Onkyo PR-SC886

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Onkyo PR-SC886

Hi-Fi World - July 2009 issue



Pedigree Chums


It's not everyone who would breed Onkyo's PR-SC886 solid-state surround sound preamplifier with Quad II-eighty valve power amplifiers, but the match that they make is of 'Best in Show' quality, says Noel Keywood...


At first sight the logic of partnering a stonking great AV preamplifier with a pair of audiophile valve amplifiers might not seen obvious, as I'm sure Onkyo will agree. But hey - another two Blu-rays arrived in the office the other day containing swathes of music recorded in 24/192 digital - the highest quality you can get. So how on earth can I appreciate top quality digital recordings like this except through proper hi-fi amplifiers? Onkyo's new digital preamp offers a convenient way to channel high definition digital audio from Blu-ray into a normal stereo system using two loudspeakers, or more if you want them...


This look at the Onkyo preamp is about teasing out and appreciating Blu-ray's potential as an audio disc, the only one able to deliver high definition digital audio now that SACD has been left to stagnate in a backwater, and DVD-A has died.


Let's get to the basics quickly: Onkyo's new PR-SC886 handles LP, SACD code (DSD) and all Blu-ray music formats. It also has a VHF/FM and AM tuner on board, but curiously no ability to read computer files via its ethernet connection, nor receive internet radio, unlike the TX-NR906 receiver I reviewed in our March 09 issue. As usual I will avoid listing every bell and whistle, because there are so many of them and most are irrelevant to hi-fi use: best to download the user manual at - you'll find it under Support.


To be frank, the PR-SC886 isn't well conceived for audio and perhaps even video purposes, being little more than an AV receiver shorn of power amplifiers and the large mains transformer needed to feed them. I think the idea here is produce a control centre for an AV muscle system, comprising this preamp and up to seven humongous power amplifiers able to do justice to a film provisionally entitled, I imagine, 'Godzilla vs. King Kong'. But whilst home theatre addicts may dream about something using more transistors than Texas Instruments can produce in one year, that to me is the stuff of nightmares. I prefer my audio signal to pass through a vacuum, not a dielectric, and Quad II-eightys are a perfect way of achieving this in compact, elegant packages that also possess a brisk, modern sound with enough welly to ensure explosions have a big enough bang to keep the kids quiet. With this system you get hi-fi with AV thrown in. It's just a pity the PR-SC886 carries so much of little use to audiophiles, like all its THX functions, hall modes, bass management and what have you.


Best not to let this AV ephemera hide the fact that at the same time Onkyo have, in their usual reliable manner, engineered in excellent audio processing too. At last, SACD conversion is the 'full monty', with full bandwidth and very low distortion, our measurements show. High resolution music from Blu-ray is also converted to the highest standards, performance bettering most other AV receivers. Onkyo also provide a sensible, illuminated remote control that's easy enough to navigate and possesses clearly marked Direct and Pure Audio buttons. An option is DSD Direct where intermediate conversion to PCM does not occur.


Onboard video upconversion processing, about which Onkyo rattle on about like all AV receiver manufacturers, isn't needed in a top end system, because Blu-ray players perform upconversion. All a preamp like this need do is feed hi-def video through to the TV via HDMI links. The same applies to the banks of Composite and S-Video sockets Onkyo retain, all historical clutter that needn't be there, at least in such quantity, on a top end component. And, as always, there's no front panel HDMI input for a modern camcorder, a strange omission common to all modern receivers, showing just how rigid and off kilter the AV design pattern has become. High Definition camcorders like the popular Canon HV30 I use have had HDMI outputs on them for some years now.


What Onkyo have included are balanced audio outputs via XLR sockets for seven channels (Front, Centre, Surrounds and Backs) and a subwoofer, plus one pair (L&R) of inputs, all being duplicated by standard phono sockets of course. As the PR-SC886 is unlikely to have balanced internal circuitry Onkyo almost certainly use line buffers to provide unbalanced to balanced conversion, so benefits will lie in reduced noise and interference into long lines feeding power amplifiers placed far from the preamp.


