HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



February
2001

Reviewed by
Greg Smith


Onkyo
TX-DS484 Audio/Video
Receiver

Features SnapShot!

Description

Price: $329 USD

Dimensions: 17.125"W x 5.875"H x 13.125"D
Weight: 21 pounds

Warranty: Two years parts and labor

Features

  • Audio inputs: two
  • Audio video inputs: three

Features (continued)
  • Digital inputs: one optical, two coaxial
  • Phono stage input
  • Monitor output
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 decoding
  • Dolby Pro Logic, 5-Channel Stereo, Unplugged, and Orchestra surround modes
  • 24/96 DACs for six channels
  • Inputs for use with an external decoder
  • Subwoofer pre out

Full-featured home-theater receivers continue to drop in price at a dizzying pace, and that's good news for people trying to outfit their homes with surround sound. One of Onkyo's recent introductions, the TX-DS484, manages to include every essential feature of a modern receiver: 24/96 DACs, Dolby Digital/DTS surround processing, and a powerful amplifier section -- all for a low retail price. Since $300 is a magic receiver price point for a lot of people, and this unit ends up selling for less than that in most stores, I wanted to take this Onkyo unit for a test drive to see if it lives up to its specifications.

Initial setup and observations

With only one optical input on the back of the receiver, you should be wary if you have more than one component that only has an optical output (like some DVD players and many DSS receivers). There are three video inputs that include composite connections; there's no S-video switching, which is one of the main limitations of this receiver. On the output side, the speaker posts are hefty enough to allow use of banana plugs on the cables, instead of the crummy spring-loaded junk many cheap receivers have. These don't support spades and are not especially hefty. I felt like I was close to stripping the plastic when trying to screw down the posts on bare wire, so I think that banana-terminated cables are definitely the best choice with this unit. A "speakers B" option allows a stereo pair of additional speakers to be connected, turning off the main speakers and surrounds.

I started out with the TX-DS484 in my bedroom, driving four ACI B-Flat in-wall speakers as well as the extra pair in the bathroom. Much of the setup for the speakers, in particular the bass settings, must be done from the front panel. Since the level adjustment (one thing you need to be in the listening position for) operates from the remote, this wasn't a problem. In my installation, there’s no center channel, which the receiver handled properly. The system that vacated this spot before the Onkyo arrived consisted of the Technics SH-AC500D surround decoder combined with a couple of different amps at different times. Source material included my Rotel CD changer and my computer equipped with HoonTech digital sound card.

I was struck by how seamless the Onkyo was in digital switching. Unlike with some surround receivers, I've never been able to trick the TX-DS484 into playing a DTS source incorrectly and hearing the noise you can get as a result. Also, switching was fairly quick, with under a second of delay when the unit needed to synchronize to a new format (like switching from DTS to a regular CD). The pops and clicks that plague some designs were rare here.

Compared with my previous setups in this room, my initial impression of the TX-DS484 was one of excellently defined high frequencies, with substantially more detail than I ever heard out of the Technics unit. One of the things Onkyo credits for this receiver's outstanding high-frequency performance is the company's Wide Range Amplifier Technology design. Since the receiver is capable of playing signals at 96kHz, Onkyo engineers endeavored to give their amplifier section bandwidth that’s clean up to over 100kHz. It’s questionable whether that’s really necessary, but it’s also true that such a circuit is bound to sound very clean at 20kHz and will be free of the ultrasonic noise that poorly designed amplifiers can generate. WRAT has three main components. The amount of negative feedback is minimized by keeping the amplifier section as linear as possible, before any feedback is even applied. Rather than having a large ground plane, another design principle is that individual circuit sections form closed loops with their own local ground, and each of those is tied to a common point. The final part of WRAT is High Instantaneous Current Capability (HICC). That’s tied to one of the specs that, on my original reading about the receiver, caught my eye. While nominally 55Wpc into regular 8-ohm speakers, this increases into a dynamic power that’s a stunning 140Wpc at 3 ohms! I consider dynamic power at lower impedances to be a huge indicator of relative quality when you’re talking about an inexpensive transistor amplifier, and the TX-DS484 delivers a huge amount of power into a speaker load that most $329 amplifiers would go up in flames trying to drive.

Bass management

Since my Genesis APM-1s are flat to 20Hz, I have no subwoofer, so a run-in with the TX-DS484's bass management was inevitable. With no sub, full-range material goes to each of the speakers and any LFE .1 channel material is discarded. If you have a sub, it gets the LFE and any bass below 80Hz if the main speakers are set to "Large," rolled off at 12dB/octave. Speakers designated "Small" are crossed over at 120Hz instead, with a 6dB/octave slope. While far from comprehensive, I suspect the configuration options available here are sufficient for a typical surround buyer. If you have either a set of mostly full-range speakers all around or a subwoofer and a set of smaller satellites, like most smaller home-theater speaker systems, one of these modes should suit you fine. The main group that's shortchanged here are people who have large front speakers and smaller rears but no subwoofer. Regardless, the level of bass management provided here is totally in line or better than what other manufacturers are delivering in a regular receiver nowadays, particularly ones at this price point.

With two-channel music

I started out in the living room with one of my regular favorites, "Last Plane Out" from Toy Matinee [Reprise 9 26235-2], and this was quite a pleasant surprise. The sound was a bit harmonically thin on top compared with what a great 24/96 DAC might produce, but the bass was first-class for that of a budget model. Even though I only intended to listen to a snippet of the song, I was so engaged by the Onkyo's presentation that I made it all the way to the end of the tune before I remembered I was supposed to be reviewing instead of having fun listening. Sharp transient cracks, one of the hallmarks of the best amplifiers, weren't perfect with this receiver, but they were surprisingly close.

