Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Product Review: Onkyo TX-SR674

Recently my dearly beloved Harman Kardon receiver, an AVR-120, committed seppuku. I was at home with my kids watching a movie, and suddenly there was no sound from the front left speaker. After much testing and troubleshooting, I concluded that the left front channel simply no longer worked.

I made a daring rescue attempt, replacing a 6800uf 16V capacitor that was bulging inside, but to no avail. The unit now sits alone on my work bench, a sad victim of some mysterious circuitry malfunction. I may still attempt further repair, but life must go on.

After an appropriate grieving period, I set to work on finding my next receiver.

I've had the Harman Kardon for about five years, and in that time the TV has been upgraded, numerous DVD players have come and gone, and the PVR that I built for our home has come into existence. In this time the AVR-120 has become sadly outmoded. It has some very nice features; optical and coaxial digital audio, and S-Video--an option nearly unheard of when it was new. But it has no idea what component video is, or HDMI for that matter, and it's never been particularly powerful. I was running it at the edge of its abilities when I would turn a DVD movie up to enjoy a loud explosion, or even try to hear a garbled bit of dialog.

In short, it's been time for a long time, but short of a system failure there was no way I could justify the expense of a new receiver to my wife. And so the failure that did indeed come and force the upgrade has been very much a mixed blessing. It's not the best nor the worst of times, but conflicting feelings are definitely at play here.

I've been using the replacement unit that I bought, an Onkyo TX-SR674, for about five days now. Overall I like it quite a bit, but this would hardly be a proper review if I left it at that. And there are a couple of problems, and I'm loathe to be derelict in my duty to report them. But I also won't settle for the simple "I like this, and I don't like that," approach. And so.

The last time I was on the market for a new receiver, the game was different. It involved visiting every home theater shop in the four or five cities nearest me, carefully pricing things out, carefully checking port configurations, taking note of models and brands, and haggling, haggling, until I felt that I had a reasonable price on a good system.

And that's how I got my Harman Kardon, which after all was said and done, was remarkably well suited to my needs for a time. And it served me well until it abruptly and mysteriously half-died.

I was buying online then, but only books and knick knacks, and the odd PC part here and there. I'd probably never spent more than $75 in a single online purchase then.

Nowadays, though, I wouldn't dream of making a trip to Circuit City or Best Buy my first step. I don't want some young sales guy telling me that what I want doesn't exist (this seems to happen every single time I go in search of something). I don't want to be upsold. I don't want to look at the price on the shelf and wonder if that's even in the ballpark of the best price I can get. I also don't want a damned extended service plan pushed on me, or to deal with the alarm going off as I walk out the door because the girl at the register doesn't know how to kill the anti-theft device, and on and on.

God, I love the internet.

My first stop was to cry for help at Metafilter. This was my post there, and I wore my angst on my sleeve. After some good advice and hardcore study, I narrowed it down to the Onkyo TX-SR674 that I already mentioned, talked Crystal into letting me buy it, and placed the order. Shipping was free but slow, and it was six days before I got my new receiver in a large box.

I began setting it up right away, but realizing that it would take an hour or two at least to do it right, pushed it off for a couple of days.

COMPLAINT 1: Not enough modes

The first problem with setup was presented when I realized that I have six (well, seven) video sources, and the receiver only allows four. I have DVD, Vid 1, Vid 2, and Vid 3 to work with. In the end, I decided to route my Home Theater PC through my plasma TV's VGA input for video, and use the receiver's Tape input for sound. This is not ideal.

COMPLAINT 2: Vid 4 is front panel only

Yes, the receiver has a Vid 4 mode, but the receiver does not allow programming the Vid 4 mode at all. It's for the front panel ports on the receiver, and nothing else can be routed to that mode. In what world is this a feature, Onkyo? Why don't you allow me to decide whether I want to use back ports for the Vid 4 mode? It sure would have made setup easier.

