When I was offered the opportunity to review the flagship model in Pioneer’s Elite receiver line, the SC-LX901 ($3,000), I thought it would be a good opportunity to compare its features and performance with that of Denon’s flagship, the AVR-X7200WA 9.2-channel receiver ($2,999) that I previously reviewed. Manufacturers are currently transitioning their AV receivers toward greater network integration, and I was interested to see what progress has been made since the Denon was introduced just two years ago. Obviously these two units are meant to be direct competitors, as they have virtually identical price points, and many home theater enthusiasts looking for a receiver at the upper end of the market will probably be interested in a comparison of these two flagships. Since I still have the Denon in-house serving as the heart of my family room system, I’m quite familiar with its performance and features. So, what did I find? Well, while these two receivers have many features in common, there are noteworthy differences in how those features are implemented.
First we’ll step around the SC-LX901’s exterior to take a look at its controls and connections. We’ll also take a peek under the hood and at the remote control to highlight some key features. Then, of course, we’ll talk about performance. Let’s get started.
The 39.7-pound flagship receiver measures 17.13 inches wide by 7.31 high by 17.33 deep and has a build quality that separates it from the typical mid-fi receiver. The clean, minimalist design of both the front panel and remote control belies the staggering amount of functionality that this three-zone, 11.2-channel, Class D network AV receiver possesses. While the front panel has a very similar layout to the Denon, the remote control is a different story (more on that later). On the front panel, large input selector and master volume dials flank the central LCD; there’s also a standby/on button and a drop-down door that hides additional controls. That’s it. Nice and clean. I’m not a fan of receivers with a multitude of buttons visible on the front panel, for one reason in particular: I typically review receivers in my family room system, which means my family has to live with the new gear, too. All those buttons make it too easy for less tech-savvy family members to accidentally hit the wrong button and quickly get frustrated … with me. Behind the drop-down door, you’ll find several control buttons, a headphone jack, a USB input, an HDMI input, and a setup microphone input for Pioneer’s proprietary MCACC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration) Pro room correction software.
Around back, it’s a different story. Here you will find a multitude of gold-plated source connections to meet most any need, including seven more HDMI inputs (the first five inputs are HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2; inputs six and seven are HDMI 1.4) and two HDMI outputs, one with Audio Return Channel (ARC) control. For legacy televisions that do not support the ARC feature, the receiver also offers three digital optical inputs and analog audio input options to play the television’s audio through the receiver. There are also two component video inputs and two composite video inputs for older AV sources, as well as six assignable analog audio inputs, an MM (Moving Magnet) phono input for a turntable, and pre outs for two powered subwoofers and zones two and three. The eleven upgraded speaker connections befit a flagship model. On the control end, you get IR in and out, two 12-volt trigger outputs, and an RS-232 connection. The Pioneer is compatible with Crestron, Control4, AMX, URS, RTI, and Savant control systems. Both wired and wireless connections to your home network are available via the Ethernet input and dual-band Wi-Fi, respectively. Bluetooth 4.1 provides another wireless connection option.
Inside the SC-LX901, you’ll notice that Pioneer took extra care to build an extremely rigid chassis and then segregated and insulated components from each other to minimize any electronic interference. The SC-LX901 has separate Pre and Power amplifier blocks with isolated power supplies for digital and analog circuits. Pioneer uses its Class D3 (Direct Energy HD) amplifier in the SC-LX901, offering a full eleven channels of amplification versus the nine channels found in some manufacturers’ flagship models (such as Denon and Yamaha). That means there is no need to connect an external two-channel amp to drive those extra two speakers.
With two channels driven, the Pioneer is rated at 140 watts continuous power output at eight ohms with total harmonic distortion (THD) of 0.08 percent. Unfortunately Pioneer doesn’t publish the same type of rating (continuous power output across the audible spectrum) with all channels driven. Pioneer does state that there’s a total of 880 watts available onboard. To provide an indication of the processing power utilized by current day receivers, the digital core engine of the SC-LX901 sports a Cirrus Logic quad core processer. The receiver utilizes 192-kHz/32-bit ESS SABRE32 Ultra DACs (ES9016S) to handle audio processing. The receiver is also able to support up to 11.2-MHz DSD Direct playback (two-channel) via the USB input or SACD discs (2.8-MHz DSD) via HDMI (5.1 or two channels). And there are several DSP surround modes offered that are meant to simulate different environments, including Classical, Unplugged, Rock/Pop, Sports, and Game--to name just a few. Manufacturers continue to offer these types of listening environment adjustments, so I assume there is still interest from some buyers. Personally, I’m not a fan of these settings, but I did try them out briefly.
