PLAYBACK 24: Pioneer Elite SC-27 THX Ultra2 Plus-Certified A/V Receiver

Equipment+
Categories:
AVRs
|
Products:
Pioneer SC-27
PLAYBACK 24: Pioneer Elite SC-27 THX Ultra2 Plus-Certified A/V Receiver

Pioneer Elite’s SC-27 is a powerful (7 x 140 Wpc, with ICEpower Class D amplifier modules), full-featured, Ethernet-enabled, THX Ultra2 Plus-certified A/V receiver that stands as the number two model in Pioneer’s lineup—second only to the very impressive but also very costly flagship SC-09TX. Given the huge price differential between the SC-27 ($2000) vs. the SC-09TX ($7000—gulp!), we think the SC-27 will be the model that most performance-minded enthusiasts choose to look at first, especially in light of the fact that the SC-27 is a more recent design that in some respects provides an even broader mix of features than its big brother.

Because the SC-27, like most high-end AVRs of Japanese provenance, is chockfull of advanced features, it would be easy to assume the receiver focuses primarily on elaborate technical gongs and whistles, but frankly that is missing the central point. At heart, what the SC-27 is really all about is achieving the best possible sound quality at a sensible price—something it does very well. Perhaps a small anecdote will make this point clear.

At a recent presentation at CEDIA Expo 2009, I heard a talk given by THX representatives who pointed out that their THX Ultra2 Plus certification rating is difficult to earn. In fact, the THX people emphasized that while many manufacturers have tried and failed, Pioneer is to date the only firm to have its Class D amplifier systems (as used in the SC-27 and a small handful of other Pioneer receivers) achieve full THX Ultra2 Plus certification. But what is even more telling, the THX spokesman said, is the fact that Pioneer did not immediately go to market once its class D receivers earned Ultra2 Plus approval. The reason? Pioneer felt that, good though its newly certified designs were, they did not quite meet the stringent sound quality standards Pioneer hoped to achieve with its new, top-tier Elite models. So, Pioneer delayed release of its Class D-powered receivers over a year until it had tweaked and tuned their sound to even higher levels.

Helping Pioneer in the tweaking and tuning process were the good folks at AIR studios, who have awarded the SC-27 with official AIR Studios Monitor Sound Tuning Certification—tuning that has essentially become an integral element within Pioneer’s next-generation Advanced MCACC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration and Control) automated room/speaker EQ/setup system. The result is a receiver whose sound is muscular and full-bodied, yet full of nuance, refinement, transparency and detail. 

OVERVIEW

Consider this AVR if: You want an A/V receiver whose up-to-the-minute technical features are not easily outgrown, yet whose primary emphasis is where it should be: on sound quality. Consider this model if you want most of the sound quality of a $5k-$7k receiver, but at a $2k price. Finally, consider the SC-27 if you’re a die-hard A/V enthusiast who enjoys tweaking and fine-tuning the performance of his/her system; the SC-27 provides far more extensive tuning and set-up options than most other AVRs we’ve tried.

Look further if: Technical complexity frightens or confuses you. The SC-27 is not particularly hard to use or understand, but neither is it a dirt-simple, set-it-and-forget-it receiver. Like many products targeted toward knowledgeable enthusiasts, it offers some very advanced set-up and operational modes that can and do take extra time and effort to master. This receiver is a killer performer, but to get the most out of it you must study its manual carefully.

Ratings (relative to comparably priced AVRs)

  • User interface: 7
  • Sound quality, music: 9
  • Sound quality, movies: 10
  • Value: 9

