|| Print ||
Hi-Fi World magazine - July 2011 issue
Onkyo's new for 2011 TX-NR609 is a great budget network connected receiver says Noel Keywood.
Home Cinema and the lure of high definition digital surround-sound seems to be waning; Blu-ray isn't on everyone's lips. Yet Onkyo seem not to have noticed and continue to produce superb AV receivers, subtly re-purposed to do more than replay movies. Plug in an i-pod or i-phone using Apple's supplied USB lead – you don't need a dock – and the new TX-NR609 will play your music in surround sound via a squeaky clean digital connection. But there's more – oh so much more this receiver will do – for just £500.
Measuring 435mm wide and 328mm deep, and weighing a liftable 11.3kgs, the TX-NR609 is relatively compact as AV receivers go and it is amazingly compact considering it produced 120 Watts per channel under test (see MEASURED PERFORMANCE). Being a 7.1 receiver with seven amplifiers on-board it kicks out a lot of power potentially. In use, when not pushed hard, it runs warm but I fancy it stays a little cooler than earlier models; a silent fan kicks in to help cooling if need be, but since 10 Watts or so per channel gives high volume through a modern loudspeaker it will rarely need this assistance.
Like any modern receiver the TX-NR609 handles DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD and all associated digital processing formats. It can convert stereo to surround-sound with Dolby Pro Logic IIz, the 'z' suffix meaning a signal can be derived to feed frontal height loudspeakers (i.e. you've got to nail 'em to the walls!) and it has DTS Neo6.
Most people will want to use fewer loudspeakers, not more I suspect, and for them the receiver can be set to bi-amp front loudspeakers that have bi-wire terminals, to improve sound quality. I switch the Centre channel off and use quality Left and Right stereo loudspeakers (WAD KLS9s for this review) to produce a phantom centre image, as in normal stereo; a Centre channel suits movie dialogue but not quality music reproduction. My Surround loudspeakers are full range too (Usher S520s) and backs are used on a wall shelf (Usher S520s), but these are unimportant.
On-board are 24/192 Digital-to-Analogue convertors on each channel, and those with SACD collections will be pleased to hear that the '609 recognises and decodes DSD fed in through an HDMI cable. You'll need the Cambridge 650BD Blu-ray player that I use to do this, however, or an Oppo player like the BDP-83 (both also play DVD-A). The bad news is that although you'll get surround-sound from SACD, it reaches CD quality standards our tests showed, limited by internal DSD-to-PCM conversion. The more expensive Onkyos manage better.
There are six HDMI inputs no less, but no multi-channel analogue inputs and no multi-channel pre-amp outputs either. You get Composite Video inputs and an output, Component Video inputs and an output, and an HDMI output of course. There are two S/PDIF optical digital inputs and two electrical digital audio inputs, useful for connecting a CD player digitally.
Another room can be fed music, identified as Zone 2. And, finally, there is a VHF/FM co-axial male connector and an AM aerial wire connector, just below an Ethernet socket, all of which supply radio since a vTuner is fitted for internet radio reception.
The '609 will also read music files from a server or from a computer running Windows Media player 11 or 12 (but definitely not i-tunes from an i-tunes player!). Onkyo's owners manual lists all this in detail and is downloadable from http://www.eu.onkyo.com/
The front panel carries grey lettering on a black background that was illegible in all except bright lighting, making setup difficult at times. The remote control will normally be used and this was clearly marked, if a little cramped and fussy. The front also carries a USB input to read music files on a memory stick, and an HDMI input for camcorder playback (well, that's what I use it for).
Before being reviewed the receiver's firmware needed to be checked and updated if necessary. The '609 did a DHCP handshake with my Netgear router over a wired ethernet connection, without difficulty. Firmware update was needed (1031-0200 etc to 1031-0400 etc) and took three minutes on a fast internet connection in central London; Onkyo say this can take up to one hour. I had to re-set the receiver's internal DSP three times afterward though before normal operation was resumed, and the remote control had to have its batteries removed before it would reset and work, Onkyo's owner's manual procedure doing nothing. After this kerfuffle – not unexpected – the TX-NR609 was fine for the remaining review period.
Onkyo have changed the operating logic a little to put preferred playback mode into default memories related to the input used. I found Pure Audio (unavailable in U.S. models), which switches displays off and bypasses signal processing for best sound quality, buried in amongst a myriad of processing schemes; it is unavailable as a selectable over-ride option on the remote control. An alternative Direct mode leaves displays on.