Switching to the new Steely Dan album Two Against Nature [Giant 9 24719-2], I cued up my personal favorite "Jack of Speed." The fat bass guitar didn't come out nearly as tight and controlled as when I'm using my Warner Imaging amplifier, and the overall imaging was a bit fuzzy. Soundstage placement for the interplay between Fagen's voice and the back vocals was somewhat indistinct. But the treble was clean and unaggressive, not quite enough so that I'd consider it sweet, but way more listenable than any inexpensive receiver I've ever heard before.

As a comparison, I thought it would a nice match up to see how the Onkyo receiver compares with a combination I've recommended highly lately, a Pioneer DV-525 DVD player (with 24/96 stereo DACs) connected to an AMC 3020 integrated amp. Starting with "First We Take Manhattan" on that old standby, Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat [Rock the House RTHCD 5052], the Onkyo had a somewhat forced quality to the main vocal. And the guitar solo starting around 2:10 into the song had the somewhat compressed and annoying quality I talked about at length above. On the Pioneer/AMC combo, everything was much more natural, and was closer to the high-end stuff I normally use for electronics in this system. There was less of an etched quality, but at the same time substantially less high-frequency detail. The guitars were all good, and there's a bit more growl in the really deep bass with the AMC/Pioneer combination.

Since quite a bit is made of Onkyo's performance on 24/96 material, some testing of that is mandatory. Using the DVD of the Alan Parsons Project's I Robot, I first made sure the digital output of the Pioneer DV-525 was delivering all 96kHz (the default is 48kHz). Since the Onkyo will lock onto either signal, this was a nice chance to discover that there is way more of an improvement in low-level resolution using 96kHz than I ever would have expected. On "Breakdown," bass material was a bit lacking in pitch definition compared with the Pioneer DAC going straight into the AMC. But overall the Onkyo was a fantastic performer at 24/96, sounding much better than I ever expected it to.

Surround performance

While I've been focusing on stereo performance, there's no lack of surround capabilities in this receiver. My opinion is that surround-decoding chips are for the most part a commodity item at this point, excepting THX-style enhancements and proprietary decoding systems manufacturers like Lexicon incorporate. Assuming a competent design on the decoder part, which is a given for any major vendor at this point, the differences in amplifier quality among $300 receivers dwarf the differences in surround capabilities. Listening to Dolby Digital sources, everything sounded clean and well resolved with this receiver. DVDs using the surrounds to add subtle musical ambiance -- for example the opening credits dance scene in Austin Powers -- presented a credible level of envelopment. Listening to something with more clear separation between channels, like the Diva/fight section of The Fifth Element, everything came out as distinct as I've ever heard Dolby Digital from a budget product. The receiver supports a "Late Night" mode, operable only from the front panel, which works well to make movies with overwhelming sound effects listenable at lower levels. As a typical Ah-nold movie, the crashes and explosions in End Of Days will normally wake the neighbors if you've got the volume loud enough to hear the dialog clearly. Since that disc supports the Dolby Digital dynamic range compression feature (as most DVD movies do), enabling the "Late Night" feature was very effective at taming the lease-breaking effects of the film. DTS-encoded music CDs, like On Air [Mobile Fidelity International MFI 4414], came out nicely, with plenty of front/rear separation when necessary while also allowing ambient background material to spread around the room. And while I haven't played many DTS DVDs yet, that version of the soundtrack to American Beauty (there’s also Dolby Digital) was delivered with excellent clarity and resolution. While it seems odd to comment on something after the movie proper was over, all the bells and such during the end of the credits impressed with particularly crisp playback.

Like most receivers, the TX-DS484 includes a number of extra surround modes, and there was one simulated surround mode I became a fan of for playing background music. "5CH Stereo" simply puts the front-channel material into the back. This is similar to what a lot of manufacturers call "Party" mode, but without any nasty processing to affect the sound. The "5CH Stereo" mode gives decent sound from everywhere, and it is kind of fun if you're sitting in the middle as well. It's also nice when you have stereo source material with very little channel separation (news shows are one example), whereas with Dolby Pro Logic almost all the sound comes out of the center channel.

Conclusion

My original intention was to use the Onkyo TX-DS484 in my main home theater for a while to write this review while I also shuffled some components around. It's a testament to the quality of the receiver that this process dragged on for two months longer than I had intended it to because everything sounds and operates well enough that I didn't feel under much pressure to change. There are certainly some sound-quality issues that might pop up when driving more difficult speakers, and if you don't need any surround decoding, you can likely buy a stereo-only amplifier that sounds better. And the Onkyo has to leave here eventually because I also need something that does S-video (and soon component) video switching. But that isn't a requirement everyone needs to fill.

But if a $300 home-theater receiver is a product you'd be interested in, the Onkyo TX-DS484 deserves a serious look. It handles all the major digital formats people are using right now flawlessly, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for a budding surround system.

Review System
Speakers - Genesis APM-1 speakers, Genesis 750 speakers, ACI B-Flat in-wall speakers
Amplifiers - Warner Imaging Endangered Species amplifier, AMC 3020 integrated amp, Proton D1200 amplifier, Rotel RB-956AX six-channel amplifier
Processors - Technics SH-AC500D, Acurus ACT-3
Sources- Pioneer DV-525 DVD player, Rotel RCC-940AX CD changer, HoonTech 4DWAVE-NX Sound Card
Cables - JPS Ultraconductor interconnects, AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cable, Max Rochlin Memorial digital interconnect
 

Manufacturer contact information

Onkyo USA
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (201) 785-2600

E-Mail: onkyo@onkyousa.com
Website: www.onkyousa.com

 


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