McGary Audio

Essential Sound

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Home Theater Receiver Review!
Pioneer SC-68 Elite A/V Receiver
Maintains Sonic Edge, Feature Set
With Latest Home Cinema Flagship

Bonus Review! Pioneer BDP-62FD BD Player

Likes: ooh that sound
Dislikes: not a thing
More info: Pioneer SC-68

by John Gatski

  Pioneer’s SC-68 9.2 channel continues the A/V company’s impressive line of digital amplifier based-receivers that began in 2008 with the SC-09TX Elite receiver. The basic features and audiophile-like Class D3 amp section are the same, but the SC-68 was upgraded with features, such as Mobile High Definition Link (MHL) for adapting smart phones as additional sources for audio and video. Video-wise, the SC-68 sports true 4K pass-through to take advantage of today's latest resolution upgrade.
  Other interesting features include 32-bit asynchronous DAC for the USB input, allowing direct PC music playback and a third subwoofer output for a zone sub and improvements in its iControlAV2012 application. The latest iControl adds more adjustment parameters to audio from external sources (iPod touch, iPad or iPhone) 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 the SC-68 is $2,500, about $2,000 street price.

  The Pioneer Elite SC-68 is a full-featured surround receiver that offers plenty of audio features including AirPlay and DLNA-certification and the renowned digital amplifier section. It decodes all latest audio formats: Dolby TrueHD, DTS Master HD Master, PCM linear, as well as DSP modes — such as Dolby ProLogic IIZ. As mentioned, the Class D3 amp section is truly impressive. Now in its third generation of Pioneer implementation, the circuit is equipped with the “direct FET topology” and digital implementation of numerous audio path components, that net a clean 140 wpc across 5.1 channels with less than .1 percent distortion in the listenable power range. All this without the power consumption or the heat of typical Class A-B amplifier power supply configurations.

 The Pioneer SC-68 Elite Receiver remains among the best top-tier receivers for home cinema use. The impressive audio quality, via its superb digital amplifier and preamp design, and state-of-the art video engine make this a serious contender for those with a taste for audio accuracy and dynamics.

  Like its predecessor, the Pioneer SC-68 contains plenty of features for connectivity of external devices, including the iControlAV application, which allows remote control of key functions of the SC-68 through the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad or Android phone. The AV-Navigator software, contained on an included CD-ROM, allows you to control and set up the SC-68 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-68 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. The SC-68 maintains its ability to handle audiophile formats, such as FLAC, DVD-A and SACD through a compatible source. SACD’s DSD-based bitstream can also be converted to PCM.
  The new USB 32-DAC means that the Pioneer SC-68 can now play high-bit audio via USB flash drive. The SC-57 could only play 16-bit; the SC-68 now plays 24-bit files.
  The Pioneer MCACC room calibration software makes for easy 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.

Pioneer Elite SC-68 vast array of connections

  In the video path, Pioneer utilizes the excellent Marvell QDeo video processor, with 4K processing, native digital 1080P or upscaled video. The receiver maintains its ability to customize video settings via the Elite Advanced Video Adjust software (LCD, plasma or projector). The Pioneer Stream Smoother technology reduces picture distortion and enhance images while viewing low bit-rate streaming video content from sites, such as YouTube.

Operationally speaking...
  The Pioneer SC-68 control layout is maintained from the SC-57, which is very intuitive and not overly cluttered. Most control buttons are hidden under a panel in the center with only the volume and input selector knobs uncovered on the front panel. Most of the control buttons on the unit 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 SC-68 has numerous inputs to accommodate all its component capability. There are 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.

Breaking News!Pioneer Releases New Flagship:
SC-79 Elite 9.2 Channel Receiver

   The new SC-79 is the same receiver as the SC-68, but adds HDBase video distribution and ESS Sabre32 DAC chip for improved D/A conversion. The $3,100  SC-79 has been upgraded to the ESS chip set because it is considered the state-of-the art in D/A conversion — with better-specs: signal-to-noise, and dynamic range; its subjective analog character is said to be smooth, yet dynamic, with an increased soundstage for music and surround sound effect delivery. Numerous audiophile DACS and players use the ESS line of converters. The SC-79 also is  one of the first A/V products to sport HDBase, a technology that allows uncompressed high definition video — including 1080P and 4K — up to 300 feet using Ethernet. Other features include up to four A/V zones and increased multiple room control of A/V components via the latest smart phone apps.

—John Gatski

  The Elite receiver sports five assignable SPDIF digital inputs and one digital audio SPDIF output. The SC-68 Elite also continues pioneers commitment to multichannel audio devices with RCA jacks for 7.1 multichannel inputs and 9.1 channels of analog audio. There is a single set of RCA stereo audio input jacks for CD players, etc.
  The SC-68’s hookup hierarchy also includes a 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. 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 zone 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.
  Although it is a full sized receiver with high-amplifier power, the SC-68 weighs only 39 pounds, thanks to the digital amplifier section’s minuscule mass.

