McGary Audio

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Home Cinema Review!
Pioneer Elite SC-57 Class D3
9.1 Channel A/V Receiver,
Plus Pioneer Elite SC-68 Receiver Preview

Home Theater Receiver

Price: $2,100 retail
Likes: Fantastic audio quality, easy-to-use
Dislikes: USB port limited to 16 bit audio
More Info: Pioneer SC-57
by John Gatski
Home cinema receivers now rival separate amp/preamp combos in performance, and, in some cases, even exceed the standalone products. The Pioneer Elite SC-57 is such a receiver. The audio quality nearly rivals the better separates I have auditioned in my review system — and the receiver streets for less than $1,700.

Priced at $2,100 retail ($1,650 on the street), the made-in-China Pioneer Elite SC-57 is a well-priced, full featured, AirPlay and DLNA-certified A/V receiver that will knock your socks off in terms of audio and video quality. It decodes all latest audio formats: Dolby TrueHD, DTS Master HD Master, PCM linear, as well as DSP modes such as Dolby ProLogic IIZ.
The key to the SC-57’s impressive audio performance is a newly designed Class D3 amp section that delivers needed current and wattage without the power draw (under 3-amps at full power) and heat of conventional analog Class A/B amp designs. Pioneer even brought in London’s Air Studio engineers to help with final tweaking of the D3 design.
The audio signal path is said to be much more direct than the last version of Pioneer’s digital amp technology. The low-feedback loop, coupled with the “direct FET topology” and digital implementation of numerous components, nets a strong audio performance: 140 wpc across 5.1 channels with less than .1 percent distortion in the listenable power range. Subjective listening on 24-bit lossless and PCM Blu-ray soundtracks revealed just how high-end this receiver sounds.
The Pioneer SC-57 contains a lot of extra functional goodies — including the iControlAV application, which allows remote control of key functions of the SC-57 through the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. The AV-Navigator software, contained on an included CD-ROM, allows you to control and set up the SC-57 via your PC. The Multi-Zone audio and video feature enables second zone, on-screen display that gives you premium, customized, audio entertainment throughout your home.
The Pioneer SC-57 also features numerous network functions, including Apple AirPlay, DLNA, iPhone/iPad and iPod connectivity, Internet radio, the Pandora audio service, Rhapsody and Sirius satellite radio. Of particular interest to me, the SC-57 also handles audiophile formats, such as FLAC, DVD-A and SACD through a compatible source. SACD’s DSD-based bitstream can also be converted to PCM.
For hands-on or off setup, Pioneer’s MCACC room calibration software, allows for full automated or manual setup of the audio parameters via its measurement microphone and DSP. This includes delay, EQ and level matching for all channels, as well as other advanced adjustments.

As soon as I started the BD, I could tell that the Pioneer's audio performance was exceptional. Extraordinary dynamic range with about the tightest bass I have ever heard through a receiver. The accuracy of the tones was also notable — with realism you ordinarily hear from exceptional audiophile systems.

Although my central focus is audio, Pioneer does not shun the video on the Elite receiver. The Marvell QDeo video processor and the upscaling enables impressive native digital 1080P or scaled video quality; custom settings via the Elite Advanced Video Adjust enable the user to tweak the video output for their particular LCD, plasma or projector system. The receiver can even adjust the video-based on your viewing position parameters. Pretty darn slick.
Because of all the web-based video streamed into A/V systems, Pioneer’s Stream Smoother technology is specifically designed to reduce picture distortion and enhance images while viewing low bit-rate streaming video content from sites, such as YouTube.

The control surface
The Pioneer SC-57 has a slick, streamlined front panel, with most of the controls hidden under a panel in the center. Control-wise, only the volume and input selector knobs are clearly visible. Under the lift-down panel are the various button controls that replicate the essential operation of the remote. There are also connections for headphones, the MCACC setup microphone port, the USB port with composite video for connecting an iPhone, iPod, or iPad device with charging supported, an analog 1/8th jack for handheld gadget playback, and a front-panel HDMI port.
The center display melds right into the design’s aesthetic with numerous indicators for incoming audio/video signals, as well as the status of the many functions of the receiver.
Typical of A/V, the “learning” remote control wields most of the adjustment and selection power. The Elite remote was your typical plastic A/V construction. Nothing fancy like the Elites remotes of a couple of years ago, but they are perfectly functional.

