|Onkyo TX-DS989 Receiver|
|Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers|
|Written by Kim Wilson|
|Friday, 01 December 2000|
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Gone are the days of the nifty toggle switch that clicks around the dial to call up audio from all of three or four sources. Today’s receivers require a fair amount of time and patience to get set up before you can listen to anything. Once everything is hooked into the TX-DS989, the digital inputs must be assigned. If you use an analog input, it’s pretty simple, because if you plug in your CD via RCA jacks where it says CD on the rear panel, when you call up CD on the input selector, voila, there it is. However, if you hook up the CD via one of the digital audio inputs, you must use the Input Setup Menu to assign the input source button with the appropriate digital input. Furthermore, you can allocate an explicit type of digital signal to a specific input. For instance, the CD player could be set up for PCM sources only, whereas either a Dolby Digital or DTS bitstream could be assigned to the DVD player. Any input can be set up to automatically detect any type of digital bitstream for automatic input switching.
Likewise, in the Video Setup Menu, you assign the component video inputs to the appropriate video sources. For a more experimental type of configuration, the audio of one component can be matched with the video of another, so that you can watch a particular source while listening to something else. Why would you do this? I don’t know, maybe because you can?
Thanks to the number of similar devices I’ve reviewed over the years, I can usually set up these products without too much assistance - maybe a quick scan of the manual or a brief lookup for a particular setup function. I have always considered myself a bit of a gadget freak, but I think these are gadgets for a new generation. The sheer number of DSP features and user-definable settings available overwhelmed me. Once I got past the Speaker Setup Menu, which was straightforward enough, I had to sit with the manual in my lap to get through the other menus with multiple layers of submenus. Usually, I am done with my complete setup in about a half-hour to an hour, but I was still fiddling with the setup features and wading through all the myriad of possibilities after a couple of days.
For expediency, I often work off the front panel LCD, using the supplied remote. However, that doesn’t work well with the TX-DS989. The menu buttons on the front panel are a bit confusing due to the multiple function design. Moreover, I couldn’t use the remote because it only corresponds to the menu list off the on-screen display. With this product, it was necessary to turn on the TV to do all my setups. The graphical user interface is simple enough to navigate, though pretty plain. It’s just a series of lists you scroll down. Once you make a selection, it goes to a new screen with another series of lists, and so on.
The Listening Mode Menu was by far the most confusing. Here you set listening parameters for each input, which can be different for every type of source. For instance, let’s say on the CD input, you can turn the subwoofer off when an analog/PCM stereo track is played, but the subwoofer is re-engaged if the stereo source is digital. Moreover, each type of source (i.e. stereo, analog surround, digital surround) has different parameters, including which speakers are active for that particular input.
I have never seen so many settings on a piece of audio gear. I thought perhaps that I missed the part where I was supposed to get a pilot’s license first. Now playing with my equipment is not my favorite pastime, as I prefer simplicity. I am also not a huge fan of fancy DSP settings or setting up different parameters for different types of sources. If it’s a stereo recording, I play it direct without any artificial flavoring. If it’s multi-channel, then I want to experience it as the mixer intended. All the extra goodies were probably wasted on me, but for that new generation gadget freak, this will no doubt be a dream come true.
When it comes to the receiver’s actual sonic performance, I was impressed. Receivers are not supposed to sound this good. I mean, isn’t that why many of us jumped into separate components years ago? The TX-DS989 gives receivers a brand new reputation.
Despite all the multi-channel features of this unit, I figure most of us still use our systems primarily for playing two-channel music, so that’s why I started with one of my favorite demo recordings, "Bluesville" from Count Basie’s 88 Basie Street (JVC XRCD). This track has a soulful and full-bodied stand-up bass part that was as smooth, articulate and resonant on the TX-DS989 as on any processor or receiver I’ve evaluated. The image was wide open, revealing accurate and precise placement of the big band’s instrumentation.
