Dennis Burger is a native Alabamian whose passion for AV began sometime before the age of seven, when he dismantled his parents' brand new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV and exclaimed--to the amusement of no one except the delivery guy--that it was missing all of its vacuum tubes. He has since contributed to Home Theater Magazine, Wirecutter, Cineluxe, Electronic House, and more. His specialties include high-end audio, home theater receivers, advanced home automation, and video codecs.
The $500-ish price point seems to be the sweet spot in the AV receiver market at the moment. And I say that because when my normie friends ask for receiver shopping advice, that's the budget target they throw at me most often. It also seems to be the price point at which they expect a receiver to do pretty much everything.
That's unrealistic, of course, expecting a $500 receiver to do everything. But the $479 Pioneer VSX-933 7.2-Channel Network AV Receiver surely tries its best. It supports Dolby Atmos and Dolby Surround, DTS:X and DTS Neural:X, and allows for cross-platform upmixing. (In other words, you can use Neural:X to upmix a Dolby Digital or TrueHD track, for example, or Dolby Surround to upmix DTS-HD Master Audio.) It also supports the latest in video formats, with HDCP 2.2 compliance and passthrough for HDR10, HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma), and Dolby Vision.
In terms of audio streaming, it's also a little overachiever. Works with Sonos? It does. DTS Play-Fi? It's onboard. Bluetooth? Check. Version: 4.1 + LE, to be precise, with SBC and AAC codecs. Chomecast and AirPlay and Spotify Connect? Check and check checkmate. Hell, this thing even supports Google Assistant voice control.
The side of the box boasts a 165-watt-per-channel power rating for the VSX-933, but Pioneer achieves this rating by driving only one channel into a 6Ω load and measuring at 1 kHz, with pretty staggering 10 percent Total Harmonic Distortion. A more realistic measurement (a full bandwidth signal into 8Ω with two channels driven and 0.08 percent THD) gives a rating of 80 watts per channel, which puts it right in line with the bulk of its competition.
All told, the VSX-933 features seven amplified channels and can be configured as a 5.1 system with bi-amped fronts or a powered second zone, or as a 5.1.2 system. In the case of the latter, you have your choice of top front, middle, or rear in-ceilings; front or rear height speakers on the wall; or front or rear Dolby Atmos Effects speaker modules. The setup menus are also flexible enough to allow you to do funky configurations like 4.1.2 and even 3.1.2, if you so choose.
As with many receivers these days, the VSX-933's four main HDMI inputs are pre-named: in this case, there's one each for your DVD or Blu-ray player, your cable or satellite box, your video game console, and your streaming media player. There's even a component video input for those of you with legacy AV sources you just can't bring yourself to upgrade.
The other two HDMI inputs can be named, although there's no dedicated button for either on the remote, so you'll have to use the input scroll buttons to get to them if you use them. Oddly, the streaming media player input also lacks a dedicated remote button, but you do get a TV button for access to content via ARC.
Other than that, HDMI setup is pretty straightforward, and inputs are easy to rename and reassign. In fact, "easy" and "straightforward" are the adjectives I would hang on pretty much the entire setup process, aside from the fact that I had to click through so many end user license agreement screens during the setup process that I'm pretty sure I gave Pioneer naming rights to my daughter's firstborn. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I probably gave those rights to Google, since they're the main culprits here, but that's the price of having Chromecast and Google Assistant and such, I suppose.
Overall, the VSX-933's UI--for both setup and day-to-day operation--strikes a nice balance between the well-illustrated approach of something like a Sony and the detailed, explanatory approach of a Denon or Marantz. As long as you have a general understanding of what everything is and does, I can't imagine anyone getting lost in the receiver's menus.
The included remote is beautiful in its utter simplicity, especially in the way that the buttons you likely need to use the most--volume up and down--take up a disproportional amount of real estate on the rather dainty unit. Source buttons at the top are easily accessible, and the navigation pad and select buttons are large and easily located by touch. I had my doubts about the remote upon first contact, since it rather evokes what's known as "mother-in-law" remotes for other receivers. In other words, one's inclination is to believe that, while simple, it's a little too simple to be fully functional. With a few minor exceptions that I'll detail below, that's far from the case. It may be minimalist, but it totally gets the job done.
The VSX-933 is also supported by an SDDP IP driver for Control4 systems, which provides direct access to the NET input, streaming services, and two USB ports, along with a few nice custom features.
Physical speaker setup is pretty straightforward, although the binding posts are pretty tightly packed, so I recommend banana plugs for your speaker connections. There's also a line level second zone output if you're using up all of the receiver's amplified channels already, but it's worth nothing that it only works with analog sources. Setup doesn't hold your hand through the process of connecting every individual speaker, the way a Denon does, but that's probably a blessing depending on your comfort level with AV tech.
Once you have your speaker layout in place, running through the Pioneer's MCACC room correction and auto speaker calibration system is a snap. For the purposes of this review, I ran through two setups, one 5.1.2 with an RSL CG3 5.2 system at ear level and a pair of GoldenEar SuperSat 3s on the ceiling, then later just the RSL system in 5.1 mode.
