Pi­o­neer VSX-1131

FOR Big, pow­er­ful sound; fine build and in­ter­face; fea­tures AGAINST Needs a touch more re­fine­ment, clar­ity and drive

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Big. Pow­er­ful. Mus­cu­lar. Words we tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ciate with Yamaha and Onkyo’s af­ford­able AV re­ceivers. Not Pi­o­neer’s, whose sig­na­ture sound has al­ways been more about pre­ci­sion and agility. We’ve no­ticed things chang­ing over re­cent years, what with the Pi­o­neer’s bud­get and mid-priced VSX range of re­ceivers gain­ing in rich­ness and heft, and last year’s VSX-930 achiev­ing a hith­erto-elu­sive fifth star. There’s no VSX-931 this year, the fea­ture-laden VSX-1131 tak­ing its place – and this £550 AV re­ceiver is a pow­er­ful up­grade.

Sound and Fury

We start with the two-hour cin­e­matic chase that is Mad Max: Fury Road, and the VSX-1131 roars into life. As the mon­strous cars tear through the desert waste­land, the re­ceiver rum­bles and charges through the sound­track with stacks of en­ergy. The grind­ing of me­tal on me­tal, the en­gines roar­ing and whin­ing against the strain of the furious chase – there’s plenty of de­tail here to en­joy and the mus­cu­lar char­ac­ter of the VSX-1131 works bril­liantly with such an ac­tion-packed film. It’s a brawny per­for­mance, with rich lay­ers of low-end wal­lop. It goes pleas­ingly deep, with just a touch more pre­ci­sion needed to give the Pi­o­neer class-lead­ing drive.

The bass isn’t flabby or plod­ding, al­though it can be overly rich at times. This isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, as that rich­ness is pleas­ing to hear, but we’d rec­om­mend turn­ing the Pi­o­neer’s Pure Di­rect sound mode on for a touch more so­lid­ity and or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Next to the £500 Yamaha RX-V581, it’s not as ar­tic­u­late with the stop and start of notes as we’d like. As big and mus­cu­lar as the Pi­o­neer is, the Yamaha goes one step fur­ther, re­veal­ing lows the Pi­o­neer can’t.

The scale of sound is im­pres­sively large, al­though it’s worth not­ing that, once again, the Yamaha goes big­ger. Still, the Pi­o­neer de­liv­ers a great deal of height – and that’s even be­fore we plug the At­mos chan­nels in. It’s won­der­fully open and spa­cious, al­low­ing plenty of room for the top end – which never gets bright or sharp – to soar.

An open Book Thief

A more se­date film such as The Book Thief re­tains that sense of open­ness, with de­tail al­lowed to flour­ish in such a big and airy sound­field. We’d like a lit­tle more clar­ity and re­fine­ment, though. Voices can get a touch swal­lowed up in ac­tion se­quences, and more nu­ance would bet­ter let the char­ac­ters ex­press their emo­tion. The Denon AVR-X2300W is a clearer, more ar­tic­u­late am­pližer here.

The VSX-1131’S ro­bust per­for­mance is en­joy­able, but we wish it had more of the sub­tle and ag­ile na­ture of Pi­o­neer’s £1000+ re­ceivers (such as the SC-LX59), which man­age to bal­ance power and punch with clar­ity and pre­ci­sion. We spend an af­ter­noon watch­ing Talk­ing Heads’ Stop Mak­ing Sense Blu-ray, and find the Pi­o­neer’s mu­sic skills en­ter­tain­ing. That said, the new Denon and Yamaha have the more mu­si­cal and en­gag­ing ap­proach, if not the power and scale of the Pi­o­neer. You wouldn’t think much had changed in the Pi­o­neer re­ceiver from just look­ing at it. The sturdy rec­tan­gu­lar chas­sis (avail­able in black and sil­ver fin­ishes), the large dis­play that’s easy to read from a dis­tance, the but­tons and con­trol dials that work seam­lessly – it’s the high stan­dard of build qual­ity that we’ve come to ex­pect from Pi­o­neer. But that doesn’t mean the com­pany hasn’t tin­kered and tweaked with the for­mula.

“The grind­ing of me­tal on me­tal, the en­gines roar­ing and whin­ing against the strain of the furious chase – there’s plenty of de­tail here to en­joy”

What it has fo­cused on is the user ex­pe­ri­ence: there’s a new re­mote con­trol and a re­vamped in­ter­face.

