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Atmos All-in-One: Onkyo's TX-NR3030 Flagship AV Receiver

Review Date August 3rd, 2015 by
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After testing out a few different 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos setups, it was time to demo Atmos at home in a 7.1.x configuration. That's seven ear-level speakers, one sub, and two or four height speakers. Thanks to the fine folks at Dolby, Onkyo, and KEF, I borrowed one pair of KEF R50 Dolby Atmos-enabled Speakers as well as Onkyo's current flagship AV Receiver, the TX-NR3030, which is the main focus of our review today.

We'll get to the details in a moment, but in an odd bit of kismet, I moved mid-review and, therefore, was able to demo the NR3030 in both a 7.1.2 configuration with up-firing Dolby Atmos speakers as well as in a 7.1.4 Atmos configuration with KEF Ci200RR THX in-ceiling speakers (review on the way).

TX-NR3030 Rear

Specifications

The Onkyo TX-NR3030 is an 11.2 AVR with 135W-per-channel of internal amplification and 0.08% THD+N (at half power). Weighing in at 48.5 lbs (or 22.0 kg), this absolute titan of a receiver measures 17 1/8" x 7 13/16" x 18 3/8" (435 x 199 x 466.5 mm). 

On the audio front, the THX Select2 Plus certified NR3030 boasts Dolby Atmos as well as DTS-HD Master Audio processing via dual 32-bit DSP engines, plus 11.4 analog outputs, a phono input, and numerous digital audio ins and outs. Bluetooth / Wi-Fi / Ethernet are included to enable network streaming as well as access to pre-installed apps like Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Slacker, AUPEO! and TuneIn.

On the video front, the NR3030 offers eight HDMI 2.0 inputs and three outs, including one in and one out compatible with HDCP 2.2 Copy Protection (a standard coming down the line for Ultra HD broadcasting and Blu-ray). You can use the multiple HDMI outs for mirrored displays (for example, if you have a TV as well as a rear projector), or in a multi-zone configuration. A Marvell Qdeo handles 4K and 1080p up-scaling and the NR3030 can be ISF calibrated. I elected to use the AVR's passthrough feature so as to leave video signals untouched until they arrived at my plasma HDTV.

To put it another way, you can hook up almost every conceivable video and audio source and playback almost every file type, and process music and video content sound mixes in literally dozens of listening modes like Dolby Surround, DTS Neo:X, and THX (more modes listed on page 17 of the Advanced Manual).

Also, the full list of features and specs can be found here.

TX-NR3030 setup

Setup: A Beast in A Big Box

After years with satellite systems, I moved to integrated AV Receivers about eight years ago, opting for the Denon brand after consulting with a local AV shop. At the time, this meant a seven-channel amplifier, equipping my apartment with 7.1 Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA sound mixes. In the 7.1.2 and 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos universe, home cinema enthusiasts need much more power and processing, which translates to more amp components and a beefier chassis.

The Onkyo TX-NR3030 is a monster. Too big for my TV stand's glass shelves, I opted to place it top and center for aesthetics and breathing room. From there, users need to connect sources, and speaker wires to the terminals -- Onkyo includes stickers in the documentation to help organize the rat's nest -- and turn it all on. A helpful setup guide handles the rest, taking owners through language selection, AccuEQ room calibration, source connection, remote mode setup, and network connection (wired or wireless).

By the way, it's important to point out here that while the NR3030 is technically an 11.2 AVR, it actually has FOUR subwoofer pre-outs. I'm only rockin a .1 system, but I've read manly articles about the benefits of multiple subs, but most people have to split the signal with extra gear. Again, the NR3030 provides all-in-one convenience. 

I found the setup process as a whole extremely simple and faster than previous generation AVRs.

I ran AccuEQ calibration twice over the last three months. Once in an apartment setting up a 7.1.2 system with the KEF R50 Dolby Atmos speakers, and once in a single-family home for a 7.1.4 system with KEF Ci200RR THX in-ceiling speakers. Each time, calculated distances as well as channel level adjustments were less accurate than I would hope. Not to say that the results sound bad. Not at all. They simply need improvement and adjustment.

Enter manual setup. Grab a tape measure and download a volume meter from your smartphone's app store, and you can dial in the NR3030 down to a tenth of an inch and 1db sensitivity. The NR3030 might have needed a little more help than some, but I have yet to find a automatic calibration that doesn't need some tweaking.

Either way, the TX-NR3030 setup process is a breeze, but needs a little manual fidgeting for optimum surround tuning, particularly when adding in Dolby Atmos to the equation. I find it helpful to bump up the height channels a decibel or two so they're a little more audibly visible to the listener -- sometimes the overhead effects can be lost when you have larger front channels.

Dolby tradmarks

Living with the Onkyo TX-NR3030

The Onkyo TX-NR3030 is the first "flagship" AVR I've ever had the pleasure of testing from the comfort of my own home (ie, outside the perfections of a demonstration studio). While there is a growing list of AVRs that can "process" Dolby Atmos in 7.1.4 or 9.1.2, the NR3030 is, at $2,300, the most affordable AVR with built-in 11-channel amplification. Many others AVRs at this level have only nine amplified channels, requiring the purchase of an additional, external two-channel AMP to power the final pair of height speakers.

