Onkyo TX-NR808 review

Onkyo is the market leader in AV amplifiers and receivers for good reason. It has, for the last few years at least, crammed its kit with as much tech as it can possibly fit in, whilst keeping prices at very reasonable levels. The end result is a rapidly growing fan base of Onk die-hards. And, after sampling the awesome delights of the company's 2010 mid-range refresh - in the guise of the TX-NR808 AV receiver - it's easy to see (and hear) why.

For starters, it teases a specification list that could be the AV geek's equivalent to Playboy: THX Select2 Plus certification … phwoar! Audyssey DSX and Dolby Pro Logic IIz processing for extra front channels … whoof! Internet radio and music streaming capabilities … hubba hubba! And, 7 HDMI inputs, 2 out … excuse me a second…

Of course, these aren't features specifically unique to Onkyo - after all, other receivers from rival manufacturers offer similar spec. But, rarely do they sit alongside 7.2 channels (at 180 Watts per channel claimed), a front-mounted USB port that accepts iPod/iPhone input (with album artwork), and complete 3D compatibility (each and every one of its HDMI sockets being v1.4a). Even if they did, there is no way that they'd each be available for under a grand.

Admittedly, at £999, the 808 is only a solitary pound under, but at least you could treat yourself to three cans of Lilt from Poundland, so that sort-of counts. And, seeing as it feels and behaves like equipment much higher up the food chain, as lofty as it sounds, its price tag is a veritable bargain.

THX-certification certainly isn't thrown about willy-nilly, for instance, and often adds a few shekels onto the ticket. But, should you have a compatible speaker set-up, its presence will help you experience immediate and impressive benefits to performance. And that's just a mere tip of the added-value iceberg…

We've always been massive fans of the Audyssey MultEQ room set-up and acoustic correction feature, and it makes a welcome return here. Using an included microphone, it helps in finding the ultimate sonic settings for your specific viewing room and speaker setup. All you have to do is run through the easy-to-navigate wizard and your receiver is perfectly tuned. Techno- and audiophiles may want to tweak further, and the well-served menu system offers such delights, but the rest of us will be more than happy with its automated guessing.

Then there's its inclusion of the new audio processing formats, Audyssey DSX and Dolby Pro Logic IIz - which use dedicated rear-mounted outputs for additional speakers - to add to an already impressive list of codecs and processing modes.

Both of the new additions utilise extra front channels, giving either height or horizontal length to the primary, front-facing soundstage. In short, they each create a wall of sound coming from the place you'd most want it - where your TV or projection screen is situated - rather than add superfluous discrete rear channels. It's a new-fangled idea for home cinema, but seems to be catching on rapidly.

Also, as previously mentioned, this is one of the first receivers, Onkyo or otherwise, that is completely compatible with 3D Blu-ray players and TVs. Former amps and comparable AV kit generally only have HDMI v1.3 sockets which, while they have enough bandwidth to pass through 3D images and sounds, can't cope with the extra strain put on them by bang-up-to-date gear.

For example, they couldn't also pass through the signal flags sent by a 3D Blu-ray deck to tell a compatible TV to switch to 3D mode. Everything, in that case, would have to be manipulated manually. However, with every one of its 7-inch, 2-out HDMI ports being v1.4a, the 808 is fully-capable of passing through 3D content. It is, as they say, future proof.

Speaking of which, it is important to note that it is now possible to download and install firmware updates via Ethernet or USB on this Onk. We've had issues trying to patch a TX-SR805 in the past, which involved burning a CD and playing it through a DVD player plugged into the optical audio port - a messy business and one best forgotten - so the simplicity of the new method is highly applauded. 

As is the move to include the graphical user interface (GUI) on the HDMI feed. In basic terms, it allows you to see the receiver's volume controls on screen without leaving whatever you're viewing. And there's a handy home button which brings up an onscreen menu with other video and audio options (such as image upscaling). It helps the 808 to seem more integrated with your entire home setup.

But, bells and whistles aside, the most important aspect of this receiver to many will be how it sounds, and we can honestly say that neither movie or music fans will be disappointed. That is, unless you're looking for something more … erm … wimpy.

The TX-NR808 is the receiver equivalent of a bare-knuckle boxing match, in a dewy glade. It's a Rottweiler that's been prodded with a stick every day for a year until it can growl the words to Ave Maria. It happily treads the fine line of being both beautiful and savage, and we love it. A lot.

Action movie soundtracks hang in the air like carcasses in an abattoir; tangible and beefy, but naturally bewitching. Listening to the remake of Clash of the Titans on Blu-ray was like being beaten up and licked by a puppy at the same time. And we're sure that the floor is still resonating several days later.

Verdict

Music too is treated with delicacy and brutal assault in equal measures. There isn't a song we've found that hasn't been improved by the 808's handling. Even Jedward's album turns from a turgid, pointless abuse of the human ear into a turgid, pointless abuse of the human ear with better bass response. This receiver could add meat to a vegan sausage.

If there's one criticism it's that, at times, it can be a bit too aggressive. Not volume-wise, that's finely controllable, but just in its bark. Perhaps this will calm down in time, as it beds in. And, to be honest, that's a tiny caveat for what is the most exciting and fun AV receiver we've seen and heard to date.