Onkyo TX-DS989 Version2 Receiver 
Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers
Written by Richard Elen   
Friday, 01 November 2002

Onkyo actually produces two separate lines of consumer audio equipment. Like Panasonic and Technics, Onkyo has an eponymous line and a higher-end line sold under the Integra name. But this should not give the impression that the regular Onkyo products are anything less than high quality – in fact, the TX-DS989, the top of the Onkyo receiver line at around $3,500, is an excellent component all round.

Since the unit was originally reviewed in AudioRevolution in the fall of 2000, the 989 has lived up to its “future-proof” promise, initially with the addition of DTS-ES, Neo 6 and Dolby Pro Logic II decoding in 2001 and now with version 2 firmware and some hardware updates -- which are available to existing owners as well as being provided as standard on new units -- offering THX Ultra2 and DTS96/24 capability.

At the heart of the TX-DS989 is a beefy seven-channel power amp offering up to 130 watts RMS per channel, driven by a power supply with a hefty power transformer, which is always a good sign when evaluating a receiver. The unit is THX Ultra2 certified, meeting the stringent THX specs for low distortion, frequency response and other criteria. The unit features 192 kHz, 24-bit D/A converters, which on the face of it is a complete waste of time. Unless you have a very unusual Firewire (IEEE1394) connection from your DVD-Audio player, you won’t ever be giving it higher sample rates than 96Hz (or even 48 kHz a lot of the time) from an external source, as this is the maximum sample rate the majority of manufacturers will give you from the digital outputs of their DVD players – although 96 kHz outs are increasingly common (even my cheap Sampo has it – see review).

However, it’s possible that those cool digital-to-analog converters are not such a waste of time: the Onkyo is firmware-upgradeable via a built-in RS232 serial port: there’s no reason why future upgrades shouldn’t provide some nice surprises, such as encrypted high-definition audio to link to a DVD-Audio player, or even upsampling to 192 kHz. Only time will tell, but several possibilities are there.

An interesting design feature of the amplifier is included in its “Wide Range Amplifier Technology,” or WRAT, which includes particularly low negative feedback. Negative feedback is a common process for improving the performance of an amplifier – however, if over-used, it can produce problems. Negative feedback compensates for errors in the amplification process by feeding a correction signal back from output to input, and this is all very well if the signal is cyclic, or repetitive, like a sine wave. But unlike a test signal, music generally is not truly cyclic: in particular, transients such as drum beats or note attacks just happen once, and negative feedback essentially causes a distorted transient to be followed by a distorted space. In addition, the back-to-front impedance of the amplifier can be reduced if the feedback loop extends across the whole unit, and this can make the system very sensitive to the acoustic environment. Imagine this: a sound comes out of the speakers and bounces around the room and then gets picked up by the speakers (acting as microphones), is fed back round the feedback loop due to its low impedance and is presented, incorrectly, at the amp input as an error signal in need of correction. Matti Otala at the University of Finland identified this problem in the 1970s, calling called it “Interface Intermodulation Distortion.” Those of us who discovered it in the studio called it “Ricochet Effect.” High levels of overall negative feedback are believed to be one of the main reasons why some tube amps (with low overall negative feedback), now as in the past, can sound better than many early solid state amps (with high levels of overall feedback): this effect can also make a system very sensitive to the quality of loudspeaker cables, and cause an amp to change its sound quite dramatically in response to small changes in room acoustics. But that’s a subject for another time.

There are also plenty of A/V features. There is THX Surround EX to add two rear surround channels to permit 7.1 operation, built-in DTS ES, Dolby and Pro Logic II decoding, a 7.1 analog input for SACD or DVD-A players with analog outs, and an up-sampling capability that doubles the sample rate of digital input signals at 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling up to 88.4 or 96 kHz. Done correctly, upsampling can reduce jitter and improve sonic accuracy. In addition, the TX-DS989 has a comprehensive system for handling multi-room/multi-source activity.

