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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.