On the whole, Onkyo receivers and amplifiers are excellent, especially for the price. Take last year’s TX-NR808 for example, a superb specimen of sonic sorcery – it’s 3D ready, got more bells and whistles than a cat and dog sanctuary, and delivers a punch like a boxing glove strapped to the front of a Land Rover Defender. So, why the need to upgrade, for you or Onkyo itself? Why do we even need a "9" designated refresh?
Well, for starters, technology bleeds down through the range with each generation, so some of the high-end shenanigans that made the £1,000 808 so superb last year can now be found in kit that costs far less. Plus, new gimmicks, whizzbangs and must-haves come along all the time, and while they’re not essential to a quality audio experience, it’d be churlish not to include them.
This year’s welcome addition to the fold comes in the guise of en vogue Internet music streaming and direct hook-up to popular cloud-based services. Spotify is on-board for the very first time, so if you aren’t blessed with the superb Sonos system in your humble abode, this comes as a feature more welcome than a visit by Noel Edmonds around Christmas time. However, before we properly start to dissect the product, put it back together, and find out that there’s a piece left over, we’ve got to explain why our review of the 609 has come considerably later than most. Why we’ve sat on the Onkyo (figuratively, although we don’t doubt that we could literally too – it’s built well enough) for a month or two before reviewing it…
The answer is simple: a fine amplifier or AV receiver is like a fine red wine; it matures with age. The screaming bastard you get out of the box may settle when fed a fine diet of delicate delights over time, and therefore find an audio tranquillity that an impatient reviewer might miss.
Equally, it may just explode into a shower of springs, dust and a single child’s shoe. Either way, it’s worth hanging on to find out.
Thankfully, after exacting enough restraint to get the best response, we can safely say that while the Onkyo TX-NR609 starts out on a solid footing, it gets better and better and better and… You get the picture. No explosions, no errors, not even a solitary aural blip – just quality sound and picture performance that belie its £500 price ticket.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Anybody who’s had to plumb in an AV receiver will no doubt know that before you get to savour its coughs, hearty or polite, you have to spend plenty of time staring at a myriad of sockets, connections and holes that you shouldn’t stick your finger into. And the 609 has them in abundance. There are no less than six HDMI inputs, with one front mounted, five rear. It only has the one HDMI out, however, so you can’t feed a projector and TV simultaneously without an external splitter, but those travelling down that route are more likely to favour a pricier step up model, such as the TX-NR809. Two sets of component video inputs are offered and a single output, and they’re all capable of HD throughput up to 1080i. Five composite video inputs are present too (with one on the front), as are four digital audio ins (optical and coaxial evenly split), six for analogue audio, and one analogue audio out.
There are other notable connections, such as a headphone port, PC (VGA) in and a proprietary socket to hook up Onkyo’s own UP-A1 iPod/iPhone dock or UP-DT1 DAB+ radio tuner. But the most important aspect of all is that the 609 is a 7.2-channel receiver, so there are plenty of colour-coded speaker posts to boot.
The inner workings are equally as impressive. Like with most modern amplifiers these days, the TX-NR609 is swimming in codec and format compatibility. For starters, it’s THX Select2-certified, giving it an air of superiority in the playground.Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio high definition soundtracks are supported, and there’s nary a format out there that the Onk won’t munch on happily. 3D through HDMI? Check. Deep Color? Check. x.v.Color? Check. Multichannel PCM? Check. Waiter? Check please.
Certainly, we needn’t dwell, if it doesn’t decode or can’t pass through a particular technology, chances are you will never ever need it. It’s worth pointing out its support for Dolby IIz however, as there are many that are warming towards the concept of having extra front height channels rather than discrete rears. We’re not necessarily of that ilk, but recognise that it can widen the front soundstage dramatically.
And then there’s the Audyssey DSX, which does a similar job when utilising seven satellites. If you like your soundfield to supply more beef than a boxer’s breakfast, then this is the one for you. Again, it’s not our cup of tea (or Bovril?), but another Audyssey technology’s presence is much more appreciated around these quarters. Audyssey 2EQ helps set-up the receiver when coupled with a decent mid-range satellite system so accurately that we don’t miss its step-up sibling MultEQ (as found on last year’s 808) at all. However, if you have a larger speaker set, or are concerned about your own ability to calibrate lower frequencies, you may need to swot up a little and fiddle about with settings until you integrate your sub(s) correctly; unfortunately, 2EQ doesn’t apply filters to the LFE channels, but it does provide a more than decent stab at a quality soundstage for smaller living rooms.
One included feature that’s possibly less welcome is Audyssey’s Dynamic Volume. In essence, it aims to maintain an optimal listening level for all content, whilst retaining dynamic range. In actuality, we find that it provides strange peaks and troughs in audio, that on bad sources (or during adverts, for instance) can go up and down like teenager’s mood swings. It’s a good idea, but we’ve yet to be convinced that it can work.
That’s no worry though, as you’ll be happy to keep the Onk in a fevered, hyperactive state at all times. With 160W per channel at 6ohm, the audioscape it provides could cave in the chest of a bear. Couple it with a worthy speaker system and you won’t even notice the imaging. You’ll be surrounded by mid and high frequencies that are delivered as naturally as physically sitting in a field listening to bird song.
And that’s not to say the LFE response won’t take your knackers off, of course. Having fed the Onkyo TX-NR609 all manner of content over the last few months, we were especially keen on its handling of sports coverage (Dolby Digital via Sky Sports HD), Blu-ray blockbusters (Tron Legacy in 3D was a particular highlight, with its incredible DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack and subtle musical score), and, importantly for the Spotify/Napster angle, processed music.
We’re not great fans of chucking compressed audio files through amplification of such quality, but when combined with the convenience of choice, the 609 makes a better job of making each track sound clean and crisp than, say, dedicated music streamers and iPod docks. In fact, the only major rival for sound quality with such fare is the kit from Sonos, and that’s high praise indeed.
If there was one niggle, no matter how easy to use and pleasant the on-screen menu system is when browsing through tracks, either stored locally or on t’net, it’s still a bit clunky and slower than one-job boxes. However, invariably they can’t separate 7.2 channels of magic. The Onkyo TX-NR609 can. And all for five hundred notes.
Onkyo hasn’t become the grand poo-bah of AV receivers for nothing. It offers so much tech for such reasonable outlay that it leaves rival manufacturers lagging behind. Each generation grows in stature, performance and feature-set too, with sometimes jaw-dropping additions being crammed into increasingly powerful boxes.
And this year’s stand-out feature, Spotify and Internet music streaming, is certainly an eye-catcher (or should that be ear?). If you were playing buzzword tennis, that would earn you a point or two.
However, such things can often disguise other aspects of a manufacturer's output – slap on a much talked about feature and some may excuse foibles. Let us not forget that an AV amplifier or receiver’s primary function is to deliver wholesome, fault-free soundtracks for a wide range of different sources. And maintain a consistent video image throughout. So, it is the Onkyo NR-TX609’s talents in these areas that we are most intrigued and impressed by.
Leaving an amplifier running for a month or two beforehand may be an unusual step for a technology reviewer to take, but it’s paid off in this case. Not only have we managed to get a better picture (both figuratively and literally) by living with the beast, but it has gone through a firmware upgrade in that time and we could take it into account.
The experiment has also left us in doubt that we have been living with a truly essential piece of kit. And that patience is, indeed, a virtue. How on Earth will Onkyo cap this?