My Pioneer Elite SC-97 review... - Home Theater Forum and Systems -

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post #1 of 3 Old 03-30-16, 02:40 PM Thread Starter
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My Pioneer Elite SC-97 review...

Pioneer Elite SC-97 AV Receiver

I just purchased a Pioneer Elite SC-97 AV receiver. I was not planning to buy the Pioneer but my older Pioneer SC-67 had a defective Texas Instruments Aureus DSP which TI admitted will cause the AVR to fail (83% failure rate after two years or 18,000 hours of use, just google Pioneer UE22 error). Since the SC-67 was past its warranty period, Pioneer will not repair the defective units. To compound matters, if you were to pay the several hundred dollars to replace the offending board, you will still get a board with the same defective DSP, so you will be facing the same problem in a few years down the road. While my SC-67 was still fine (with 9,000 hours of use over four years), I decided to buy a new Pioneer because 51% of Pioneer was bought out by Onkyo. I was concerned about how Onkyo’s management would affect future Pioneer products because Onkyo has a record of major QC issues with cost cutting affecting their products over the past few years. I was not sure if Pioneer’s D3 Digital amplifiers or any other Pioneer features would be kept in future models under Onkyo's oversight. This year’s Pioneer models would be the last designed by Pioneer themselves. While Onkyo might not make any wholesale changes to Pioneer's AV products, the future is still murky.

Anyway, back to the Pioneer SC-97… The SC-97 is a direct descendent of the SC-67, just three generations later. All the inputs are basically the same. All I had to do was disconnect all the inputs and speakers from my old SC-67 and reconnect them to the new model in the same order. The only remaining thing I had to do other than that was renaming the inputs (note that renaming inputs on the Pioneer is a tedious exercise in itself. Cycling through all the letters and characters is very slow and dragging). Thankfully, I did not even have to reprogram my Harmony remote…

The front of the receiver has the typical Pioneer Elite look. It has a brushed aluminum front panel in a very clean luxurious look. The display is a bit larger than the norm with the amber LEDs while most brands opt for blue LEDs. Behind the flip down panel are most of the buttons clustered in one row on the top along with a group of buttons on the left forming a circle for cursor movement. There is also a headphone jack and a USB port on the front panel along with the calibration microphone input. The lettering on the front panel is also amber in very small print (the European spec model has blue LEDs and print).

The rear panel sports three HDMI outputs and seven of the eight inputs along with a pair of component inputs. The HDMI inputs are labelled confusingly. The inputs are labelled BD, DVD (HDMI 1), SAT/CBL (HDMI 2), DVR/BDR (HDMI 3), HDMI 4, HDMI 6 and HDMI 7 (HDMI 5 is on the front panel). Note that Pioneer states only three HDMI inputs support HDCP 2.2 (BD, DVD (HDMI 1) and SAT/CBL (HDMI 2)) but some users have reported that all the HDMI input ports are compatible. The Pioneer specs show that the HDMI ports supports 4K/60p/4:4:4/24-bit, 4K/24p/4:4:4/36-bit, 4K/60p/4:2:2/36-bit modes. Unfortunately, while the HDMI ports are HDCP 2.2 compatible, they are only support HDMI 2.0. This means while they can pass UHD/4K, it cannot pass HDR. This is supposed to be fixed with the upcoming DTS-X update. The HDMI outputs appear to be more stable than my older SC-67 which had occasional dropouts.

Along with the top model SC-99, this model also supports vinyl lovers with a MM phono input. There also is a pair of small non-removable Bluetooth antennas along with a network port. All the inputs are nickel-plated. There is a set of pre-amp outputs but no pre-amp inputs, so users who want to use their player analog outputs are out of luck.

The speaker terminals are lined along the bottom edge and labelled a bit weirdly. The extra terminals are labeled as Top Middle and Extra 1. The terminals are the typical type that can accept banana plugs or bare wire.