FEATURES

  • 7 x 140 Watts per channel, rated from 20 Hz – 20kHz at less than .09% total harmonic distortion, with all channels driven.
  • Uses advanced ICEpower Class D amplification modules.
  • THX Ultra2 Plus-certified.
  • Tuned for AIR Studios Monitor certification.
  • Unused amplifier channels can be re-routed to bi-amp main loudspeakers.
  • Provides full multichannel (7.1-channel) analog inputs and preamp outputs.
  • Features Pioneer’s latest generation Advanced MCACC automated room/speaker EQ/setup system with a built-in 9-band equalizer and included calibration microphone. The system offers three levels of room EQ/speaker calibration: Full Auto MCACC (maximum simplicity and ease of use), Auto MCACC (offers some user-driven customization options), and Manual MCACC (offers extensive user-driven customization options). The system also incorporates “Full Band Phase Control” that “analyzes the frequency-phase characteristics of the speakers connected and corrects the phase distortion to the flattened frequency-phase characteristics,” said to yield better overall surround sound integration and a clearer, more focused sound. Note: the Phase Control can be turned on or off at the owner’s discretion.
  • Provides Pioneer’s PQLS (Precision Quartz Lock System), which is a “digital audio signal transfer control technology using (Pioneer’s) KURO LINK function.” When used with PQLS-compatible digital disc players, the system is said to remove jitter that would otherwise have “a negative effect on the quality of the sound.”
  • Supports Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital Dolby Pro Logic IIx. DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-EXPRESS, DTS ES, DTS, DTS 96/24, Neural-THX Surround, WMA-9 Pro, HDMI SACD Transfer and HDMI DVD-Audio Transfer modes, plus 14 other proprietary Pioneer surround sound processing modes.
  • Provides audiophile-oriented Stream Direct mode that disables all non-essential audio signal processing.
  • The receiver also supports the following digital audio formats: LPCM, WAV, MP3, WMA, AAC, and FLAC.
  • Features Burr Brown 192kHz/24-bit analog-to-digital converters and Wolfson WM8740 192kHz/24-bit DACs.
  • Tuners: The receiver provides standard AM/FM reception and is Sirius/XM satellite radio-ready.
  •  Built-in Ethernet connectivity supports streaming Internet radio, Rhapsody, Neural Music Direct, Sirius via Internet, and allows for periodic receiver firmware updates.
  • Receiver is iPod/iPhone and USB-ready and is Works with iPhone certified. Features front-panel iPod/iPhone/USB connections (the iPod/USB cable is included) and requires no dock. The receiver is capable of looking up album art for iTunes material.
  • Five HDMI inputs (one front panel mounted).
  • Video processing: supports HDMI 48-bit Deep Color, HDMI x.v. Color, and HDMI 1080p Video Transfer, and incorporates a 1080p scaler for lower resolution/analog video sources plus a Pure Cinema I/P converter.
  • Offers Pioneer’s latest and best full-color graphical user interface (GUI), complete with Graphic PC output to facilitate Advanced MCACC setup and adjustment. 

USER INTERFACE

The SC-27 features a well-designed graphical user interface, many aspects of which are self-explanatory but some of which are not. I found—and this point cannot be overstressed—that you really must read the manual (and read it carefully) to make full use of all the setup options and controls that Pioneer has provided. One caveat and small criticism I would offer is that Pioneer sometimes tends to bury incredibly important (though at first, seemingly inconsequential) details in the footnotes of its manual text.

For example, when first working with the SC-27’s setup menus I found that a number of expected setup options were—for reasons I could not guess at the time—unavailable to me. Only later on did I discover a manual footnote, which explained that when the receiver’s available KURO LINK feature was turned on, a number of menu options were automatically turned off (go figure). The only way to gain access to the full array of setup menu options, the manual explained, was to enter a different menu and turn off the KURO LINK feature beforehand. The longer I worked with the SC-27, the more I found other features and functions that could only be accessed through specific (and sometimes counterintuitive) procedures described down in the “fine print” of the manual text.

The good news is that the SC-27 will let you do almost anything you might want to do (and frequently offers options that might not have occurred to you). But the not-so-good news is that you’ve got to study the manual in order to unlock all the technical tricks and treasures and delights this receiver holds in store for you.

REMOTE CONTROL

The SC-27 comes with a partially backlit, LCD panel-equipped learning remote control. When users toggle a light on/off button, the most frequently used controls light up with a soft red glow, while the small LCD panel is illuminated with a soft white backlight. A sliding cover panel on the heel of the remote covers over less frequently used button until they are needed. On the whole, I found the remote extremely easy to learn and to use on a day-to-day basis, although the remote—like the rest of the SC-27—becomes much easier to master if you read the manual first.

VIDEO PERFORMANCE

The Pioneer’s built-in scaler did a good but not great job of upscaling lower resolution analog sources to HD levels. However, on the full battery of tests from the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD, I found that the Pioneer’s processor did not perform quite as well as some of the video processors used in competing receivers in this price class, nor could it match the exemplary performance of the Anchor Bay VRS processor used in our reference Oppo BD-83 Blu-ray/universal player.

When I fed the Pioneer 480i component video test signals from the HQV Benchmark DVD, I found the Receiver stumbled in three areas: on the disc’s notoriously difficult battery of jaggies tests, where some rough edges were apparent; on the Film Detail tests where the Pioneer had initial problems with moiré patterns (on the famous racecar-passing-in-front-of-empty-grandstands scene); and on some of the Cadence tests, where fine line details and overall motion sometimes exhibited momentary roughness.

When fed high-resolution video material via component video (up to 1080i) or HDMI (up to 1080p), however, the SC-27 proved a faultless and noise free video signal switcher—one that could convert component video signals for HDMi output without any hitches or glitches.  