Video features are abundant in this Pioneer receiver. With two HDMI outputs, you can send video to your main display, as well as a secondary display in either the same room or a separate room. The Pioneer can pass through the latest Ultra HD video formats, including 4K/60p/4:4:4/24-bit, 4K/24p/4:4:4/36-bit, and 4K/60p/4:2:0/36-bit. The SC-LX901 also passes High Dynamic Range (HDR) and BT.2020 color, and Pioneer has announced that the unit will also support Dolby Vision pass-through by the end of 2017 via a firmware update. The Pioneer can convert all signals to HDMI output, and it will upconvert 1080p to 4K (lower-resolution signals are simply passed through). When it upscaled 1080p signals to 4K, I found that the SC-LX901 created an image that was nearly indistinguishable from native 4K.
Audio features are plentiful enough to satisfy nearly everyone, too. In addition to the music formats already discussed, there is support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, currently the two most common object-based, high-resolution audio formats found on many of the latest Ultra HD and standard Blu-ray releases. The Denon also adds the Auro3D format to the mix, while the Pioneer does not. At present, that likely won’t matter to most potential buyers, but it might down the road. Auro3D has recently partnered with Christie and Sony. Through that partnership, Auro3D-encoded soundtracks have started showing up in several recent theatrical releases and also a few home video titles. I’ve spent considerable time listening to music recorded in the Auro3D format, and my personal opinion is that it’s the most natural-sounding and seamlessly immersive of the three formats. However, we’ll have to wait and see if Auro3D can overcome the numerous challenges ahead and become a real contender in this latest battle of audio formats in the home video distribution market.
The Pioneer also offers analog audio connections for legacy gear. For critical music listening, there are Direct and Pure Direct modes that can be selected to shut down progressively more processes in the receiver that affect sound quality to deliver a more faithful reproduction of the original sound. One thing to note is that, when listening in these modes, the speaker calibration made with the MCACC Pro software is turned off. Finally, there is also an AM/FM tuner built into the receiver with 40 presets available.
Pioneer has incorporated several streaming music services into the SC-LX901, including Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL, Deezer, and TuneIn. It also supports AirPlay, DTS Play-Fi, Chromecast Built-in, and Fire Connect--which is Pioneer’s wireless multi-room protocol that sends the receiver’s audio sources to compatible wireless speakers in the same room or other rooms, similar to Yamaha’s MusicCAST system.
I hooked up the Pioneer receiver in my family room system, connecting it to a 65-inch LG Ultra HD TV, a DirecTV Genie HD DVR, an Apple TV player (3rd gen), and an Oppo UDP-203 Ultra HD Blu-ray player. I connected all of the source components using HDMI cables.
My 7.1.2 speaker setup consists of a Monitor Audio Gold 5.1 system, plus RBH MC-6 in-walls and two KEF R50 Dolby Atmos speaker modules. I used WireWorld Oasis Series 7 speaker cables to connect the speakers to the upgraded, gold-plated speaker terminals using banana plugs, including connecting the main speakers to two sets of terminals for bi-amping. Then I powered up the Pioneer and the television to begin the automatic setup process, checking that source components were connected correctly and that the speaker system was configured correctly. The Pioneer automatically detected that I wanted to bi-amp the main speakers based on the speaker connections detected. The Denon receiver wasn’t able to do that.
Next I ran the MCACC Pro auto room correction software using the included microphone and the receiver’s remote control to calibrate the speaker system. Along with the MCACC Pro software, Pioneer has included its new Reflex Optimizer feature that the company says was designed to provide the best sound experience with Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers by maximizing object-based audio reproduction. The calibration process was complete in about 10 minutes, then I followed the onscreen instructions to set up a Wi-Fi connection. Once the Pioneer was connected to my network, I set up my TIDAL, Pandora, and Spotify music streaming subscriptions. I also set up AirPlay to work with my iPhone. Finally, I connected the receiver to my Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) device that I use to stream my digital music collection. From start to finish, the whole process from unboxing to connecting and configuring the receiver, source components, speakers, and streaming services took about an hour.
I need to mention that the Pioneer remote control is quite different from the Denon flagship’s remote. The Pioneer remote has a minimalist layout, with far fewer buttons than the Denon. At first, I was apprehensive about the design. I really like the Denon remote with its numerous buttons and thought I would miss all of the direct-access convenience that they provide. The Pioneer eliminates a number of control buttons by requiring the user to instead cycle through a list of features using single buttons. I found that, after initial setup, I didn’t really need or want to change those settings very often, so I didn’t actually miss the extra buttons. My family members preferred the Pioneer remote from the beginning because it was easier and more intuitive to learn, with less buttons to scan while looking for a desired function.
Pioneer also offers a remote control app that can be used with the flagship receiver if you prefer to use your mobile device for control. I did try out the app and found it to be not only easy to navigate, but also much faster than the remote for scrolling through my extensive TIDAL library to locate particular artists, albums, or tracks.
