Onkyo TX-DS989 Digital A/V Receiver Review

We’ve tested a veritable fleet of flagship Onkyo A/V receivers over the last few years. Each has gone straight to the top of the audio order of battle by virtue of its versatility and audio quality. The latest, the TX-DS989, is no exception. Having both “7.1-channel” facilities as well as the high-quality circuit performance, surround sound processing, and bass management virtually guaranteed by its THX Ultra certification makes it unique among high-end receivers.

For playback using THX Surround EX (see “Eye on EX”), Onkyo has provided two separate, full-capability amplifier channels to drive either one or two back surround speakers. THX recommends two, hence the 7.1-channel designation. While you won’t get 7.1 discrete channels from any signal medium available today, the receiver also incorporates discrete, line-level analog inputs for 7.1 channels and a corresponding set of preamp outputs to help forestall obsolescence when new formats arrive.

This receiver is chock full of other advanced and interesting features and circuitry – too many to go into much detail about here (see the “Key Features” listing). But starting with the 7.1-channel facilities, the abundant features make this the most future-proof A/V receiver I’ve yet encountered (past-proof too, with its phono and AC-3/RF inputs!). Not only does it have three component-video inputs (all able to accept progressive-scan or HDTV signals) and one component-video output, but the digital programming responsible for multichannel decoding can be updated with new software via an RS-232 connection. Even more futuristic are the provisions made in the TX-DS989’s circuitry for future incorporation of IEEE 1394 (FireWire) high-speed data connections. And referring to its Dolby Digital, DTS, and multichannel-MPEG capabilities, Onkyo’s promotional brochure claims that the receiver already “contains every decoder currently known to man.”

The receiver, while large, is distinctly lighter than some of the other flagship models we’ve reviewed recently. The mass contributed by the traditional large heat sinks has been replaced by a fan whose variable speed is controlled by both the amplifier temperature and the level of the music. I fooled it into remaining audibly on through a quiet passage only a couple of times (these occurred during some of the sudden “grand pauses” that are sprinkled throughout the symphonies of Anton Bruckner).

The programmable infrared remote control is nearly a masterpiece of ergonomic design. The buttons are extremely well differentiated in size, shape, location, and function. Facilities are provided for head-to-head programming of the infrared commands for non-Onkyo CD and DVD players, MiniDisc recorders, cable and satellite boxes, VCRs, and TVs. A built-in macro function will generate a sequence of infrared commands equivalent to as many as 16 separate button pushes. (This sounds real handy, but how many people do you know who have actually taken the trouble to program a single macro?)

Topping it all off are the remote’s LCD readout of the component being controlled and the dim but adequate green backlighting for all control buttons. The only thing I found untoward about the operation of the remote was that the combined rocker switch/pushbutton used for navigating the onscreen menus sometimes confused rocking for pushing, and vice versa. But the fault here might lie with my fingers.

Using the remote to set up the DS989 (you can also use the duplicate menu controls concealed by a motorized door on the bottom of the front panel) was simple and nearly self-explanatory. I had to look only once at the manual (which, by the way, is well written and well organized). I used a full-blown THX Surround EX setup, with a powered subwoofer and dual back surrounds (both dipoles). With all that heavy artillery, I was not disappointed.

Pending the development of test tones for Surround EX testing by Dolby or THX (or me) – a process that would combine the difficulties of Pro Logic testing with certain complications imposed by Dolby Digital encoding – EX decoding has to be evaluated strictly by ear. In this case there’s no need to worry, since I’ve never heard better back surround performance than that provided by the TX-DS989. When I listened to the back surrounds alone (by disconnecting the other speakers), the signals the receiver was feeding them were clearly as clean as those for the five other main channels, with ample power reserve and an extremely low background noise level.

When all the channels were fired up at once, as when I played the Surround EX-encoded DVD of The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (Columbia TriStar), I felt that the sonic results more than justified the cost of an extra pair of speakers and the greater complexity of setup. This film, one of the best-sounding EX titles yet released on DVD, uses the back surround channel nearly continuously, with full attention paid to its potential sonic/dramatic capabilities. Sometimes it carried ambience-type sounds that helped establish the dramatic locale, at other times it helped promote a seemingly 360� music mix, and at still others it helped carry front-to-back and side-to-side sound pans that tracked objects moving onscreen and off (galloping horses substituted for the usual whooshing space ships this time).

Most spectacular was when all these functions piled on each other, as in Joan’s surrealistic visionary/hallucinogenic episodes in Chapters 21-22, a real sonic trip. Unfortunately, while the soundtrack of The Messenger – which for once contains neither exploding missiles nor laser blasts (both were rather uncommon in the 15th century) – can be overwhelming at times, it is not enough to save the movie from being a dramatic dud. My favorite scene was Chapter 23, in which Dustin Hoffman, as Joan’s conscience (!), methodically deconstructs one of her visions with full back surround ambience – I found it unintentionally hilarious, probably because of my frustration with the movie at that point. Nonetheless, my conscience is clear in recommending The Messenger as one of the best DVDs for showing off the full, 7.1-channel capabilities of the TX-DS989.

A better, if overrated, film that can do the same for “plain vanilla” 5.1-channel playback is Topsy-Turvy, the story of Gilbert and Sullivan’s tribulations in mounting the first production of The Mikado. Aside from including generous excerpts from the opera performed in a marvelously evocative and realistic theater acoustic (note how “dry” the reverberant field is, not overly echoey as in what normally passes as “high-fidelity” sound for classical music), the opening sequence of the film is as fine an example of a front-channel imaging test as I’ve found in a movie soundtrack. You see an usher at the Savoy Theatre methodically lowering and raising each seat as he goes down a row. The noise of the seats’ latching pans slowly and evenly from left to right across the front soundstage, or at least it did with the TX-DS989 operating in Dolby Digital mode – a further demonstration, if any were needed, of its imaging capabilities.

I found a few things not quite so pleasing. Most have nothing to do with the receiver’s sound quality – which was always good to superb in surround sound, depending on the mode engaged, as well as outstanding in stereo – but instead with how specific features operated. For instance, I could not turn on the Surround EX decoding without having to activate the full panoply of THX features as well. Fortunately, once you turn on THX Surround EX, you can subsequently turn off the THX Re-EQ treble rolloff if the soundtrack sounds a bit too dull.

But no workaround is available if you want to switch back and forth between plain two-channel stereo playback and a surround mode to compare ambience-processed sound with the original. More annoying is the round-robin selection of surround modes, which makes impossible a direct comparison of two modes widely separated in the sequence. That’s too bad, for the TX-DS989’s ambience modes are unusually good. Onkyo’s literature specifically mentions “superfluous, seldom-used, and gimmicky DSP modes” offered in competitive receivers (a valuation I agree with totally), and the TX-DS989 has avoided these. But while it’s good – and rare – that some of the ambience modes allow you to turn off the processing in the front channels (which would otherwise add an echoey or distant quality to the original sound), it’s not so good that the artificial reverberation imposed in some modes (like Orchestra) cannot be turned off altogether.

Take note, however, that these “flaws” are not only minor, but they may also be completely irrelevant to your listening tastes, especially if you don’t often use ambience processing. I only bring them up because they’re the biggest things I found “wrong” with the TX-DS989, which is not unique in having them. Everything else here is worth every one of the considerable number of pennies (3.2 x 105) you will spend on it. The sound quality in multi-channel and stereo operation, the easy setup routines, the versatile hookup possibilities, and its resistance to obsolescence combine to make this receiver a rare find indeed. The TX-DS989 superbly upholds the tradition of excellence long established by Onkyo’s top A/V receivers. -S&V