-11-channel Dolby Atmos processing (for 7.2.4 or 9.2.2)
-Dual Sub Out
-Helpful app for iOS and Android devices
-Good pricing for power
-Buggy Settings Menu
-Extra amp required for 11-channel playback
-Might not fit on some shelving
Pioneer ELITE has long been synonymous with quality. Glossy-black. Heavy. Ruggedly solid. A series of premium products that have ranged from the standard-bearer of plasma HD televisions to music and movie disc players to AV Receivers.
My first hands-on (ears-on?) experience with ELITE AVRs came two years ago. Pioneer welcomed me to their Southern California headquarters to watch 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' where I demo'd a first generation Dolby Atmos AV Receiver as well as their Atmos-enabled surround speakers. The ELITE SP speakers, designed by Andrew Jones, are not only affordable, but proof of concept for how well up-firing speakers replicate the sensation of having in-ceiling speakers. The 2015-model AVR -- an SC-89 -- was smartly optioned and performed well at high volume, but its beta firmware didn't allow for a more in-depth review of the unit's other feature set.
I came away impressed and looking forward to my first in-home demo. Pioneer's nine 2016 ELITE AV Receivers promise the added capability of DTS:X, so my interest turned to three models with nine-channels of internal amplification and 11-channels of surround processing -- the SC-95, SC-97, and SC-99. In terms of specs, the SC-97 & SC-99 offer more power than the SC-95 as well as 3D Space Frame Construction. And the SC-99 offers more power than the SC-97 as well as a more efficient power transformer.
After six months with a Denon AVR-X6200W, I opted for the similarly-priced SC-97 for our review. I can't speak to how the SC-95 and SC-99 sound, of course, but all three boa similar features and components so there should be considerable overlap.
The 9.2 Channel SC-97 delivers 810 watts across all nine channels and is capable of running 4, 6, and 8 ohm speakers. So at 8 ohms, you're rocking 90W per channel for surround sound, while that jumps up to 140W for two-channel content. Power comes from Class D3 (Direct Energy HD) amplifiers, which are smaller and run cooler than Class AB amps at similar power levels.
Said power can be directed into a numerous single and multi-zone configurations -- owners can opt for a 7.1.2 or 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos setup, or run a more conventional 5.1 surround sound in Zone 1 with Zones 2 & 3 available for stereo audio (Zone 2 can also pass through HD video via HDMI). Add a second subwoofer or a two-channel external amp and the SC-97 becomes capable of more immersive 7.2.4 or 9.2.2 configurations. To help calibrate your system, Pioneer includes MCACC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration) Pro with Full-Band Phase Control.
INPUTS (and OUTPUTS) include 8 HDMI (3 out), 2 component video, 2 composite video (1 out), 1 analog stereo, 1 phono, 2 coax digital, 2 optical digital (1 out), 2 IR (1 out), 2 12V triggers, 1 USB, and (11.2 channel pre-out).
On the video front, the SC-97 is capable of passing through 4K/60P/4:4:/24-bit video signals with or without HDR. It also meets the HDCP 2.2 copyright protection standard. In other words, you'll have no troubles using the SC-97 as an HDMI switcher for all forms of Ultra HD, 3D, and HD content, but your S-VHS VCR is out of luck.
The SC-97 also features built-in Wi-Fi, a LAN ethernet port, Bluetooth, Apple Airplay, and comes DLNA 1.5 and Windows® 8.1 certified. Meaning, you can stream high resolution audio from your home network, iOS and Android devices, and internet audio services like Pandora and Spotify, all of which run through dual 192K/32Bit SABRE32 Ultra DACs. Apple Lossless, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, and DSD file formats are supported up to 192K/24Bit. MP3, WMA, AAC are also supported. If you're into surround sound, the SC-97 currently decodes Dolby Atmos and TrueHD, DTS-HD MA, and LPCM, and includes Dolby Surround and DTS:Neo:X up-mixing. After a yet-to-be-announced firmware update, the SC-97 will also be able to decode DTS:X, which is available now on select Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, as well as up-mix in DTS:Neural:X.
Lastly, users have the option to control the whole system with the included remote, the free Pioneer iControlAV5 app, or a third party universal remote like the Logitech Harmony Elite (review forthcoming).