Hand­set sim­pli­fi­ca­tion

The re­mote con­trol is smaller and less slen­der than the pre­vi­ous one – all the su­per­flu­ous but­tons have been dumped in favour of keep­ing the re­mote sim­ple and eas­ier to use. The main but­tons are large, dis­tinc­tively shaped and laid out so that it’s in­tu­itive to use within sec­onds – we have no prob­lem find­ing the right but­tons in the dark. As an al­ter­na­tive, Pi­o­neer’s colour­ful, in­ter­ac­tive icon­trolav5 app puts most others to shame. You can ad­just ev­ery set­ting through the app and the slick de­sign and fun in­ter­face (the Sound Ex­plorer bub­bles are our favourite).

Once you turn the re­ceiver on and go to the home menu, you’ll find a smarter-look­ing in­ter­face with large icons and bet­ter graph­ics than be­fore. It’s nice to use. The in­ter­face re­vamp is tied to Pi­o­neer’s MCACC auto cal­i­bra­tion sys­tem, which has also gone through a sig­nif­i­cant up­date. It’s now a far speed­ier propo­si­tion than the pre­vi­ous, nearly 10-minute cal­i­bra­tion set-up. The new MCACC cal­i­bra­tion is over be­fore the steam has dis­persed over your cup of tea, and it’s as ac­cu­rate as ever.

You would think Pi­o­neer would have re­served some of the more head­line­grab­bing fea­tures for its pre­mium am­pli­fiers, but this £550 re­ceiver has all the lat­est tech­nol­ogy and stream­ing fea­tures to make any home cin­ema en­thu­si­ast giddy with de­light. From Dolby At­mos and 4K HDR sup­port to Google Cast and hi-res mu­sic stream­ing, the VSX-1131 has it all.

Sound that gets you high

This is a seven-chan­nel am­pli­fier with a claimed 160W per chan­nel (at 6 ohms), with another set of speaker ter­mi­nals avail­able for height or Dolby At­mos chan­nels. Those want­ing to try out the DTS:X sur­round-sound for­mat can do so after the firmware up­date later this year.

All seven HDMI con­nec­tions on the re­ceiver sup­port 4K/60fps passthrough, with the first three in­puts marked as HDCP2.2 cer­ti­fied, which means they can play the newly re­leased 4K Blu-ray discs. Pi­o­neer also in­cludes two dig­i­tal op­ti­cal in­puts and a coax­ial in­put (the lat­ter some­thing its ri­val the Denon AVR-X2300W fails to in­clude). Two HDMI out­puts, le­gacy ana­logue con­nec­tions, a 6.3mm head­phone socket, a 3.5mm in­put and a USB port for charg­ing smart­phones round off a fairly com­pre­hen­sive list of con­nec­tions for any­one’s sources.

You won’t be able to play songs off your smart­phone through USB – that’s where Blue­tooth and Air­play come in – but the in­clu­sion of dual band wi-fi (5 GHZ and 2.4 GHZ) means you can stream hi-res files up to 24-bit/192khz. There are no in­ter­rup­tions over wi-fi dur­ing our test, and there’s al­ways the eth­er­net con­nec­tion if you want a more sta­ble link. There’s more: Google­cast is fea­tured on Pi­o­neer am­pli­fiers for the first time, so you can ‘cast’ con­tent from any com­pat­i­ble app (such as BBC iplayer, Net­flix, Youtube) straight through the amp and onto your screen. There’s na­tive sup­port for Spo­tify Con­nect right out of the box, while Tidal and Deezer sub­scribers can ex­pect the same later in the year fol­low­ing a firmware up­date.

Power vs sub­tlety

The new VSX-1131 can’t quite bal­ance power and sub­tlety in the deft man­ner of its Denon and Yamaha ri­vals. The Denon has sub­tlety on its side for a more cap­ti­vat­ing lis­ten, while the Yamaha goes for broke when it comes to power and punch.

But Pi­o­neer’s ef­forts shouldn’t go un­no­ticed. It’s chucked ev­ery­thing possible at the VSX-1131, and there’s no deny­ing that ex­cel­lent spread of fea­tures will catch ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion, and that en­joy­able, open and mus­cu­lar per­for­mance will ap­peal to many.

MU­SIC MIX It’s worth play­ing around with the sound modes to switch be­tween stereo and sur­round. Sur­round makes ev­ery­thing sound big­ger and grander, but stereo snaps rhythms into place in a more or­gan­ised way

Seven speaker chan­nels, plus an ex­tra two for height speak­ers or Dolby At­mos

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