AVR manufacturers are obsessed with matching their TV counterparts and introducing a gamut of new models each year, despite bona fide audio developments being few and far between. As such, Pioneer's VSX-923 represents a revamp of the VSX-922 (itself a revamp of the VSX-921), sharing many of the same features and design. In fact, apart from doing away with the drop-down flap on the front which hid the USB input and setup mic jack, the front of the VSX-923 is identical to its forebear. This equates to a nice big display flanked by two hefty knobs (volume and input selection), all set off by a brushed black chassis that will match the other noir components on your rack. It's kinda stylish, in a discreet sort of way.

Its vital statistics include seven channels of amplification (rated at 150W, 6ohms), twin subwoofer outputs, 7-in/2-out HDMI connectivity, comprehensive DLNA and USB music file playback and compatibility with every Apple product under the sun – AirPlay is offered here, as is HTC Connect, if you own one of that brand's compatible handsets.

Control can be done via Pioneer's iControlAV app, which my colleagues have previously enthused about. Personally, I'm an old-school trad handset guy, and here the VSX-923 suffers from a crammed remote that takes a while to get used to. Initial setup isn't aided by having the manual on a supplied disc (along with Pioneer's AVNavigator wizard) – but you'll inevitably end up here as the receiver offers so many features (many worth exploring, such as the Sound Retriever compressed audio enhancer that worked wonders with my MP3s), that you'll struggle to activate without help.

Eminently listenable

After running the automated, and quite lengthy, MCACC EQ program, the VSX-923 unleashes a dynamic soundscape that is eminently listenable. The thudding kick drums of Machine Head's Unto The Locust pack a real punch, with the mid-range groove metal riffs oozing from my speakers with menace and body, and higher frequencies sweetly defined. Compared to my own Yamaha RX-V673 receiver, though, the Pioneer seems a tad tighter in its presentation; not quite as airy.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, as it equates to gloriously pin-sharp surround effects with movies. The escape sequence in Children of Men is delivered with nail-biting tension – breaking glass shatters in the rear right of the soundstage, worried voices shriek behind you and the buzzing engine of a falling motorbike drones from the front left to the centre channel before fading in the distance.

The Pioneer's steering impresses, and it relishes ambient effects; the soundscape of a farmyard in late evening is awash with tweeting birds, a gentle breeze and lowing cattle. Clive Owen's grumbling dialogue, meanwhile, is articulated well, and switching discs to Jurassic Park finds John Williams' memorable orchestral score swelling with well-defined strings and horns. All told, the VSX-923 has an audio quality that's hard not to like, and there are numerous ways to refine its output to suit your tastes.

There's a slight drawback to Pioneer's receiver, however – namely that both its Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities require the purchase of additional (separate) adaptors. Its rival, Onkyo, has taken the lead here this year, and seeing as I even own a clock radio with built-in Wi-Fi it's a hard oversight to stomach – especially as the VSX-923 aims to be an all-singing, all-dancing network hub.

Relief does come from the AVR's £450 price tag, which is, oddly, a full £150 less than last year's model, so those adaptors (roughly £50 each) might be within your budget. But I can see many giving the Onkyos enviable glances.

As such, the VSX-923 is a good, but not perfect AVR. It's not just this connection irritation, either. Getting the best out if it requires real effort, as its myriad features and surround modes are hardly presented in the most intuitive way. For instance, using the supplied remote to switch on virtual height speakers requires 19 button presses – I counted them – and I believe its general usability could be improved. That said, I have few complaints regarding its sonic prowess.


HCC VERDICT

Pioneer VSX-923
Price:
£450 Approx
www.pioneer.co.uk

Highs: Energetic, precise multichannel audio; Sound Retriever feature works well; packed with features; sturdy build and neat design
Lows: No built-in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth; complex operation; lacks Spotify; post-processing modes are hit and miss

Performance: 4/5
Design: 4/5
Features: 4/5
Overall: 4/5