I've wanted to get my hands on the Onkyo HT-S7700 home theater system for review since I heard of its imminent arrival. While 4K has been the big news on the video side of the home theater world, nothing has been bigger than the arrival of Dolby Atmos on the audio side. In case you're unfamiliar with what Atmos is or just want a little refresher, take a look at Dennis Burger's overview.
The reason I've been so excited about testing out the Onkyo is not simply that it is a Dolby Atmos-enabled system. If you follow the product-release trends, it looks like most receivers/preamps being released in the foreseeable future by major manufacturers like Onkyo, Denon, Marantz, Pioneer, and many others will be Atmos-capable. So then what's unique about this Onkyo? You see, amidst all the positive energy surrounding the launch of Dolby Atmos, the naysayers have a few legitimate concerns regarding the execution of Dolby Atmos in the home theater and why it won't work out in the end. One way to set up Dolby Atmos at home is to install in- or on-ceiling speakers that radiate sound directly at the audience. The drawback to this approach is the added cost of buying two or four extra speakers and drilling holes in the ceiling to install (if you're even able to do such a thing in your particular space). The other way to do it is to use Atmos-capable upward-firing speakers--either in the form of standalone upward-firing driver modules or, in the case of the Onkyo product in question, built-in upward-firing drivers that are contained in the same cabinets as the front left/right speakers. Those who have not yet heard properly executed Atmos-enabled speakers may be suspicious of whether reflected sound can actually sound good. Would the Onkyo HT-S7700 home theater system be able to remove that doubt? That's exactly what I wanted to find out.
For a modest retail price of $899, the HT-S7700 gives you a features-packed 7.2-channel receiver (or 5.2.2 channels, when used for Dolby Atmos material), an Atmos-capable front speaker pair with upward-firing height channels, a pair of surround speakers, a center channel, and a powered subwoofer featuring a 10-inch down-firing driver.
Calling the HT-S7700 a home theater in a box would be misleading. When I think of a traditional HTIB package, I think of one of those smallish boxes that you can you can tote around under your arm and lug out to your car from the big-box retail store. You know the kind I'm thinking of--one that includes a bunch of flimsy satellite-sized speakers, a subwoofer that barely equates to what a midrange woofer would look like on a normal bookshelf speaker, and the cheapest receiver you can find. That certainly wasn't the case here. The "box" was more like a crate, and it weighed 82 pounds. There was even a figurine on every panel with instructions of caution that indicated this was a two-person job to carry. The subwoofer itself is a hefty 21.2 pounds with a respectable 10-inch driver. The included receiver is designated as the HT-R693; but, after careful comparison, I surmised that the features and specs (from power-handling capabilities of the amplifier section all the way down to the host of connectivity features) look very similar to the TX-NR636 that we previously reviewed, so I'll direct you to that review for the full rundown on the receiver's many features and connection options.
Once I unboxed all of the components, setup couldn't have been easier. All the included speaker cables were color-coded to matching terminals on the back of the speakers and receiver. The subwoofer connection was just as simple: I plugged the subwoofer's attached power cord to the nearest wall outlet and used the included subwoofer cable to connect the subwoofer out at the back of the receiver to the input in back of the subwoofer.
Configuring the speakers via Onkyo's AccuEQ automatic setup tool was just as quick and painless. Because the same binding posts can be used for hooking up the Atmos height or surround back speakers, you need to tell the Onkyo which setup you use. In the speaker settings menu, I left the Front Speakers Type setting on normal, which is the default, indicating that I use height, not surround back, speakers. Next, I selected Bundled Dolby Enabled Speakers in the Height Speakers Type field to indicate that I have front upward-firing drivers installed. I then plugged in the included microphone and placed it where my listening position would be. At the touch of a button, the software created test tones one speaker at a time in sequence, then it spent about 90 seconds calculating and making the necessary adjustments.
Connecting the sources was just as easy. As promised, Dolby Atmos does not require you to buy a new Blu-ray player; you can use the one you currently own, since the Dolby Atmos information is encoded on the Blu-ray disc and gets decoded by the Atmos-capable receiver. I did make sure to set my Oppo BDP-105 player to output a bitstream signal instead of PCM so that the decoding could be performed by the Onkyo. I used Blue Jeans HDMI cables to connect the Oppo to the Blu-ray input on the back of the Onkyo receiver. Next I connected my AT&T U-Verse DVR to the Cable/Sat input. With that, I was ready to go...
I started off with some casual TV viewing. I made sure to set my U-Verse box to Surround mode, where it outputs a Dolby Digital 5.1 signal to the receiver. Queuing up the pilot episode of The CW's new series The Flash on my DVR, the first thing I noticed was not the sound, but the video. While Dolby Atmos is the feature making the headlines for this Onkyo unit, another feature--Marvell's QDEO technology--should be getting top billing, as well. The Marvell QDEO processor is the engine responsible for all the scaling and other video processing in many of the best receivers, preamps, and universal disc players out there, including those from Cambridge Audio, Pioneer Elite, and the Oppo BDP-105 that I use as my reference media player. Onkyo has put that chip into the TX-NR636 receiver and into this home theater system. The image was crystal clear, with no jagged edges, artifacts, or other blemishes. The motion was superb and also very natural, making all the special effects when Barry Allen (The Flash) zips around at super-human speed appear as realistic as possible. The picture quality was every bit as clean as it is through my Oppo--they are, after all, based on very similar technology.
