- Written by Gabriel Lowe
- Published on 09 January 2012
Design and Setup of the Onkyo TX-NR809 Network Receiver
Unpacking the TX-NR809 and getting it connected was a cinch. I noticed that it was considerably lighter (the specs tell me 10 pounds) than my older TX-SR875, weighing in at roughly 40 pounds. Onkyo has also moved to a more understated look - the front drop-down panel is mostly flat, curving only at the top as it meets the main body. It hides a bevy of controls as well as an extra input. Looking at the back panel, it is amazing to me that a few short years ago we had a glut of A/V connections, and only a few speaker connections, but now, the speaker connections are beginning to outnumber their A/V counterparts. The NR809 has eleven sets of speaker terminals to facilitate left, front, center, surround left, surround right, surround left back, surround right back, and then two more that can be used for either wide front or height front channels.
Unfortunately I am not yet in a position to employ that many speakers, so I connected a standard 5.1 set and moved on to the remainder of the connections. There are 7 assignable HDMI ports, which made it easy to quickly plug in all of my sources (Xbox 360, PS3, Blu-Ray player, DirecTV satellite box) without worrying about where I connected them. There is also a conveniently located front HDMI connection intended for quick connections such as a camcorder. In addition, there are two HDMI monitor outs, though I needed just one. I connected the Ethernet port up to a switch I keep in my A/V rack to facilitate the powerful network features of the NR809 (hence the "NR" in the name - Network Receiver). I rounded out the setup by connecting the subwoofer out along with my single component source (Wii) and a single audio-only optical digital source (Apple Airport Express).
After assigning the HDMI ports I plugged in the included microphone and allowed Audyssey MultEQ XT system go to work. Unlike my prior experiences with an Audyssey system, this time I was actually asked to use my powered subwoofer's own volume knob to set it at the reference 75db. In doing so, it became apparent that I had been under-utilizing my subwoofer for some time; a happy discovery for me; not so much for my cohabitants. Continuing on, I used three listening positions to calibrate the system. For those less patient and itching to begin, there is a quick start mode that only requires measurement from a single position. The results were interesting. It configured crossovers at 50Hz for my front speakers (which are only rated to 51Hz per the manufacturer), 80Hz for my center (65Hz per spec), and 90Hz for the surrounds (80Hz per spec). Even though I usually reset these values to 80Hz all around to be in line with THX standards, I decided to give it a try as discovered by the system (more on this later). Distances were spot on as usual.
The NR809 also has some advanced video processing thanks to the HQV Vida VHD 1900 chip. The NR809 can scale video to all of your typical resolutions, but in addition, thanks to a Marvell Qdeo chip, it can also upscale to 4K (good on you if you already have such a display). Each video input can be configured independently for both resolution and processing settings. There are several preset video configurations to choose from, including an ISF Day and ISF Night setting which have been developed in concert with the Imaging and Science Foundation's recommendations. Also included are cinema, game, streaming, through, and direct modes (both of which forgo video processing - though 'through' scales while 'direct' does not). If you choose the custom configuration for a source, you can adjust typical video display settings such as hue, contrast, and brightness, but can also get even more granular with settings such as individual color contrast and brightness, gamma, and noise reduction. This allows for a professional calibrator to calibrate each input independently, maximizing the video quality on a per-source basis. I did like the two ISF presets, but for the better part of my test period, kept the setting on 'through' and just used the receiver to scale any video that wasn't natively 1080p.
For those that don't use a universal remote or other advanced control system, the included remote control is a decent unit. It feels good in the hand, is well weighted, and has a nicely organized layout. The source buttons are located at the top, the transport and navigation controls in the middle, and the numeric keypad at the bottom. Since the unit itself is designed to be a basic universal controller, it includes buttons that perform functions dedicated to other sources, such as the color buttons for the Blu-Ray player. The remote is capable of learning commands from another component's remote, but can also control certain compatible components via the HDMI control protocol (Onkyo's calls its proprietary solution RIHD). Also, if you use the multizone capabilities of the receiver, the remote can control those zones as well.