The Quad II-eighty valve (tube) power amplifiers were used for front Left and Right loudspeakers. I deselected the Centre loudspeaker as usual to get normal stereo up front, and used a pair of Surround loudspeakers, but no Backs, for a relatively unintrusive but high quality quadraphonic system.

Many high end CD players now have balanced outputs able to feed the Onkyo's balanced inputs, but digital connection may well give better results. Aqvox make a phono stage with balanced outputs too (and input).


It's a pity that Onkyo haven't reduced case size, the PR-SC886 is an unlovely brute. I used my resident Marantz SR-8002 AV receiver to drive the rear loudspeakers. If I can hear squeals of anguish from here in advance please accept my apologies for such a heinous lash-up; in an ideal world the rears would be run from Quads also, but at £2,500 per pair this is a bit ambitious considering most surround-sound music discs put only audience noise in the rears. The recent arrivals of high definition music in top quality 24/192 code from 2L of Norway do put instruments in the rears though, so perhaps if you've got a deep wallet this is the way to go, but for most of us a decent solid-state power amp with a soft nature, perhaps from NAD, would do driving the rears. Differing gain and sensitivities are taken care of during loudspeaker level setting.


As always I need to quickly explain how 5.1 surround-sound converts to everyday stereo to avoid confusion and make clear how AV can be reduced down to sensible high fidelity. Like all AV receivers, the Onkyo preamp can be set to direct centre channel information into both left and right channels to form a phantom centre image, as in ordinary stereo. This means you do not need to use a Centre loudspeaker. This leaves a pair of high quality stereo loudspeakers up front, supported if you wish by Surround loudspeakers at rear. Even these can be eliminated of course, but the mix down then becomes a little more conceptually difficult, which is why many surround-sound discs carry a stereo mix. It's best to choose this if you want stereo from surround-sound discs, because it is a studio mix-down, not one performed by the receiver.


Onkyo fit Audyssey loudspeaker/ room tuning, as well as a fifteen band graphic equaliser, even though they think it has seven bands (see p95). Since this equaliser has low frequency bands at 25Hz and 40Hz that most receivers lack, in addition to bands at 63Hz, 100Hz and 160Hz, it should be able to iron out room boom and give even sounding bass, which I know many readers dream about. My interest piqued, I set about testing the system to see what it could do - and as usual in the world of AV I was disappointed to discover a mish mash of technology, good and bad, that didn't really do anything properly!


Quad's II-eighty monoblock valve power amplifiers are perfect partners

for Onkyo's PR-SC886 AV preamplifier...


First, I must make a basic distinction: Audyssey room tuning and the graphic equaliser are two different things. Tune the receiver using Audyssey and it doesn't affect the graphic equaliser. After Audyssey tuning you can see what it did - loudspeaker type, distance and level are set - but not its equalisation of loudspeaker frequency response - strange. So I used a spectrum analyser to look at what it had done to improve the sound in my room and was surprised to find it had lifted the upper midband by 4dB or so, rolled off treble above 6kHz and had made little change to room boom frequencies below 200Hz - and certainly nothing intelligent! Listening to the MultEQ result I predictably heard an obviously bright and 'scratchy' midrange that wasn't especially alluring but sounded more detailed and insightful than Direct mode (which cuts out MultEQ). Making comparisons was confused by a large jump up in level when switching to MultEQ, appearing to make it more dynamic, but it is not. DTS Neo 6 alters the sound's dynamics and balance too (as well as putting information into the rears) but more effectively, if that's what is wanted. As always, Audyssey set rear level from the Surround loudspeakers far too high, making their output overwhelm the fronts.