SONIC CHARACTER

In a lot of ways it makes sense to talk about the sonic character of the SC-27 in two distinctly different lights. First, there is the core sound of the SC-27’s amplifier sections without any EQ or other digital signal processing applied, and then there is the sound of the receiver after the Advanced MCACC system is brought into play. The pure, unadorned sound of this receiver is, as I said above, muscular and full-bodied, yet also rich in inner details and delicacy and capable of excellent transient speed. Over time, I’ve had many opportunities to listen to various ICEpower amplifier implementations, and while I’ve enjoyed many of them I’ve also held out a concern that some had a slightly dark, subdued sound that could under some circumstances suppress high frequency details and the sense of “air” surrounding instruments. But impressively, it’s in precisely these areas where the SC-27 excels; it sounds noticeably more open, transparent, and revealing than many of the ICEpower designs I’ve heard in the past. Good job, Pioneer.

Bringing the Advanced MCACC system into play takes the SC-27’s underlying qualities of clarity and transparency and, on the whole, sharpens their focus even further. Advanced MCACC is a very sophisticated system that measures and addresses multiple aspects of speaker performance and of the room/speaker interface with surprising levels of precision. The system can, for example, measure speaker positions to with about ½-inch tolerances, and then sets channel distances (or delay times) accordingly. Similarly, the system analyzes—and corrects for—problems in both frequency and phase response for speakers in the system, and also tests for problems with standing waves (or room resonances) and then applies programmable filters as necessary to eliminate their negative effects. Finally, the system even checks the reverb characteristics of the room and adjusts the speaker system to compensate.

When all is said and done, Advanced MCACC tunes your speaker system for flat in-room frequency response and smooth, evenly balanced phase response (or group delays) at your listening position. All of the measurements I’ve described above happen automatically when you use the Full Auto MCACC program. Just plug in the included calibration mic, position the mic in accordance with Pioneer’s instructions, launch the calibration process, and then wait as the system conducts its battery of tests and calculates appropriate speaker distance, level, EQ, and phase and reverb compensation settings for you. But for veteran A/V enthusiasts, the SC-27 offers two additional options: the Auto MCACC program, which provides some user customization of the setup process, or the Manual MCACC program, which allows extensive user customization and fine-tuning of the process. True, Auto MCACC and Manual MCACC require a fair amount of background knowledge on the user’s part, but they also help make the SC-27 more responsive to the needs and wishes of technically sophisticated users.

How does the receiver sound with Advanced MCACC adjustments in place? My experience was that all of the SC-27’s core sonic strengths remained in evidence, but that the overall system sound became tighter, more neutral in overall tonal balance, more crisply defined and more sharply focused and three-dimensional. This result is excellent, though it occasionally comes at a price: namely, a slight increase in overall perceived system brightness—at least on some material. This is not too surprising, since my past experience with room EQ systems suggests that when systems are adjusted for truly flat frequency response as measured at the listening position, they can strike some listeners as having somewhat elevated upper midrange and treble response. Even so, I feel the superior clarity and focus that Advanced MCACC provides more than outweighs any minor shifts in tonal balance.

Still, competing EQ systems from Audyssey and from Yamaha do give listeners the choice of applying either flat response settings or settings that dial in a judicious touch of upper midrange/treble roll-off (which subjectively gives systems a somewhat warmer, smoother, and some would say more “natural” sound). Perhaps Pioneer would do well to consider adding the option of a slightly more subdued “Natural” response curve—if only as a pleasing complement to the flat, AIR Studios Monitor-certified response curve it already provides. 

MOVIE/SOUNDTRACK PERFORMANCE

 I put on one of my favorite test films, Apocalypto, and was thrilled to hear the intensely involving and sharply focused sound the SC-27 produced in the Playback system when playing the disc.

The soundtrack of Apocalypto is impressive from end to end, but the “Warrior’s Death” sequence is a particular sonic treasure trove because it combines tense, rhythmically propulsive instrumental music, rich and vivid jungle noises, dark and strangely slow-paced choral sections, and incredibly closely-mic’d sound of the breaths and footfalls of two combatants who are about to engage in a battle to the death. The passage sounds good even on fairly modest systems, but it achieves altogether higher and more profound levels of impact when you bring the powers of an exceptional receiver such as the SC-27 to bear.

In the “Warrior’s Death” sequence, one soundtrack element I’ve probably heard dozens of time, yet not noticed with the impact I experienced with the Pioneer in my system, is the way the dark, somber choral accompaniment continues to build in intensity as the character Jaguar Paw faces off against his opponent. At the penultimate moment, tension rises to a crescendo as we hear the almost hyper-focused sounds of the two warriors drawing slow, furious breaths as they prepare to charge toward one another. The sounds of breaths being draw might seem like small, inconsequential details, but the Pioneer gives them extra weight and power by making them stand out in sharp relief.

