Pros: Clean power on 5.1 as well as stereo output. Learning remote.
Cons: Priced a little high for those with tight home-theater budgets.
The problem with hybrids, things that carry out more than one function, is that they never excel at any of them. Take the Messerschmitt 262 jet, which the Luftwaffe actually managed to get into the air, in quantity, before the end of World War II. While this aircraft, in terms of speed, could blow out of the sky pretty much any Allied piston-engine aircraft, the ME262's fighter-bomber design, intended to make it provide two functions in a single model, hobbled its performance.
The people who developed this jet wanted to make an all-out fighter plane, but Hitler insisted on the compromise design, probably because of his obsession with hitting political targets, such as downtown London. Since the Allies managed to bomb out of operation most of the long runways in Germany which the ME262 required for takeoff and landing, we'll never know if this plane could have turned the tide of air superiority, which, by the D-Day invasion, had turned decisively in favor of the Allies.
Many consumer-electronic companies are hybrids, manufacturers of everything from telephones to tape decks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but, for example, if you look at some of the mediocre products in Sony's broad product line, despite the company's overall sterling reputation for quality, you can see that it's not easy to be good at everything.
The alternative is to be good at one thing, and that's what Onkyo does. The Japan-based consumer electronics company sticks to home-theater audio receivers, various components that work with them, such as CD, DVD, and MD players, and a few other products, virtually all of which, in one way or another, directly relate to their receiver line. Except for a couple of entry-level stereo-only models, all of their receivers are designed to work with digital surround-sound.
This explains the excellent value you get with an Onkyo receiver. Although their equipment isn't designed (or priced) to appeal to audiophiles, their gear does offer about the best quality around for mass-market consumer-level audio gear. Despite the excellent quality of the Onkyo receivers, their prices are not much higher than those of the other mass-market audio equipment manufacturers.
With a street price of $450, the Onkyo TX-DS575X (replaces TX-DS575 model, adding S-Video switching) represents one of the solidest values around for an A/V receiver. An A/V receiver, by the way, is one which works with either the Dolby Pro Logic (Pro Logic), Dolby Digital (DD), or Digital Theater Sound (DTS) specification, using one of these surround-sound modes to provide the audio accompaniment for the movies you watch on your TV. These are all multi-speaker sound arrangements, mainly designed to reproduce, in a home-theater setting, the type of enveloping, involving sound you enjoy at your friendly neighborhood multiplex.
One model up from the beginning of their integrated surround-sound receiver line (entry-level honors go to the TX-DS484), the 575X handles all of the above-three surround-sound implementations. With a properly-designed Pro Logic, DD, or DTS soundtrack, the surround speakers give audio events very specific locations in the listener's two-dimensional plane.
Dolby Pro Logic surround sound, included on some TV broadcasts, many movies on VHS tape, satellite receivers, and some DVD's and laserdiscs, features four audio channels, with one feeding a center-channel speaker, one feeding a front-right speaker, one feeding a front-left speaker, and a single channel feeding two limited-range rear surround speakers.
Dolby Digital, also known as AC-3, calls for anywhere from two to seven full-range surround speakers and up to two limited-frequency-effects (LFE) channels carrying line-level sub-bass signals to control one or two powered subwoofers (i.e., subs with their built-in power amps tailored to feed the narrow, low-frequency range of the speakers single, large bass driver). The DD implementation on the 575X, as on most sub-$800 A/V receivers, is what's known as "5.1," meaning there are five surround channels -- front-left, front-center, front-right, left-surround (rear), right-surround (rear) -- plus a single subwoofer channel. DD is found on DVD's, CD's, laserdiscs, digital cable, satellite broadcasts, and H/DTV broadcasts.
The DTS implementation, in terms of speakers, is identical to the DD on the 575X. However, DTS audio, a home-based version of the method used for audio in some movie theaters, handles the sound signal somewhat differently. Although both DD and DTS signals must come into the receiver via a digital connection (either a coaxial cable or a fiber-optic, or "optical," cable), the DTS digital audio is uncompressed, allowing it, potentially, to have somewhat greater range than DD. In practice, DVD's encoded with DTS sound are a bit tough to find and some users, after having heard side-by-side comparisons of DD and DTS-soundtrack DVD's, say they can't hear a difference between the two. Others do report greater range with DTS. You'll find DTS soundtracks on DVD's, CD's, and laserdiscs. Many DVD's are released in both DD and DTS versions, so check packaging carefully if you want DTS on your rental or purchase DVD's.