On the instrumental first track "Bodhran," from the Young Dubliners’ latest effort, Red (Omtown), there is a delicacy to the hard-driving six-string acoustic guitar that spreads across the entire left to right image, yet there is a powerful impact to the rhythmic Celtic drum that sits in the background, moving the entire piece. While not exhibiting the same airy quality as my reference Proceed amplifiers, I was pleasantly surprised with the amplifier’s robust and accurate tonal balance. It never strained at high volumes, regardless of the source material.
In 1999’s Academy Award Winning Best Picture American Beauty (Dreamworks/DTS version), percussive music is often mixed in full 5.1 audio, using the center channel for something other than dialogue. The mix was enveloping, with consistent fidelity from channel to channel.
The latest release of Terminator 2 (Artisan Entertainment) on DVD exhibits ultra-clean and intelligible dialogue, even with soft voices or voices mixed with an abundance of ambient effects, of which there are plenty. Capable of handling the most complex action scenes, the TX-DS989 demonstrated a consistent soundstage without compression or congestion at any listening level.
Now it was time to kick in those extra back surrounds. I used The Haunting (DreamWorks), one of the first titles to be released with Dolby Digital Surround EX. In one scene, one of the guests is running through the house, as the very foundation of this mammoth dwelling seems to crumble around her. If you thought 5.1 suspended disbelief, than you need to try out 6.1 audio (or whatever you want to call it). As walls creaked and cracked, moving in and out as if they were breathing, there was an even greater sense of coherence, because there is no null point at the back of your head between the left and right surrounds. Pans move completely around you for a very chilling effect.
When you have a product such as the TX-DS989, there are so many wonderful aspects that it is obvious the manufacturer wanted to provide all things to all people. However, such ambitions can make matters complicated when you have as many features packed into a single box as this one does. So I’ll give Onkyo an "A" for effort, but for me, the learning curve and the massive number of fanciful settings were excessive. While the menu structure lacks any flair, it is simple enough to navigate through when you are in the midst of your main setup and doing everything step by step. Where it got unwieldy for me was going back for fine adjustments. If I wasn’t sure which submenu had the setting I needed, I had to reference back to the manual to see what menu it fell under, otherwise I found myself getting frustrated trying to find one particular setting among hundreds.
Automatic input switching is possible, but it takes some adjusting of the user-defined parameters to make sure it switches properly. I would have preferred to have automatic input switching set as factory default. If the user then wanted to specify certain digital signals for particular inputs, they would have that option.
A general pet peeve of mine with all these high-priced A/V receivers is the inclusion of cheap, low-grade plastic binding posts. While Onkyo claims that these posts can accommodate banana plugs and spade lugs, larger-gauge wires, such as my Cardas and other high-end cables, require a larger and thicker spade lug than these lesser terminals can accept. Unfortunately, a standard for banana plugs does not exist. I think that the type of plug that pinches in the middle is best suited for this type terminal. Thick diameter plugs just don’t work. For what people are being charged, some higher-quality binding posts designed for any size cable or termination would be a classy addition.
The performance and value of these all-in-one receivers is hard to beat and, in some areas, even rival stand-alone products. When you consider that it would cost a lot more than $3,199.95 to get separate components to perform at the same level or provide as many features as the TX-DS989, it gives you reason to pause.
My bitching about the menu structure aside, the Onkyo TX-DS989 is a highly competent product, offering state-of-the-art surround technology with a powerful and well-tuned amplifier. The learning remote that is packaged with the receiver makes it possible to integrate all your electronics into one convenient remote control. Even better, like the highest-priced digital processors, the RS-232 port allows you to use a sophisticated wired control system that runs your home theater, whole house audio system, lighting and anything else you can dream of off a touch panel display.
THX Surround EX is a unique and exciting new twist on an existing technology and it is surprising how much more it pulls you into the action. Ready for DVD-Audio and SACD, the TX-DS989 is equally comfortable with older formats, such as Laserdiscs and LPs. No matter where you might be on the upgrade spectrum, this receiver promises to last you well into the future, with assured upgradablity no matter what new digital audio format arises.