Connections galore
The SC-57 is loaded with connectivity, including seven HDMI inputs, two HDMI outputs, front panel USB input for iPod and Flash drive audio playback, three component video inputs, one component output, four composite video inputs, and one composite video output.
There are five assignable SPDIF digital inputs and one digital audio SPDIF output. Thankfully, Pioneer maintains full analog audio capability with the SC-57. The Elite sports 7.1 multichannel inputs for those who still use external player analog outputs, and the ‘57 also outputs 9.1 channels of analog audio. There is a single set of RCA stereo audio input jacks.
The SC-57’s hookup hierarchy also includes phono preamp input and a slate of new technology connections, including Sirius Radio, Wireless adaptor port for Pioneer's optional AS-WL300 wireless LAN adapter, a Blue Tooth adapter port for the optional AS-BT200 Bluetooth adapter and an Ethernet port. There is even a two-prong AC outlet for plugging in the BD player, etc.

All the connections you could possibly need...

The speaker binding post connections allow for front x 2, front wide x 2, front height x 2, surround x 2 and surround back x 2; some of the speaker jacks double for designated zones speakers. There was plenty of room for me to get my large MIT speaker cables plugged into the front and surround jacks for a proper 5.1 setup.
Despite all the Pioneer SC-57’s features and connections, it is a proportioned fit — right into most A/V racks; the weight is 39 pounds.

This Just In...
Pioneer Readies New Flagship:
The Elite SC-68 9.2 Receiver

With short life cycles for consumer electronics, the Pioneer SC-57’s replacement will be here in a few months. The basic features and Class D3 amp section are the same, but the SC-68 will feature Mobile High Definition Link (MHL) for adapting smart phones as additional sources for audio and video. Also, the SC-68, will be true 4K pass through to to take advantage of today's most advanced digital formats.
Pioneer also noted that the SC-68 receiver will have the industry's first implementation of a 32-bit asynchronous DAC for the USB input, allowing direct PC music playback.
Other changes include a third subwoofer output for zone sub and the more advanced iControlAV2012 application, which offers users the same iPod touch, iPad or iPhone functions as the iControlAV2, but the upgraded receiver adds Sound Explorer, which gives users the ability to set and adjust numerous sound enhancements, contained in the receiver, such as PQLS Jitter reduction, equalizer, standing wave compensation, phase control and auto phase control plus, tone controls, advanced sound retriever (ASR), digital noise reduction, dialog enhancement, X-curve, Hi-Bit 24 and Virtual audio modes. Suggested retail for the SC-68 is $2,500, and it will be available in June.

The setup
I put the Pioneer SC-57 into my premium rack system and auditioned it with high-end Westlake Audio speakers. Two Westlake LC8.1s were used for left and right channels, while an LC2.65 did center channel duty. Two NHT Ones — with soft-dome tweeters — were used for the surrounds. The Paradigm Pro 15 provided the deep bass.
I also had a couple of other receivers on hand while testing the SC-57, including the Onkyo TX-5009 and a Sony STR-5700ES. Pioneer was kind enough to send me the 3-D BDP-52FD Elite and BDP-53FD Elite Blu-ray players. I also sampled the receiver with several other BD players including the Oppo BD-95, the ultra-high-end Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD and Yamaha’s excellent 3-D capable BD1000. The Pioneer players were linked through the HDMI. The Pioneer BDP-09FD and Yamaha BD1000 were auditioned using both HDMI and analog multichannel output.
I also compared the SC-57 to my reference Audio Control Maestro M3 preamp with made-in-USA Carver amps. I even threw in a Pass Labs X350.5 audiophile 350 wpc amp just to see how the $2,100 receiver compared to the caviar-priced $12,000 Pass.
The speakers were connected to the receiver via MIT cables, and I used Wireworks solid-conductor HDMI cables to connect the receiver to the Blu-ray players and TV. All AC was routed through Essential Sound Products Essence power cords and power strip.
The SC-57 HDMI output was connected to my Sony BRAVIA XBR55-HX929 1080P/3-D LCD, one of the top LCDs on the market. I also plugged in an old Sony Laserdisc player to test the subjective quality of the receiver’s video upconversion.