Connected to a big, roof mounted multi-element VHF aerial pointed at the Wrotham transmitter that streams BBC stations 30 miles to London, the VHF tuner was set to a station frequency listing to avoid auto-tuning to distant off-set transmitters. I manually tuned then noticed all stations were in mono; the receiver must be auto-tuned for stereo. Station frequency can be punched in on the fly, station pre-set numbers can be entered into the keypad or the band stepped up and down with a rocker button next to the volume control to choose between 40 memory presets – very handy. Onkyo receivers are well thought through in this respect and relatively easy to set up, as AV receivers go that is. Radio Data Service is fitted to receive VHF data. If you appreciate high quality radio Onkyo consistently make a good job of it across all their receivers I have found.
Onkyo provide a setup microphone and the Audyssey 2EQ loudspeaker and room tuning system, which I choose not to use. Its EQ settings make little sense of my acoustically treated lounge that is 'flat' at the listening position, and room low frequency modes are not equalised, at least in the main channel. I was fascinated to see that Onkyo have now fitted comprehensive low frequency equalisation in the subwoofer channel, comprising 25/40/63/100/160Hz bands to lessen boomy subwoofer bass. As I use full range loudspeakers I don't use a subwoofer and the main channel has no such LF EQ, which is a pity.
There are a myriad of signal processing schemes, mostly from Audyssey, promising to correct everything you could ever think of and even things you never thought about, but most of the processing is far too technologically simplistic to do anything other than change the sound rather than truly improve it – and there's no end of ways to furtwangle a signal in a DSP. I dialled in Pure Audio to bypass all this as I always do; Americans can use Direct, which does the same thing but leaves displays on.
By the way, it is Ken Ishiwata of Marantz who insists that turning displays off improves sound quality – and he is right; there's a very slight reduction in fuzziness. Marantz even turn the video feed to the TV off in their receivers, but forgetting you have done this causes confusion so Onkyo don't provide this option.
With radio and older CDs I sometimes listen via Dolby Pro Logic II Music as it clears the front stage of out-of-phase information, adds a little depth and tidies things up generally, benefits outweighing the potential hit to sound quality inherent in conversion to digital and back again.
I kicked off listening to VHF/FM and two features stood out, one expected and one unexpected. Expected was an even basic tonal balance with Onkyo's usual strong bass that brings a fulsome nature to the sound. The sound stage was wide and deep with Adele singing 'Rolling in Deep' on Heart FM, Adele's strong soul delivery coming over forcefully in my lounge from this receiver. The Onkyo doesn't lack power or punch, but as expected there was a slight lack of high end sparkle from VHF.
Unexpected was a small amount of hardness and glare in the upper midband that seemed to affect all stations, bringing insight but a slightly hard etched quality laced with a smidgen of coarseness. I say this is unexpected because I know Onkyo receivers well and they are usually more benign in their sound than our TX-NR609. Even on Radio 3 with Ingrid Fliter playing – superbly – Beethoven's Piano Sonata No17, or Tempest, I noticed a small amount of glare. Only Radio 2 seemed to avoid the issue, but the tuner did have a slightly hard, mechanical quality all the same.
I thought little of this, attributing it to a budget tuner module, until I span the Trondheim Soloists on 2L's Blu-ray. The receiver successfully decoded all codes on the disc, DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD and basic PCM, all at 24/192 resolution, but in every case strings were forward, had a glare and more edginess than I am used to. You could say the '609 was more insightful and specific in its delivery than is usual – but I wouldn't say that! Svelte in its sonics this receiver was not, but it still got on with the job and was easily acceptable at the low, low price. I'm not sure most budget buyers would notice the effect unless they were used to better. I listened in Pure Audio mode of course, but as the effect was likely due to the crossover distortion we measured, this offered no amelioration.
With the 'piano' (a music roll recording) of Percy Grainger playing Greig's Piano Concerto – a remarkable performance worth having – in a sparklingly clear 24/192 DTS HD Master Audio recording by 2L on Blu-ray, the '609 sounded big hearted with a refreshingly clean and clear high definition sound: for £500 you could not ask for more.
Moving down the quality scale, although you wouldn't know it, had me spinning John Mayer's 'Free Fallin', captured live in an LA concert in 24/96 on Blu-ray – and it sounded fabulous. Concerts live on Blu-ray can have a quality about them that defies other formats, because they lack studio processing I suspect; there's nothing quite like a live performance committed to disc without editing, as they once did in one-pass takes in the 1950s of course and you can enjoy this in modern high definition digital with concerts on Blu-ray. Try The Who 'at Kilburn 1977' for another taste of this in great quality video and audio that AV delivers so well. Forget the i-phone!
Talking of which I had to plug in the i-phone to see if it really, really worked without a dock, hanging onto its USB lead – and it did! I had Jackie Leven singing 'Call Mother a Lonely Field' within seconds and was pleased to find the remote control's transport keys worked with the phone to Play, Pause, Track Select etc. Quality was on the hard edged and shrill side and not to my liking; it hardly compares with the LP, or even the CD, but this was likely not the Onkyo's fault; I was after all playing an aac coded file and I learned long ago with MP3 that quality is determined by the coding engine used, a slow Fraunhofer giving the best results with MP3 for example.