The power output is the same as my older unit, 140wpc with two channels driven @ 0.08% distortion at 1 kHz. The nine channels are rated to provide 90 watts per channel with all channels driven at 1.0% THD. The amplifiers are Pioneer’s version of B&O’s ICE Digital amps. The Pioneer is on their third generation design which they call D3. According to Pioneer, their implementation is more efficient compared to Class AB amps, generating a lot less heat than conventional designs. Unlike most other AVRs, the Pioneer is also designed to work with 4-ohm speakers (a lot of AVRs have a 4/8-ohm switch to limit power to 4-ohm speakers to limit the current drain in the power supply). Even with their more efficient amplifiers, the Pioneer weighs in at 38 ½ lbs., about 33% more than other AVRS in this price range. According to Sound and Vision, the Pioneer can deliver 165 watts in stereo mode at 0.1% distortion @ 8-ohms, 138 watts with five channels driven and 115 watts with seven channels driven at the same spec. This is very impressive compared to most AVRs where the power output drops to anywhere between 35-80 watts per channel.

The differences on the two Pioneers are evolutionary. The Pioneer now uses a pair of the well regarded ESS32 Sabre 9016S Ultra DACs. While still considered to be an excellent DAC, some other companies are now moving on to 64-bit DACs which may offer better performance. The Pioneer's sound characteristics are also tuned and certified by Sir George Martin's London's AIR Studios which is known for mastering audio soundtracks for movies and music. DTS Atmos is built-in with DTS-X to be made available with a future firmware update this summer. The Pioneer supports Dolby Atmos 7.2.4 and 9.2.2, but with only nine internal channels of amplification, you will need a two channel external amplifier to support it. The self-calibrating software is Pioneer’s best and latest iteration, MCACC Pro (my older Pioneer only had the basic MCACC back then, they also have MCACC Advanced now). One noticeable improvement is that the Pioneer can now calibrate two subwoofers separately, previously the subwoofer outputs were just the same outputs on a split output, the current design has the two subwoofer outputs as independently calibrated connections.

Along with the added Dolby Atmos, Pioneer replaced Dolby ProLogic II, Prologic IIz and ProLogic IIx with Dolby's new/old Dolby Surround. Dolby Surround is an old name for a new surround process which Dolby is using to replace the ProLogic modes.

The MCACC implemented is dependent on the models price range. Let me make one thing clear, the current MCACC Pro is a huge improvement over my older AVR MCACC. MCACC Pro includes Full Band Phase Control (there are now three different independent phase correction controls), which is supposed to time align the sound from the speakers reaching the listener. Not just the aligning the sound from each speaker but also align the bass with the midrange from each driver. Running the MCACC calibration takes about 15 minutes from one single sitting position. I was surprised to see the accuracy on MCACC Pro. Pioneer claims that MCACC Pro can detect speaker distances down to 0.5 inches. After calibration, the speaker distances were very accurate (most calibration programs are accurate down to six inches).

When listening to music and you sit in that position, the soundstage expands, the location of sound is more precise as well as the frequency response is flattened. I was using my Sony BDP-S6200 to stream wave files from my QNAP server and driving my older Polk LSi15 speakers. These speakers never sounded as good image-wise. The disadvantage of measuring sound in one position is that the sound is only accurate in that one position. Moving away from that position did impact the overall coherence.

Unfortunately, like other digital amp designs, the sound does not sound as smooth or open as others in the top end. Mind you, the difference is very slight but it can be heard. This may be a designed sound trait by the AIR Studios engineers. On the other hand, the amplifiers are very powerful and dynamic. I had an older Denon receiver and in no way did it have the punch like the Pioneer. The only other AVR that had this type of dynamics was the top line Onkyos (they were very powerful as well with a lot of power reserve as they weighed over 55 lbs. due to the large power supply and transformer).

Watching movies was limited to 7.2 as I do not have a Dolby Atmos setup. I am waiting to see if there is a compromised layout for Dolby Atmos and DTS-X as they have different speaker placements. Note that according to Pioneer's former audio engineer Andrew Jones, the surround speakers output should be bumped up by 3dB after calibration. In 7.2 mode, there is a slight improvement in surround sound coherence over the older Pioneer.