With all that wonderful audio coming out of the Pioneer SC-57, I should mention that video performance also is first rate. 1080P Blu-rays looked superb on the Sony XBR. Vivid detail and no apparent loss of signal when compared to the direct connection of the current Pioneer players, the 2009 Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD BD player or the Oppo BDP-95.

I manually set up the input functions using the intuitive Pioneer menus. I enabled the Pioneer’s MCACC auto setup option that adjusts audio level, delay and EQ, if necessary. I placed the mic at the listener position, engaged the software, and let it measure and adjust the audio all on its own. I then checked the results on my AudioControl RTA-3050 analyzer. I found that MCACC software did a great job matching the levels, though it added a bit more EQ to the mid/upper bass than I like in my room. The MCACC also has a number of advanced features that allow even further tweaking.
I then redid the setup manually to ascertain the degree of difficulty for the do-it-yourselfer who shuns the auto-setups. With the built-in test tones and the easy setup, the SC-57‘s manual mode was easy; it took just a few minutes to do a manual audio setup. My manual setup was spot on — with no EQ for the bass; just my personal preference, based on my analyzer readings of the room.
Typical of receivers today, there are loads of adjustment parameters in the SC-57. I noted a few audio parameters: Auto Sound Retriever (improves the sound quality of compressed audio files, like MP3), dialog enhancement, digital noise reduction, digital filter, dynamic range control, SACD gain, and dynamic range control. The scope of the adjustments just takes some exploration of the menus and submenus.

The audition
After a few days of “burn in,” I got down to some serious listening and viewing using the Pioneer SC-57 as the heart of the review system. I loaded the Blu-ray Bolt into the Pioneer Elite BDP-53FD. The audio dynamics of the first 10 minute segment of the animated BD is quite a sonic workout for audio systems, with an aggressive soundtrack, loads of motion effects, ultra panning with pinpoint transients and deep bass.
As soon as I started the BD, I could tell that the Pioneer's audio performance was exceptional. Extraordinary dynamic range with about the tightest bass I have ever heard through a receiver. The accuracy of the tones was also notable with realism you ordinarily hear from exceptional audiophile systems. And yet, there was none of that digital amp ear hash I have noticed from earlier digital amplifiers. The sound is less warm than conventional analog amps, yet it is neutral and smooth. More accurate. More detail. As an avid audiophile, I am impressed with Pioneer’s D3 amp design.
Next, I played the popular Monsters Versus Aliens 3-D Blu-ray; it is yet another of my reference soundtracks; the disc’s DTS HD Master Audio lossless delivery of deep bass, and numerous surround sounds, and spot-on soundtrack were exceptional. Again, I kept noticing how quick and dynamic the bass was. The width of the surround imaging was quite immersive through the SC-57 with great width, yet you never lose the center. Even some of my guests were looking around in awe where the sounds were coming from. That is quite a complement since I often host viewing sessions with the latest, greatest home cinema gear, yet I don’t often get those comments with most tested receivers.
On disc after disc, the SC-57 delivered the audio superbly. From the Star Wars prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith, to the majestic soundtrack of The English Patient, the Elite receiver was sonic bliss. Versus the Sony ES and the Onkyo receivers, I thought the Sony was just as easy to operate, and had a tad tighter feel to the manual controls, but the Pioneer definitely had more width and depth to the multichannel image and more snap to the dynamics.

Because of all the web-based video streamed into A/V systems, Pioneer’s Stream Smoother technology is specifically designed to reduce picture distortion and enhance images while viewing low bit-rate streaming video content from sites, such as YouTube.

