Even though I cut my journalistic teeth mixing metaphors for assorted home electronics magazines, it’s been a while since I’ve written a home theater product review. And yes, this will be cross-posted at the PJ Lifestyle blog, where it’s more suited, but veteran readers might enjoy the intro, for a flashback of how we early home theater junkies got our first taste of home media — incredibly addictive first taste, if far from free.
I distinctly remember two mile markers on the road to my obsession with home theater. The first was a 1987 article in Billboard magazine exploring the continuing popularity, against all odds, of the 12-inch laser disc format with movie collectors. The article mentioned an obscure California firm called “The Criterion Collection” that was selling Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey in something called a “letterboxed” format, which would allow seeing the entire frame of those magnificently photographed widescreen movies on a home television set, instead of the “panned and scanned” version, which cut off the sides of the frame. It also mentioned the superiority of the laser disc format compared to fuzzy VHS tapes, and that laser disc allowed for such ancillary items as directors’ commentaries on auxiliary audio channels, behind the scenes still photos, trailers, deleted scenes, and other fun pieces of memorabilia.
This sounded pretty darn awesome. Shortly thereafter, I purchased my first laser disc player, the predecessor to the DVD, which wouldn’t arrive in stores for another decade. At its best, the picture and sound quality of laser discs blew VHS away, and I was quickly hooked. Particularly when I stumbled over a nearby video store that rented laser discs.
The second mile maker arrived two years later. That’s when I walked out of the B. Dalton Bookstore in New Jersey’s Burlington Mall holding a copy of the second issue of Audio/Video Interiors, the magazine that put the words “home theater” on the map. It was essentially Architectural Digest meets Stereo Review, with photo layout after photo layout filled with sophisticated audio and video components beautifully photographed in stunning home settings, including some of the first dedicated home theaters that were designed to look like the classic movie palaces of the 1930s, such as Theo Kalomirakis’ Roxy Theater, a knockout design built in the basement of his Brooklyn Brownstone. (Kalomirakis would go on to make a living as a home theater designer, producing works for extremely well-heeled clients that make his initial Roxy look positively modest by comparison.)
I gravitated more to the media rooms the magazine featured than the dedicated home theaters. Media rooms were rooms designed for a variety of media consumption — music, TV, movies, concert videos, with the electronics tastefully combined into some of sort attractive cabinetry or hidden into the wall. Maybe because my father had a custom built-in unit installed in his basement in 1969 to house his stereo equipment and a small portion of his enormous (3000+) collection of jazz and big band records. Adding video and surround sound to that concept seemed like a natural to me.
I’ve kept most of the issues from Audio/Video Interiors’ initial run; I was immensely proud to have written a few articles for the magazine in the late 1990s. In retrospect, it’s fun to look back at the first issues of AVI, and realize how much technology has progressed since then. HD video replaced “Never Twice the Same Color” low-def analog TV. VHS is all but extinct. Dolby Pro-Logic, the first consumer surround sound format has been upgraded to first Dolby 5.1 and now Dolby 7.1 and beyond. CDs have been rendered increasingly anathema, particularly for casual listening, by MP3s. The laser disc was replaced 15 years ago by the DVD, which has now been supplanted by Blu-Ray, and increasingly, by streaming high-definition movies, such as those offered by Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Welcome to 2013
Apologies for burying the lede, but this brings us to one of Pioneer’s newest A/V receivers, the Pioneer Elite SC-75. The first Pioneer receiver I owned was the classic Pioneer VSX-D1S of 1990, one of the first receivers designed with what we now call home theater in mind, with as much emphasis on controlling video components as the CD player, the tape deck and the record player. Since then, Pioneer has been upgrading the electronics of their units to keep pace with changing world of home theater technology. I purchased the SC-75 to replace my Pioneer Elite VSX-72TXV, which was built in 2006. With six years passed, and the proliferation of streaming video set-top boxes such as the Roku (which we reviewed last year), the addition of LAN and wireless networking technology to many Blu-Ray players, the popularization of Androids and iPods/iPads as music and video devices, and the standardization of the HDMI format to connect video components, the SC-75 is a very different beast compared to the previous generation of Pioneer Elite receivers.
The differences aren’t immediately apparent at first glance; the only thing that initially sets the unit apart from its predecessors is its brushed metal finish, instead of the smooth piano black styling of older Pioneer Elite models (Pioneer has apparently also permanently retired the beautiful rosewood-veneered side panels of the first generation of Elite models, which is a pity; on the other hand, perhaps they simply don’t want to be raided by the lumber fascists, ala Gibson.)
Dwindling Legacy Inputs
Whatever the aesthetic appeal of its case from the front, the real business end of an A/V receiver is its back, and it’s here that the differences between the SC-75 and previous units is apparent. For one thing, there are a lot less RCA jacks than before, and no S-video or component jacks.
On the other hand, whereas my 2006-vintage VSX-72TXV had three HDMI jacks (two in and one out), the new SC-75 has 12 –- nine in, and three out.
Prior to the rise of first component video and then HDMI as the dominant method of connecting A/V equipment, S-video was sold, particularly in the 1990s, as the preferred method of connecting the video signal of S-VHS VCRs (which is where the name of the cable format originated) and laser disc players. So it was, at first, a little disconcerting to see their absence in the back of the SC-75. But in a way it makes sense, considering that the SC-75 has built-in hardware to upscale legacy video to the 1080p format of HDTV, and up to 4K resolution video output for the small number of 4K resolution ultra high-video monitors now beginning to appear on the market. Similarly, there are no component inputs for older DVD-players, but there is a component output for older compatible TVs that lack HDMI inputs.