This was my first experience with MCACC, which is a bit of a surprise since room correction is kind of my thing. Overall, I found it the auto speaker setup part of the equation be a neat experience, since the test tones it generates bounce back and forth between speaker pairs--left, right, left, right--taking multiple measurements with slightly different tonality each time. What surprised me is that it positively nailed not only speaker levels and delays, but also crossover points. That's just... well, it's not really a thing that happens often with receivers at this price point. Major kudos there.
As for the room correction part of the equation? It's important to temper expectations, given that we're talking about a sub-$500 receiver. We'll dig more into the effects of MCACC as implemented in the VSX-933 in The Performance section, but it's worth making a few general observations here. Firstly, it's pretty apparent early on that this version of MCACC doesn't do much to correct problems with bass. I wasn't aware until I went to research this observation that MCACC doesn't, in its basic implementation, have any form of standing wave correction. For that you have to step up to at least the $799 Elite VSX-LX303.
Since combating standing waves is one of the most important benefits of room correction, that's a bit of a bummer. But again, not terribly surprising at this price. Unlike many basic room correction systems, though, you can go in and re-EQ the results of MCACC's auto setup. But in my case, this didn't do much good. I know from experience that my secondary listening room has a pretty nasty standing wave situation that can be ameliorated by a roughly 5dB cut centered right around 42Hz. The VSX-933's manual adjustments for the subwoofer are limited to only four bands, though, locked at 31Hz, 63Hz, 125Hz, and 250Hz. So, no amount of tinkering allowed me to tame the bass perfectly, and no amount of subwoofer repositioning resulted in a workable physical solution to this problem.
So, what does this sound like with real world listening material? For that, we turn to the first disc I pop in when auditioning any AV receiver: the second Blu-ray in the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition boxset. The Mines of Moria sequence is normally my initial go-to, but in this case, I was listening specifically for bass control and evenness, so for that I cued up "The Ring Goes South" and waited for the sequence in which the flock of Crebain from Dunland (the big black birds, for you non-nerds in the back row) swarm the fellowship. Indeed, the bass elements of the score proved to be out of whack here. The drums were overwhelming and the lowest notes in the score fluctuated noticeably in their relative levels. I tinkered with the limited EQ options available to me and found that a 2.5dB cut at 31Hz did tame the boominess to a degree but didn't help with the unevenness as much as I'd hoped. Doing so also robbed me of some essential energy at the very bottom end. But it proved to be an acceptable solution.
Here's what else I notice about MCACC, though: it's effects are actually surprisingly subtle above 300-400Hz or thereabouts. I'm accustomed to full bandwidth room correction systems at this level robbing me of some essential high-frequency energy, egregiously mucking with the soundstage, deadening the harmonics and timbres of complex soundtracks. MCACC did none of that, at least not to any appreciable degree. In fact, when toggling the room correction on and off during the playful sword duel between Boromir and the hobbits, I was inclined to say that MCACC was actually making subtle but effective improvements to the imaging without doing much harm to the width of the soundstage.
Skipping forward to my tried-and-true Moria sequence, I became even more convinced of this. Gandalf's hushed whispers at the fellowship make their way into the mines undeniably benefited in terms of intelligibility when MCACC was toggled on. And yet, that ephemeral sense of space generated by the echoes and reverberations embedded in the track never dissipated.
That's actually a pretty startling accomplishment for an inexpensive room correction system that only takes measurements in one listening position. And again, I should repeat that the effects are subtle. But in my opinion, that's a major plus.
Throughout the rest of the disc, I found the VSX-933 more than capable of delivering enough clean power to crank out peak SPLs in the vicinity of 97dB without strain or struggle. That's not quite THX reference listening levels, but again, let's keep cost in mind here and be reasonable. I found it to be a more than satisfying listening experience, and it would probably be way, way too loud for my dad. So, thumbs up there. Overall, I would describe the sound as dynamic, detailed, and highly intelligible, except for the bass issues detailed above, which are a function of my room and a little belabored at this point.
Skipping ahead to some musical selections (because, really, what is there to convey about cinematic performance that The Fellowship of the Ring can't illustrate?), I found the VSX-933's inability to deal with standing waves less of an issue, because frankly there aren't many songs in my musical library with the right frequencies to excite my room in that way. A bit of Björk here and there. Some old-school hip hop, of course.
But even a track like Fat Boy Slim's "Gangsta Trippin," as bass heavy as it is, didn't create bloating issues because most of its bass is in that higher, chest-slamming range, rather than the lower, tummy rumbling region. The song has a pretty dense mix and relies on some high-frequency punctuation to drive its groove. Again, I was rather surprised to find that I actually preferred the performance of the VSX-933 with MCACC room correction engaged.
With a song like "My Little Demon" from Fleetwood Mac's reunion CD, The Dance, in toggling back and forth between MCACC on and MCACC off I could hear a bit of a subtle shift in timbre, but it was so slight that I didn't have a preference for one or the other. Again, the soundstage remained solid, without much narrowing, and imaging was, if anything, slightly improved by MCACC. I found myself really appreciating the way the VSX-933 handled the aggressive punch of the growls that permeate the track, as well as little details like....