Installation and Set-Up
The rear panel of the TX-DS989 is jam-packed with connectors. There are three component video inputs and one output, AC in and two switched outs, an AC-3 RF adaptor input, optical and coax S/PDIF digital outputs and no less than four coax and three optical digital inputs – which is great news for me, with an increasing number of digital audio units to hook up. Speakers are connected with sturdy binding posts. There are two S-Video and composite monitor outputs, a Zone 2 out with L/R analog audio, composite and S-Video outs, two video recorder I/O sets with L/R audio, composite and S-Video in and out, and another four similar inputs, one labeled “DVD.” In addition, you’ll find two sets of analog audiotape I/O, CD in and an input for a phono cartridge. There are also FM and AM antenna connects, the RS232 socket (a DB9 connector) and preamp outs for all seven main outputs, plus two subs and jumpered insert points allowing access to the amp inputs for front L, C and R (e.g., for a graphic EQ). There are remote control interfaces for other Onkyo components and IR sensor ins for main and zone 2. And finally there’s that 7.1 analog in – for which there is only enough room for a multi-pin DB25 connector accessed via a breakout cable. This is surely one of the most comprehensive rear panels on any receiver I have seen so far, and it is most impressive.

Impressive too is the flexibility of matching video and digital audio ports to specific inputs. You can essentially associate virtually any digital audio in with any input, and the same is true of the component video input. Even the multi-channel in can be set to “on” for inputs that need it. There are some minor limitations in the case of the recorder I/O ports, but it’s easy, with a bit of planning, to set this receiver up to cope with almost anything.

All the set-up is accomplished via a comprehensive onscreen display, which makes up for what it lacks in elegance (it uses one of those ghastly Japanese Roman fonts that always seem to look jagged and spindly) by offering an extensive collection of settings. You can name inputs onscreen and in the front panel display (which is actually comprehensive enough to configure the unit if necessary), assign video and digital audio sockets to an input, set multi-channel to on or off, and tweak the relative level of the source so that everything comes up at the same level. The only real danger is that you won’t remember whether input “Video5” is connected to the second DVD player or the Fireball MP3 system (or whatever exotic devices you have in your system), and there are more inputs than mode buttons, so sometimes you need to know which is which. The plethora of possibilities does mean that you need to keep your wits about you a bit. As is usually the case, the onscreen display is only superimposed on the composite and S-Video outs, and not on the component signal.

All this is done with Onkyo’s long, narrow remote. Now I have been nasty about many a supplied remote in my time, but this one is a pleasant exception. Around a central (and slightly over-sensitive) five-way enter button, there is a cluster of rocker and feature buttons, with mode buttons set above them (with power buttons and an alphanumeric LCD display) transport and ancillary controls below, and input selection plus numeric and audio function buttons grouped at the bottom. The mode buttons dictate (and indicate) what component you are controlling, while the input buttons select the input on the TX-DS989. This means that you need to press two buttons to select a device and control it, but the easy way around this is to define a macro for each mode button that changes the input as well as selecting the device to control. The only drawback this remote has is that there is no built-in database, so you have to teach it everything, but other than that, you can actually live with it and have it control many of your devices if you don’t want to go the whole hog and invest in a programmable remote.

The ugly but effective OSD makes the rest of the set-up activity pretty much a no-brainer, especially if you look at the decent and respectably comprehensive manual while you do it, where there are some useful tips on speaker configuration and what “small” and “large” mean. The subwoofer is able to be set to 80, 100 or 120 Hz with 80 Hz being the THX approved setting.

The addition of rear surround speakers does not really add anything to configuration complexity, and a benefit of the Ultra2 capability is that you can use a single speaker configuration for all possible sources. You can set up the speaker distance (in feet or meters, steps of six inches from one to 30 feet) for each speaker individually (except the front pair), plus CF and sub (1). This configuration is to Lucasfilm Position Time Synchronization specs. You can set relative delays for front, center and surrounds. Speaker levels can also be calibrated individually with a suitable set-up source, and there is a Lucasfilm-spec Bass Peak Level Manager (a bass compression system to protect your sub), which shows you the current bass level and provides a test tone to allow you to find the distortion point of your sub and stop the system ever exceeding that level in normal operation. Nice. Just make sure that you switch out any peak limiting on your sub so you only have one system doing this!

Another impressive feature is the ability to set LFE levels for each of the surround decoding systems in the box. This enables you to insure that there are no nasty surprises between, say, DTS CD playback and DTS or Dolby (or MPEG, if you’re in Europe) movies, where your criteria may differ (as may those of the engineers – not all sound engineers mixing surround music actually know what they are doing when it comes to the LFE: they shouldn’t use it at all in my view).

