As friends and colleagues learn of my exceptional level of expertise when it comes to electronics [warning: exaggeration] many of them will inevitably ask for my advice or opinion regarding the purchase and setup of home theater gear, computers, etc. I've been fortunate to have tried a fairly wide variety of components in my own home, and I like to think I've become pretty good at matching a person's needs to an appropriate receiver. One thing I have noticed is that I usually find myself recommending Pioneer Elite for people who need a single unit that does pretty much everything. The Elite AVRs, in my experience, are great performers and have tons of features to offer. I do believe they are slightly underrated in general. Before I start to sound biased (too late?) I will say that I began the review of a $3000 AVR with pretty high expectations, so the SC-89 had its work cut out for it.
The Elite SC-89 is certainly a contender in the high dollar AV receiver market, complete with Dolby Atmos, AirPlay, multiple HD Zone capability, 9 internal channels of amplification, network control, a new, more advanced version of MCCAC, support for two subs, and a fancy mobile phone app. One of Pioneer's main selling points on its receivers is the use of Class D amplifiers. They are rated at 140 watts per channel (1khz, 2 channels driven). The SC-89 can handle a variety of speaker configurations and playback modes as well. It is compatible with Dolby Atmos, DTS NEO:X (not DTS:X), supporting both overhead Atmos channels and DTS front wide channels. Network playback offers plenty of options too. Airplay, Spotify Connect, DLNA, Pandora, and Windows 8 "play to" features are all supported. The SC-89 can control two additional zones, one of them via HDMI. MCACC has been improved (now MCACC Pro) and offers dual independent sub EQ.
Aesthetics & Quality
Pioneer's Elite receivers have a distinctive look to them. They are one of the few remaining brands still using amber text on the main display. They have adopted a more modern looking blue backlight for the physical buttons, and also use blue to indicate certain features within the main display. I personally don't mind it too much, but would prefer to see a more uniform color scheme. Aside from that minor gripe, I really like the design of the Elite receivers. The symmetry of the control knobs and display, the clean surface and lack of exposed buttons work together to create a very sleek and elegant appearance.
The SC-89 is bridging the gap between premium consumer receivers and high end, high dollar receivers and processors. While cost of materials is never the only gauge for quality and value, it is a critical piece of the puzzle. This particular model is pretty hefty, which is generally a good sign when you've spent a lot of money on a home theater component. The case looks and feels sturdy, and the front panel looks premium, even if it is mostly plastic. Knobs, buttons, and A/V connections all appear to be of high quality. Having said that, nothing immediately apparent about the unit's construction suggests it could be worth 50%-100% more than other models with similar features and specs. Throughout the review, the unit functioned consistently and reliably. Although the Class D amps are known to be more efficient than other types, I still provided the receiver with as much ventilation as I would any other. It did run warm after extended use, but not alarmingly so.
Setup and Calibration
Installation and initial setup was a piece of cake as expected. The layout of the connections is intuitive and everything is clearly labeled. I didn't have to boot up the receiver to determine which speaker terminals to use based on the Dolby Atmos or DTS Neo:X configuration I wanted to use. The speaker terminals were marked accordingly and I got it right the first time. I decided to utilize a total of 11 speakers, creating two possible 9.2 configurations. The main setup is Atmos 7.2.2 (7.2 plus top middle) and the second option is DTS Neo:X 9.2 (7.2 plus front wide). The SC-89 has enough speaker terminals to allow all 11 speakers to remain connected at all times, and internal switching makes sure the amps are assigned to the correct ones depending on which listening mode I have selected.
The calibration and room correction process is made easy by MCACC Pro, which includes independent dual subwoofer control, full band phase control, and precision distance measurement, in additional to all of the features offered by Advanced MCACC. It's a very easy process, completely guided by on-screen prompts as you would expect. By default, MCACC Pro takes measurements from a single seating location, but it offers the option to add data from two supplemental reference points for standing wave correction. I followed the "auto" setup guide which only used measurements from the main listening position.
