My 5.1-channel speaker system consists of the RBH MC6-CT towers, MC-414C center, and MC-6C bookshelf surrounds--it's generally too demanding for a budget receiver to drive effectively, but this mid-priced Onkyo proved itself worthy. Even during the densest action sequences and the most dynamic musical passages, the TX-NR515 kept up, delivering a large soundstage and immersive surround experience with quickness and efficiency. In comparing it with my reference Pioneer Elite TSX-55TXi (a THX Select model offering 100wpc and carrying an original MSRP of $1,700), the Onkyo's performance didn't seem quite as effortless; I did have to push the volume control higher to deliver a similarly large sound, but the Onkyo was still able to deliver what I asked of it without seeming overly taxed, despite its more modest amp specs and price point. The Pioneer receivers I've used have all served up a slightly warmer sound, and the Onkyo's quality was similar to that--perhaps a tad less warm and closer to neutral, but not overly flat or sterile.
I was especially interested in trying Audyssey's Dynamic EQ function. My situation is likely a familiar one to many parents of young children: My husband and I usually only watch movies after the toddler has gone to bed. We can't listen at a particularly high volume, but that doesn't mean we don't want to enjoy the full impact of the surround experience. We also tire of constantly adjusting the volume--up to hear dialogue in a quiet scene and then immediately hurrying to turn it down when a louder action sequence kicks in. It's exhausting, and it's exactly what Dynamic EQ is designed to address. We tested Dynamic EQ using the Hugo Blu-ray disc, and I can happily report that, once I set the volume to a desirable level, I didn't give it a second thought through the entire film. I had no trouble hearing any of the film's dialogue yet felt the full dynamic impact of the surround effects and musical swells. Dynamic Volume also proved effective with my satellite TV channels.
I also tested music playback through the USB port, using both my iPhone 3GS and a USB flash drive. The Onkyo didn't auto-detect the addition of a USB device; however, when I switched to the USB source, the content selections appeared on my screen. Supported file formats are MP3, WMA, WMA Lossless, WAV, AAC, FLAC, Off Vorbis, and LPCM (no AIFF). In the case of the iPhone, I was able to use the Onkyo remote to navigate my iPhone's menus (including Playlists, Artists, Albums, Movies, TV Shows, Video Podcasts, and more), and the iPhone charged while connected. With compressed files, I tried out the Music Optimizer function, which can't work miracles but definitely provided improvement in the sound quality. Music Optimizer basically breathes a bit more air and energy into the tracks so they don't sound quite so small and compressed.
On the video side, I tested the TX-NR515's processing chip with the same arsenal of test discs and real-world demo scenes that I use to test displays and Blu-ray players. I set the receiver's resolution output to 1080p and fed it the Source Direct signal from my OPPO BDP-93. Since I prefer to calibrate the image using a TV's controls, I had no intention of utilizing the Onkyo's various picture adjustments and assumed the Through picture mode would be the best choice. Unfortunately, this mode does not allow you to enable the Film Mode to correctly detect the 3:2 cadence with film sources, and thus it did a poor job with several of my demos. So, I went with the Custom picture mode instead, enabled the Film Mode, and left all the other adjustments alone. With this setup, the Onkyo passed most of the tests for DVD upconversion. In terms of jaggies and moiré, this receiver did a slightly better job than both of the TVs I had in-house in converting 480i to 1080p. In the detail department, it did better than the Panasonic TC-P55ST50, but not quite as good as the LG 55LM6700. There was just a hint of noise in between the finest lines in various resolution patterns, but otherwise I had no complaints. I also tested its ability to transcode a 480i component video signal to 1080p HDMI; again, it passed the processing tests, although not surprisingly the picture wasn't quite as crisp and pristine in other respects as a straight HDMI-to-HDMI upconversion.
The TX-NR515 is somewhat slow to cue up HDMI audio. When I powered up the receiver, the "HDMI" indicator on the LCD front panel would often flash for over 10 seconds before the audio finally kicked in; the video, on the other hand, appeared almost instantaneously. In other ergonomic news, I personally wasn't a fan of the TX-NR515's remote control. It's a rather small remote that measures about 2 inches wide by 7.5 long, yet it's crammed full of small, non-backlit buttons that are arranged in a manner I didn't find all that intuitive. I definitely preferred the iPhone app.
In the realm of connectivity, while the TX-NR515 is loaded with HDMI ports, it isn't ideal for someone who still has a lot of older, analog-only devices--with only one component video input and no multichannel analog audio inputs. As I mentioned earlier, this receiver lacks built-in AirPlay, which is available on comparably (and lower) priced new receivers from Denon and Yamaha. With features like direct-through-USB iPod playback, DLNA support, and MP3tunes streaming, the TX-NR515 provides ways to work around this omission. (Update: MP3tunes has filed for bankruptcy; as of late May 2012, the digital-locker system is still available, but we don't know how much longer it will exist.)However, for someone like me who already uses several AirPlay-enabled devices around the house, a receiver with built-in AirPlay just makes for a cleaner, easier solution. When using the USB connection for iPhone playback, I could not view video sources because you have to add the official Apple Composite Video Cable. Also, the DLNA streaming function does not include support for video and photo files, only music.
Competition and Comparison
There's certainly no shortage of mid-priced A/V receivers to compare with the Onkyo TX-NR515. We'll direct your attention to a couple of new, similarly priced receivers: the Denon AVR-1913 ($579.99) and Yamaha RX-V573 ($549.95) are 7.1-channel receivers that add AirPlay but omit the second HDMI output. You can read more receiver reviews in our AV Receiver section.
The Onkyo TX-NR515 is an impressive entry in the mid-level receiver category--combining very good performance with a thorough list of features, highlighted by dual HDMI outputs, Audyssey correction tools, 4K upscaling (doesn't mean a lot now but could prove valuable over the next few years), and a host of music streaming services. It strikes a nice balance between ease of use and setup flexibility, with a clean, helpful interface and enough advanced tools and tweaks to satisfy the more knowledgeable user. Whether you're starting to build a mid-level system from scratch or just looking for a new receiver to suit your existing bookshelf or modest tower speakers, the Onkyo TX-NR515 is worth serious consideration.
• Read more AV receiver reviews by the staff at Home Theater Review.
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