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Review: Pioneer VSX-LX304 – can you exaggerate with streaming options?

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The VSX-LX304 is a new 9.2-channel receiver from Pioneer. A device for the more ambitious surround enthusiast, in other words. The device excels with a lot of streaming possibilities and special options that are specific to the brand.

Introduction Pioneer VSX-LX304

We did look up when this Pioneer was announced. After all, the model name says “LX”, which used to be used only for the better receivers of the Japanese brand. But the “VSX” in VSX-LX304 is a reference to the entry segment. The price of around 999 euros and the features make it neither of the two. You could set a bridge model between entry and premium. For the one thousand euros it costs, the LX304 offers a lot: 7 HDMI 2.0 inputs and two HDMI outputs, and 185 watts spread over 9 channels. You can therefore go in many directions with this device: build a large surround setup with four height channels or place a more modest surround system. You then use the remaining channels to transfer music to another room. The VSX-LX304 supports the most important HDR standards as you would expect and will become IMAX Enhanced compatible in the future. The importance of IMAX Enhanced remains to be seen; in any case, we have only recently received the first test content. Also something for the future is Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, a function that Denon will also offer via a later firmware update on certain 2019- receivers and which promises Atmos surround without height speakers.

A complex family story

Pioneer is now completely absorbed in Onkyo, and you notice that. In this test we will regularly state that things are almost identical to an Onkyo receiver that we recently tested . Yet the parent company behind both brands has done its best to make differences. This is partly about sound issues, but also about a number of (minor) job differences. The layout of the front of Pioneer is completely different to that of Onkyo (we think the tighter appearance of Pioneer is better) and each brand places small nuances in terms of service. For example, the VSX-LX304 comes with preset buttons that quickly take you to your favorite sound setting. That is handy.

What the Onkyos and Pioneers of this year share a hundred percent is the streaming platform. Just like with Marantz and Denon, the relationship is so close that you can exchange the apps of both brands. By the way, surround connoisseurs will know that we don't just make that reference to two Pioneer competitors. As we write this, it looks like Sound United (the holding of Denon and Marantz, among others) will become the new owners of Onkyo and Pioneer. Four major AV receiver brands under one roof, we are curious to know what that will deliver in terms of products and platforms. But because receivers develop a while, a possible merger will not be visible in products in 2019 and maybe not even in 2020.

An extensive streaming menu

Just because Pioneer (and Onkyo) share a streaming platform, we start by look at that first. Because actually something special is going on with those two brands. Both Denon / Marantz and Yamaha provide their own platform in their products (HEOS and MusicCast respectively). By a platform we mean an app and interface through which you can do everything: play your own music files from the network or locally, listen to streaming services, switch physical inputs and multi-room functions. In addition, they naturally also offer Bluetooth and AirPlay 2.

Pioneer does the same – but does not stop there. In addition to its own Flareconnect platform, Bluetooth and AirPlay 2 the VSX-LX304 also includes Chromecast and DTS Play-Fi. The latter in turn is its own platform with its own app, which hides a lot of possibilities (playing your own files and streaming services). In short, Pioneer gives you an incredible number of options, often double and even triple. For example, Tidal can be played via its own Pioneer Controller app, via the Play-Fi platform or via the Tidal app itself (Chromecast). It sounds very complex of course, but during the VSX-LX304 we notice that you make very quick choices and ultimately only use certain streaming options. For example, we quickly left the Play-Fi app in favor of the more intuitive Pioneer Controller and the ease of use of Chromecast. In short, the Pioneer offers you a whole menu of streaming options, but ultimately you only go for one dish on the menu. Just like at restaurant.

The most important app is the Pioneer Controller app. It is a very clear app that is also beautiful. Each compatible device appears with a large photo (you can choose) in the main screen. If a device has multiple zones, such as the VSX-LX304, they show here as separate devices. You can play different music in two zones, but not different streaming sources. In Zone 1, for example, Spotify can be heard and in Zone 2 the sound of a CD player hanging on the Pioneer. But streaming your own files in zone 1 and Spotify is not possible in zone 2. If you choose a streaming source in one of the three possible zones on the VSX-LX304, it will be automatically sent to all three.

Sonos is also an option

You can also opt to work with the Play-Fi app, which is available with a custom interface in a Pioneer / Onkyo version. The Play-Fi app is old-fashioned in some areas (for example, the list of streaming services is very compact, even on a large iPad Pro screen), but fairly useful in others. The advantage of Play-Fi is that there are streaming services that are missing in the Onkyo app, such as Qobuz. But again: you can work better via Chromecast. Unfortunately, some useful Play-Fi functions do not work on the Pioneer, such as creating Spotify groups. With this you can create an artificial group of Play-Fi devices, which then appears as one device in the Spotify app. This way you can bypass the limitation that Spotify Connect only streams to one device. However, you can also do this trick via the Google Home app and Chromecast.

Like most Onkyo and Pioneer receivers from last year and this year, the VSX-LX304 carry the “ Works with Sonos '-label. A certain degree of integration with a Sonos system is therefore possible. We have covered this feature extensively in a separate review, and everything you read in it also applies to this Pioneer receiver. Our main criticism of Works with Sonos is that you still need to purchase a Sonos Connect and connect it to the receiver. The only benefits? If you select Connect and play music in the Sonos app, the Pioneer will automatically jump to the correct input. That is handy. However, the volume control works only partially.

MCACC

Pioneer and Onkyo are merged and share the same software platform. Still, the VSX-LX304 retains the MCACC room measurement that was peculiar to Pioneer. Or is it just the name, and is the underlying technology after all AccuEQ from Onkyo?