In addition to re-routing the HTPC video feed, I had to route my video game systems through the VCR in order to get down to the four video source maximum. I really hate that I had to do this, and it is my number one gripe about this receiver. I want enough modes that I can damned near fill the back ports and assign them all to a working mode, and I expect to be able to program all the modes however I want. For this reason, I really miss my Harman Kardon AVR-120.

I'm stongly considering buying a Nintendo Wii sometime soon, and I don't know how I'll connect it.

These two complaints are a big deal to me. Fortunately, they're the only two things that I really hate about this system so far. The rest of the review will skew positive.

The owner's manual says over and over again that the first thing you should do is run the automated speaker setup. I chose to connect devices first and I even played one device for a few seconds just to make sure that I had sound from the speakers. I figured that there's no point in running the automated speaker setup if I'll have to stop it half way through and re-check a speaker connection. It sounded awful, due to the non-calibrated state of the system, but at least I could tell that things were in working order.

Device setup is managed through an on-screen menu system that the receiver conveniently fed through the HDMI port to my TV. The manual indicated that not all models in the series will output menus to HDMI. But the TX-SR674 does, and that's nice. The menu for assigning which feed is linked to which mode is simple and only slightly confusing. I quickly found my error and got it right on the second try.

I'm happy to say that converting the DVI feed from my Gaming PC to HDMI and the HDMI feed back to DVI for my plasma TV works just fine, and the picture is gorgeous.

Likewise for the analog video upconversion--HDMI/DVI is the only cable from the receiver to the TV, and my VCR, NES and DVD players all look superb through the receiver. The NES (that's right, I have an NES and I play it) in particular looks better than ever before.

The remote that came with the receiver knew how to talk to my Onkyo six-disc DVD player out of the box. This is nice, but unnecessary, as I use a Logitech Harmony remote to control the whole shebang.

When the time came to do the speaker setup, I put the kids to bed and warned my wife that I'd need silence for 15 minutes or so. We live in a neighborhood that's on the quiet side, so I positioned the setup microphone and began the setup.

Not long into the first setup attempt, the microphone fell off if its perch on the couch, so I aborted the setup, repositioned the mic, and restarted the setup.

The second try took about ten minutes, requiring my input on the remote every two minutes or so, and gave no errors. Amazingly, it knew that the right front speaker is exactly 15 feet away from where I sit on the couch, and it also knew that the subwoofer, sitting right behind the right front speaker is 17 feet away. It had distances on all other speakers and it also automatically calibrated each speaker's appropriate relative volume to the rest of the system.

Very impressive.

I'm still fooling around with the surround modes, and the system's sound reproduction is excellent. I haven't really stressed it yet, but so far I haven't heard a whisper of distortion, and it's easily gone to very high volumes without maxing.

The receiver responds quickly enough to IR commands that I never have to tell my Harmony remote that I need "Help." This is unlike my Samsung plasma TV, which takes blasted forever to recognize commands and frequently misses them.

Executive Summary:

  • Excellent video upconversion
  • Excellent sound reproduction
  • Automatic speaker setup (This is hard for anyone to get right, no matter what they tell you. Having it automated is a great feature.)
  • Remote works with other Onkyo devices out of the box
  • The HDMI and Component feeds are present and work well
  • Doesn't need a long lag to respond to IR commands

  • Not nearly enough modes, or too many ports for available mode options
  • Vid 4 needs to get itself into a flexible frame

The pros are great, and the cons are critical but not fatal. Mixed feelings abound. Overall, it's a great but flawed system.


Jake said...

I wrote this review because in my quest for help at Metafilter, Malor was very helpful and requested a review. Gladly, Malor. Thanks for your help.

Bonus points if you caught the "Joe Versus The Volcano" reference.

Anonymous said...

OMG! My Harman Kardon AVR 120 did the exact same thing this weekend. I had recently moved and hooked up all my components. After starting it up i noticed no sound from the LEFT SPEAKER! I tried changing wire/speaker etc... to no avail.

Needless to say i am not happy ;(

Did you have any luck ever getting the HK to work again?