Perhaps one of the best features of the remote is that it can easily be configured with both basic and more advanced macros labeled "Activities". The basic macros perform a series of simple steps to get other components playing (Onkyo components work out of the box, while other components can also be used if the remote has been programmed with their product codes). For example, you can press the "My Movie" button and it will turn on the Blu-Ray player, change the receiver source to BD/DVD, and the disc will start playing. If you want something a bit more advanced, you can program these activity buttons to perform a series of up to 32 commands. This is easily programmed right on the remote control itself.
The biggest drawback to the remote is the lack of full backlighting. I think especially on a receiver that approaches the upper part of the midrange in Onkyo's lineup, this should be a standard feature for the remote control. While the buttons vary in shape allowing you to recognize the feel in the dark, that is not a foolproof solution. I would much rather be able guarantee I get the button right rather than accidentally changing an input while watching a movie. Still, there are far better options to control your A/V system, so perhaps this is not as big a negative as it would seem.
The NR809 is chock full of features, so much so that I have picked out a handful to discuss that I found most compelling. Some things about which I don't go into detail but may be of interest to some readers include 2 additional zones, a dedicated phono input, bi-amping of the front channels, an RS-232 port for serial control, and iPod and other USB MP3 player compatibility. The iPod compatibility is further enhanced if you use the not-included dock unit, but it does play iPod files directly via the USB port as well. Just about everyone will find what they need with this unit in terms of capabilities and features.
The first interesting feature of this receiver is the support for Audio Return Channel (ARC) for HDMI. The HDTV I recently bought includes several network-based content sources, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, MLB.TV, and many more. Being a big baseball fan, I was excited to be able to watch live streams of any MLB game directly on my HDTV rather than on my laptop, but the caveat with my standard setup was that I had to listen through the HDTV as well unless I wanted to run another cable back from the TV to my gear rack. Since the TV is professionally mounted on the wall, it would not be a simple task to simply pull a new cable. Enter ARC. With this feature, you can use the HDMI connection that is already deployed for sending video from the receiver to the HDTV to additionally send audio back from the HDTV to the receiver. The result is that I can watch one of these sources like the MLB games on the HDTV using its built in streaming services, but still benefit from the audio capabilities of my system. This proved to be one of the most useful features of the receiver.
However, there are three very minor nit-picks that I have with this. First, you need to leave the HDMI control setting on, which consumes more power than with it off. This may be a concern for those who are compulsive about conserving electricity. Second, every time the system is powered up, by default, the audio is sent to the TV instead of the receiver. A simple up or down adjustment to the receiver volume causes the audio to revert back to the receiver, but it is a minor annoyance. To be fair, this is documented in the manual. The last minor irritation I had was that because the HDMI control protocol must be enabled for ARC to work, if you also have an HDMI control function enabled on your source devices, it will automatically switch inputs when you power the source on. For example, if my Panasonic Blu-Ray player has VieraLink enabled (Panasonic's version of the HDMI control protocol), the moment I turn on that player, the NR809 switches to the input assigned to that device. This is expected behavior for the HDMI control protocol, but it would be nice if the ARC functionality were independent of this.
As the "NR" in NR809 suggests, network-based features of the receiver are a centerpiece of the experience. To begin with, as the device is attached to the network, and thus very likely the Internet as well, firmware upgrades can be performed directly from the network. In the past, I have had to use the RS-232 serial ports on the back of older receivers, which required having a computer with a serial port (which is increasingly rare, especially for laptops), downloading specialized software, and following convoluted instructions. Being able to download and install these updates directly from the receiver's graphical user interface makes it immensely easier to keep the receiver up to date. During the time I reviewed the unit, there were at least two firmware updates available. They took me a very short amount of time to complete.
A more interesting network-based feature than software maintenance (at least to most people) is the ability to access popular services, including (but not limited to) Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody, SiriusXM, Last.FM, Napster, Mediafly, and v-Tuner. After applying one of the aforementioned firmware updates, new services were added, including the extremely popular Spotify service (which actually requires their premium subscription to use on the NR809). For many of these, you are able to sign into your accounts and access your customized stations and saved playlists. While you can certainly navigate the audio services from the front LED panel of the receiver, it is much easier to do so using the video output on your monitor.
