Home cinema audio is often neglected, with TVs getting all the attention. The truth is though, that you could spend less on a TV and more on your audio system and have a more enjoyable experience. After all, most of the problem with TV and movies come from inaudible dialogue and overwhelmingly loud effects.
Onkyo's TX-NR818 sits near the top end of its home cinema range, and at £1,000 - perhaps a little less, if you shop around - it's not cheap. But Onkyo is hoping that you care about audio enough to invest, and that you appreciate the extra features it's built-in to this receiver.
There are two colours available on this - and pretty much every other Onkyo AVR - system: silver, which you shouldn't buy, and black, which you should.
The good thing about the black version is that it's totally black. It's so black that light just falls into it. Happily, Onkyo has avoided the pitfalls of having weird black controls that are labelled in black with a small black light that lights up black to let you know you've done it. Instead, it has a helpful display and the occasional LED. But it is very black.
Around the back, there's the usual arrangement of multiple-HDMI sockets. There are seven inputs, and two outputs. This makes it ideal for people who have a lot of equipment. And while we find five HDMIs to be too few, seven seems to be just about the right number. Although we're sure some of you could do with more.
The speaker bindings are the screw type that can also accept banana plugs. As with all speaker bindings, it can be a pain to get your cable connected, and if you use thick cable, then you might find you need to strip the cable down a bit to get it to fit in the hole.
There are some composite inputs too, four in total, and a pair of component RCA jacks. We use component for our Xbox 360, but the composite connections just sit there unloved. You get RCA stereo for each input too, just in case you have hardware without digital audio outputs.
And if your audio is digital, but not delivered over HDMI, then you can use one of the three coaxial sockets or the two optical inputs. If you're a Virgin or Sky subscriber, due to massive idiocy those companies STILL don't offer Dolby Digital over HDMI, so you'll need to use these to get the best sound out of the system. We're told Sky boxes are getting HDMI surround sound soon, but there are literally millions of boxes out there that can't and won't ever support this basic function.
There are also pre-amped outputs, in case you want to send any of the channels over to another amp. You might do this if you wanted surround sound from your main TV in another room. For advanced users, there's RS232, for home automation systems, and tying the Onkyo into other parts of your home entertainment system.
1080p is dead
Of course, it isn't really dead, but the Onkyo comes with the ability to upscale your miserable 1080p video to 4K. We're a bit dubious about this, but mostly because the number of 4K screens available is still somewhere around none - although there are TVs coming that will support the format.
In theory though, if you hang on to this Onkyo for the next 10 years, that feature will more than likely be of some use. That's assuming it's any good, and we can't tell you that for sure because we don't have a 4K TV to test it with. If that changes, we'll update this review with our findings.
We like the fact that it's included though, and Onkyo does do a good job with upscaling usually, so it's quite likely this is a solid addition. Interestingly though, if you give it a genuine 4K source, it's not able to pass that through to a 4K TV.
The quality of audio for movies - and indeed, 5.1 encoded TV shows - is stunning. We usually chose to run the Onkyo on "direct" mode, rather than use one of the THX or Dolby audio processing modes. What we found was that the quality of this receiver is just stunning when used like this. Give it Dolby Digital, DTS HD-MA or Dolby TrueHD and let it do its thing with sound mixed as it would be for cinema use.
If you're using stereo audio as a starting point, then there are some nice modes to pull Dolby Pro Logic audio out - most modern TV shows, and indeed those from the last 10-15 years have Pro Logic soundtracks encoded in their stereo audio. So while you might not always get lossless digital audio, you will often get some sort of surround sound. Again, this all sounds brilliant, and there are several THX, Onkyo and Dolby modes that will help you get the best sound from these audio formats.
But in terms of day-to-day performance, we were blown away by how beautifully the Onkyo delivers its sound. Our speakers sang with the brilliance of movie soundtracks. Put in Casino Royale on Blu-ray - the special edition version - and you'll hear a stunning amount of detail.
We usually found that we needed to tweak the bass downwards a bit, and the centre channel usually needs a substantial boost, but that's got a lot to do with our speakers and room layout. But it doesn't matter anyway, because it's easy to tweak these channels as you listen.
There are, as you might expect, some auto set-up modes but we usually find with these that the best results come from manually setting up your system. According to a conversation we had with Dolby, it's worth making sure you input your speaker distances as accurately as possible here, but use the individual level boosts to get the audio sounding perfect. It takes a while to get everything correct, but once you do, everyone sounds fantastic.
Dolby Volume is included too, which allows the system to keep the sound balanced, and ensure that explosions aren't a hundred times louder than dialogue. We have tested this a great deal, and have never been able to make it work well enough for it to be worth leaving on. It's a good idea, but lacking in execution.
In the past Onkyo - and to be fair, many other brands - hasn't managed to get stereo music quite right on its AV systems. For a lot of people, this was never a problem, as you'd probably listen to music in a different room, or on a different system, than you would watch films. But, of course, the more things your AVR can do well, the less money you need to spend, and the more use you'll get out of it.
Happily, the Onkyo engineers have been beavering away making the 818 the best-sounding music amp we've heard. Sure, you'll still get better performance with a proper stereo system - Onkyo has a few it's happy to sell you - but for occasional use, we're pretty sure you'll love the rich, deep sound this receiver is capable of producing.
As before, there are several music modes. You can have all-channel stereo, stereo, "pure" and various Dolby and THX models to make your favourite tunes sound their best. We really like all-channel stereo though, it sounds the best to us, makes the best use of all the speakers and generally seems like the most carefully thought-out processing.
Like everything these days, the 818 is more than capable of jumping online to gather some content for you to enjoy. Here, it's limited to audio services, rather than video. Perhaps most crucially, there's access to the brilliant Spotify. This means you get access to a lot of great music, as well as certain aspects of your account like pre-saved playlists and any music you've "starred".
As you might imagine, you can't access your imported music this way, but having said that, the Onkyo can access your home network via DLNA sharing. So, you'll also have access to all of your own music collection.
There is also a full suite of internet radio stations, which means access to more than 15,000 global channels. Most of these are awful, but there are some good ones out there if you hunt. Just take our advice, and save them to your favourites.
Onkyo continues its yearly rampage of home AV. The 818 is brilliant, and the best-sounding AVR we've ever heard from the company. We're a little weary of saying this, but we honestly think this £1.000 model outperforms Onkyo's own £2.000 receiver from a couple of years back. That's a remarkable achievement for the company, and it means that it's still trying to give value to people who can't afford the high end.
The only quibbles we have with the 818 are that it's a little bit fussy when it comes to entering things via the remote control, and the online functionality, while good, isn't very responsive. We liked Spotify, but we found using it fairly tedious. The app for smartphones helps a bit, but it's still the area we think most needs improvement. Additionally, DLNA playback is great for music, but video is poorly served.
Where it counts though, in sound quality, build quality and performance, we can't really fault the 818. The quality of TV and movie soundtracks is incredible. Music too is far better than ever before, and we're pretty happy that it's the sole music system in our lounge at the moment. It's great to see such progress being made, and we hope it continues for a long time to come.