Later, after Jaguar Paw has felled his antagonist with a mighty blow from his captured Mayan battle hatchet, the Pioneer caps the scene off by masterfully reproducing the deliberately overblown, reverberant “thud” of the stricken opponent’s body crashing to the ground—a sound that is quickly mirrored (and given greater finality) by the sudden and unexaggerated sound of a violent thunderclap heard as a rain forest cloudburst begins. Like all great receivers, the SC-27 can shift gears effortlessly from reproducing small, delicate sounds to hammering out gigantic, high-powered effects.

Are higher priced receivers such as the SC-27 really worth the extra money they cost? Once you listen to a really demanding and revealing soundtrack like this one through the Pioneer, your answer will be a resounding “yes.”

 

MUSIC PERFORMANCE

To see what the Pioneer could do with first-rate surround sound material, I put on the haunting title track from Sara K’s Hell or High Water [Stockfisch, multichannel SACD]—a beautifully recorded and mixed album of jazz-inflected folk music. “Hell or High Water” is a bittersweet song, sung from one lover to another, wistfully conceding that “…the love that ran between us has grown cold/that’s alright, no one’s to blame/it’s just time to go.” To capture these dark, mixed emotions, Sara K uses sparse instrumentation: a tin whistle, ocarina, and percussion played by Beo Brockhausen, fretless bass provided by Hans-Jörg Mauksch, and acoustic guitar played by the late Chris Jones. Against this simple yet evocative musical backdrop, Sara K’s breathy vocals rise like an uncertain beacon of hope, balanced precariously between what has been lost and what might yet be gained.

The Pioneer does a fine job with each of the backing instruments, capturing the taut and richly textured “mwaaah” sounds Mauksch’s sustained fretless bass notes, the ancient and almost otherworldly sound of Brockhausen’s tin whistle and ocarina, and restrained but exquisite intricacy of Jone’s guitar lines. But it’s Sara K’s voice that really pulls us in, with its elusive mixture of pain and sorrow, strength, inner grit, and hope. What I mean to say is that the Pioneer crosses the fine line between getting the general shape and outline of notes right to go even deeper—to retrieve the small sounds and dynamic swells that express the emotion behind the notes. And that’s a big part of what makes this receiver special. 

But it also offers one other quality that, once experienced, quickly becomes addictive; namely, absolutely killer surround sound imaging. Many receivers can place sounds in roughly the correct quadrant (right, left, right rear, left rear, and so on), but frankly that doesn’t impress me much. What I want, and what the Pioneer delivers in spades on the Sara K track, is a really seamless, holographic presentation where the walls of the listening room melt away, the speakers seem to disappear, and you feel yourself transported to a different space where the music unfolds all around you. The SC-27 was able to take me there, as few other receivers have.

BOTTOM LINE

Pioneer’s SC-27 is a superb receiver that offers in equal measures compelling power, finesse, and highly advanced technical feature that will not easily be outgrown—all a fair (though by no means cheap) price. But perhaps the most important point is that the SC-27 has its priorities straight: its main emphasis is on achieving a rare level of sound quality that makes it a joy for music and movie playback. 

SPECS & PRICING

Pioneer Elite SC-27 THX Ultra2 Plus-certified A/V Receiver

Power output: 7 x 140 Wpc @ 8 ohms
Decoding formats: Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital Dolby Pro Logic IIx. DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-EXPRESS, DTS ES, DTS, DTS 96/24, Neural-THX Surround, WMA-9 Pro, HDMI SACD Transfer and HDMI DVD-Audio Transfer modes, plus 14 other proprietary Pioneer surround sound processing modes. The receiver also supports the following digital audio formats: LPCM, WAV, MP3, WMA, AAC, and FLAC.
Video inputs/outputs: Composite video (5 in, 1 out); S-Video (5 in, 1 out), Component video (3 in, 2 out), HDMI (6 in—1 on front panel, 1 out), Ethernet (1 in), USB memory (1 in), iPhone/iPod USB (1 in)
Audio inputs/outputs: Phono (1 in), stereo analog audio (4 in, 1 out), 7.1-channel analog audio (1 in, 1 out), digital audio (7 in—4 optical in, 3 coaxial in; 2 optical outputs), HDMI (5 in, 1 out), Ethernet (1 in), USB memory (1 in), iPhone/iPod USB (1 in), Sirius satellite radio (1), XM satellite Radio (1), AM/FM Radio tuner (1), headphone (1)
Other: Auto calibration mic (1), RS-232C (1), IR (1 in, 1 out), 12V trigger (2)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 7.92" x 16.56" x 18.12"
Weight: 40.69 pounds
Warranty: 2 years, parts and labor
Price: $2000

Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc.
(800) 421-1404
www.pioneerelectronics.com

blog comments powered by Disqus

Featured Articles