Onkyo TX-DS989 Receiver 
Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers
Written by Kim Wilson   
Friday, 01 December 2000

Drawing off the concepts and technology developed in their critically acclaimed Integra Research series of components, Onkyo has produced the TX-DS989 A/V Receiver ($3,199.95). It combines a high performance 130 watts per channel amplifier (x7), a sophisticated AM/FM tuner and a state-of-the-art, infinitely upgradable digital processor.

Boasting true 7.1 audio, the TX-DS989 was the first to go to market with THX Surround EX, which delivers an additional channel of surround. Requiring an extra set of speakers in the back of the listening area, the result is a more realistic 360-degree environment. The TX-DS989 provides amplification and speaker terminals for the extra left and right back surround speakers.

Capable of attaining a dynamic range of 120dB with a virtually jitter-free output, the advanced 24-bit/192kHz digital-to-analog converters (one for each channel) assure top-end performance on all existing digital sources, as well as the up-and-coming formats DVD-Audio and SACD. Additionally, the Wide Range Amplifier Technology (WART) employed by Onkyo guarantees a flat response beyond 100kHz for superior reproduction of these newer high-resolution formats.

THX Surround EX
The inclusion of THX Surround EX circuitry on the Onkyo TX-DS989 makes it one of the most sophisticated receivers on the market today. Surround EX provides a back surround signal that is derived from the left and right surround channels of specially encoded DVD titles. This provides more accurate localization and seamless 360-degree pans.

The added THX circuitry redirects bass energy from the extra back surrounds to the subwoofer, for optimum bass performance. The re-equalization circuit, common to all THX receivers, is enhanced to timbre match the back surrounds to the front mains and the left/right surround channels. The left/right surrounds are synchronized (time and position) with the back surrounds to provide a totally seamless surround sound experience.

You may be confused by the difference between what some call 6.1, which Onkyo calls 7.1 audio. Technically, Surround EX is only 6.1 audio because the matrixed channel is only mono, so if you use two speakers, both carry the same signal. In fact, for purposes of symmetry and proper coverage, it’s best to use two speakers in the back of the room. Where most receivers supply a single channel of amplification for the back surround, making it necessary to split the signal if you want to run two speakers, Onkyo takes it a step further by supplying two channels of amplification, enabling you to run two rear speakers with equal power. This means that there are seven channels of amplification with preamp outs for a subwoofer.

Currently, only a few titles are encoded with Dolby Digital Surround EX. However, as more movies are mixed for theatrical release with the extra surround channel, there are sure to be more DVD releases. DTS is also planning similar releases in this new multi-channel format. Presently, the TX-DS989 is not capable of decoding DTS-ES Discrete discs, but a software upgrade to the processor will be possible in the early part of 2001. It may be necessary for the user to take the unit back to their dealer. Onkyo is researching alternative options for user upgrades via Internet downloads.

Before moving on, to avoid confusion, it should be pointed out that all other forms of DTS decoding are available on the TX-DS989.

Onkyo does offer some special DSP modes for using the back speakers when playing non-Surround EX sources (i.e. stereo, TV, Dolby Pro-Logic). As part of the Listening Modes Menu, there are four submenus called Action, Three-Dimensional, Enhanced 7 and Orchestra. These allow you to adjust for the amount of reflection or reverb level (in dB), plus general room size (i.e. large, mid-large, middle, mid-small, small), to create a uniquely different environment for each submenu. Of course, any one of these environments can be assigned to a specific input.

Rear Panel
When it comes to inputs, the TX-DS989 is future-proof with six A/V inputs, all with S-video and three with component video. Of course, there are video outputs in composite, S-Video and component to integrate with older and newer-generation televisions. There is one additional A/V output with S-Video to facilitate multi-room/multi-zone operation.

There are three analog audio-only inputs, plus a dedicated phono input. There are even two analog stereo outputs for sending signals to analog recording devices.

When it comes to digital I/O’s, the TX-DS989 is better equipped than many super expensive digital processors. There are five coaxial and three optical inputs to incorporate up to eight digital devices into your A/V system. All positions are assignable, meaning that "coaxial 1" could be assigned to the DVD player that is plugged into the DVD video inputs and "optical 1" could be assigned to the satellite receiver that is plugged into Video 1. There are even two digital outputs, one coax and one digital, for sending digital data streams directly to digital recording devices such as CD-RW, MD or D-VHS recorders.

Offering up a feature that has been virtually eliminated from more recent processors and receivers is the RF demodulator, making it possible to decode Dolby Digital-encoded Laserdiscs. Fortunately, while Onkyo kept tabs on old technology, their vision was securely looking toward the horizon when they chose to provide a 5.1-channel input for both DVD-Audio and SACD players in the form of a DB-25 connector. They even supplied the DB-25/6-RCA adapter you need to hook up the device.

For software upgrades to the processor or the linking of a wired remote system such as Panja or Crestron, there is an RS-232 DB-9 connector. Preamp outputs are provided for all channels, including the extra back surrounds, to use external amplifiers. There are dual subwoofer outputs as well.

Establishing some sort of logical design to accommodate such a wide array of inputs and outputs must be a job in itself, but with regard to the layout of this particular unit’s back panel, I would have made some different choices. For instance, the component video I/O’s are placed horizontally above the speaker binding posts in the middle of the back panel. However, all the other video inputs are placed vertically on the left side of the panel. This arrangement separates the digital audio I/O’s from all other audio connectors. Personally, I would have preferred that all the audio (analog and digital) I/O’s were lumped together, with all video I/O’s placed in the same general area, but Onkyo felt it was necessary to keep them separated to reduce the chance of induced noise and interference.

Set-Up Menus
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.

Sound Evaluation
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.
Manufacturer Onkyo
Model TX-DS989 Receiver
Reviewer Kim Wilson

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