In terms of audio output power, the 575X is rated at somewhat-lower wattage than some competing models from other major manufacturers, pumping 70 watts into an eight-ohm load on five channels from 20hz to 20kHz with 0.08% Total Harmonic Distortion (THD). According to Kenwood, their similarly-priced VR-409 puts out 100 watts into an eight-ohm load on two channels from 20hz to 20kHz with 0.7% THD. Kenwood also says the VR-409 will run 100 watts into five channels, but they give no performance guarantee, such as frequency range and THD, at this rating. Sony's model which is similarly-priced to the 575X, the STR-DE845, is also rated by its manufacturer to run 100 watts into an eight-ohm load from 20hz to 20kHz with 0.09% THD only on two channels. As with the Kenwood VR-409, on the STR-DE845 Sony claims 100 watts per channel at eight ohms on five channels, but the company gives no frequency range or THD figures for the five-channel mode.
Watt's Up, Doc
While the Onkyo, with its 70 watts in home-theater mode (i.e., running power to five full-range speaker channels), offers slightly lower wattage than the competing receivers from Kenwood and Sony, those are 70 clean, full-range, low-distortion watts. That's enough power to fill any small to medium-sized room with plenty of sound, as long as you have decent speakers, meaning speakers which are of mid to high efficiency. The 30 watt spread between the 575X and the Kenwood and Sony models isn't even that significant. You have to increase amplifier power by a factor of ten (i.e., go from 70 watts to 700) in order to double perceived volume level. Besides, most of the time a receiver's only running about one watt of power into a speaker. Only extremely loud peaks in music or a soundtrack will bring the output above that level. It's good for a receiver to have some reserve capability, in order for it to handle dynamic audio material, but the 70 relatively-clean watts of the 575X, which it provides in both stereo and surround-sound operation, provide an ample reserve.
Cranking the 575X through a set of Definitive Technology Pro Cinema 80 home theater speakers, with bass handled by a Def Tech Pro Sub 80 subwoofer, I found that the receiver had ample power, more than the speakers could really handle, although I avoided pushing the volume up to the point where these compact satellite speakers would be in danger of clipping. Listening to the soundtrack of Saving Private Ryan, performance was excellent. In the opening scene at Omaha Beach, the 575X handled the screaming soldiers, the whizzing bullets, the krump of mortars, with aplomb. For a musical workout, I listened to a CD track, Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years," on which the receiver crisply kept pace with Jeff Baxter's crunchy, soaring lead break. When it comes to audio performance, you'll find little to complain about with the 575X, unless you're one of those audiophile types who's not happy unless they're listening on a $5,000 rack-mount component system. And that's not even factoring in the price of audiophile-grade speakers. Mishegas.
Then again, you know what they say about the difference between an audiophile and a music lover. When an audiophile listens to an old copy of a Let It Bleed record, all they hear is the scratches. When a music lover listens to it, all they hear is the great music (and their favorite scatches). I'm not suggesting that everybody base their home-theater audio systems around cheap boom boxes, or bargain-basement receivers, but I am suggesting that you be reasonable in the demands you make on your gear and realize that the 575X has ample performance for just about anything you could throw at it.
Those of you intending to use the 575X for home-theater duty will be pleased to note that, while this isn't a THX-rated receiver, it does include Lucasfilm's Cinema Re-EQ technology, which allows the receiver to tailor the output of movie soundtracks, which are optimized for playback in a full-sized theater, to sound good with the acoustics of your home viewing room.
One look at the back panel of the 575X reveals that this receiver is more than ready to serve as the connection center of your home-theater system. Speaker audio output runs through "banana-plug" jacks. These jacks are generally considered superior to spring-clip connectors. Actually, there's nothing inherently inferior about spring clip connections. The drawback of spring-clip connections is that they don't provide as large of a contact area between the bare speaker wire and the metal part of the connector. Consequently, this type of connector will have higher resistance than a properly-done banana-plug. However, even with the spring-clip connector, the level of resistance is not high enough, at the modest power levels involved (usually about one watt or less, and rarely exceeding 50 watts), to be significant. Still, audiophile magazines love to make a big deal about banana-plug jacks so, if they make you happy, you'll be happy with the 575X.