From start to finish, the process only took a few minutes. I was able to view all of the details and settings after the auto setup was complete, which is a feature I always appreciate. Especially for those without dedicated measurement software and a mic, it can be a handy source of feedback in terms of room setup and speaker placement. The EQ filters applied by MCACC seemed reasonable, no extreme gains or cuts at any particular frequency. I would have liked the ability to manually adjust the EQ for each channel after finishing MCACC. Yes, there is the potential to do more damage than good, but at this price point, I think it would be a reasonable expectation for advanced users. I'm having to expedite the next few reviews since I'm so far behind schedule, which means I decided to omit the detailed set of measurements I normally include before and after room correction and calibration. Instead, I'll discuss my subjective impressions in the next section, among other aspects of the receiver's performance.
Operation and General Impressions
Having used several other models of Pioneer Elite receivers, it took me no time to adjust to the menu structure and remote layout. The GUI is pretty plain and unobtrusive. Once MCACC has completed its job, there really is not much else to tinker with if you don't really want to (assuming you're using just one zone).
I'll start with network and streaming features. For me, AirPlay is almost essential, and Pioneer executes it flawlessly again with the SC-89. As soon as I select the receiver and begin playing music from my iPhone, the Pioneer switches to AirPlay mode (from any input) and starts cranking out my tunes. It provides a nice clean display with track/time information, album art, and basic player controls. Playback was very smooth and clear at all volume levels I tested. I was also able to easily navigate my DLNA server (Plex) and playback movies and music with no hiccups. Again, the interface is plain, and it does not display cover art for movies as many other streaming devices will do, but it handled my uncompressed Blu-ray quality mkv flies flawlessly, including HD audio formats.
Overall, the sound quality of the SC-89 is on par with the other Elite receivers I've heard. Clean and clear, with a smooth presentation. While it is a bit reserved for my tastes, it does not produce any unwanted harshness or fatigue, even at high levels. In fact, it's very easy to crank the volume up higher than you realize, as it stays clear and well balanced under strain. MCACC Pro blended the whole system together very nicely. Normally I find myself tweaking channel levels after completing a receiver's auto setup, but to my ears everything sounded very good without additional intervention. The dialog/center channel level was right on the line between too soft and just right, but nothing else stuck out. The subs blended well with my mains, and sounded/felt appropriately adjusted. Although it handled dual subs nicely in terms of setup, it still left my room's signature dip around 50-60Hz basically untouched.
Foo Fighters - I Am a River (Sonic Highways, Apple Music/AirPlay)
Not only do the Foo Fighters write and perform awesome music, they appreciate the importance of the recording and mastering process. The result is a lot of really great quality music that is really fun to listen to on a capable setup. It just begs to be turned up to 11. The SC-89 rocked plenty hard as I kept pumping one Foo Fighters song after another to it via Airplay. Sure, Airplay is a compromise of quality and convenience, but what isn't? The vast majority of the time, my ears don't sense a difference, as long as the source device has a solid connection to the wifi network. I Am a River is the last song on the album and starts out relatively soft. After a few measures of guitar, Dave's vocals join in. From there it's a steady crescendo to the appropriately over-the-top ending. The Pioneer kept up the whole time, presenting every detail of the softer passages and the energy of the big chord progressions.
Pink Floyd - On The Turning Away/Yet Another Movie (A Momentary Lapse of Reason, CD)
I would say A Momentary Lapse of Reason is one of my favorite Pink Floyd albums, but I could say that about pretty much all of their albums, so I'll just say I really like this one. The music has so many elements that all blend together it can be easy to lose some of the finer details and potentially miss out on some of the emotions each song intends to trigger. The SC-89 provided the right amount of clarity, with excellent soundstage and imaging, to capture the whole scope of the music. At times the sound field extended beyond the speakers, creating a surround effect. This is somewhat common in Pink Floyd music and the Pioneer handled it with ease. The vocals were extremely lifelike, and the electric guitar had an almost tangible quality. The impact of the drums was a bit tame though, which left me with a slight feeling that something was missing. Although the SC-89 could drive my speakers more than loud enough, I felt the dynamics could have been better for both movies and music. I will still say that overall this receiver has a very pleasant sound, and makes music enjoyable to listen to.
