Product Review

Onkyo TX-SR803 THX Select2 7.1 A/V Receiver

Part II

June, 2006

Brian Florian


Software and Hardware Functionality

All other good points aside, this is where the 800 really impressed us.  For the most part, the 803 shows definite improvements, though if I'm being honest, it is a case of several steps forward, with one or two steps back.

Time alignment gets set just the way we like it: by inputting the distance to each and every speaker in the system, but unlike the 800 which offered 0.5 foot increments, the 803 limits you to 1 foot increments.  That's fine the majority of the time, but not for absolutely critical listening.  There is a global audio delay for realigning the sound with a video signal which may have been delayed by a DVD player's de-interlacing, an external scaler, or even just the video processing inside of a digital display (LCD, Plasma, etc.).  Unlike the 800 which offered just one setting, the 803 lets you set the global delay in the range of 0-250ms, differently for each input.  This is excellent.

As is the case with any SSP worth its salt, the TX-SR803 uses a digitally controlled analog volume control, permitting not only precise but also repeatable volume levels. Onkyo continues to harnesses the convenience of its volume control by permitting the user to set a default power-on volume level (no full-volume surprises), and a maximum volume level can be set (anyone with knob-obsessed infants or overzealous teens take note), and there is even an option for what exactly the mute button does: You can choose between a total cut or a fixed reduction of -10 to -50 dB (in 10 dB increments). Each input has its own volume trim of 12 dB.

The front panel display is thankfully dimmable. At the press of a button, you can cycle through three brightness levels, the lowest of which is only just low enough for me (I'd like it if it was even dimmer).  Whoever designed the front panel display needs a slap though.  It consists of a single line of dot matrix text with a plethora of miniscule icons above it which attempt (but fail) to tell you what's going on in terms of digital signal type and playback mode.  I sit abnormally close to my processor, 7 feet to be exact, and these little icons are absolutely indiscernible (and yes, I've had my eyes checked).  Not only that, but they did away with the dedicated, though smallish, volume level readout that the 800 had:  on the 803 you have to choose between the dot-matrix line showing the current volume or the current mode.

The Pro Logic II Music non-mandatory adjustments are available to the user. Panorama, Dimension, and Center Width can be set in the Advanced menu. We've found only one hardware manufacturer who enables their decoders to read the Surr.Encode flag in two-channel Dolby Digital . . . and it's not Onkyo.  It's not a big deal, but it would take, like, three lines of code for them to distinguish themselves in this regard.

You can select, for each input, a default playback mode for each of the various possible input formats. So for example, for a given input, you can have it default to Stereo on Analog/PCM material, THX on Dolby Digital 5.1, and Pro Logic II on two-channel Dolby Digital.

THX Surround EX playback can be set to either Auto, where we confirmed the unit does read the bitstream flag, or forced on/off. Ditto for DTS ES. When using the unit as a 7.1 playback system, unlike the 800 you cannot choose to send the surround channels of a 5.1 source to the rears. The thought in dropping this feature, I suppose, is that with Pro Logic IIx, not only will you get rear channel output from 5.1 sources, but it will be somewhat intelligently extracted.  Personally, I would have liked to see them keep the option of having the rears "double" the surrounds.

The TX-SR803 will down-mix 5.1 soundtracks to stereo for the sake of headphones, Zone2, or heaven forbid, if you find yourself with only two speakers for some reason.

THX's Re-Eq can be turned off independently of the THX Cinema/THX Surround EX mode, and unlike the 800, its not buried in a menu: one button press on the remote will do it.  Unfortunately, THX requires that this be reset to On whenever input or mode is cycled.  In our article Cinema Sound and EQ Curves, we explain why the use of THX's Re-Eq depends not on the media, but on the room's acoustics (meaning that using it or not using should be a persistent setting).  This is something we will have to take up with THX.

Mono listening on the 800 had issues in that although the Academy Filter was offered, there was no way to use it in a single speaker mode (only a mode which split the signal to the main L/R speakers).  Well, the 803 now lets you choose between playing a mono soundtrack from either the center channel or the main Left/Right, but the Academy Filter option is now missing.  While Mono may seem an insignificant topic these days, there are an awful lot of timeless classics in my DVD collection which have mono soundtracks.  The Academy Filter option doesn't cost anything to speak of and is a nice thing to have.  Why drop it?

Bass management follows the THX spec. Each channel can be set to either Large (full range) or Small (high passed) with the balance going to the subwoofer or, in the absence of a sub, main left/right. The default crossover frequency is 80 Hz, but the Onkyo allows a selection, independent for each pair of channels, of 40 Hz - 120 Hz in 20 Hz increments (as well as 150 Hz and 200 Hz).  In an odd twist, the Onkyo gives you a choice of low pass frequency applied to the LFE channel vs. allowing it to run up to 120 Hz.  In our article Miscellaneous Ramblings on Subwoofer Crossover Frequencies, we explain why it is "correct" in every sense to low pass the LFE channel at the same frequency as the rest of the bass (as well as explain why you DON'T want to choose a different crossover frequency for the different speakers).  I appreciate that a manufacturer has to give the people what they think they want, but there comes a point where you give them just enough rope to hang themselves, and the 803 definitely does (like most other receivers do as well).

As per THX requirements, the Onkyo attenuates DTS material by 4 dB, equating it with Dolby Digital material encoded with the default Dialnorm value of -27 . For more information on Dialogue Normalization, please see our article Dialogue Normalization: Friend or Foe.

One thing that the 803 thankfully dumped is Upsampling, which although not categorically an evil, did more harm than good on the 800.

The 803's multi-channel analog input has the option of being digitized for the sake of inheriting the receiver's bass management and time alignment.  Now with HDMI and its ability to carry 5.1 digital into the receiver, the most forward thinking might disregard this feature, but for sake of all the existing DVD-A or SACD players, as well as the first generation HD DVD and Blue-ray pieces, it's still a handy tool in the toolbox.

Click Here to Go to Part III.

Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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