Sometimes “good” isn’t good enough. If it was, a certain A/V receiver would have been on many a home theater enthusiast’s wish list for Christmas 2008. Instead of rushing to market with a product that just passed muster, Pioneer took a step back and worked on making a better component, one to spearhead its Elite A/V receiver lineup. The resulting Elite SC-27 was born after several years in development. Pioneer’s marketing manager Dave Bales described it as a receiver designed by committee, with input from THX and certification from Air Studios in London. Good wasn’t good enough, though, for the SC-27 – even after receiving certification from THX, Pioneer spent another year bettering the amp before introducing it to the market.
When I spoke with Bales, he was clearly enthused and proud of the SC-27, and believes this second-generation ICE Powered Class-D amp is the wave of the future, sporting a “green” amplifier design that is significantly more energy efficient. The SC-27 is a statement-making receiver, with a dazzling, if not dizzying array of options; however, the message I came away with was if it didn’t sound great it wasn’t good enough. “Turn it up, and listen to the dynamics and punch,” Bales suggested. And I did – a lot.
First Impressions & Setup
I’ve always found Pioneer’s Elite components to be visually stunning and built to last. The SC-27 is no different. It features a gorgeous glossy black front plate and a design to match. When I first unpacked the nearly 41-pound behemoth, I was shocked to see a phono input on the back, among the many inputs and jacks. I mentioned this to Bales, who told me Pioneer recognized the resurgence of vinyl and the format’s devoted following. Cool. At first glance, the SC-27 seems like an unwieldy beast that could take many hours to setup. But don’t let its capabilities and 154-page operating instruction manual scare you. For such an option-studded machine and lengthy accompanying tome, the SC-27 is fairly straightforward to get up and running.
I asked Bales if the design team takes setup into account, realizing that technology can be a double-edged sword. He asserted that above the $500 price point, one has to build to the highest common denominator. The customer who drops $2K on an SC-27 is very likely a serious audio and video hobbyist and expects bells and whistles and fine-tuning options not available on lesser models. Bales also admitted that the majority of users will utilize maybe five or six inputs and call it good. Certainly, one can get crazy deep into the menus and sub-menus, but the receiver can also be fully customized and ready to play in 10 to 15 minutes. But allow a few hours to get speakers in place, connect wires and cables and just to get acquainted with the SC-27′s operations.
I have to commend Pioneer for publishing one of the best set of operating instructions I’ve come across. Yes it’s a tome at 154 pages, but it’s thoughtfully done and features explicit diagrams for nearly every possible connection. Whether you’re working with HDMI-compatible gear, an older DVD player, VCR, cassette deck, cable TV box or other equipment, you’ll find a solution in the instructions.
A graphical-user-interface walks you through setup and does most of the thinking. The SC-27 has a default 7.1 surround setup that I used – almost – I went with two front speakers, two surrounds and two back surrounds, instead of going with a center channel speaker. Once everything was in place, it was time to employ the MCACC (Multi-Channel AcoustiC Calibration) Room Tuning feature. I set the supplied microphone where I would be doing the majority of my watching/listening. The receiver emits a series of test tones – white noise, ambient, waveforms and EQ – to adjust to, calibrate and optimize the listening area’s acoustics. Connecting a PC via the RS-232 connector enables users to transfer 3D graphs of reverb, group delay characteristics and other MCACC parameters to a computer for detailed review.
One connection curiosity: The SC-27 has a detachable power cord, and the instructions warn against using any power cord other than the one supplied with the unit. I’m not sure why this is. If someone wants to swap to an audiophile-grade cord to maximize performance, he or she should be able to do so. And I can’t discern any why the receiver wouldn’t work in such a configuration.
In the relatively short timeframe that the SC-27 was in my hands, I was challenged to test all that it can do; this is a receiver that can keep you busy for many days as it is integrated with about every technology imaginable. A complete spec list is beyond the scope of this review, but I want to highlight some notable features:
• A remote that is functional and intuitive. Once you’re setup, it’s easy to make adjustments on the fly. If you don’t read anything else in the manual, read the bits about the remote. Life will be easy.
• Supports input of Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS, High bit-rate audio, DVD-Audio, SACD, Video CD and Super VCD
• HDMI 48-bit Deep Color signal transfer
• 5 HDMI inputs
• More than a dozen surround sound formats
• Can power three independent systems via Multi-Zone connections
• Synchronized operation with KURO LINK-compatible components
• The iPod/USB terminal makes it possible to access and control the contents of an iPod/iPhone or jump drive with the receiver’s remote. You don’t even need to turn on the TV, as the SC-27′s GUI will highlight the contents directly on the Character display. As well, the USB interface reads MP3, WMA, WAV and JPEF file formats.
• An HDMI input terminal on the receiver’s front panel enables users to connect HDMI-equipped video cameras with a single cable.
• Numerous defeatable optional inputs permit true customization for each user.
• Stream music, photos and video from a networked computer hard drive. A LAN terminal allows for easy networking, accessing Internet radio, music-subscription services, audio files stored on a networked computer or media servers connected to the same LAN.
• An enhanced room calibration channels everything to focus on one sweet spot.
• XM and Sirius Satellite Radio ready.
Overall, the SC-27′s design and build impressed me; however, I was disappointed with the speaker terminals. They are little more than plastic connectors that seem under-engineered for a $2,000 receiver. Often, the biggest pain in setting up a multi-channel system involves connecting the array of bare speaker wires – trying to thread each into the gaps between the terminals. I would strongly suggest using cables terminated with banana plugs to facilitate easier connection and disconnection with these.