As I have mentioned in the past in other reviews however, I am still amazed at the arcane practice of making your customers enter text one letter at a time with a remote control. The receiver is network attached! One should be able to do all text entry via a web interface or mobile app (more on this later) that would allow the use of a keyboard. Fortunately you can do this for general Internet radio stations. Also included in the network sources menu of the receiver is a DLNA certified client, which allows the NR809 to access and standard network media share on a Windows computer (among other things). For example, I have a Windows Home Server that hosts all of my music, and I can simply navigate to this library directly from the NR809. The unfortunate thing here again is that with huge collections, navigating to the music you specifically want can be tedious. You can either page through folders, artists, songs, etc., or you can do a search using the remote for text input. Less than ideal, to be sure. I still prefer other more tailored streaming products for accessing my networked music library (such as iTunes with the iOS remote app), but on the other hand, being able to do this right from the receiver without having another device consuming power is a great alternative.
Aside from accessing content, being connected to the home network opens a vast world of possibilities for integration and control. To me, one such standout feature Onkyo offers comes in the form of a free mobile application, currently available on both Android and iOS, that allows you to control the system via your smartphone or tablet. Smartphones are becoming increasingly prevalent. If the phone or tablet is already sitting close by while you use your home entertainment system, why not have an application that can run on that device? Having an Android phone, I used that version of the app for the purposes of this review. The app enables fairly advanced control of the system. You can do nearly everything that you would normally need to do, such as changing the volume, input, and surround mode, but you also have access to the setup and home menus to make configuration changes right from your handheld device.
You are greeted with a main screen that has the most used functions, including the receiver's power toggle, source selector, and audio mode. At the bottom of the screen, you have access to the master volume by tapping on the speaker icon. One negative I will point out is that if you do not have HDMI control enabled, after powering the receiver off, you will not be able to power it back on with the app. You would have to use the regular remote control or the power button on the unit itself. It seems that with the HDMI control enabled, it keeps the network interface powered up even when the unit is shut down, and thus, it remains accessible. When the protocol is disabled, the network interface seems to shut down when the receiver is powered down. Once the receiver is powered back on, it needs to reacquire an IP address before it becomes accessible once again.
Swiping to the left brings up the screen where you can enter the home and setup menus (home is basically a mini version of the main on screen setup menu that runs on top of whatever video you are watching at the time). The navigation controls are performed by swiping in the direction of the arrows, while tapping issues the enter command. This makes for a very fluid, simple way of interacting with the controls.
A swipe to the right of the main page brings up level controls for the center channel, subwoofer bass and treble.
Clicking on the source button brings up a menu of sources from which to choose.
Choosing the Net option brings up a list of the aforementioned services, along with the DLNA client as options. Having the ability to navigate these services in this manner is a big improvement over using the regular remote and whatever display device is connected to your receiver. This way you can have that display off, and still navigate to your favorite Pandora channel.
You may be asking yourself, this is all really cool, but what about that little Android icon in the bottom left corner of the screen? Clicking on that icon brings up perhaps the most interesting feature of the mobile application, which is the ability to stream your local music library (by that I mean located on your mobile device) directly to your NR809 without having to use a Bluetooth adapter or a USB cable. What I was most amazed with about this was how simple and straightforward it was – almost Apple-esque. There was no need to configure anything. You simply pick the song or album you want to play, and it does the rest.
In this example, you see I am playing the track "This Love" from Maroon 5's Songs With Jane, which is a file on my smartphone.
Furthermore, if you want more detailed information about the track, simply tap on the "i" icon in the upper right-hand corner.
At first I thought that this control was going to be very basic, and a bit gimmicky. However, after delving into it and finding all of the functionality it offers, I am convinced that this is indicative of a paradigm shift in the way we interact with our A/V gear. I have since found an Android application to control my DirecTV receiver as well, so my phone is quickly becoming my universal remote control. Unlike my normal universal remote (a Logitech Harmony One), there is no IR or RF range to worry about since these are Internet Protocol (IP) based applications; it is only limited by the range of your home network. Going forward, I would consider this feature almost a must-have on any network-based receiver.