There was a line in the Hollywood blockbuster, Jurassic Park, delivered by actor Sam Neil, where it was said, “The world is changing so rapidly that we’re all just trying to keep up,” and while I doubt it was in reference to today’s home theater marketplace, the quote is still rather fitting. In what has felt like the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from standard definition and DVD to high definition, Blu-ray, streaming media and of course 3D. At no time during this all-out sprint of technological development have any of us really had time to process it all. Especially those in the high-end A/V space, which has left the door wide open for more mass-produced products and manufacturers to claim the top spot among the technological elite. At the top of the list: Onkyo, makers of some of the most advanced A/V receivers and preamps available today, packing features that seem barely a day old and selling them for what audiophiles are used to spending on power cords.
Take for instance the Onkyo TX-NR708 A/V receiver, reviewed here. It retails for $899 and features seven channels of amplification, as well as THX Select2 Plus certification and HDMI 1.4a (aka 3D) support, as well as a host of other features such as Ethernet connectivity and digital music streaming from the likes of Rhapsody and Pandora. And that’s just the cliff notes, for there are more features packed into this affordable powerhouse that a reviewer could blow his word count just trying to list them all.
On the surface the TX-NR708 looks like your standard receiver. It measures in at 17 inches wide by seven inches tall and 15 inches deep and weighs 28 pounds. It’s not the most elegant looking piece out there, clad in all black with subtle blue LED accents that help dress it up a bit, but the TX-NR708 is clearly about function over form. The TX-NR708’s faceplate features hard controls for virtually every command and feature packed inside as well as provides the user with some convenient connectivity options, including a front mounted HDMI port, USB input, Aux or line in jack as well as composite video and analog audio inputs. There’s even room for a headphone jack as well as an input for the Audyssey setup mic.
Around back things get even more comprehensive with six HDMI inputs mated to a single HDMI out, bringing the total HDMI count to seven in/one out. There are legacy connections (analog audio and video) for eight sources, which includes a phono input as well as two component video inputs (all assignable) as well as five digital audio inputs, three coaxial and two optical. There is also a 7.1 multichannel input for DVD-A/SACD/legacy BD players. There’s even an output (analog audio only) for a second zone, Sirius Satellite Radio, Onkyo’s own Universal Port, Ethernet connectivity, 15 pin D-sub PC input and RS-232 support and control. The TX-NR708 also comes equipped with 7.2 preamp outs if the seven channels of built in amplification aren’t powerful enough for your liking.
Under the hood the TX-NR708 boasts 110 Watts per channel of THX certified power across all seven of its channels. It can decode all the latest Dolby and DTS surround sound formats including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It even has speaker terminals and surround sound support for additional channels, such as front wide and height channels that seem to be finding their way onto more and more mass market home theater products. If you don’t use or need these additional channels, you can use the ‘extra’ speaker terminals to bi-amp your main speakers. The TX-NR708features Audyssey DSX, Dynamic EQ and Dynamic Volume support as well as has a Direct/Pure Mode, which defeats any and all audio processing for the purist in you. On the video side of things, all video signals are upconverted to 1080p and then transcoded to HDMI courtesy of the TX-NR708’s internal DCDi Cinema processor. The TX-NR708 features HDMI 1.4a capability, which includes support for today’s 3D formats as well as the all-important audio return channel.
Even the remote is daunting in its level of control and functionality, which despite some of the buttons being a little small, is rather intelligently laid out and easy to use – not to mention comfortable in hand.
But does all of this make the Onkyo TX-NR708 any good? Or is it just another “look at me” receiver of the month?
Thankfully the TX-NR708 isn’t a chore to integrate into one’s home theater, thanks in part to its rather lightweight, compact size and myriad of HDMI inputs. Physically connecting the TX-NR708 to my reference system took all of fifteen minutes and that’s only because I was being picky about wire management.
I connected my four sources: Dish Network DVR, AppleTV, Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray player and Sony PS3 to the TX-NR708 via single runs of Transparent HDMI cables. For the first half of my evaluation I allowed the TX-NR708 to power my Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers directly as well as my Revel Ultima2 Studio2s, which I used for rear channels. Unfortunately there was no way that I could get my Transparent Reference speaker cables to play nice with the TX-NR708’s binding posts so I had to drag out some old Monster M Series speaker cable terminated with banana lugs to connect my speakers.
Lastly, I connected the TX-NR708’s HDMI output to my 42-inch Samsung LCD HDTV for daytime viewing and then manually switched it over to my Anthem LTX-500 D-ILA projector for evening viewing.
Once everything was connected and powered up, I set my inputs and preferences, which thanks to the TX-NR708’s superb GUI was simple and straightforward to do. From there I went ahead and engaged the Audyssey digital room correction, which automatically prompts you to begin once you connect the included calibrated microphone to its front mounted input on the TX-NR708. The entire auto calibration process is about as trouble-free as they come, though I wish the TX-NR708 didn’t look for speakers that I already told it weren’t present, such as the left and right additional front channels. Once the Audyssey calibration was complete I unplugged the microphone and let the TX-NR708 burn in for a few days before beginning my evaluation.
I kicked things off with some two-channel listening via my AppleTV. I played a wide variety of music ripped at full resolution by yours truly and regardless of my selection, be it Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” from the album History or Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman” from her album Keeps Getting Better (A Decade of Hits), there was something very consistent and unique about the TX-NR708’s sound.
