(As originally published in TED mag@zine in 2016-01)
Oh no, another review of Pioneer Elite receiver by David Susilo. The review will be glowing as always, there is nothing new being offered to the table by David Susilo… well think again, readers. This is not your ordinary review. This review deals with more details on the multitudes of reasons I like this receiver.
The Pioneer Elite SC-99 ($3,500) is the head of the heap of three new SC-class receivers in the Elite line. It provides you with the most power to classify itself as THX Ultra II Plus (although the THX certification is missing from the lineup), a very capable phono input, multi-channel analog input, and also an asynchronous-USB DAC plus a set of Class-D3 nine-channel amp. Of course, Atmos-capability and also DTS:X are included. Out of the box, Pioneer already upgraded its firmware to convert three out of the fistful of HDMI 2.0 inputs and turn three of them into HDMI 2.0a which means that the receiver now is capable of High Dynamic Range and High Frame Rate video pass through. As for the rest of the HDMI inputs, they are also HDMI 2.0a but without the HDCP 2.2 compliance, as expected my tests show that they can pass through 4K signal… as long as they don’t require HDCP 2.2 anti copy protection protocol. So you can use your 4K upscaling Blu-ray player, 4K camcorder, playback 4K YouTube using the other HDMI inputs without any hiccup. These HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 make a perfect inputs for UHD Blu-ray player (which a beta UHD BD player is being used for the test together with the movies Exodus and Life of Pi in 4K, HDR and 10bit colour were used), Rogers (or Bell) UHD broadcast, and a Netflix 4K streaming unit such as the Roku 4, all of which will generate UHD signal with HDR capability.
Just like all Pioneer SC series from way back when, they all use D3 amplification, the version of Class D amplifier topology that Pioneer developed in partnership with AIR Studios in London. While Class D isn’t a Pioneer exclusive, this is the only large-scale deployment of Class D topology in a major manufacturer’s AV receiver line that has produced consistently high-fidelity class-AB-like performance. Also just like my previous reviews, I’m still using Andrew Jones Atmos towers for the fronts, Andrew Jones Atmos bookshelfs for the rears, PSB Image C5 as the centre channel and PSB SubSeries 300i for the sub.
The SC-99 is literally a heavyweight with its near-40 lbs gross-weight with source-select and volume knobs at the sides of the front panel and the usual navigation, mode, and other controls behind a sloped flip-down door – a slight variation than previous years’ doors. A noteworthy plus is the Pioneer’s use of world-class ESS SABRE 192-kilohertz / 32-bit DAC, with selectable audio upscaling option. This means you can choose to play your 16-bit and 24-bit digital audio signal as is, or converted to 32-bit, and/or use 2x upsampling or 4x upsampling (with or without adding the bit depth conversion). My personal choice after playing with this feature, is to play all sources’ bit-depth untouched with 4x upsampling activated.
Let’s look a little closer at the multitude of reasons why I like this receiver. Let’s review the additions of this year’s line-up.
A new set of Anti-Standing Wave Insulator has been developed.
Through repeated listening tests, featuring a special form with no parallel sides inside to prevent cavity resonance. This makes the sound localisation, tone, and scale clearer, while also enhancing the seamless connection between channels, and highly accurate response to quick transient sonic attacks. The insulator enriches the realistic spatial description for movies, and the space representation of a concert hall for music sources.
Separated Preamp and Amplifier blocks
Being compact and highly efficient, the Class D amplifier has allowed remarkably smaller heat sink and greater flexibility in circuit design and layout, and the ideal separate structure with independent pre and power amplifier blocks is realised. Additionally, the power supply for digital and analogue circuits has been isolated to provide clean power, significantly contributing to clear signal transmission which is the basis for high-quality sound.
Pre-amp Mode shuts down the power supply to the power amplifier, providing the clearest and purest sound when using the AV receiver as a preamplifier. This approach makes the SC-99 to be a true pre-pro that happens to include free 9 channel of power amplification. It can’t get any better than that, especially in the sub-$8,000 pre-pro market, making the SC-99 a true bargain with true audiophile quality.
Audiophile Grade Componentry
Low ESR (Equivalent Series Resistance) custom capacitors are newly adopted to improve Signal to Noise ratio. Furthermore, Polymer multi-layer MU capacitors (PML MU) co-developed with Rubycon Corporation provide clear and open wide-range of frequencies. As for the amplification part, the NJM4585 operation amplifier co-developed with New Japan Radio Co., Ltd. features low distortion and high-resolution reproduction across a wide frequency bandwidth. These selected parts bring out the full potentials of the Direct Energy HD amplifier. The above also being the reason behind the warmth of Pioneer’s Class-D3 amplifier. To make a long story short, Pioneer’s amplifier section sounds very close to a regular MOSFET amplifier but with a much higher efficiency (50% efficiency versus 80% efficiency), which not only makes this amplification section sounds great, but also being eco-friendly at the same time.
Historically, Pioneer is the pioneer of automatic calibration for the home market at the price (almost) everybody can afford. Since then, every company have been trying to play catch up with Pioneer’s Advanced MCACC room calibration. Is it perfect? No. Tweaks still need to be done manually by professionals (just like any other automatic room calibration) but Pioneer gets it mostly right out of the gate by implementing several crucial items which for reasons unknown, no other company (other than the real high-end ones and/or the ones that require an additional kit and a laptop) can achieve.
During the process of multi-channel audio signals, pre-pro and receivers use a Low Pass Filter (LPF) to process low-frequency signals for subwoofer output. This causes “phase lag” — a delay of approximately 6 msec — of the low-frequency signals in comparison to the main channel signals. As a result, the delayed bass makes the sound lack synchronization which in turn muddying the sound reproduction of any given soundtrack. Pioneer’s Phase Control technology effectively eliminates phase lag and significantly improves the multi-channel sound without any extra operation. During Blu-ray Disc/DVD/multi-channel file playback, Auto Phase Control Plus makes realtime analysis of the phase difference between the LFE (Low Frequency Effect) and the main signals, and automatically compensates the gap.