We'll get to the sound performance in a moment, but for now let's focus on day to day functionality.

The Onkyo NR3030 seamlessly integrated five HDMI video sources, analog audio, and streaming audio. Since it does not include AirPlay, I used Bluetooth to stream music from my computers and iPhones. Overall, this worked great, supplying my living room with multi-channel Dolby Atmos up-mixes of everything I wanted. Signal dropouts were minimal. The only caveat to Bluetooth streaming is that, unlike Airplay, you can't wake the AVR directly from your iOS device; you need to turn the NR3030 on first and wait for the flashing blue light for pairing. Internet streaming works well, but like most AVRs, it's a little clunky. For instance, there is an integrated Spotify app, but in addition to a Premium subscription, you need to use the app with your smartphone. Personally, if I have to use my phone anyway, it's easier to just use Bluetooth.

The NR3030's remote control includes a button for almost every feature and feels quite sturdy in-hand, but lacks back-lighting. I primarily use a Logitech Harmony universal remote to control my devices; that system works perfectly with the NR3030. I'm particularly thankful for the way Onkyo programmed the Listening Mode, or surround sound processing modes, buttons. Some AVRs require a press-and-hold approach, which is hard to program into a universal remote. Onkyo's system toggles Movies, Music, and Games listening modes with one simple click.

Tinkering with settings on the fly works well, as minor adjustments can be accessed via the remote's SETUP button. As the GUI overlays your video content, you can make mild tonal adjustments, bump up the center channel or sub volumes, or even see details about your content (inputed sound format vs. sound output format or processing). For more in-depth adjustments, like surround speaker levels, you need to go to the settings menu via the HOME button. The full settings menu generally works well, but the interface is a little older, a little slow, and takes up the whole screen.

The TX-NR3030 may be more capable than any audio-visual device I've ever owned, but comes with a couple complications. HDMI start up is on the slow side, (though the AVR's digital display lets you know what's going on), but quicker than projectors, rear projection displays, and first gen Blu-ray players.

The next potential issue is heat. I'm a binge-viewer, often spending free afternoons streaming TV series or back-to-back Blu-ray movies. So color me surprised when, during my first weekend with the NR3030, I heard a droning noise that sounded like a (quiet) refrigerator kicking on, or a computer fan, but I didn't have a computer... Oh, the NR3030 has a fan!

Bad news: picky listeners might be bothered (one of those once you hear it, you can't un-hear it situations). Good news: over three months of heavy use, I only heard the fan three or four times... mostly on hot days when I didn't have the air conditioner running. Bottom line, the NR3030 is powerful, but runs hot. Meaning, make sure it has proper ventilation at all times, and those who use their AVRs for extended surround sound sessions may want to store the NR3030 outside the listening environment. My A/V installer suggested getting a $20 "near silent" fan online that could more quietly keep the NR3030 cool.

Overall, the TX-NR3030 is easy to setup and live with, performed flawlessly over a three month review period, but runs hot and could use an interface upgrade.

But how does it sound?

TX2NR3030 7.1.3

7.1.2 -- Atmos in the Apartment

I covered 7.1.2 in the KEF R50 Dolby Atmos-enabled Speakers review. In this configuration, one pair of add-on modules bounced height channel sounds off my flat apartment ceiling. This little bit of acoustical trickery allows the Atmos immersion to envelop listeners without the need to fish more wire or cut additional holes. 

The Onkyo TX-NR3030, even calibrated, sounds a little different from my Denon components. Brighter and crisper are two adjectives that come to mind. Denons sound warmer to me. However, outside this mild tonal adjustment, the Onkyo positively screams. With 135W/channel, you can push your speakers all the way up to reference level hours on end without any signs of distortion.

In addition to decoding Dolby Atmos conent, the TX-NR3030 comes equipped with Dolby Surround, which will take any stereo, 5.1, or 7.1 soundtrack and up-mix it to Atmos. Musical elements and non-directional sound effects (think rain and helicopter blades) really benefit from this treatment. Some more than others. For example, crowd noise and sporting events are terrific in Dolby Surround, while a few TV commercials end up with the voice over in the height channels when it should be center-front. Regardless of a couple less-than-perfect moments, I really dig Dolby Surround (more on this below).

My one quibble with 7.1.2 using front-placed Dolby Atmos enabled speakers is... there's a hole in the sound hemisphere above / behind your head. So it's probably best to add an extra pair of Atmos-enabled speakers and go full 7.1.4. I wasn't able to do that, specifically, because as I was about to send the NR3030 back to Onkyo, I moved into my first adult house and proceeded with plans to install four in-ceiling speakers.

TX-NR3030 Gravity in 7.1.4

7.1.4 -- All Atmos All The Time

Auditory heaven.

That's the best way to describe how good and all-encompassing Dolby Atmos can be when you step up to a 7.1.4 configuration. It's like Dolby Labs moved into your own home. Every single piece of content, aside from poorly mixed commercials, is better with Dolby Surround/Atmos. Music envelopes. Movie sound effects pan in a more believable manner. Sporting events transform living rooms into arenas. It's a lot of fun.