Listening & Watching
It’s tempting to treat A/V receivers differently than dedicated audio amplifiers. One could argue that the A/V receiver has so many duties that it could be excused for not offering optimal sound. The Elite SC-27 doesn’t take that cop; rather, it can stand tall on sound alone, thanks to a Wolfson WM8740, 24-bit/192kHz DAC. Conversely, a Burr-Brown sample rate converter polishes analog and digital signals, effectively scaling all sources to 24-bit/192kHz.
With seven channels capable of pumping out 140 watts per, the SC-27 has the power to deliver the goods. With such wattage available, one can go far beyond usual pre-packaged home speakers and customize the surround setup using practically any speaker grouping. I used my DCM KX-10s as fronts, a pair of Athena AS-B1s as my surrounds and tucked a pair of Role Audio Kayak’s behind for surround back left and rights. I wanted to see how using three pairs of different – but all very good – speakers would play out. Big, bold and powerful sound flooded my listening/viewing area.
The SC-27 knocked me out with its broad soundstage – even in 2-channel stereo – and clean, detailed presentation. This is not just an excellent A/V receiver, it’s an excellent piece of audio gear that I could easily live with as my main amplifier. The sound is warm and cozy but not like an old blanket that makes you want to cuddle up for a nap. Rather, the SC-27 is like a perfect cup of black coffee – balanced, rich and heady without dilution from cream or sugar.
Indigenous’ 2008 release, Broken Lands, was a monster played through the SC-27. The already-heavy blast of blues-rock came roaring out of the speakers, with loads of presence and immediacy. If Pioneer is looking for one disc to demonstrate the receiver’s 2-channel capabilities, Broken Lands could be it.
Keeping with the blues theme, I played Back Door Slam’s debut, Roll Away, and was jazzed to hear guitarist Davy Knowles’ Stratocaster growl through the speakers. One might expect such a powerhouse to have good low-end presence, and the Pioneer does. I was never even tempted to adjust the default tone controls over bass and treble. The SC-27 has a balanced sound that “energizes” what passes through it.
As good as redbook CD sounded through the SC-27, SACD was even better – I’d say special. I sometimes feel sheepish touting the same SACDs over again, but I tend to test a handful of favorites because I know them very well and have good memory of the respective sounds. Elton John’s Honky Chateau has never sounded better – air around instruments, definition of instruments and overall detail were stunning, particularly considering the disc was being played on my – by today’s standards – ancient Yamaha universal player, now more than 4 years old.
I popped in my DTS 5.1 DVD-Audio of the Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed and turned up the volume. The opening track, “The Day Begins,” features orchestration that sounds alternately cheery like a Thanksgiving Parade before being subsumed into pensive darkness. My wife was sitting on the couch listening with me, and I watched as a smile formed on her face. “It sounds like we’re in a concert hall,” she said. As woodwinds and strings danced through the air around us, and the melody for “Nights In White Satin” was repeated by the orchestra, I had to admit this was the best playback of the disc I had heard.
Thrilling with music, the SC-27 also kicks butt with movies. The 1995 film Heat, pits Al Pacino and Robert De Niro against one another in a cop-versus-criminal drama. I don’t know how many rounds of ammo were used in the filming, but it made for an explosive experience. One shoot-out after a bank heist would make even the most ardent firearms’ supporter blush. I think I ducked on more than one occasion. However, it was getting airborne that brought the scene into my lap: Pacino’s character is in a helicopter flying through Los Angeles, and the sound of the chopper was so realistic that it seemed the machine was passing straight overhead. The colors were superb – with that HD quality that makes watching sometimes better than being there – and this was DVD, not Blu-ray. I liked the pairing of the Pioneer with the 37-inch Panasonic Viera TC-37LZ800, an unsung LCD HDTV that kept up admirably with the Elite SC-27.
One could never confuse Rush Hour 2 and the pairing of Jackie Chan with Chris Tucker as anything more than sophomoric combat comedy. But the film is a feast of fists, feet and fighting, with near non-stop action. Films like Rush Hour 2 are meant to be enjoyed with big sound and big effects, and the SC-27 didn’t disappoint. Since there is no “stun” setting, I chose the “Action” setting from the receiver’s Advanced Surround menu and sat back for some karate kicks. Although the sound of a movie punch is always exaggerated, the shattering of glass had that shrill approach and decay of a window being broached with a baseball. You gotta love Chan at the film’s end when he doesn’t have the heart to shoot his enemy with a pistol. Instead, he ends up sending the poor sod through a window and plummeting several stories to roof of a taxi.
I mentioned the SC-27 having a phono stage, so I hooked up a Sony PSLX350H turntable that was outfitted with an almost new Audio-Technica 71ELC cartridge – a very modest record playing system. And that’s what I got back – very modest and un-involving sound. Led Zeppelin IV failed to get my blood pumping the way it usually does, so I swapped the Sony for my old Thorens TD-145 sporting an Ortofon Super OM20 – a cartridge of certainly higher pedigree and output. It was better but not what I would want to listen to on a daily basis. Good to have it, but the phono section didn’t knock me out – about the only thing that didn’t.
The Elite SC-27 impressed me first and foremost for its macho sound without the attitude. It’s an A/V receiver that straddles both sides of the fence with equal strength. For great sound, theater-like movie experiences and a remarkably easy-to-use interface, the SC-27 will be tough to beat in this price range or even above. Here today, here to stay. As Roy Orbison sang, “Anything you want, you got it.” That’s what you get here, today, with Pioneer.