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