Okay, there's this element of the percussion in this track that sort of sounds like when you make an "O" with your mouth, then flick your cheek and blow a kiss. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about here. It almost sounds like a drop of water falling into a bucket?
That element of the percussion is so buried in the mix that it can easily become obscured, but the Pioneer delivers even the subtlest details such as that, even when played at pretty rocking volumes. So big kudos there.
Aside from the aforementioned tracks, this one was that probably one of the songs I auditioned that would have most benefited from some standing wave correction, since the rhythm section does crank out some solid energy in the 40-70Hz range. A bit of an additional cut at 63Hz via MCACC's manual EQ adjustments did help, but I would still punch a baby koala right in the neck for an EQ band centered on 40 or 45Hz. That would solve all my problems.
While jamming to "My Little Demon" and tinkering around with the EQ settings, I also took the opportunity to play with the VSX-933's sound modes. Switching back and forth between pure direct, stereo, and surround--and cycling through the various options for the latter--is stupid easy via the remote. I'm normally a Dolby Surround kind of guy when it comes to two-channel music listening through budget AV receivers, since strong stereo performance isn't really their gig. But I quite liked the performance of the Pioneer with just the front stereo bookshelves and the subwoofer engaged. The depth of the soundstage never quite reached the levels of much more expensive gear, but again, for a $500ish surround sound setup, this little guy gets a big old attaboy from me.
As I've covered to death by this point, if you have any issue with standing waves in your room (spoiler warning: if you're shopping for a $500 receiver, you totally do), the Pioneer VSX-933's MCACC room correction won't deal with them. If you know your room's acoustics well and your room modes exist at frequencies that align with MCACC's four subwoofer EQ bands, you can probably go a long way toward dealing with this issue manually, though.
I also wish you could set a default listening mode for each source, rather than just defaulting to the last mode used, but that's not a major quibble.
Comparison & Competition
If you're shopping for receivers in this general price range, you're probably also taking a good hard look at Denon's AVR-S740H, which sports similar features, similar power output (just five watts per channel shy of the Pioneer's), and similar configurability. The Denon has the same number of HDMI inputs, though one of them is on the front. It leans on Alexa for voice control instead of Google Assistant, features HEOS multiroom wireless streaming instead of Play-Fi and/or Sonos, and has Audyssey room correction built in instead of Pioneer's proprietary MCACC. For everything said above, this is probably the biggest differentiator between the two, especially if you spring for the $20 Audyssey MultEQ mobile app, which allows you a lot more control in terms of room correction and EQ. The Denon does lack the Pioneer's component video in, though.
Onkyo's offering in this target range is the TX-NR686, when you consider street price and not merely MSRP. Though the two share a lot of common DNA, the 686 nets you an extra 20 watts per channel of output, which might be handy if you have a slightly larger room, less efficient speakers, or want to get closer to reference cinema levels of output. It also boasts two (count them, two!) component video inputs for legacy sources, and uses Onkyo's own AccuEQ room correction, which I've grown fonder of in recent implementations. In terms of streaming and wireless connectivity, voice control, and all that, the TX-NR686 is pretty much identically spec'd when compared to the Pioneer, and from what I can see in the limited pictures online, it's remote is virtually the same.
Sony also has its STR-DN1080 in this neighborhood, which also stacks up pretty comparably. It too lacks a component in but plays a similar game in terms of ins and outs otherwise. Sony does make power ratings hard to compare, since they only offer output ratings into 6Ω loads, but I did the math for you. They're pretty evenly matched. In his review, Brian Khan praised the STR-DN1080 for its streaming capabilities and excellent UI.
Yamaha also offers the RX-V585 at roughly this price. Again, no component video, and it's limited to four HDMI inputs total (all HDCP 2.2 compliant). In my experience, Yamaha's YPAO room correction is something of a step down from MCACC, at least in auto form, although its manual EQ is a big step up if you want to make manual tweaks. The Yamaha relies on MusicCast for wireless streaming, and it's compatible with Alexa for voice control.
Combine its wealth of connectivity with its sumptuously simple remote and solid performance, and Pioneer has a downright attractive offering on its hands in the form of the VSX-933 7.2-Channel Network AV Receiver. Yes, its room correction is limited, and its manual EQ equally so. And if I were shopping for myself, I would be inclined to step up to something like the VSX-LX303 at $799, just to get that standing wave control. But is that worth an extra $220 to you? That question is not for me to answer. Especially if you already own a subwoofer with built-in calibration features, like ELAC's Debut 2.0 sub. Go with a sub like that, and pretty much everything I said above about bass control is moot.
I wish I'd had the opportunity to test out the VSX-933's Google Assistant voice control and Chromecast streaming capabilities, but alas, I'm an Alexa and Apple kind of guy, not an Android. If they work as effortlessly and seamlessly as every other aspect of this receiver, though, those are also huge selling points.
• Visit the Pioneer website for more product information.
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