AccuEQ on the TX-NR696 that was in the test room at the same time was one measurement. MCACC on the LX304 can suffice with one measurement at one position, but the software also makes it possible to measure at eight additional positions. If you have the time, we would recommend doing this indeed. The more measurements, the more accurate the software can estimate speaker distances and roomes. The single measurement with MCACC that we perform yields less good results than previously with the Onkyo and AccuEQ – but we soon discover why. When going through the measurement procedure you can indicate which speaker arrangement you have – but not whether the speakers are large or small. You have to do this elsewhere in the menu before you start measuring. That is a bit strange, because the size of the speaker is important to determine the crossover points. So we do the measurement again, which gives a better result.

MCACC gives you a lot of possibilities for tweaking. Although via the TV interface and with little explanation, so you have to know what you are doing. For example, you can really set an equalizer per channel. Can be interesting, but we do wonder who does it. In our opinion, it would be a good idea for Pioneer to develop an app for MCACC so that you can investigate and try out these kinds of adjustments in a smoother way.

This is also the point that we become nostalgic again about the extensive Pioneer apps used to be , such as AVControl. With those apps you could fine-tune an AV receiver from your phone and tablets. Unfortunately, AVControl does not work with the new Pioneers.

Surround with more options

An AV receiver must accurately reproduce surround but also entrain music, we firmly believe that. You can find good proof that both are important in the initial generics of 'Lawrence of Arabia' (Blu-ray, DTS Master HD 5.1, with DTS Neural: X ) consisting of a few minutes of black screen and the theme of the film played by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Maurice Jarre's work is a fine musical summary of the eccentric British soldier that the film is about: seductive, flowing sounds reminiscent of the desert and romance, interspersed with tight marching music that fits perfectly with the dry, introverted British character of Lawrence . The Pioneer, tuned with MCACC, sets the orchestra big, although we think the timpani do not deliver the deep bangs that we expect and we are not completely in the middle. The instruments do sound natural, without a synthetic side note when the flutes fall in. The music envelops us much more after we perform that second MCACC measurement, but we are not impressed by the Neural: X result. Once the film really gets going, the surround feeling is much better. The kickstarter of Lawrence's motor close by that is set in motion, after which he drives away in the image are actions that you really hear.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray of 'Mission Impossible: Fallout' is still in the Panasonic DP- UB820 of the Onkyo test, perfect to compare the two receivers. We skip straight to the big action scene in the streets of Paris. The director first builds up the tension, through the clever use of orchestral music that plays increasingly dynamic. You see Ethan Hunt take a position to ambush, while the police column is heading in a direction with a trapped terrorist – until the MI agent unexpectedly pops a police car into the Seine with his truck. Compared to the cheaper TX-NR696, we have less of the impression here that the amplification part is at its limits. The Pioneer has sufficient power reserves to handle the dynamic peaks and to respond quickly to the action. Yet this is not a Denon AVR-X6300, our fixed and much more expensive receiver, but also not a Yamaha RX-A1080. And it doesn't cost that much anymore. It is striking that the volume control of the Pioneer is far open to reach a cinema volume level, while our Dali Rubicon set-up is relatively efficient. Well, as I said, there is no shortage of breath.

In terms of surround, everything is fine. Initially, we think the promotion is mainly at the front. Again we dive into the MCACC settings and see that the rear speakers are also set very low for the second measurement (-3 dB), we adjust to 0 dB and immediately experience much more movement in the rear surround field. When a gang of villains blast a French police officer, the shot really echoes through the room. It is a short, intense scene with a nice high-altitude surround effect – a subway train that thunders past – that now sounds correct.

We have already measured a lot in this room with these speakers, but for some reason MCACC did not perform optimally with both measurement attempts. You can correct it manually, but it is not the fully automatic adjustment that we would like. By the way, we're touching on a point of differentiation between Onkyo and Pioneer: Onkyo offers a simpler interface, while Pioneer clearly offers you more tweaking options. We are therefore inclined to send users with knowledge to a Pioneer. With the following nuance: for optimal surround reproduction you always need some knowledge and urge to experiment. The VSX-LX304 also offers many sound modes, but personally we are rarely convinced by eccentric options (such as “Drama”) that often sound artificial. The Front Stage Surround Advance is an intriguing one to try.

When listening to test files, it is noticeable that certain hi-res files do not play, although the specsheet says that the VSX-LX304 does. can handle. What seems? If you use an Ethernet connection, the receiver can handle PCM formats (ALAC, AIFF, FLAC and WAC) up to 192 kHz / 24-bit and DSD up to 11.2 MHz. However, more than 96 kHz is not possible via WiFi. That difference is not illogical, because you have more reliable bandwidth via a cable. But we have never encountered anything similar in the competition.

Conclusion

The Pioneer VSX-LX304 has many qualities that make it especially interesting for the advanced user. That certainly applies if you have doubts between an Onkyo and a Pioneer. Via MCACC, among other things, you have more options for tweaking. A huge strength of this device are the many ingrained streaming options and the accompanying good apps, although it sometimes feels like an overkill. But anyway: better too much than too little. Works with Sonos is not perfect, but in an environment where Sonos is already present, it can be a nice added value.

Cons

  • MCACC performs better if you adjust afterwards
  • Bluetooth limited to SBC / AAC codec
  • No Bluetooth headset option

Advantages

  • Chromecast, AirPlay 2 and more streaming
  • Excellent apps and clear TV interface
  • User-friendly, with preset buttons
  • Connects well
  • Works together with Sonos

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