Pioneer Elite VSX-24TX THX Select A/V Receiver Review

A decade has now passed since Lucasfilm Ltd. began certifying home theater components under its THX program, which gives a stamp of approval to gear that meets its stringent requirements for performance and design. Last year Lucasfilm divided the program into THX Ultra, which continues the existing high-end orientation, and THX Select, which certifies components capable of meeting THX performance standards in smaller rooms and at more modest cost.

Pioneers VSX-24TX is the first THX Select A/V receiver to come my way, and in most respects it appears to validate Lucasfilms efforts. The specs for this hefty, full-featured five-channel receiver suggest a pretty high design standard. The chassis, which is both very deep and quite tall, accommodates a flip-down front-panel door that conceals secondary controls, a convenience A/V input, and a headphone jack.

The receivers back panel is unusually well equipped, with facilities for four A/V components, all with full S-video ports, and with two record/play loops. There are also connections for four audio sources, including a turntable and two recorders. As for digital source components, there are two coaxial and two optical inputs, plus an optical output for a CD or MiniDisc recorder. The optical output is handy, and four is one more digital input than youll find on most A/V receivers. Heavy-duty multiway binding posts provide speaker outputs for all channels (huzzah!), and there is a six-channel input for an external decoder (DVD-Audio anyone?). There are even preamp (line-level) outputs for all six channels. Like many high-end A/V receivers, the VSX-24TX also lets you play music in a second room using a different source and with independent volume control (youll need a power amp and speakers for the remote room).

Hooking up the VSX-24TX required the usual swapping of wires and cables, plus trotting out my trusty sound-level meter to balance the channels. Setup went perfectly, and the levels derived from the receivers internal noise signal matched up nicely with both Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital test discs. Pioneers flexible bass-management system accommodates most reasonable options for most users. It even provides a “plus” subwoofer setting that parallels the left/right front channels bass to a subwoofer, whose crossover can be set to dovetail with the speakers natural rolloff. Also like many other high-end A/V receivers, the VSX-24TX offers a choice of 80-, 100-, and 150-Hz crossover frequencies.

This is one of the better-performing receivers Ive encountered, with enough juice to handle real-world situations. In stereo listening it drove my low-sensitivity small speakers handily, providing excellent detail and strong, well-controlled dynamic punch. The same was true with multichannel music listening. To stress all five amp channels as fully as possible, I played the 5.1-channel DTS-encoded CD Come On in This House by Junior Wells (Telarc/Blues) with my main speakers running full-range, without a subwoofer. The Pioneer, which includes a DTS decoder as well as Dolby Digital (DD), handled this with aplomb. The sound stayed crisp and defined but free from harshness or congestion even at extreme volume levels. Full-electric-band tracks such as “Why Are People Like That?” got believably close to actual blues-club levels, with powerful, punchy bass and kick-drum hits.

In both Dolby Digital and DTS modes I heard first-rate surround sound in every instance, with notable clarity, very low noise, and outstanding dynamic detail and impact. A viewing of the offbeat flick Mars Attacks demonstrated the virtues of Dolby Digital in nearly every scene: clear, articulate dialogue (especially when its not that loud relative to the music and effects), clean, smoothly panning surround effects, great dynamic detail in quiet sections, and the ability to deliver powerful, room-rattling bass without spoiling the clarity and ease of the overall sound.

Dolby Pro Logic performance was also excellent. The VSX-24TX managed my toughest Dolby Surround-encoded music CDs with grace, producing minimal steering artifacts or noise.

A couple of features deserve particular note. The Digital NR control, which operates only in stereo mode, did a nice job of reducing noise without muting the treble. And it did so with only modest pumping or other noise-reduction artifacts. The Midnight Listening mode, which compresses the dynamic range of any source (stereo or multichannel), not just Dolby Digital, is a handy feature for late-night viewing and for casual listening in noisy environments. I dont know how often most people will use these two features, but in my book they represent a considerably more creative and valuable application of digital processing power than adding more and more boisterously reverberant surround modes.

Of course, like most A/V receivers, the VSX-24TX has several DSP (digital signal processing) ambience modes you can use with stereo or multichannel sources. Pioneer has exercised some restraint in keeping front-channel reflections and reverb relatively low (zero would have been better). Jazz and Theater 2 sounded okay, but the other modes were generally either too reverberant or too “slappy” for my taste. The VSX-24TX also offers four Advanced Theater modes that combine DSP with surround decoding, whether Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, or DTS. While these modes work with DTS and DD material, they appear to operate on downmixed stereo rather than on the discrete 5.1 channels. You can dial up a single-parameter, overall effect-level setting for each DSP and Advanced Theater mode, which is maintained as you switch to other modes or sources. There are nine effect levels.

Naturally, the VSX-24TX also offers the THX surround mode, which can be superimposed on any other mode. This delivers the standard THX extras of timbre-matching the main and surround speakers, re-equalizing the fronts for a slightly softer treble response (the better to match typical cinema playback), and decorrelating the mono surround channel in Dolby Surround recordings. Listeners will likely find they prefer THX on some film soundtracks and “standard” DD, DTS, or DPL on others (the VSX-24TX remote makes it easy to do such comparisons). On Mars Attacks, the THX mode produced a smoother, less aggressive sound and more cohesive surround effects, which I clearly preferred.

The receivers 30-preset tuner was entirely average, with strong quieting and good reception on powerful, local FM signals but mediocre results from weaker, more distant ones. (The Digital NR mode can help clean up distant radio signals slightly, however.) The AM side was better than usual, though.

Pioneer Elite VSX-24TXThe VSX-24TXs remote control strikes an excellent balance between power and usability, with four well-distinguished control sections, legible labels, and a rather clever backlighting scheme. When you press one of the transport-function keys, the currently active Multi Control key, such as DVD or VCR1, momentarily doubles its brightness to remind you which component is selected. The remote is endowed with a library of preprogrammed codes covering a good range of other-brand DVD, laserdisc, CD, tape, TV, VCR, satellite, and cable-TV components, allowing it to function as a full-system controller.

I appreciated the remotes direct-access keys for sources and surround-mode groups and its relatively straightforward method of adjusting individual channel levels, including the subwoofer. Even better, the VSX-24TX remembers the relative levels of all six channels, as well as the individual effect levels, individually for each DSP mode, recalling the last-used setting whenever you return to a source. It doesnt distinguish between Dolby Digital and DTS when storing surround levels, however, which is unfortunate, since I find that practically all DTS recordings run the surround channels about 3 dB too hot for my taste.

The Pioneer VSX-24TX is an excellent example of the current standard in A/V receiver design and not just in terms of power, features, and performance. Its ease of operation makes its overall excellence all the easier to enjoy in the real world. S&V;