Spinning CD I heard much the same flavour of sound as with high definition digital: the Onkyo is explicit in its upper midband and a little 'shouty' but is solidly dimensional and sets out a 3D sound stage by establishing copious image depth supported by good dynamic punch.
As measurement suggested, SACD wasn't as obviously superb as it can be, but it was decent all the same and because the DSD layer is processed you get full surround-sound.
vTuner was easy to use and gives access to around 14000 internet radio stations worldwide, mostly in shaky, low data rate MP3 quality. There's no YouTube but there is Spotify and other subscription services. There was no difficulty playing music from Windows Media player 11 on a network connected PC.
Onkyo fit a lot of video adjustment options, including Edge Enhancement, Noise Reduction, Brightness, Contrast, Hue and Saturation and Colour Temperature. I used Direct though, feeding the Cambridge 650BD Blu-ray video signal straight through to a Samsung LED TV; intermediate processing is unnecessary.
The TX-NR609 does so much for the price it is amazing. Sound quality was very good, if a little less svelte than more expensive models, due to a little crossover distortion. But this wasn't such a big issue in the overall scheme of things. Once you get the hang of the way this receiver operates, and once it settles down after a firmware update, it provides great entertainment from a very wide variety of sources, now including i-pod and i-phone as well as the internet. So, as I've said many times with Onkyo receivers – a great product at a great price and a wonderfully entertaining one too because it has so much to offer.
A low cost high quality AV receiver packed with facilities and with good sound quality.
ONKYO TX-NR609 £500
+44(0) 1494 681515
- handles all digital formats
- good VHF/FM tuner
- illegible front panel text
- no YouTube
- awkward to use
The TX-NR609 produced no less than 120Watts into 8 Ohms per channel under test, and even more into 4 Ohms – 210 Watts. It runs hot and the heatsinks inside are quite small so the receiver streams heat and a large but silent cooling fan beneath the top cover switches in to assist cooling we found during tests. However, there is no early thermal shut down unlike earlier models and the NR609 was able to cope with delivering high power for a long period under test.
Distortion levels were low, reaching a maximum of 0.025% at 10kHz, 1W output into 4 Ohms. The harmonic structure was extended odd order products our analysis shows and this is classic crossover distortion, so treble is likely to lack sweetness.
An analogue input signal through the A/D could not exceed 2.1V or overload occurred, a limit avoided by selecting Pure Audio. CD should be connected up digitally to avoid this limit. Whilst noise was low in this mode at -96dB, in spite of high input sensitivity of 180mV, it rose to -82dB through the input ADC. High input sensitivity allows the Onkyo to accommodate external low gain phono stages; there is no phono input. Frequency response was very wide, stretching from 1.5Hz up to 132kHz in Pure Audio mode.
Frequency response of the VHF/FM tuner was flat to 10kHz and very accurate. There is an mpx filter to remove pilot tone at 19kHz, introducing -65 rejection. Hiss was low at -70dB (IEC weighted) at full quieting and the TX-NR609 needed a modest 0.8mV (p.d.) from the aerial to achieve this. Measured IHF 50dB stereo sensitivity was good at 28uV so the tuner is sensitive all round.
Frequency response for CD through the D/A convertors via the optical S/PDIF digital input was absolutely flat, reaching 21kHz (-1dB). Distortion was low too, measuring 0.22% at -60dB. With high resolution digital (24bit PCM) just 0.06% distortion was measured at -60dB. Bandwidth with 192kHz reached 55kHz our analysis shows, an good result. DSD code from SACD is recognised and converted to PCM, bandwidth reaching just 22kHz (-1dB), a poor result. SACD linearity at -60dB measured 0.22% distortion figure, much like CD.
The TX-NR609 measured very well in all areas, although performance with SACD was disappointing. It plays the DSD layer but with CD quality. The VHF tuner is a very good one, giving fine results all round. With PCM at 24/192 both bandwidth and linearity were good enough to reveal sound quality improvement over lower resolution codes. NK
Frequency response (Direct) 1.5Hz-132kHz
Noise (A/D, Direct) -82/-96dB
Damping factor 21
CD / DVD 24/192 / SACD
Frequency response (-1dB)
2Hz-21, 55, 21kHz
Distortion (-60dB) 0.21, 0.06, 0.22%
Frequency response 20Hz-10kHz
Stereo separation 41dB
Distortion (50% mod.) 0.18%
Hiss (CCIR) -70dB
Signal for minimum hiss 0.6mV
Sensitivity (stereo) 28µV
(Aux input, Direct, loudspeaker output)
(DSD code via HDMI input through to loudspeaker output)
VHF/FM FREQUENCY RESPONSE (what it means)