At such a wallet-friendly price, we weren’t expecting an abundance of cutting-edge features, but there’s actually a decent amount to get your teeth into. Among the highlights is Dolby Pro Logic IIz, which adds front height channels to the regular 5.1 arrangement. Using clever processing, it sends non-directional ambience to these channels, potentially improving the sense of immersion. That said, you’ll need a separate amp (or powered speakers) to process the line-level signals and elevating a pair of speakers above your TV could pose a problem, all of which could be more hassle than it’s worth.
The VSX-520 can decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio (something the VSX-420 can’t do), while the onboard Texas Instruments Aureus digital signal processor applies a range of effects suited to different material – Action, Drama, Sports and Classical for example – none of which sounded particularly impressive. The most useful of these is Extended Stereo, which plays stereo sound from all of the speakers. These are joined by Dolby Pro Logic IIx (Movie and Music), DTS Neo:6 (Cinema and Music) and Front Stage Surround Advance, Pioneer’s virtual surround technology. The Phase Control feature makes sure each channel is delivered to the ear correctly without the unwanted distortion that can occur when a channel is out of phase.
Want more? Try the Auto Surround mode that selects the appropriate mode for the type of content you’re playing, or the Auto Level Control (ALC) mode that keeps the volume constant for stereo content. But if that all sounds like too much meddling, simply hit the Stream Direct button and it strips away all the processing for the purest possible playback. To be honest all these processing modes can get a bit confusing (what we’ve discussed is just the tip of the iceberg) but Pioneer should at least be applauded for offering a wide choice.
Another key feature is the Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration (MCACC) mode, which takes away the hassle of sound optimisation. In the box is a microphone that connects to the front panel, and using test tones the receiver measures the acoustic properties of your room, then sets the EQ, speaker distance and levels accordingly. But if you’re not happy with the results, you can set them yourself using an extremely detailed set of adjustments in the Setup and Audio Parameter menus.
However, fiddling with these is a tricky task. There’s no onscreen interface, so everything is controlled using the front display panel. Due to space constraints the display abbreviates much of the text, and only users familiar with the lingo (or those who like to read the manual) will know what it all means.
It’s not made any easier by the remote, which uses unhelpfully small buttons for often-used functions like Return and Setup. The zapper is very cluttered too, peppered from top to bottom in text and buttons, plus the use of a shift key for Blu-ray and HDD functions just adds to the confusion. On the plus side, there are direct access keys for all of the sound modes, plus dedicated buttons at the bottom make it easy to adjust the individual channel levels.