About a year ago, Onkyo made their move and took over the home electronics division of Pioneer Corporation. This acquisition was billed as a strategic merger, but probably more as a necessary means for the company — revered for their boutique AV amplifiers and groundbreaking “Kuro” plasma display. Indeed, the market had shrunk and nobody was immune to the inevitable downsizing.
What does all of this have to do with the Pioneer VSX-LX301 AV Receiver and the latest round of higher-priced Elite models? The first change is the nomenclature for the entire lineup, in an attempt to clear the confusion as the fat is graciously trimmed. Secondly, opting for an Elite rather than your run-of-the-mill receiver nets you a couple more features, and the performance is more enthusiast-grade — even more so with the amount of money spent.
But an important question for me is this: Can Pioneer maintain its own identity underneath new conglomerate lords?
Familiar, Yet Different
The exterior look of the VSX-LX301 is understated, keeping the front tasteful with two large machined dials and a button arrangement minimized in a center row. The aesthetics go unchanged from before but remains appropriate, soldiering on with its brushed metallic surface done in a 22-lb. black body. Still a rectangular box that’s mature stylistically.
Remember when AV receivers offered a plethora of connectivity for almost anything imaginable? If you do, then modern ones like the VSX-LX301 will initially be a mixed bag for anything beyond HDMI/HDZone (7 inputs/2 outputs), and both digital and analog forms of audio inputs (even phono for record turntables). People who indulge in throwback home theater or gaming may go wanting, as the proverbial analog sunset reduces options to just two composite and a lone component video (YPBPR ) input. Another trait unique to the Elite lineup is the RS-232C serial port, which is ideal for custom installations.
The remote is a carryover from Onkyo. Gone is the familiar, though overwhelming array of tightly-packed buttons, for something truncated and streamlined. In that respect, this one does address some issues and keeps the complexity down, and probably won’t scare away amateurs. In an strange way though, I’m equally sentimental about that long Pioneer remote going extinct.
Calibration by MCACC
The sharing continues with the use of MCACC calibration (which Onkyo borrowed from the former), a procedure done by placing the included microphone in room center so it can ‘listen’ to its acoustic surroundings. The process is quicker in addition to the enabled height speakers with the new reflex optimizer for accuracy. However, we only had to correct two instances of distance measurement for SR (surround right) and the front channels — between 0.2-0.5 inches, while the general volume was four notches too high for our liking. At the very least, MCACC should serve as a decent starting point.
In typical fashion, we did a manual calibration and began testing with multichannel audio. Equipped with a speaker/subwoofer build incorporating ELAC B5/C5/A4/S10 and focusing our attention towards Blu-ray movies and snippets of SACD/DSD material for music. The VSX-LX301 doesn’t disappoint on presentation with Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Revenant exhibiting everything we want in delivery. Dialogue was intelligible, musical scores had depths of warmth, and the atmosphere during the scenes are handled dynamically without being overbearing. These characteristics are consistent with every Pioneer 7.1(7.2) receiver and upward we’ve tested, and obviously, the VSX-LX301 is no exception to this golden rule.
Having 170-watts of power per channel (6 ohms 1 KHz/20 Hz-20 KHz) and despite having a Class AB amplifier, the VSX-LX301 does a great job with what it has for Hi-Res Audio. Listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Flood album retains a dive grittiness from his electric guitar, with nothing lost as discorded strums have a frontstage profile in satisfying form. Orchestral renditions such as Symphony no. 7 from Dvořák portrayed bassoons, oboes, and timpani with clarity as jovial moods give shift in dramatic bouts, albeit acutely bright at higher volumes (-11.0dB).
We moved on to Dolby Atmos material which is standard for midrange offerings at this point. Taking everything I’ve experienced prior with the Pioneer SC-89 Elite AVR and their exceptional Elite SP-E73 Atmos Speaker System, some might consider the VSX-LX301 and its 5.1.2-channel arrangement basic in lieu of the “reference” configuration — which luckily, was not quite the case here. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for DTS:X as it was not yet enabled on this receiver, but will eventually be ready through a firmware update.
Beginning with the Dolby Atmos demo disc, the “Rainstorm” audio short wowed once again; exhibiting something natural and more believable than traditional surround — despite the number of height drivers being halved from four to two. The opera interlude with Plavalaguna in the latest mastering of The Fifth Element was amazing, along with the interceded scene involving Leeloo whooping Mangalore asses. A realistic sense of space and penetrating impact breathes new life into Luc Besson’s sci-fi gem, and makes the detail astoundingly better than even I remember.
And yes, the VSX-LX301 is properly engineered for 4K/UHD and HDR capabilities through HDMI 2.0a, with HDCP 2.2 (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) finally in one machine. Native and upscaling enhancements are moderately crisper than normal but might vary depending on your current display (we tested a Panasonic TC-58AX800U with upscaling in particular working intermittently).
You get audio streaming with Pandora and Spotify, internet radio with TuneIn, Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Google Cast functionality — it’s all accounted for, including Tidal and Deezer (for non-US subscribers). There’s also USB and DLNA for home network use it reads all major audio type from MP3, WAV, AAC to AIFF, FLAC, and DSD files. Overall, everything worked and sounded great, although we aren’t fans of the structure when diving into local files directly since the receiver lists are rather archaic by default. We even appreciate the built-in Wi-Fi and the performance is good, and turning your phone or tablet into a remote with the iControlAV5 app is icing on the cake.
We waited long enough for the Pioneer VSX-LX301 to replace our venerable AV unit. It’s fairly typical of many midrange receivers today to pile on the good stuff, especially for those holding out on a futureproofed machine. If you’re a brand purist though, you definitely get the suspicion that everything from the remote to the menu interface itself is dumbed down for homogenization. Does that make this receiver more Onkyo than elite? Maybe, but it is more practical with everything you still want.