being given the studio’s seal of approval for sound.
And the SC-LX86 gets a huge thumbs up from us too. It’s a heavy-hitter of the highest order, capable of brawling with the best, but also charming the pants off you with dynamic subtlety.
Spin X-Men: First Class and, as Magneto raises Shaw’s nuclear-powered submarine from the depths of the ocean, the Pioneer astounds with stupendous dynamics.
It displays control and brute force as impressively as Magneto himself. As the submarine moves across your surround field, you get a great sense of the water cascading off and over your listening position.
The Pioneer sounds confident and precise with its placement of surround effects. Combine this with the movie’s dramatic score and you’re treated to a truly breathtaking presentation.
Pioneer SC-LX86: Music streaming
The internal DAC does a good job of taking the stream from a laptop, music sounding solid and agile. Spin a WAV of The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows and there’s excellent definition in the bass, while vocals sound clear and direct.
The overall tonal balance errs on the bright side, but if you take a little care when partnering the Pioneer with a suitable speaker package all should be fine.
Built-in digital filters actually allow you to switch the Pioneer’s sound between ‘slow’ (soft and warm), ‘sharp’ (solid and tight), and ‘short’ (quick and forward). We preffered the extra solidity of the ‘sharp’ setting, although we’d encourage you to experiment. Using the analogue inputs and enabling the amp’s Pure Direct mode is the only way you can bypass the filter.
Pioneer SC-LX86: Picture processing
Fed with a composite video signal to put the its picture processing to the test, the Pioneer does a good job upconverting to 1080p but we’d suggest experimenting with the different picture processing modes after you’ve selected the picture preset specific to your display type, be it a plasma TV, LCD TV or projector.
Then you can go into the manual settings and make finer adjustments. It’s a balancing act, as some settings help to alleviate some issues, such as on-screen noise, but others can have a negative effect, such as eroding fine detail.
Pioneer SC-LX86: Verdict
As long as you take care with speaker matching, the Pioneer SC-LX86 will be hugely rewarding. Yes, it’s feature-packed, but the fact that it’s an engaging listen will keep you coming back for more. This machine’s a serious force in the world of home cinema.