It is also possible to set a different set of “listening modes” for each input, depending on the source material. So, for example, if you use your DVD player to play CDs, and you want DVDs to play back in DTS mode and CDs in PCM, you can set that up – particularly useful if you generally play back the same kinds of material. Of course, a different setting is only a button-press away and the AUTO function is pretty good at working out what the format of an incoming digital signal is. You can allocate preset values for bass and treble for each input, and also apply some more sophisticated predilections, too. For example, you can apply an Academy curve for older movies, or “Re-EQ,” which reduces high frequencies if the sound, mixed for movie theaters, is too bright at home. You can use the center front for a “hard” center or have a “virtual” center generated by the left and right front speakers (as in conventional stereo) and you can decide which surround speakers to use if you’re replaying a 5.1 signal through a 7.1 system. Digital upsampling and some other finer tweaks are defined here also.

Listening Tests
So what does the Onkyo sound like? In a word, it sounds great. I do not normally have a 7.1 system set up, but I added some speakers to try it and was impressed by the results. However, even in 5.1 mode with my normal (JBL) speaker set-up, the Onkyo TX-DS989 was the best sounding of the receivers I have had to review to date. In particular, the system showed an ability to provide plenty of oomph on transients, and I was also impressed by the frequency range of the unit, which exhibited a clear and clean high end (I used the sub pre-out into the Sunfire Super Junior for the bottom end).

I checked out the 2002 Guy Pearce version of “The Time Machine.” Apart from its impressive visual effects and excellent score by Hans Zimmer’s colleague Klaus Bedelt (especially the Karl Jenkins/Adiemus-like sections associated with the Eloi), the soundtrack also features some excellent dynamic sound effects, including the destruction of the machine itself and the effects of the fragmenting moon in 2037. Everything was clearly and, I believe, accurately reproduced.

I then went over to the analog multi-channel input and listened to the latest DVD-A Single from Dishwalla, “Somewhere In The Middle” (Immergent Records), which was satisfyingly reproduced in all respects, as was Telarc’s 1812 Overture on SACD. Chesky Records’ Swing Live -– one of, if not the, best high-resolution discs (SACD or DVD-A) around for surround immersion and realism -- sounded the best I have heard it. I did not go through the various DSP effects, which I would never suggest anyone use in real life (if we had meant to record an album in a football stadium, we would have done so, thank you very much): these are as good as any DSP-generated faux-acoustic environments you will find, but . . . please don’t push that button again.

The Downside
One point that should be made is that the Onkyo has a rear-mounted fan. It’s quite a large one (and thus able to go round slower and more quietly); it is carefully controlled so that it is not overly noisy; it only comes on when needed. However, you may notice it if you’ve been playing Pantera at 120dB for two hours and then decide to put your feet up and listen to The Chiller Cabinet on ClassicFM (only from classicfm.com for those outside the U.K.). Even so, the fan is not disturbing. In a warmer climate (i.e., summer in Southern California), it probably comes on a bit more often than in other locales, but if you are listening at any reasonable level, it will be drowned out. I would like to have seen a more elegant font for the onscreen display, but the font used here is no worse than many others. While the remote is one of the best I have seen supplied with a receiver, it could have benefited from an on-board library.

The list price of the Onkyo TX-DSTX-DS989 is $3,500, and you should expect serious quality performance from a receiver at this price point. And you get it: the feature set on this unit is simply enormous, and it is particularly well-endowed in the digital audio input area, which is exactly what you need in a modern system. The ability to associate component and digital inputs with almost any input adds significantly to the unit’s versatility, and the future-ready 7.1 capability, while you may not use it all the time immediately, is there when required. And talking of future-ready, being able to upgrade the unit to the latest specs is really cool.

The unit meets all the current highest-level requirements, such as THX Ultra2, for receiver performance, and it deserves its certification. In addition, you get (with Version2 firmware, now standard in this unit) the very latest surround decoding technology, too. The amplifier offers plenty of power and exceptional fidelity; it can handle two zones including IR remote capability. There isn’t too much more you can ask for in an A/V receiver. I am truly impressed.
Manufacturer Onkyo
Model TX-DS989 Version2 Receiver
Reviewer Richard Elen

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