The setup 
  As with the SC-57, the Pioneer SC-68 was a joy to operate in my home cinema system. I connected it to my Westlake LC8.1s (FR and FL) while an Westlake LC2.65 did center channel duty. Two NHT Ones — with soft-dome tweeters — were used for the rear surrounds. The Paradigm Pro Sub15 provided the deep bass coverage.
  I also had a couple of other receivers on hand while testing the SC-68, including the Onkyo TX-5009 and a Sony STR-5800ES. Blue-ray players included the Pioneer BDP-62FD Elite player the Oppo BDP-105, my favorite BD video player, the Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD from four years ago, and Yamaha’s excellent 3D capable BD1000. All the players were linked through the HDMI.
  Though way above the Pioneer’s price range, I also compared the SC-68 to my reference AudioControl Maestro M3 preamp with made-in-USA Carver amps (a three-channel and a two-channel), and AudioControl AVR4, both high-end products three times the price of the Pioneer.
  The speakers were connected to the receiver via MIT cables. All AC was routed through Essential Sound Products Essence II power cords and power strip. The SC-68 HDMI output was connected to my Sony BRAVIA XBR55-HX929 LCD. I used Wireworld HDMI cables for player-to-receiver and receiver-to-LCD connections. The Wireworld cables are among the most transparent, in terms of minimal signal loss, cables available for longer runs.

  The receiver’s ability to play all sorts of music from USB thumb drive was a major feature for me. It can play 24-bit audiophile recordings via its internal converters, or as an analog conduit for the analog output of the Oppo BDP-105, was borderline audiophile in its aural depiction.

  After assigning inputs to the SC-68, I enabled the Pioneer’s MCACC auto setup option , which adjusts audio level, delay and EQ. I placed the included 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. The MCACC software did a great job matching the speaker levels, but 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, making it ideal for the non-tinkering type. Me, I decided to set up the speakers manually. As with the previous version receiver, engaging the built-in test tones of the SC-68 manual mode was easy; it took just a few minutes.
  The SC-68 is endowed with numerous adjustment parameters beyond basic speaker setup and level: 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
  I found the SC-68 to be the same high-achieving receiver as the SC-57. The sonic performance is still amazing. Wide dynamic range, deep bass; exceptional separation among the channels gave it a wonderful, detailed character that opened up the lossless soundtracks from DTS Master HD and Dolby Tru-HD. Like a bunch of audiophile amps contained in one receiver!
  The sound is slightly less warm than conventional analog power supply amps, yet it is neutral and smooth. More accurate. More detail. On the Monsters Versus Aliens 3-D Blu-ray, the BD’s DTS HD Master Audio lossless soundtrack projected a wide soundfield with detailed beaming of surround cues and abundant dynamic range. The deep bass was definitely noticeable as well. Although digital amps can sound dry and sterile, the Pioneer never descended into the buzzy and hard category — even at really loud levels in excess of 97 dB!
  Versus the Sony ES and the Onkyo receivers, I thought the Sony was just as easy to operate, but, sonically the Pioneer definitely had more width and depth to the multichannel image and more snap to the dynamics.
  The traditional Class A/B amp’d Onkyo projected similar audio immersiveness and dynamics/detail as the SC-68, 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.

The SC-68's audio quality is tops among A/V receivers!

  Versus the AudioControl Maestro M3 preamp and Class A/B Carver amps, the Pioneer held its own, though the Maestro’s discrete preamp topology and the 5 x 250 Carver watts through separate amps eked out a tad more clean power at super loud levels. The Pioneer sonic delivery also matched up with the AudioControl AVR, even though the AudioControl was thousands more. Ultimately, the AudioControl may edge out the Pioneer in ultimate sonic finesse and open sound stage, but the difference is not as much as the price would indicate.
  The receiver’s ability to play all sorts of music from USB thumb drive was a major feature for me. It can play 24-bit audiophile recordings via its internal converters, or as an analog conduit for the analog output of the Oppo BDP-105, was borderline audiophile in its aural depiction.
  Through the Oppo, I played various DVD-As, SACDs, as well as 24-bit downloaded jazz music from HD Tracks. Man, did the SC-68 sound good through the Westlake/NHTs. Classical music and well-recorded pop discs were just as revealing, such as the 24-bit/44.1 kHz remaster of the Beatles’ albums.
  Besides Apple AirPlay, that enables music from an iPhone, iPad or iiTunes to be streamed via the SC-68, I also sampled other audio via the SC-68 including audio from a USB thumb drive and G-Tech bus-powered 500GB hard drive. 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.
  Being an avid headphone user, I listened to high-res music through my reference AKG K702 and Shure SRH1840 headphones. The headphone amp was resolute enough to relay Telarc’s infamous 1978 digital recording of the 1812 Overture (SACD version).
  Since movies are a key ingredient of a high-end home cinema system, I also looked in-depth at the video performance. Vivid detail and accurate scaling personified the SC-68 SC-68. It is 4K compatible, but I had no video screen or source players to delve into that feature. (The 4K demos that I have seen do show improved resolution when watching much closer to the video screen.) The DVD upconversion from 480P to 1080P was about as good as I have ever seen when watching DVDs through a receiver’s video engine, rivaling the high quality of the my trusty Oppo BDPs .
**I also put the Pioneer Elite SC-68 into duty as a zone audio amp, feeding another pair of speakers to an upstairs room in my house. Same awesome sound as the main channels, and it handled the 60 ft. 16-gauge speaker cable run just fine with 8 ohm speakers..
  As with other Pioneer A/V products in recent years, the SC-68 worked flawlessly out of the box. And being fairly fluent in A/V receiver operation, I was able to engage most features by just following the onscreen menus. I only looked at the manual to verify specs.