The traditional Class A/B amp’d Onkyo projected similar audio immersiveness and dynamics/detail as the SC-57, but was a bit warmer in its tone, shall I say slightly more analog. Both receivers sounded fantastic, but the Pioneer was clean, dynamic and loud, only drawing under 3 amps at full power, while the Onkyo draws 12.8 amps.
Versus the AudioControl Maestro M3 preamp and the Class A/B Carver amps, the Pioneer held its own, though the Maestro’s discrete preamp topology and the 5 x 250 watts through separate amps eked out a tad more depth and width in the multichannel presentation over the Pioneer.
In my room, the power difference between the SC-57 and Carvers made no difference in the sound. As loud as I could comfortably crank them (95 dB peaks); the Carvers were no cleaner. Maybe in a much bigger room, the extra 110 watts would make a difference. For 95 percent of the home cinema rooms out there, the Pioneer has the capability to play clean and as loud as you want.
With such performance from the typical 16-bit, 48 kHz lossless movie soundtracks of Blu-ray, I had an inkling the receiver would do even better with 24-bit audiophile recordings. Through the Oppo BDP-95 analog output, I played various DVD-As, SACDs, as well as 24-bit downloaded music from HD Tracks. On the Anthony Wilson Trio - Our Gang (Groovenote), the Pioneer SC-57 did an admirable job relating the jazz’s warm tines without adding thickness or veil. The singular note picking of Mr. Wilson's jazz guitar and the drum cymbal sheen were very open.
Classical music and well-recorded pop discs were just as revealing. The 24-bit 44.1 kHz version of the Beatles’ albums were refreshingly open and detailed in the all their 1960s simplicity, and I heard no edginess that I have heard on cheaper receivers. You can definitely use this receiver as an entry level audiophile amp.
Besides the Apple AirPlay that enables music from an iPhone, iPad or iiTunes to be streamed via the SC-57, I also sampled other audio via the SC-57 including an iPod Classic and audio from USB thumb drives. The MP3, Apple lossless and linear 16-bit files sounded as good as those formats can. Although iTunes can play 24-bit from an Apple computer, iPods and Apple AirPlay are limited to CD quality.
Unlike other receivers I have used, the SC-57’s USB player is limited to 16-bit/48 kHz PCM audio. It would not play 24/96 HD Tracks downloads stored on an USB thumbdrive. The manual states that USB linear PCM audio is limited to 16 bit/48 kHz sampling. Ironically, plugging the thumb drive into the Pioneer Elite player did play those tracks at full 24-bit through the receiver, but the player was transmitting the audio through the HDMI.
Being an avid headphone user, I listened to high-res music through my reference AKG K701 and Shure headphones. The headphone amp is pretty good, although not as impressive as the amp section.
With all that wonderful audio coming out of the Pioneer SC-57, I should mention that video performance also is first rate. 1080P Blu-rays looked superb on the Sony XBR. Vivid detail and no apparent loss of signal when compared to the direct connection of the current Pioneer players, the 2009 Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD BD player or the Oppo BDP-95.
The DVD upconversion from 480P to 1080P was about as good as I have ever seen when watching BDs through the receiver’s video engine, rivaling the high quality of the BDP-09FD and the Oppo. I even got my Pioneer Laserdisc player to look pretty good via its composite output. Raw, low-res web based video blown up to full screen size (YouTube for example) looks positively awful. Pioneer’s Stream Smoother DSP sharpened the YouTube videos that I sampled to a much more watchable state.
I also enabled the Pioneer Elite SC-57 as a zone audio amp, feeding another pair of speakers to an upstairs room. Its audio quality was much welcomed when I wanted to show off some good sounding classic DVD-Audios to party guests upstairs.
I had no complaints with the SC-57. It worked perfectly out of the box, and I saw or heard zero glitches during setup or playback. For purists like myself who focus on the basics of audio and video quality, I think current receivers and A/V preamps have an overabundance of features to contend with. The novice can be overwhelmed, but for those who want every digital bell and whistle, the Pioneer SC-57 has the goods.

The verdict
The Pioneer SC-57 Elite Receiver is one of the top receivers in the home A/V market niche. The audiophile audio quality and pristine video engine make this a serious contender for those with a taste for accuracy and dynamics. You throw in the latest features such as Apple AirPlay, Internet radio services, easy automated or manual setup and computer control, and the Pioneer’s street price of under $1,700 makes it a bargain. This receiver most certainly gets an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