The Pioneer ELITE SC-97 impresses even before it comes out the box. At 38 lbs 8 oz. and 17-1/8" W x 7-5/16" H x 17-3/8" D before the Wi-Fi antennas raise, it's an absolute monster of an AVR, much more in line with Yamaha AVETANGE AV Receivers than Denon and Marantz. (Definitely measure your rack or entertainment stand shelving before buying one.)
The SC-97 has a classy appearance too, from its glossy black brushed metal surfaces to the golden embossed ELITE logo to the rugged speaker binding posts around back. The whole thing gives off a high-end vibe, and runs cooler to the touch than the other AVRs I've demo'd of late.
I was excited to get this AVR set up and running so I could hurl myself into Demo Town. That happened, eventually, but this is going to be my most critical section in the review.
Despite a growing affinity for Pioneer ELITE AV Receivers, I briefly struggled with its set up process and settings menu. Perhaps my loaner unit was a lemon -- my colleague Steven Cohen loves Pioneer gear and has not had any problems -- but setting up the SC-97 was more frustrating than the mind-numbing account linking process involved with UltraViolet HD Digital Copies.
For starters, there is no formal set up process. The AVR simply boots up, ready to go. On one hand, this is great. The SC-97 immediately started playing back the 'Deadpool' Ultra HD Blu-ray main menu in Dolby Atmos. In that sense, the SC-97 is per-configured well. But I still needed to connect to the Internet, update the firmware, calibrate for my living room, and make sure I was running the insanely good KEF R Series speakers in a 7.2.4 configuration and not 5.2.4.
No guided set up? Not the end of the world. This is pro-styled audio gear for folks who know what they're doing, or folks who can afford to hire someone who knows what he or she is doing. Still, the settings menu seemed a tad disorganized at times, and it had a tendency to freeze (and fail to actually call up the settings menu). It also took me several attempts to get audio piped properly to my external amp.
Luckily, this is where my frustrations end.
MCACC Pro, with dual subwoofer leveling, was a terrific experience and I loved the way it made both the KEF R and KEF iQ series speakers sound. No calibration software is perfect, but this system was among my favorites and, on KEFs at least, produced more accurate distance measurements than Audyssey MultEQ XT32 on the same speakers.
Then there's the iControlAV5 app, available for iOS and Android devices. This app not only gives access standard functions, like input and volume, but it also depicts a 3D rendered image of your AVR's status where you can adjust settings, like individual speaker levels, that are normally deep in sub-menus. Where the on-screen menu was buggy, I enjoyed using this app to help dial things in after calibration. iControlAV5, for me at least, was an ergonomical saving grace.
The SC-97 also plays well with universal remotes, like the Logitech Harmony series, and functioned without a problem for the few weeks I had it in services. No fan noise. No overheating. No other quirks.
Overall, while the setup and menu functionality is enough to sway me towards other brands, it's not a total disaster. I think long-time Pioneer customers will be right at home, and perhaps other will have more patience than me (again, I could have had a bad unit)... which is a shame, because I adore the way this AVR sounds.
The perfect AV Receiver is as invisible as you want it to be; something you can forget forever or tweak as you like. In that sense, while the setup process wasn't for me, the SC-97 did perform well right out of the box. And the sonics... Delicious.
It's pretty hard to convey how surround systems sound overall, but I'd say the SC-97 adds a touch of warmth to both the high-end KEF R and entry-level KEF iQ series speakers. The closest thing I can think of, tonally, is a tubed amplifier, though it's not quite that dramatic. The iQs, in particular, are getting brighter as they age, or are brighter compared to their Q Series replacements, yet sounded much improved with Pioneer's room calibration engaged.
I've written a lot about Dolby Atmos (and Dolby Surround up-mixing) over the last few years and, while it may never be as ubiquitous as big screen TVs, it's a must-have feature for any home cinema enthusiast looking to recreate the magic of going to the movies. Hell, if you buy into Atmos, your home theatre will be better equipped that most commercial cinemas.