The same thing holds true for speaker wire. The premium-brand speaker wire, like Monster Cable, is a waste of money. In fact, along with extended warranties, there's no sweeter profit center for Circuit City than selling you Monster Cable and connectors. As with connectors, the only factor which really impacts on the performance of speaker wire is its level of resistance. However, the least-expensive speaker wire (and plug) provides no more significant a level of resistance than the most-expensive Monster Cable product. When Monster makes advertising claims like saying their product is "High Conductivity" (another way of saying low resistance), they're telling the truth. However, at any particular gauge, their wire is no higher in conductivity, or lower in resistance, than anybody else's. Notice that they don't make any claims relative to any other products.
Again, the audiophile magazines sometimes ratify the notion of the usefulness of premium cables. But, when they do this, it merely demonstrates the obvious, which is that, ulimately, their loyalties lie with the people who pay for the advertising in the magazines. Despite the risk of annoying advertisers, even some audio magazine writers have come out and exposed premium cables as being no better than standard cables, such as the cables sold at Radio Shack or even Home Depot. In fact, as long as you're careful to keep the polarities straight, there's no reason you can't use lampcord wire to connect your speakers to your 575X (you must have cable with two-tone conductors, so there's some way to know which wire belongs to which polarity, as in positive and negative).
The back panel of the 575X features "banana-plug" jacks for the "A" set of front L/R speakers and the "B" set of front L/R speakers. You might use the "B" speakers to connect to a small pair of waterproof satellite speakers mounted in your shower to assist in bathing/singing. Finally, there are jacks for the center speaker and for the L/R surround (rear) speakers. To feed your powered subwoofer, which is part of a DD/DTS surround setup, there's an RCA jack providing line-level LFE output.
The back-lit remote is a bit on the gargantuan side, but its controls are laid out in a logical fashion, grouped according to function. In addition, this is a learning remote, so it's poised to take over all the RC functions in your entire home-theater setup, sending out its invisible commands to your TV, VCR, DVD player, and just about anything else. With its macro programming capability, you can program a series of steps into this remote and then have them all carried out at the touch of a single button.
The 575X is ready to serve as the switching center of your home theater system. The receiver has four A/V inputs, each with L/R audio jacks, a composite video jack, and an S-Video jack, and a single A/V output, with same array of jacks. Basically, what you'll do is, you'll run the outputs from all your video sources, such as VCR and DVD player, into the 575X and then use the receiver's remote to choose which is fed to the output and then on to your TV. Of course, you can't run the output of your cable box through the 575X, since it doesn't have RF inputs or outputs. Also, if you're using a piece of gear with component outputs, you'll have to run it directly into your TV, as the 575X doesn't have component inputs.
For connection of gear with digital audio output, such as a DVD player or a satellite receiver, the 575X includes two coaxial connections and two optical connections (fiber-optic). For future audio formats, there's a set of analog 5.1-channel inputs, jacks for front-left, center, front-right, left-surround, right-surround, and LFE sources.
To take your radio antenna input, you'll find a 75-ohm F-jack type connector for your FM antenna (takes the same kind of plug that you find on the end of the cable from your cable-TV box) and a pair of spring-clip connectors to take a wire-loop type AM antenna.
For the lucky folks who own turntables, there's a phono input. This is a nice feature, and one which is not included on many lower-priced receivers now on the market. There's a single input for a CD player, an input for a tape player, and an output for a tape player which allows you to source loop (control recording source going to your tape deck).
The 575X weighs in at a hefty 27.6 pounds. This is a good sign. It's not like you want to pay $450 for a brick but, generally speaking, and all other things being equal, the heavier a receiver, the better. This is because the things that ad weight tend to ad quality. For example, a higher-wattage power-supply transformer will weigh more than a skimpy one, as will a more hefty heat-sink for the transistors in the final output stage of the audio power amplifier.
The 575X is a substantial receiver and will provide a reliable nerve-center for a home-theater. This receiver performs well with both two-channel music and 5.1-channel surround-sound sources. While the 575X is great receiver, if you're on a tight home-theater budget, you should probably strongly consider the next model down in the Onkyo line, the $300 TX-DS484. Keep in mind that surround-sound speakers are expensive. It's simply a matter of numbers. With a stereo sound system, you have just two speakers while a surround-sound speaker system entails five speakers and a subwoofer. Many critics consider $700 the minimum for a decent surround-sound speaker system (such as the $716 Paradigm Cinema system or the $870 PSB Alpha Intro system). It's tempting to buy higher in a receiver line, to get those extra watts, the extra inputs and outputs, but remember that the priority has to go to the speakers. You'll waste the sound of a great receiver if it's played through cheap speakers. On the other hand, great speakers will still sound pretty good, even with one of the cheapest surround-sound receivers.