Often, with lower-priced home theater systems, music is an afterthought. I'm not talking about the dozens of logos plastered all over the product to indicate compatibility with various Internet streaming services. Rather, I'm talking about the actual quality of music being played through the system, which can be hindered by a lack of quality in the receiver and the limitations of the smaller speakers included. I tested out the HT-S7700 using some of my favorite audio discs, including Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (CD, Columbia). With most of the music modes like All Channel Stereo, Dolby Surround, and some of the more processed effects modes like Orchestra or Unplugged, I got a very congested, muddled sound. Instruments were difficult to separate and hear. The Dolby Surround mode is stated to be able to up-mix even two-channel material into all the available channels, including the Atmos-enabled speakers, but I disliked using this mode with music. Maybe it's just too much processing to expand two channels into five plus the up-firing drivers, or maybe it was the fact that AccuEQ, as Onkyo states, makes no corrections to the front left and right channels, which still carry the bulk of the load. Perhaps it is some combination of the two. In the end, it just didn't work.
Ultimately, I stuck with the Direct mode for two-channel sources (I also tried the basic Stereo mode, which sounded very similar to the Direct mode). One thing that struck me in Direct mode with just the front left/right speakers firing was the room-filling, evenly dispersed sound. Granted, my 13-foot by 17-foot room isn't the largest, but many home theater speaker sets have trouble filling it adequately. Sure, with movies that use five speakers plus a subwoofer, you get good sound; but, the minute you go down to two-channel, it's all over. That wasn't the case here. Clarity and timbral balance were also good. You don't get the hefty midrange presentation with Bill Evans' piano or the finer textures of Davis' trumpet reproduced like on a finer-grade pair of bookshelf speakers. However, for home theater speakers that came with a pre-packaged system, these are about as good as you're going to get.
Back to movies. I fired up Star Trek: Into Darkness on Blu-ray, and here AccuEQ did make a difference. The French horns in the main theme had more definition. Subtle low-level details had greater clarity, such as with footsteps and the rustling of reeds in the opening scene as Kirk and Scotty flee from natives on an alien planet. The surround channels handled all the sound effects from phaser gunfire to exploding objects quite well. And at the helm, the receiver was able to control all the action, including the panning of sound left to right and front to back, smoothly and adeptly. Equally impressive was the included subwoofer. In many home theater systems I've heard, the included subwoofer is really weak, barely giving any output below 40 Hz. On scenes that required it, like when the villain Khan's spaceship crashes into city skyscrapers in a later scene, I actually was able to feel the impact of the sub and a little rattling in the walls. It couldn't match the output delivered by a higher-quality sub like my SVS PC-13 Ultra, of course, but I wouldn't expect it to at this price. Bass did sound more localized and less evenly dispersed across the room, with response a little less smooth than with my reference setup. Since the Onkyo sub does not have an onboard PEQ filter and AccuEQ also does not do anything to provide equalization for the subwoofer, there was no option available to smooth things out for the bass other than to experiment with room placement.
I played around with the Dolby Surround mode for Blu-ray discs, as well as TV programs. Running Dolby Surround processing with native Dolby Digital 5.1 material sounded much better than it did with two-channel material, maybe because the processing to add only the extra Atmos channels was not as much of a stretch. But I will say that it still didn't sound altogether as natural as the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mode. I still got a little bit of that congested feeling and some of the higher frequencies ended up sounding a little tinny. Really, the Dolby Surround mode just didn't seem necessary in this case. Enabling it didn't give me the positive impact on the soundstage that I would soon hear with native Atmos material.
Speaking of which, next I auditioned Transformers: Age of Extinction (Blu-ray, Paramount/Hasbro), the only Blu-ray movie encoded with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack at the time of this writing. Let's start with the more subtle soundstage cues. I was able to get a sense of a much taller soundstage than I ever could with regular 5.1 soundtracks. In an early scene as explorers walk around inside underground caverns or in later scenes inside of Lockdown's ship, you definitely get a sense from the overhead echoes that you are in a very tall, cavernous space. Top-down motions also sounded natural and convincing. When Mark Walhberg's character first awakens a confused Optimus Prime, Prime attacks him, and you get a clear sense of a tall character attacking a low target in a downward-panning motion. Was there a big difference between the upward-firing, ceiling-reflected sound compared with the direct-firing drivers you experience with Atmos in the theaters? I suppose if both executions were available in my home available for an A/B comparison, I would probably be able to tell the difference. But the upward-firing drivers produced a convincing enough effect, at least for the material it was being asked to present. Keep in mind that the height channels will probably mostly be used for effects and occasionally dialogue, and I had no complaints with the height-channel dialogue I heard. Whenever the super-tall Autobots talked downward at their human compatriots, I had no trouble with the clarity of the voices or with imagining the height of the characters speaking. I would guess, if ever there were a scene that required imagining a full orchestral performance coming from overhead, then a ceiling-speaker implementation of Atmos would probably noticeably outperform the upward-firing one.