Taking a step further, Pioneer’s Full Band Phase Control technology focuses on the group delay in the speaker network filter, and using special Digital Signal Processing (DSP) further compensate in-speaker phase lag. In order to adjust the phase of each speaker unit as well as the group delay from all speaker. Full Band Phase Control gives multi-range speakers the sound coherence of full-range speakers, while retaining the wide frequency range advantage. Elimination of phase lag enhances powerful bass and clear high-frequency sound — especially effective for audio content such as live performance and music video clips.
Standing Wave Control
Acoustic standing waves occur when the sound waves from your speaker resonate with those reflected off the walls. Regardless of the speaker placement, your listening position or the shape of the room, standing waves will have a negative effect on the overall sound, especially in certain lower frequencies. Standing Wave Control effectively decreases resonance and reduces errors in Advanced MCACC EQ-setting calibration for both speakers and subwoofers.
Also called as MP3 Enhancer, Compressed Music Enhancer and many other names by various manufacturers. In itself, it may not sound impressive, however, Pioneer comb and enhances the compressed music in various ways depending on the playback source.
Advanced Sound Retriever
The Advanced Sound Retriever restores the output of compressed audio — such as WMA, MPEG-4 AAC, and MP3 — to the level of CD sound. The technology creates new signals to restore the minor details left out during the compression process. Advanced Sound Retriever for multi-channel sound is compatible with DVD soundtracks featuring Dolby Digital or DTS.
Auto Sound Retriever
Since the Advanced Sound Retriever is designed with an algorithm optimised to process 128 kbps signal, it did not work well with 8-15 kHz high frequencies in 64 kbps signal, which is the bit rate for quite a few internet stations. The newly developed Auto Sound Retriever automatically determines the audio signal’s bit rate, and interpolates the data lost during the lossy compression. It is especially effective for improving the sound quality of low bit rate content — an ideal feature when switching between internet radio stations with different bit rates.
Auto Sound Retriever for Audio Return Channel
With digital broadcast, although images are displayed in high definition, the audio quality is not as high since they are compressed with various bit rates (maximum audio bitrate for broadcast is maxed out at 640 kbps). By applying Pioneer’s Auto Sound Retriever feature to TV broadcast signals, it adjusts the effects according to the bit rate transferred via HDMI’s ARC (Audio Return Channel).
Sound Retriever Link
Through HDMI connection, Sound Retriever Link detects the original audio file information such as source type, codec, and bit rate played on a compatible Pioneer Blu-ray Disc player, and automatically switches to the most suitable Sound Retriever. So there is no need to switch on/off according to the source. Advanced Sound Retriever is selected for Blu-ray Disc and DVD sources, and Auto Sound Retriever is selected for other sources.
Sound Retriever Air
When streaming music via Bluetooth, the sound quality often suffers due to the Bluetooth further lossy-compression process. Pioneer’s Sound Retriever Air is the world’s first technology for improving the quality of Bluetooth transmitted sound. It restores the music cadence lost through compression, and also reduces the noise generated by Bluetooth transmission resulting in a better S/N ratio.
After watching true UHD BD movies in Dolby Atmos, listening to both s-channel music and multi-channel recordings using this unit. It is clear that Pioneer Elite SC-99 is a great way to run nine channels of every popular audio formats available (and no, Auro3D is not and never going be popular). It seems like $3,500 is high for a receiver, but that is a relatively small price to pay considering it is actually an audiophile grade (with jitter value of merely 37 pico second whereas other brands priced up to double its price is at 183 pico second at best and 560 pico second at worst) and videophile-grade pre-pro (tested using various NHK laboratory reference video signals) filled with cutting edge everything… from immersive sound technologies to superior 4K video upconversion. Not to mention the included very-analog-sounding Class D amplification. This receiver has talents that should be deemed to be the benchmark of any receivers and pre-pros at even double its asking price. The internal set of class-leading DACs and sound up-conversion package is an Autobahn to achieve high-resolution audio, and the D3 amplification section is powerful, dead-accurate and eco-friendly… something that is very uncommon in audiohpile-grade set-up. Anybody looking for a high-end receiver, or even a high-end pro-pro… look no further… the SC-99 is here to your rescue
Price : $3,249.99 (quoted : 2016/01)
Warranty : 2 years, parts and labour
Manufacturer : Pioneer Electronics of Canada, T. : 905.479.4411
Equipment used for this review
GutWire AC cables for all power connections
JVC RS-500 eShift4 UHD HDR projector
Kordz THX approved 4K HDMI cables for all HDMI connections
Nakymatone invisible speakers (Atmos in-ceilings)
Pioneer Elite SC-99 (receiver)
Pioneer Elite Andrew Jones Towers (fronts)
Pioneer Elite Andrew Jones Bookshelf (rears)
PSB Image C5 (centre)
PSB SubSeries 300i (subwoofer)
Stewart Filmscreen StudioTek 130 (96-inch diagonal, 2.39:1 ratio, viewed from 8ft away)
Torus Power AVR-15 Plus (power conditioner)
UHD Blu-ray Player (prototype, brand in under NDA)
NHK UHD Reference Test Video
Exodus (UHD, HDR, 10-bit)
Life of Pi (UHD, HDR, 10-bit)
Dolby Atmos Demo Blu-ray
DTS:X Demo Blu-ray
We Love Disney CD (US edition)
We Love Disney CD (Australian edition)