For this portion of the review, KEF offered me four KEF Ci200RR THX in-ceiling speakers to review. That review's still in-progress, but so far these speakers are performing spectacularly. They feature an 8" (200mm) LF driver along with the 1.5" (38mm) vented aluminum dome Uni-Q driver.

My living room is not perfect for a home cinema -- my left side surround is 10 feet further away than every other speaker, the stairs run up the right side wall, wood flooring is everywhere, and let's not even mention the dozen or so windows. Thanks to some well-placed rugs, black out curtains, and the Onkyo TX-NR3030, the impossible became possible. You can't even tell that the speakers are placed where they are. 

The Onkyo itself becomes hidden, aside from various processing duties. In terms of available Listening Modes, I stuck primarily with Dolby Surround, even for DTS-HD MA encodings. Direct Mode is also helpful for when you want to compare the original 5.1 mix to the post-processed 7.1.4 up-mix.

For Dolby Atmos demos, 'Gravity' remains the grand champ, the one to rule them all, but that will change as more and more titles are announced. 'Mad Max Fury Road 3D' will be out in a month, offering aural Atmos insanity sure to be one of, if not the best Blu-ray sound mixes of the year (all time?). The other Atmos titles are pretty good too, though some surprisingly light on height elements.

But even when you don't have an Atmos-encoded Blu-ray, almost any Blu-ray or TV series will benefit from Dolby Surround up-mixing. I revisited numerous titles over the last month, from catalog titles like 'Gladiator''Fight Club', and 'True Romance' to new summer TV series like 'Scream' and 'Mr. Robot'. Each time, Dolby Surround swung music and sound elements up into the ceiling with pleasing results. In fact, it's only a 5.1 mix, but I'm now tempted to place that plane crash dream sequence in 'Fight Club on a list of great Atmos demos.

You really can't go wrong with 7.1.4, native or up-mixed. It is the best way to listen to surround sound in 2015. And the NR3030 does it all in one box.

TX-NR3030 7.1.4 Dolby Surround

Atmos-enabled vs. In-ceiling Speakers

It's a big decision: install in-ceiling speakers, or use Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers and/or add-on modules to bounce height channel sounds off the ceiling. In many scenarios, the choice will be made for you -- you won't be able to cut holes in the ceiling OR your ceiling is too high, too angled, or too textured. For those of you with perfectly flat ceilings between 8 and 14 feet, what provides a better sound?

Atmos-enabled speakers do a great job at simulating height-speaker channels, particularly in the demos I've seen at Dolby Labs. I watched 'Expendables 3' in 7.1.4 with those KEF R50s, and it was terrific.

But, after installing in-ceiling speakers, I not only find 7.1.4 to be the optimum configuration, because it is more precise and articulate, but also in-ceiling speakers convert your home cinema into a room that sounds as good as the mixing stages where they create this Atmos soundtracks in the first place.

One tip for in-ceiling speakers: save a little longer and spend a little more.

Some installers suggest cheaping out on in-ceiling speakers, as their sound is less important. I understand this argument -- Atmos height-channels are not used as much as your center channel or two front speakers. But, before I installed the KEF Ci200RR THX speakers, I had Ci160QRs. They sounded quite good, but only had a 5.5" LF driver. Jumping up to 8" model transformed the whole experience and, to be honest, my review of the NR3030.

A Word on DTS:X Capability

Sadly, while the Onkyo TX-NR3030 is an extremely capable Dolby Atmos AVR, it will not be upgradeable, via firmware or hardware, to DTS:X.

TX-NR3030 front display

Pros

  • Most affordable 11-channel all-in-one solution on the market
  • 4 subwoofer outputs!
  • Clean, powerful sound
  • Great Bluetooth streaming
  • Easy to setup
  • Tons of customization (multi-zone, etc.)
  • HDCP 2.2 4K compatible

Cons

  • No DTS:X upgradability
  • GUI not as modern 
  • A little slow to start up
  • Not the best Automatic built-in EQ
  • Fan a little noisy if you run too long
  • Spotify requires the mobile device

TX-NR3030

Conclusion

The Onkyo TX-NR3030 is an absolute beast. This all-in-one 11-channel amplifier may have a few quirks -- a sometimes-audible fan, an older-looking GUI, and okay-at-best room equalization -- but overall is a fantastic bargain and produces plenty of clean, distortion-free sound all the way up to reference level volumes. 

I enjoyed the NR3030 so much I was going to ask Onkyo if I could purchase my review unit... until I learned this model will be unable to upgrade to DTS:X. 

Given my need to stay flexible for covering new audio formats and Blu-ray reviews, that just won't work for me. If you're not interested in DTS:X, or want to wait a few years to see how that format shakes out in terms of market saturation, the Onkyo TX-NR3030 is well worth your consideration. It has all the power and processing you need (I can literally shake my home), while orchestrating aggression and nuance. 

Please know, if the next generation Onkyo flagship AV Receiver adds nothing but DTS:X, I would instantly bump up that model to Highly Recommended.

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