Audyssey is best seen as a tool for users who are not concerned with accuracy in any form and just want effect. It does, as always, determine loudspeaker configuration and distance effectively, and sets levels too, if incorrectly with the rears too loud. For hi-fi use Audyssey is best switched out and the receiver set manually, not a difficult process because Onkyo's menus are relatively easy to navigate and understand. Also, the fifteen band equaliser can then be used, and measurement showed it offers very precise correction at exactly the frequency and levels stated, so it is well engineered by Onkyo. Those frequencies (25Hz, 40Hz, 63Hz, 100Hz) did not match my room's peaks (36Hz, 72Hz, 90Hz) nor its dips (50Hz, 80Hz) and offered no magic bullet in my case, but bass quality could certainly be tuned more finely than usual so there's some value in there and with patience I suspect it will be possible to lessen room boom and improve bass quality generally, in rooms up to 26ft long (a half wavelength of 25Hz).


The PR-SC886 is well built, easy to use as AV products go, accompanied by a good manual, quite heavy and produces a fair amount of heat, so needs ventilation. I had absolutely no problem whatsoever linking it to Quad II-eighty valve amps and B&W loudspeakers, I should add.


I used the S/PDIF digital output of a Samsung BD-P1500 Blu-ray player for CD, because our measurements show it has super low jitter. This gives a cleaner result with better defined leading edges and clearer time domain definition as a result. It reduces digital blur, as it were. And a tight grip on timing and pace were evident as Billy Idol's 'Don't Need A Gun' raced out of the blocks, its metronomic drumbeat forcing a fast tempo this system devoured.


With plenty of low end push behind the drum and a lovely presentation of Idol's crooning vocals, believably full bodied and surrounded by studio atmosphere, this classic Idol track from 1986 ripped out of the 'speakers like it should. Moving forward to 2007 and the Eagles 'I Love To Watch a Woman Dance' brought a crisper sound with better defined lows and a more expansive acoustic picture, but otherwise this system showed that even with the pace pulled back it still imposed tight timing.


With a generous low end, clear midband and easy treble, the track was engaging, softly sung lyrics drifting out from a open background free of hash and muddle. The PR-SC886 and Quads did a fine job together here, supporting a clean signal from the Samsung BD-P1500. Okay, it isn't an elegant transport to see or use, but music-wise it is an effective one and CD quality from these three items was superb in normal stereo, using Pure Direct of course. The Onkyo uses high quality digital-to-analogue convertors and I appreciated this by the simple purity of the sound, with its generous presentation of air and space around instruments and performers. Think relaxing and dimensional here; no nasties to induce the subliminal queasiness that warns you aren't listening to the performance, but a representation of the performance. I was happy with this result from CD; it was enjoyable. All the same, if I put on something sonically challenging, like the latest Kings of Leon CD, then it was obvious that there was a brittleness to the sound that made the buzz-saw vocal delivery challenging, so quality hasn't been exchanged for revelation. Better things were to come, however...


Rear panel looks like a receiver, but has no speaker outputs. Instead it's

dominated by eight large XLR outputs and two inputs. There are phono outputs too.

Staying with the Samsung BD-P1500 Blu-ray player acting as a transport, I switched from digital connection into the Onkyo via optical cable (i.e. S/PDIF) to HDMI to listen to high definition digital. With the music-only Blu-ray, musical Divertimenti by the Trondheim Soloists in top spec. 24/192 code I heard one of the nicest balances to date from this quite challenging disc. There's intense insight into the strings and a torrent of filigree detail - and you sit within the ensemble, so it's immersive. But the sound can border on shrill too. In this system the strings remained challengingly intense but were smoother and the bodies of the instruments a little more obvious, adding some timbral richness to ameliorate the stark balance.


Of the encoding options available on this disc I fancied DTS HD Master Audio was balanced a little more to favour lower end of the frequency spectrum, so strings were a little more euphonic; LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation, or normal digital in simpler terms!) at 24/192 seemed most strident yet arguably most detailed; Dolby TrueHD was probably the best balanced of the three, sounding quite dry and concise, yet with slightly stronger lows and better sense of atmosphere. However, whilst it's interesting to hear what 24/192 can do, uncompressed as normal LPCM and losslessly compressed by Dolby and DTS, differences were again small between all three, as they usually are in today's receivers. The Onkyo preamplifier and Quads did a lovely job of reproducing this disc I felt, adding body and texture to instruments, plucked cellos in Britten's Playful Pizzicato grumbling weightily in the background.