All of this works very well when the action is located in front of the viewer's perspective. However, when objects fly overhead that pan from front to back or vice versa, such as when a remote-controlled drone in Transformers flies above the screen position, the illusion breaks down a little. When the sound is supposed to come from or go to the rear, it never truly rose above ear level at the back end, where I place my surround speakers. Since there were no rear height speakers in this setup, it would be unfair to expect sound to be realistically generated overhead in the back.
I received a copy of the Dolby Atmos demo disc used at CEDIA; and, with the rain sequence in the "Amaze" scene, I got a clear sense that the rain was dropping down from a higher position than I was. I was even able to get a sense that the rain was coming from a little forward of the front wall (as in the projection screen position). But with only two Atmos-enabled speakers in the front, it was not enough to give me the sense that the rain was centered above my head and coming from all around above me. Meaning, it felt more like there was a waterfall of rain coming from the front part of the room a few feet from where I was sitting, rather than that I was standing in the middle of the rain, getting soaked.
For the minimum configuration 5.1.2 as required by Dolby Atmos, this Onkyo system's performance more than met expectations, but it didn't quite get the full cinema Atmos experience. I suspect a 5.1.4 or, even better, a longer room utilizing a 7.1.4 channel set would be in a much better position to deliver an experience quite close to that. Given what I heard, I still think that ceiling-mounted speakers will be the best option but upward-firing drivers can provide a robust enough experience to be meaningfully close to the cinema adaptation of Atmos...but you do need to get as many channels as you can have.
Any time you talk about a product's faults, you have to consider carefully what kind of product it is. After all, if no competitor in its category can demonstrate stronger performance, you can't legitimately count an issue as a weakness, even if it is something you dislike. The problem is that, at the time of this writing, Dolby Atmos-capable products are just coming on to the scene and there really isn't any competition out there. But it is still my job to try, so here goes.
With just the front pair of upward-firing Atmos drivers, you clearly get a sense of a much taller soundstage. Without a back pair, though, what you do not get is the more accurate panning effect that you can experience at the theater. I imagine this would add significant cost to the unit, and it may be quite some time before we see any competitors able to deliver a 5.1.4 system at this price.
Onkyo's AccuEQ was easy to set up, but sonically I had a mixed impression of its performance improvement. Of course, at this price point, having any type of automated room correction is a plus. At higher price points, though, I can see how AccuEQ may not stack up well against competitive built-in room correction applications like Audyssey's MultEQ XT32 or Anthem's ARC. Check out this article if you want to learn more about room correction.
Comparison and Competition
Currently, the Onkyo HT-S7700 is the lowest-priced Dolby Atmos-capable home theater system that comes in a single package. For $300 more, the Onkyo's HT-S9700 home theater system packs a more powerful 12-inch subwoofer and has an extra pair of surround speakers in place of the upward-firing drivers built in to the front L/R channels. But to use them as Atmos height channels, you would need to find some way to mount them in or on the ceiling, which may not be feasible. I think the HT-S7700 is the better deal.
You can create your own Dolby Atmos system with other brands--using, for instance, the new Pioneer Elite Atmos-capable speakers. However, with the price of that bookshelf model (SP-EBS73-LR) retailing for $750 per pair, there isn't room left for adding the rest of the channels, a receiver, and necessary cables if you don't want to pay more than the HT-S7700.
Certainly, if Dolby Atmos is not important to you, there are a host of other options out there for standard 5.1- or 7.1-channel systems at or below the price of the HT-S7700.
Putting Dolby Atmos capability into a moderately priced receiver and including it in a home-theater-in-a-box package was a brilliant move on Onkyo's part. Right now, this product is in its own category. The HT-S7700 was certainly not the most perfect execution of Dolby Atmos for the home, but it did a remarkable job of showing us the potential. Upward-firing modules with ceiling-reflected sound can be an effective solution, although I think that you need four height channels in at least a 5.1.4 configuration to better mimic to the full cinema Dolby Atmos effect. I am hopeful that, as Dolby Atmos matures as a technology, there will eventually be a sub-$1,000 offering for a 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos capable system that can fully show off the 3D audio experience that Atmos promises.
With all that being said, let's gauge the HT-S7700 on its own merits. The Onkyo is an incredible value. The receiver is loaded with features. Video performance was stellar, bested only by top-dollar outboard video processors. Sonically, you have a capable receiver combined with a reasonably high-quality speaker package and better-than-expected bass performance from a decent sub. Putting together a 5.1-channel system of equal performance separately would probably cost at least $1,200. Consider the Onkyo HT-S7700 an astounding deal and the Dolby Atmos capability a free bonus on top.
• Onkyo TX-NR636 7.2-Channel Network AV Receiver Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Onkyo Brings Dolby Atmos Home at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Check out our Bookshelf and Small Speakers category page for more reviews of small multichannel speaker systems.