The verdict 
  As with its predecessor, the Pioneer SC-68 Elite Receiver remains among the best top-tier receivers for home cinema use. The impressive audio quality, via its superb digital amplifier and preamp design, and state-of-the art video engine make this a serious contender for those with a taste for audio accuracy and dynamics.
  For those who like the latest in control and function, the SC-68 will keep you busy dialing in features, such as Apple AirPlay, Internet radio services, 32-bit USB DAC, automated/manual setup and computer control. I do not hesitate in giving Pioneer another Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award for the SC-68. 

Bonus Review!
Pioneer BDP-62FD Elite Blu-ray Player:
Ideal for Audio Playback Via Digital Output

  For the review, Pioneer sent along its top of the line BDP-62FD Elite Blu-ray player. Priced at $399, the new Elite player does not exemplify the high-end Elite players of four or five years ago with their overbuilt chassis and high-end prices, but the performance remains high vs. the competition.**The BDP-62FD sports up to 7.1 channel playback via HDMI output and uses the Qdeo video engine to kick out 1080P and upsampled DVD to the highest resolution available. Of course, it plays in 3D, if desired. The Pioneer operates similarly to the BDP-52 Elite I tested last year with easy set up and wireless capability via an optional wireless adapter.
  Like most BD players today, the BDP-62FD digitally outputs audio as multichannel digital streams via the HDMI or stereo PCM via SPDIf jack. With no analog output option, the Pioneer does not have a sonic signature.
  From a music playback standpoint, the Pioneer is truly a bargain when it comes to playing high-resolution stereo audio. It can relay high-res audio (24 bit PCM, DSD) from commercial formats, such as Blu-ray (HDMI only), commercial DVD-A, SACD (HDMI and internal analog only), and FLAC. It, of course, also plays CD and MP3. It also supports most media for computer audio files and downloads, including 24-bit PCM and FLAC files, from all sorts of data media, such as DVD-Data, BD Data, USB and portable hard drives. Makes for a cost-effective universal player.

The new normal: no analog outputs

  You can stream the digital audio via the SPDIF port to a high-end audiophile DAC and play almost every kind of media at full res, except for commercial BD audio and SACD. And like many of the new generation of available universal BD players, I am happy to report that the BDP-62FD’s unlimited HDMI audio output enables full-resolution BD stereo audio up to 24/192.
  Audiophiles can tap into the unrestricted HDMI by using an HDMI de-embedder with SPDIF stereo output that enables them to use the ’62 with high-end DACs. I was able to play commercial music Blu-ray discs out of the Pioneer, such as the Ole Bull classical violin Concerto from the 2L label, at 24/192 using a Benchmark Dac2 and an Atlona HDMI de-embedder. The Oppo players are known for their liberal digital output routing, but this Pioneer delivers the same HDMI audio output, but undercuts Oppo’s least expensive player by $100.
  I connected the BDP-62FD’s SPDIF stereo output to my Mytek Stereo192-DSD and Benchmark Dac2 DACs, and the system made an impressive high-res audiophile delivery combo. Through the DACs, I played 24/192 FLAC downloads from HDTracks and DSD on PCM (DoP) downloaded tracks without any problems. The Pioneer also outputs full-resolution from DVD-As as well; The Eagles Hotel California, for example, played fine out the SPDIF to the Benchmark DAC at the full 24/192 resolution.
  For movies, I thought the BD-62FD to be a quite capable player. The video presets were a bit lacking in detail for my screen compared to other players that I have simply plugged in and played, but once I tweaked the setting in the custom menu, the picture was perfect on my Sony LCD. Blu-ray movies, such as Avatar, Titanic and Life is Beautiful looked terrific following my calibration of the player's custom settings 
  For those who like streamed services, the 62FD offers Pandora, Netflix, You Tube and Picasso web photo apps.
  Overall the Pioneer BD62 is a bargain, high-quality BD player that gives you lots of audio playback options. If I were buying a universal audio player to use with a DAC, the $300 street price makes the BDP-62FD a fantastic deal. It can play almost everything at full res and pass the digital signal to an external DAC with no problem.**And if you want to use it as a movie player, it does a very good job of playing BDs and DVDs, and it has several video apps, including NetFlix.
  Though it has no multiple analog channel outputs, I still highly recommend the Pioneer BDP-62FD for use with HDMI outboard home cinema preamps and receivers — and its ability to play nearly any format of stereo high-res music through its own DAC or linked to an outboard D/A makes it a serious audiophile player. It gets an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award as well.

—John Gatski

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