I found myself spending more time listening to music, both critically and just in the background--thanks to all of the streaming choices that the Pioneer provides. I tried out TuneIn Internet radio, which offers more than enough radio stations and podcast choices to satisfy virtually every taste and mood. I used Pandora quite a bit, too. For CD-resolution sound, I streamed TIDAL extensively. While I love using the TIDAL user interface on my desktop and mobile devices, the Pioneer interface is a text-only folder tree with artists, albums, or songs--so it can become tedious to search for a particular artist, album, or song if you have a large saved library, as I do. It was still great to have the convenience of TIDAL on board, but I did find that I didn’t search new music as much on the Pioneer as I do with my other devices.
Using the Music Server option on the receiver, I connected to the NAS drive on my network, where I have a large hi-res digital music library. Listening to Rachel Podger and the Brecon Baroque Ensemble playing the Bach Double & Triple Concertos (BWV 1043, Channel Classics, 2.8 MHz DSD) did not disappoint on the Pioneer Elite receiver. The wonderful timbres of the Baroque-era instruments define the constantly shifting textures that are so appealing in this music, and the SC-LX901 was terrific at reproducing them with such realism. Occasionally while playing 192-kHz/24-bit or 5.6-MHz DSD hi-res files, the receiver would interrupt the music in order to buffer the file. This never happened with files of lesser resolution, and I attribute the buffering more to my less-than-optimal wireless network setup than to an issue with the receiver. The receiver was located on one side of my house, while my Apple router and NAS drive are on the opposite side. Obviously if you have a wired network connection, you can eliminate such issues.
Switching to video, I slipped in the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc of the futuristic sci-fi movie Ghost in the Shell (Paramount Pictures), which is loosely based on the Japanese Anime series of the same name. In chapter one, we are shown the manufacture of the main character Major (Scarlett Johannsen) at Hanka Robotics, where a human brain is implanted in a fully synthetic body. As the Pioneer played the Atmos soundtrack, I found myself placed in a cocoon of lifelike, 3D sound with dramatic and detailed overhead effects.
Through the Pioneer, the bass supplied a powerful foundation but was never muddy or bloated. Highs were distinctly placed and crystal clear. Even with the powerful sound effects portrayed all around me, dialogue was always perfectly clear.
Next I moved on to the 1080p Blu-ray disc of the movie The Mummy (Universal), also in Dolby Atmos. In chapter six, a large flock of bats flies directly into the windshield and engines of the C130 cargo plane that’s transporting the sarcophagus of the Mummy (Sofia Boutella), causing the plane to spin out of control. As the plane begins to rotate, Nick (Tom Cruise) and Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) are tossed about the cargo hold and find themselves weightless as Nick struggles to attach a parachute to Jenny to save her.
The receiver provided really good channel integration of the numerous sound effects, creating a seamless soundscape with plenty of height and width. The Pioneer provided ample power for the low bass effects as the plane comes apart, and the highs were always portrayed with detail and accurate placement in space, bringing a greater sense of realism to the scene.
I only have a couple of minor quibbles with the Pioneer receiver. The interface for music streaming services like TIDAL and Pandora is a bit clunky and slow to use with the remote control. I’d rather see a GUI similar to TIDAL’s mobile and desktop apps. Pioneer’s own mobile app did at least solve the search-speed issue. I’d also like to see Pioneer add Auro3D capability to its receivers, as Denon and Marantz have done.
Comparison & Competition
All of the major AV receiver manufacturers offer a flagship model that will compete with Pioneer’s SC-LX901 11-channel model. Sister company Onkyo offers the TX-RZ3100 ($3,299; 11 channels), Integra has the DRX-R1.1 ($3,000; 11 channels), Denon has the aforementioned AVR-X7200WA ($3,000, nine channels), Yamaha sells the RX-A3070 ($1,999; nine channels), and Marantz recently announced the SR8012 ($3,000; 11 channels). Anthem’s MRX 1120 is another option that we’ve reviewed ($3,499, 11 channels).
These flagship models have lots of features in common; it really comes down to sound signature preference and a few main features--such as whether you need nine or 11 channels of amplification, whether Auro3D capability is important to you or not, what onboard network services you prefer, if you need compatibility with a particular wireless multi-room audio technology (Fire Connect, Chromecast Built-in, DTS Play-Fi, MusicCAST, HEOS, etc.), and which receiver’s GUI and remote control navigation schemes you prefer. One plus of the Pioneer is the multiple multi-room wireless audio schemes included.
After an extended audition, I can honestly say that the Pioneer Elite SC-LX901 receiver is the best-sounding receiver from Pioneer I’ve ever heard, and it definitely deserves the designation of flagship. It delivers the power, features, and finesse to elevate the user experience with music and movie soundtracks to a truly emotional one. The simple, automated setup process and minimalist remote provide an ease of use, even with such an extensive feature set. Whether your list of sources consists of the current state-of-the-art products or older legacy models (or both), the Pioneer has you covered.
The Pioneer Elite SC-LX901 just makes listening to music and watching movies more fun. While there are several choices at this price point, if you like the Pioneer Elite sound and put a priority on build quality, the latest features, and ergonomics, then the SC-LX901 needs to be on your short list to audition.
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