Dolby Atmos for the home -- I'm simplifying here -- works by adding two or four height speakers to a typical 5.1 or 7.1 system, turning surround sound into a full hemisphere of sound. To experience Atmos, you need an AVR like the SC-97 PLUS in-ceiling speakers OR or Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers that bounce sounds off ceilings to give the aural illusion of in-ceiling speakers. Atmos is available on dozens of Blu-rays, Ultra HD Blu-rays, and VUDU UHD titles (not HDX, sadly) and, given its configuration flexibility, can be had at entry-level, mid-tier, or high-end pricing.
Given its 7.2.4 processing capabilities, the SC-97 is on the upper end of the Atmos pricing and performance spectrum. This AVR is for the type of person who has a dedicated home theatre space or a well-equipped multi-function media room. And boy does it deliver. During this review, I watched Ultra HD Blu-rays like 'Deadpool', 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice', and my go-to Atmos reference disc, 'Mad Max Fury Road' (which also has Atmos on its VUDU UHD digital copy).
While they all have loud action sequences, these tracks all do different things very well. 'Mad Max' is the most complete sound mix I've ever experienced; it seems utterly chaotic (much like the action) but is defined more by the nuance in the way it directs the chaos -- listen close to hear every cylinder roar, every bullet wiz, and every haunting voice calling out to Max. 'Deadpool' represents how well Atmos literally elevates already-strong 7.1 mixes, taking sounds from ear-level to overhead, which has the wonderful effect of making you forget you're surrounded by speakers. And 'Batman v Superman' jumps from all-out bombast to wonderfully lyrical moments punctuated by choral musical elements.
Dolby Surround, Dolby's current gen post-processing up-mixer, transforms conventional 2.0, 5.1, and 7.1 tracks into Atmos-esque experiences. I leave Dolby Surround engaged for all content, from HBO Go ('Band of Brothers' is incredible with overhead sounds), to live TV (watching baseball and football with added crowd noise is the closest you can feel to being at a stadium), to Blu-ray ('The Martian' Blu-ray's 7.1 becomes almost identical to the 'Extended Cut' Ultra HD Blu-ray).
At the end of the day, the Pioneer ELITE SC-97 is a movie lover's dream processor, with amps that perform well from whisper-low to deafeningly-loud volume levels.
While the Pioneer SC-97 is ready for DTS:X, as I write this today, Pioneer has yet to release its firmware update. No word yet on when this update, which includes DTS:Neural:X up-mixing, is coming. If DTS:X is important to you and timing is a factor, you need to consider Yamaha, Denon, or Marantz AVRs and sound bars.
After a few years of demoing high-end speaker systems in homes and professional mixing stages around Los Angeles, I think it's fair to call myself a surround aficionado. But I'm still far from the classic music-loving audiophile. In that sense, I didn't benefit much from dual 192K/32Bit SABRE32 Ultra DACs. I stream a lot of Spotify and Pandora and MP3s that, while not low res, aren't any better than CD quality.
That said, I quite enjoyed listening to music on the SC-97. It has no troubles playing songs from an iPhone (AirPlay) or Spotify and Pandora (Bluetooth via my laptop). That same rich tone carries over in two-channel and multi-channel configurations. The added power available in stereo music produces a fantastic sense of imaging, while Dolby Surround and DTS:Neo:Music produce room-filling surround experiences that will benefit some musical genres more than others (I'm personally less of a fan of music up-mixing with overhead speakers -- it sounds a little cluttered to my ears). Also, I'm happy to report that the SC-97 was powerful enough to run six floorstanding speakers in All Stereo mode, which matches side and rear-surround speakers to your front speakers (the Denon AVR-X6200W seemed a little stressed).
Though I'm not a true audiophile, if the SC-97 sounds this good with lower-resolution files, I can only imagine the possibilities of paring this AVR with high res digital files or new vinyl pressing and your favorite high-end speakers (if anyone has done this, please let us know in the comments!).
The Pioneer ELITE SC-97 is a powerful AV Receiver and multi-media hub perfect for home cinema and audio enthusiasts looking for a higher end AVR. There were some bugs in the settings menu, but other features more than make up for the minor hassle. With features like 4K Ultra HD video passthrough (and upscaling) as well as decoding capabilities for next generation audio codecs like Dolby Atmos (still waiting on the DTS:X firmware update), this AVR -- to my ears anyway -- sounds amazing with entry-level and high-end speakers while adding a touch of tonal warmth to the equation. Recommended.