Want scintillating audio and classy networking features? Look no further
Pioneer's SC-2022 AV receiver proudly ditches the VSX prefix of its predecessor (the VSX-2012) to join the more illustrious company of its SC-toting brethren, although it doesn’t quite make it into the elite LX club, falling short in its construction and lacking Air Studios calibration. It gains its SC credentials largely through the adoption of an all-digital Direct Energy HD amplifier, which uses shorter signal paths and has more efficient cooling, leading Pioneer to claim a better performance and lower power consumption.
So for less than £1,000 you get the most junior member of the Pioneer SC lineup, and while its performance is unlikely to be in the same league as, say, the top-dog SC-LX86, the spec sheet shows that the SC-2022 is clearly not the little Jimmy Osmond of the family. It claims an output of 170W per channel, up from 150W (take this with a pinch of salt, of course) and ticks nearly all the setup, operational and compatibility boxes (4K passthrough a notable exception) as the rest of the clan, including some pretty fancy iDevice-based control.
Compared with the VSX-2012, THX certification has gone the way of Mitt Romney, but there is good news for rumble junkies in the shape of a second subwoofer pre-out. Network connectivity out of the box is Ethernet-only but a USB port is now provided for a wireless adapter. HDMI action consists of seven inputs (one on the front) and one out, which is bad news for anyone considering driving two displays from this otherwise well-connected receiver. I can see this being an immediate deal-breaker for some.
Owners of Android devices seeking to feed in 1080p video and 7.1 HD audio from their handheld devices will need to look higher up the SC chain for MHL compatibility, but Apple fans are treated to AirPlay, which, if you ask me, is simply the greatest audio connection ever made (the SC-2022 automatically appears as a connectable device on your pod, pad or computer – one press and you’re laughing). They’re well served in the setup department too, thanks to AV Navigator (available for iOS but also provided on a CD for Windows 7), which ensures your speakers and sources are all wired up properly.
Available to both iOS and Android users is the iControlAV2012 app. This is stunning, although Pioneer has found few friends amongst owners of previous-generation AVRs by not extending compatibility of the app to legacy machines.
Checking the readings from the amp's automatic speaker calibration system is so much easier and more pleasant with iControlAV2012 than faffing around with the dour-looking menus on your TV screen, or the AVR's dinky display. It also makes it beautifully easy to tweak speaker settings and offers plenty of freedom with tone settings and equalization.
Playing networked sources, including internet radio and DLNA devices, is easier too than when using the supplied remote. In fact, the remote is an absolute pig, with buttons and labels more crowded than Oxford Circus tube station on Boxing Day morning.
Pioneer redeems itself thanks to its methodical and very thorough MCACC calibration system. Running this takes a good ten minutes, during which each channel is tested and/or measured for polarity, EQ, Phase and Standing Wave Control. You can always tip-toe out of the room and quietly have a brew until the levels are set. Subsequently, if you’re feeling brave and adventurous you may be tempted to delve into the menus and play with adding virtual speakers to your configuration or messing around with the phase control.
The receiver itself is a handsome beast with an elegant fascia, and there’s nothing about even the iControlAV2012 app that’s as satisfying as physically tweaking the two hefty knobs that control the volume and input selection. The amp’s flimsy grade of body metal and rubbery speaker terminals are, however, less assuring.
The SC-2022 has decent multimedia skills, including the ability to stream FLACs and WAVs stored on a home network. It’s also compatible with the audio on MP4 files and JPEGs in theory, but don’t count on it getting the aspect ratio correct. And while the superb clarity of the violins of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings Op. 48 (24bit/192kHz, downloaded from the excellent Nordic Sound, and played from a USB flash memory drive) proved the sensationally good credentials of the internal DAC, I was more than frustrated by the Pioneer's refusal to play any MP3s on a DLNA Windows netbook despite being able to select them. Thank God for AirPlay.
Pioneer allows you to attenuate the high frequency response (in 0.5dB steps) if the treble seems too loud, and it’s a tweak that paid dividends in my cinema room. This X-curve adjustment was needed to just rein in the brightness at the high-end during War of the Worlds on Super Audio CD. That sorted, the power and agility of the digital amps worked their magic – the unscrewing of the Martian cylinder and subsequent guitar thrashing being delivered with spine-chilling authority.
On to movie matters, and Band of Brothers' DTS-HD MA soundtrack on Blu-ray [that's not a movie – Ed]. As the US infantry come almost face-to-face with a holed-up German outfit, the amp almost blew my socks off as mortar shells exploded in front of me, bullets fizzed across the room and plaster remnants rained down and covered me in dust. Dialogue is tightly focused on the centre channel and the LFE rumble is perfectly integrated, proving the accuracy of Pioneer's Auto Phase Control Plus lag-compensation wizardry.
Want to go loud? No problem, your neighbours will be calling the environmental health people long before distortion kicks in. Incidentally, my standard-issue Maplin power consumption gauge showed the SC-2022 effortlessly hovering around the 60W mark during this DTS-HD MA firestorm. Who said home cinema was bad for the polar bears?
The Dolby Digital track of The Wire (Season 5, DVD) is given real energy as subtle effects and background sounds – such as distant passing sirens and calls offering the latest drugs – are played out deftly from the rear speakers. Even Omar almost sounds lucid.
The main caveat is that, X-curve adjustment or not, there’s an underlying tightness to the SC-2022 that might not suit those who prefer a warmer sound. The presence of a digital filter button on the remote control that should improve matters offers false hope, as to try it you need an LX model. Hmmm.
That said, the SC-2022 is a mightily impressive home cinema receiver. Sure, it can come across a little 'cold', skimps on a secondary HDMI out and requires the iControlAV2012 app (and therefore a smartphone/tablet) to get the best out of it, but Pioneer should be quietly pleased with itself for offering a slice of SC greatness at a bargain price.
Highs: Superb power and agility; slick iControlAV2012 app; efficient auto calibration; versatile media support
Lows: Poor remote control; complex to operate without app; sound lacks warmth; single HDMI output is stingy at this price
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