Whilst there are few 24/192 music tracks available yet (2L have released two more music Blu-rays but Editor DP ran off with our samples! [who, me? - Ed.]), 24/96 code is becoming more common. John Mayer's 'Where the Light Is' Blu-ray, Live in Los Angeles, recorded in 24/96, is a good example of a clean and very well balanced modern live recording. Through this set up kick drum had plenty of weight at the start of Vultures and the band was spread across a wide sound stage in a very large venue on 'Waiting For The World To Change', Mayer's guitar sounding sparklingly clear and his vocals crisp and intelligible. Underpinned by a solid rhythmic backing this system showed it was expansive and dynamically expressive. I'm not a Mayer fan - 'Bold as Love' is just embarrassing - but this concert is well recorded and apart from the usual hollering of the audience(!) I was drawn into this Blu-ray. It's an enjoyable performance and shows what BD can do when attention is paid to sound quality, especially in the original recording. Much like live performances via VHF/FM radio, there's a simple almost analogue accessibility to the sound of these Blu-rays, probably because the live performance is "as is" and not mangled by heavy subsequent studio editing.


SACD offers about the best we can presently expect from digital, although it now seems to be confined to classical recordings where its smoothness is especially appreciated. I switched over to my usual Oppo DV-980H DVD player to send a native DSD stream through HDMI to the Onkyo preamp. With DSD Direct preselected in the Setup menu, pressing Direct on the remote control causes the PR-SC886 to signal DSD Direct on its display panel automatically, a nice touch.Pure Direct can then be selected to turn off the displays.


With SACD the Onkyo was almost silkily textured; strings swelled from a deep sound stage in Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No2, from an excellent Deutsche Grammophon recording with Lang Lang. With harshness absent and the sense of both body and substance to piano that the Quad II-eightys bring I found myself surrounded by the atmosphere of the Martti Talvela Hall, Finland, with some reflected sound only from the rears (i.e. you do not sit in the middle of the orchestra in this recording). The experience was enveloping and easy to assimilate, lacking the mechanical delivery of solid-state and a welcome step up in quality as a result I felt. The same generous quality was apparent with the Vivino Brothers, saxophone having a nice fruity presence and good bite when played hard, drums a clear centre stage presence and solid kick, guitars cleanly outlined.


As I have found before, the SACD disc of Divertimenti was warmer in balance than the LPCM Blu-ray version, with no sign of shrillness. It was less forceful, but I felt more convincing, retaining the sense of deep filigree detailing but with a broader textural palette to describe instruments. The music had a better sense of flow too.


I've listened to Onkyo's VHF/FM tuners before and they work well, exhibiting the house sound of a full bodied midband underpinned by generous lows and a good sense of atmosphere. Fed from a big roof top array in Central London, pointed toward Wrotham and Crystal Palace transmitters, the Onkyo was quiet and its extended treble gives a slightly more open presentation than previous Onkyos, which had a trace of softness about them. I'm always impressed by VHF/FM and listening to Steve Wright on Radio 2 playing Golden Earing's 'Radar Love' was a simple 'turn it up' experience! The tuner isn't an afterthought; it is a top quality design well honed and 'Radar Love' had both a punchy bass line and a suitable sense of propulsion; it was dynamic yet clear and natural in balance. Too many 'hi-fi' tuners nowadays lack low end drive, sounding neutered with Rock in particular. I spent hours listening to talk shows, Classic FM, Heart and the station once known as Virgin - and enjoyed every moment. If you like radio then the PR-SC886 has a great one inside, probably better than most now that broadcasters have decided VHF/FM lies in the dustbin of history, even though it does work brilliantly.


And finally to good old vinyl. Using a Rega P3-24 fitted with Goldring 1012GX cartridge the phono stage gave me a great sound, with plenty of low punch again and that lovely dynamism and broad sound stage the RB301 arm has. It's a more than respectable way to play an LP collection, aided by decent front end electronics and of course the Quad II-eightys. With Pure Direct selected this system was no slouch with vinyl.



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