And speaking of legacy video, beyond the HDMI inputs, there are RCA inputs in the back labeled for DVD-in, Cable/Satellite-in, generic video-in, DVD-R or Blu-Ray Recorder-in and out and one lonely audio-only input. That’s a far cry from older A/V receivers, which typically had inputs designed for multiple audio cassettes, turntables, CD players, and other audio components. But then, as MP3s have proliferated and both the CD player and even more so the record player have lost prominence, it’s not surprising that the SC-75 takes full advantage of the current home media realities.
There’s no dedicated phono input on the SC-75, but many turntables manufactured today for diehard vinyl fans have a phone amp built into them. Also gone from the unit is Sirius-XM satellite radio compatibility. Of course, you can still listen to Sirius-XM via their Android or iPhone apps, or plugging in a Sirius-XM base unit into an otherwise unused audio connection in the receiver, but apparently, the days when Pioneer receivers had Sirius-XM logos (or in the old days, just XM, if I’m remembering correctly) on their front panels, and input for a Sirius-XM antenna in the back have passed.
The inputs on the SC-75 worked out fine for me, considering that in addition to my LG BD670 Blu-Ray player, I have a 20 year old Pioneer Elite CLD-97 laser disc player, a 13-year old Panasonic SVHS video recorder, and a seven year old Sony DVD-burner. My 1997-era Pioneer Elite CD jukebox went up on eBay earlier this year, after I converted my CD collection to MP3s and sent them up to the Amazon Cloud, and my Elite cassette recorder is relegated to being plugged into my computer from time to time to convert cassettes into .wav and MP3 files. (The last times I’ve used it were for archiving ‘80s-era tapes of my college rock band to my hard drive, and converting a cassette of my first telephone interview with Andrew Breitbart back in 2005 to an MP3 last year.)
I ended up buying a small video switcher for all of the HDMI components that were plugged into my previous receiver, so having nine HDMI inputs built into the back of the SC-75 and being able to control them all via a single remote certainly makes things easier. Also, the SC-75 will scale-up the image of legacy equipment and pump their contents out to HDMI. Don’t get too excited; there’s only so much it can do to a 25-year old laser disc or (especially) a VHS tape, but at least if there’s an old disc or VHS tape of a movie or concert that’s never been issued on DVD or Blu-Ray, its content can still be viewed. (And yes, I’ve been having lots of fun recently pulling my ‘80s-era laser discs out for an occasional spin.)
Ready for 9.2 Surround Sound
Sound-wise, the SC-75 offers a dizzying array of surround modes. In the mid-1980s, Dolby Pro Logic first came into vogue, and the first surround speakers began to be bolted onto the walls of dens and home media rooms across the country. Then the subwoofer was added, for those who wanted to hear the Death Star blow-up with a nice chest-rattling bang.
Originally, those rear surrounds pumped out one channel spread out over two speakers, but in 1995, Dolby Digital added “steerable” rear surround speakers and dubbed the system 5.1 surround sound, so that now, the roaring spaceships could pan from left to right behind you. (The name 5.1 refers to the left, right, and center front speakers, the two rear surround channels, and the “point one” is the subwoofer.) To both push the surround sound envelope further, and to promote the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999, Dolby and THX teamed up to create the newest surround sound format: Dolby EX. In Dolby EX, the sounds of TIE Fighters, laser blasts and all sorts of other movie sound effects can come from directly behind you instead of just from the rear right and left speakers.
Today, Dolby is up to 9.2, which adds an optional second subwoofer and new front left and right “height speakers.” If you want to get into the tall grass, just type “Dolby 9.2” into Google, and check out the lads in various home theater forums duking out the topic. Until these new formats shake out a bit more, I think I’ll stick with my Dolby 7.1 setup for now. (I installed the extra rear speakers in my den about ten years ago for a product review of an early Dolby EX decoder, and kept the arrangement, as Dolby EX and newer formats became standard in home receivers.
Whatever your media room’s speaker arrangement, the SC-75 is capable of a large number of surround sound formats, with varying degrees of reverb and other processing for action, drama, sports, videogames, classical and rock/pop music listening. There’s also a pair of “Eco Modes” in case Al Gore wants to listen.
Remote control via Smart Phone an Option
In the past, Pioneer receivers came with fairly handy, and occasionally quite stylish programmable remote controls. In contrast, the remote that ships with the SC-75 is serviceable though not at all memorable, but that’s OK; you’ll likely dump all the codes into a universal remote such as the Philips Pronto or Logitech’s Harmony Ultimate. (I reviewed the latter remote’s predecessor, the Logitech Harmony 900 last year; at the moment, the SC-75’s codes aren’t on the Logitech Website, but a similar Elite receiver, the SC-71 is, and its codes work fine in the Harmony 900.) As with previous Pioneer Elite receivers, there are connections on the back of the unit to transmit IR signals to and from the SC-75 and compatible Pioneer units via mono miniplug-equipped cables.
Increasingly, home theater aficionados are using their smart phones and tablets as remote controls. To support this, the SC-75 comes equipped with Wi-Fi and a hardwired Ethernet jack, and there are applets available for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices to control the receiver. Experimenting with the Android app, I found it functional, although the GUI was rather overly-complex looking and could be much more intuitive. But between the Pioneer app, the Roku app, and the DirecTV app, increasingly, the tablets and smart phones are becoming de facto home theater remote controls.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve hopefully gotten the impression that there’s a lot going on with this receiver. (And as its spec-sheet illustrates, there are numerous features I haven’t reviewed.) Currently selling for $1400 on Amazon.com, is the SC-75 right for you? If it’s been a while and you’re looking to upgrade your home theater equipment, it could be a great building block for your media room. Check the Pioneer Website for receivers with other options, compare them to other manufacturers, and good luck updating your system.