The receiver has Wi-Fi built-in and supports both 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies. Using DLNA it can connect to your media server and stream music from it. It can also stream from your iOS device using Apple’s AirPlay. Note that the receiver cannot stream video files. I found out setting up the Wi-Fi was problematic until I updated the firmware to the December 2015 update. Once I updated the firmware, the Pioneer detected my Wi-Fi network easily. One minor issue for Wi-Fi users. My home has a primary router (that has my QNAP media server connected to) but it is a long distance from the AVR’s location, with a signal strength of only 15%. In order to increase the signal strength, I used a NetGear PowerLine 1200 adapter system. It comes as a pair, one unit is connected to the primary router and the other unit is located between the router and the AVR. PowerLine adapters transmits the signals through the household AC power wiring, but the adapter must be plugged in to the same circuit as the other adapter (if it is connected to a different circuit, it will not work). I connected a secondary router to the PowerLine adapter. I set up a secondary Wi-Fi network on that router which gave me a connected strength of 89%. My Sony Blu-Ray player will detect the QNAP Media Server on the secondary Wi-Fi network as well as the first. The Pioneer (and my Oppo BDP-95) does not detect the QNAP on the secondary Wi-Fi network, only on the primary one.

I was easily able to connect my iPhone 5S to the Pioneer via Bluetooth and stream music from the iPhone through to the Pioneer. However, streaming music through Bluetooth definitely impacted the dynamics and sound quality of any music that was being streamed.

You can connect a USB device (flash drive or hard drive) to the front panel USB port to playback music files. You can have files in subfolders, but one quirk with this playback method is that the music is sorted in alphabetical order, not in the order as listed on a CD.

Now with the cons… My older Pioneer had a terrible remote control unit. The RCU was long and skinny, with tiny buttons which were all the same size. To make matters worse, the remote were labeled in really tiny white and blue print which made it impossible to read without a fully lit room. While the remote buttons can be lit, not all of the buttons themselves were labelled so looking at blank lit buttons does not make any sense. I thought that remote could not be worse, well Pioneer made the current remote worse. The buttons are rearranged, and buttons that used to be used for certain functions are no longer available (e.g. HDMI output control). The remote now requires you to go through a menu to select HDMI 1, 2 or 3 outputs. Since the Pioneer older lit remote was useless, the new one does not even offer backlighting anymore, using glow in the dark buttons. Since the remote is still printed in the tiny lettering, the remote is still useless. Thank God for Harmony.

Secondly, the MCACC screens are primitive. The graphics user interface looks like ones from a few years ago. In fact, the interface is basically the same from my older SC-67.

Overall, I am very happy with my SC-97 purchase. There is a noticeable improvement in sound and the Pioneer supports HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 for 4K/UHD formats. While I still think the Pioneer remote is terrible, a Logitech Harmony remote fixes that problem. I was considering purchasing the upper model SC-99, but it was too expensive to warrant any consideration. The SC-99 costs $1,000 more, a considerable 50% jump over the SC-97. With that $1,000 you get a rear panel USB port to playback music files from your PC through an ESS Sabre32 9016S Ultra DAC, gold-plated inputs, analog multi-channel inputs, a better power supply and a slightly improved MCACC Pro software program.

My setup:
Pioneer Elite SC-97 AV Receiver, JVC RS-57U D-ILA projector, Polk LSi15 speakers in Zone 2, Polk RT55i front speakers, Harmon-Kardon Citation 7.3 surround speakers, 108" diagonal Stewart StudioTek 1.3 gain micro-perforated screen.
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post #2 of 3 Old 04-01-16, 11:28 AM
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Wayne Myers
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Re: My Pioneer Elite SC-97 review...

jon96789 wrote: View Post
...a lot of AVRs have a 4/8-ohm switch to limit power to 4-ohm speakers to limit the current drain in the power supply)...
If I am not mistaken, the 4-ohm setting in AVRs only changes the "safe operating area" current setting in the protection circuitry for the output stage. In normal operation, no current limiting would take place.

Quote: other digital amp designs, the sound does not sound as smooth or open as others in the top end...
That is a bit of a generalization. There are digital amps that are completely transparent. And others that are not.

Great report, thanks for all the wonderful detail!
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post #3 of 3 Old 04-01-16, 12:59 PM
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Re: My Pioneer Elite SC-97 review...

I read the review when it was posted, forgot to say thanks then...I appreciate you taking the time to do the write up.
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elite , pioneer , review , sc97

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