Pioneers Evolving Blu-ray Players:
The Elite BDP-52FD and Elite 53FD
Pioneer’s Elite Blu-ray BD-52/53FD players are Pioneer’s top end players, but they are not like the Elites of yore. In the old days, Pioneer Elite meant high-end price and ultra high-end features. The top-of-the-line BDP-09FD BD player from 2009, for example, was the last Elite player component that exemplified the old school, high-end persona. It cost more than $2,000 retail with its state-of-the art video and audio DACs, solid audiophile cabinet and chassis build. It contained heavily shielded multiple power supplies, eight DACS, and truly audiophile, multichannel analog outputs. To this day, I seldom find a BD player that can surpass its video and analog multichannel audio output quality.
Less money, more features
Today’s Elite players are scaled back from the gold standard of the old Elites. What you do get are nice players with above average features, build and performance at a much friendlier price. The 2012 top-of-the line Elite BD-53FD costs $499 retail; the BD-52FD, $399. Both offer 3-D video playbacl, DVD-A and SACD multi-channel output through HDMI (analog is stereo-only), wireless streaming via optional adapter and high-res audio playback via the USB drive. The BD-52/53 also can wirelessly stream internet A/V services such as YouTube, Pandora and Netflix.
I found the Pioneer BD-52/53FD to be nice players with 3-D and non-3-D Blu-rays. Setup is easy, though once you have started the discs, you can’t tweak some of the video settings unless you stop the disc.
The custom-settings allowed me to zero in on sharp 1080P video. The BD-53 contains the Marvell QDEO® video processing engine, similar to the Pioneer BDP-09FD and SC-57 receiver, and it gives it an edge in video realism over the ‘52FD. In subjective video comparisons with the old BDP-09FD, the 53FD was close, but I think the higher-end internal components (separate video section power supply, etc,) made the BDP-09FD a little more resolute. Sorry Pioneer, I don’t think you can equal the ‘09FD with a $499 player.
The BDP-52FD and 53FD‘s multichannel soundtracks are handled by HDMI (no multichannel analog), so the audio is as good as your receiver or preamp, which makes it a good choice for the Pioneer Elite receivers. Audio quality from the analog stereo jacks is quite good; my reference SACDs were delivered with the detail and smoothness I come to expect from above-average SACD players.
Besides DVD-A capability, you can play low, medium or high-resolution audio PCM audio through the player’s internal D/A converters via commercial Blu-rays, or from download/burns to USB flash drives, DVD-data or Blu-ray data discs.The BDP-52FD and 53FD even played a BWF-recorded DVD-data disc that was made on a TASCAM professional recorder. Nice.

High-res pass through
One audio feature that I really like is one that is not mentioned anywhere in the BDP manuals. From the TOSLink digital output, the Pioneer BD 52FD/53FD will digitally transmit high-resolution, up to 24-bit/192 kHz PCM stereo audio, from a commercial Blu-ray or audio stored on USB, DVD or Blu-ray data disc — without downsampling or digital word-length reduction. Also, the player will stream the same unencumbered PCM audio, plus DSD-to-PCM converted audio from SACDs, out the HDMI port — without being connected to a preamp or receiver. All you need is one of those $100 HDMI audio de-embedders to grab it. Then connect the de-embedder to a DAC four your extended high-res listening pleasure.
I discovered the Pioneer BD players’ digital output capability when I was playing a USB flash drive with 24-bit/192 music. When I connected the BDP-53‘s TOSLink output to an ATI ADAC, a professional digital audio converter that indicates word length and sample rate, the 24 bit/192 kHz output was confirmed.
Hmm, I thought, if it can pass the audio through the digital audio port, what about HDMI? So I plugged the player’s HDMI output into my Atlona audio de-embedder and its SPDIF output into the ADAC. Same result: full 24-bit/192 audio. Through the Pioneer’s HDMI, I also transmitted SACD audio, via PCM conversion to 24-bit, 88.1 kHz.
What is the significance of this full bit/sample rate output capability? Most players do not allow high-resolution audio to be transmitted transparently from a Blu-ray player’s digital audio and HDMI outputs, which limits their utility with those who want to listen through high-end DACS. The Pioneer Elites and the Oppo players, such as the BDP-93 and 95, are bit transparent from HDMI and TOSlink.
In this age of copy protection absurdity, most BD players reduce the 24-bit word length to 16-bit and/or down convert the sample rate of the high-res audio when it is at 96 kHz or higher. This copy limiting scheme affects SPDIF audio outputs and the HDMI port. But there are a few brave manufacturers, such as Oppo and now Pioneer, who enable their machines to output unencumbered digital audio without “dumbing” it down. I say Yay!!!!
A good deal!
Overall, the Pioneer BD Elite BDP-52FD/53FD players are well-made, moderately priced, high-end Blu-ray players/wireless-capable players that offer good video performance for those who want a better build quality than the $120-$150 players that proliferate the market segment. The digital audio output capability is icing on the cake
—John Gatski
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