My room is treated using acoustic panels and Tri-Traps from GIK Acoustics, so my need for automatic room correction from the likes of Audyssey has diminished. That being said, with the Audyssey engaged and the TX-NR708 set to “stereo” the presentation was decidedly forward sounding, with a clear emphasis on the upper midrange and high frequencies. Vocals seemed to stand out in starker contrast than what I’m accustomed to, which for some may be a good thing. For me – I didn’t fully take to it. The high frequencies had a bit of grain to them at the extremes and at times sounded a touch brittle and not wholly organic, but this isn’t uncommon among receivers. What did surprise me was just how prodigious the TX-NR708’s bass performance was – dear God it can slam. Most receivers in the TX-NR708’s price range tend to either roll off at the lower frequencies or get all tubby, but not the TX-NR708 – it lords over bass with an iron fist.
Wanting to see just how much of what I was hearing was the TX-NR708 and how much of it was the Audyssey room correction, I engaged the TX-NR708’s “Pure Audio” mode, which turns off any room correction and DSP for the purest signal transfer from the receiver to the listener’s ears. Well the Audyssey room correction was definitely altering the sound, for in “Pure” mode the same two tracks sounded far more liquid, smooth and musical; however some of the presence and weight disappeared. Turning the volume up brought most of the impact and dynamics back, but the bass was nowhere near as taut as it was when the Audyssey EQ was engaged.
Ultimately, I found that when I engaged the Audyssey EQ but disabled its “Dynamic EQ” function, that seemed to offer the best compromise for my room and tastes, though I did prefer the TX-NR708’s sound in stereo versus in its “Pure Audio” mode.
Once I decided on how I wanted the TX-NR708 set for two-channel playback I cued up “Everloving” from Moby’s hit album Play via my AppleTV. The overall presentation was solid, still a little light, lacking a bit of weight but overall enjoyable. Dynamically the TX-NR708 was quite good, possessing terrific attack and somewhat surprising decay. The TX-NR708’s soundstage managed to extend beyond the left and right speakers’ baffles and extended well beyond the boundaries of my front wall, with fairly solid instrument placement, air and detail. The high frequencies seemed to be a bit tamer with the “Dynamic EQ” set to off, which was a good thing; however they still sounded digital and possessed a fair amount of grain even at moderate volumes. When pushed, the TX-NR708 gave up some of its composure, especially in the upper midrange and treble but seemed to gain a bit in the bass, though at times it seemed almost too much.
Musically, or at least with two-channel music, the TX-NR708 gets a pass for it’s far from the worst and is ultimately in league with a lot of receivers in its class. There are a few stand out examples out there that sound pretty good with two-channel fare; Onkyo even makes a few of them.
Satisfied with two-channel listening, I moved onto movies beginning with Iron Man 2 (Paramount) on Blu-ray. The TX-NR708 features full video processing via its internal DCDi chipset, which means that the TX-NR708 can upscale as well as perform basic image calibration such as brightness, contrast, sharpness and color adjustments. You can even tell the TX-NR708 what type of pull down, motion enhancements and noise reduction you want it to perform. While these features are cool and in some cases warranted, it begs the question at what point in the signal chain should you perform your calibration? For me, I calibrate at the monitor level for both my Samsung LCD and Anthem LTX-500 D-ILA projector offer far more control over the image than the TX-NR708 or even my Sony Blu-ray player. However, it’s nice to know that you can do it at the receiver level, more specifically at each of the receiver’s video inputs, if you so desire. I experimented with the TX-NR708’s various calibration controls and settings and found them to be useful though basic, which is probably all a prospective TX-NR708 owner is looking for. Regardless of how much or little I employed the TX-NR708’s internal processing, it didn’t add any objectionable flaws or anomalies to the image itself, so you won’t be harming your video any if you choose to calibrate or adjust the image at the receiver level.
Sonically, the TX-NR708 proved far more adept at playing back uncompressed audio formats then it did two-channel content, for its multi-channel performance was nearly spot on for me. Dialogue was clear and intelligible with good presence, weight and natural tone. High frequencies were still on the brighter side, though they seemed far less prone to grain and glare when played back at theater levels. The bass regained its composure and managed at times to find what seemed to be an extra octave. Dynamics were tremendous and the overall surround sound performance (despite my rear speakers not being of the same brand as my left, center and right channels) was largely seamless and smooth from one speaker to the next. I even didn’t mind the TX-NR708’s sound with Audyssey’s Dynamic EQ engaged when watching movies. The TX-NR708 was able to strike a pretty nice balance between the various elements on screen, never letting any one aspect of the sonic canvas overpower another, something a lot of receivers in its price range struggle with.
I ended my evaluation of the TX-NR708 with the SNL comedy bomb MacGruber (Universal) on Blu-ray. The film is far from award winning (maybe a Razzy or two) but it does feature some fairly big action scenes that while cheesy, possess some pretty good surround sound mixing. The climactic gun battle in Dieter VonCunth’s (played by Val Kilmer) warehouse was rendered with reckless sonic abandon courtesy of the TX-NR708, which was fitting given the stupid gun hi-jinx happening on screen. Gunshots were dynamic with excellent attack. Bullet hits and body on body contact had appropriate weight and impact that was seamless from the midbass on down. Again, dialogue was rendered cleanly and clearly, and stood in natural contrast to the insane action happening on screen, though after 90 minutes of listening to Will Forte repeat the same one-liners over and over, I kind of hoped a stray bullet would come along to put me out of my misery.
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