Interstellar is proof that a blockbuster movie can be more than dumb dialog and explosions (even if that formula has proven to be lots of fun). It is thought provoking and stunningly beautiful. The bulk of the movie (and it's a long one!) is dialog and science, as you follow story line of several characters and their relationships with time, space, and gravity. That's not to say it's dull - quite the opposite. And it does have some exciting space travel scenes (and a killer soundtrack) to make it an engaging cinema experience. As the crew travels through space, to and from the harsh environments of different planets, we get a glimpse of what it must be like to hear the stress of a spacecraft battle the forces of escaping and re-entering a planet's atmosphere. A few moments come to mind where the surround mix does a really nice job of shrinking the room down to the size of a cramped cockpit, with rattles and buzzes coming from all directions, and a constant drone of alarms beeping. Each element was distinctly clear and precisely placed within the confines of the cockpit. The beautiful picture, Sci-fi action, and powerful soundtrack combined nicely for a great experience. A gold star for the SC-89.
The Expendables 3 (Amazon Prime / DD+)
There's no question about it - if you want to see fighting, gunfire, explosions, car chases, and helicopters, this movie has it all. And even if they are getting old, who doesn't still love seeing guys like Stallone and Schwarzaneggar in roles like these? The Pioneer receiver handled the chaos of these battle scenes very nicely. Speech and dialog remained intelligible while gunshots and crashing debris were scattered about the soundfield. While everything was balanced enough to make it easy to hear, some elements of the action lacked enough dynamics for my taste. Bass was good for sure, but I didn't quite get the impact I was looking for from, say, pistol fire, or a helicopter's blades thumping through the air. On the other hand, I found it easier to play the movie closer to reference level without it being overwhelmingly loud. It was still loud, but under control. I used Dolby Atmos/DSU mode during this movie and was impressed by its ability to expand the soundstage in all directions. What struck me most was a few scenes with a very distinct vertical distribution. I'm sure my eyes drove the illusion, but in some cases sounds seemed to come from above and below at the same time. I suspect it is a combination of a well engineered soundtrack and and a well calibrated system thanks to MCACC. The execution of Atmos on the SC-89 is top notch, based on what I've experienced so far.
I would consider myself to be a pretty average audio/HT enthusiast - not satisfied with most mainstream/budget offerings, but also not convinced I need super high end boutique gear (even if I could come close to being able to afford it). Pioneer's flagship AVR, the Elite SC-89 is too expensive for me at $3000. If my assumptions are correct, a $3000 AVR is too much for most other average HT enthusiasts as well. A high price tag doesn't necessarily indicate lack of value, but it can make it harder to find. Features like Dolby Atmos, MCACC Pro, network streaming services, high power amp and 9.2 channel processing, network control via mobile device, multiple HD zones, and premium construction all suggest this is much more than your average surround sound black box. However, many of those features can be had for less, and still in a relatively attractive package. The SC-89 is in an odd spot in terms of pricing, without a whole lot of direct competition. As much as I like this unit, and have been generally impressed by its function, I would have a hard time recommending that someone pay retail for it. I'm honestly not entirely sure why Pioneer chose to give it such a steep price.
Conclusion & Recommendation
Although this has been a relatively brief review (sorry) I still want to give you a fair evaluation of the receiver. It stacks up nicely against competing flagship models in a market that is developing very rapidly at the moment. It does basically everything even an advanced user could want, and without the need to tinker or tweak. Sound quality is very good for music and movies, although I did sense a lack of punch in some cases. It is very easy to listen to. MCACC Pro is surely an improvement over Advanced MCACC. Dolby Atmos playback on this receiver is excellent but those holding out for DTS:X from Pioneer will have to wait a bit longer. I personally would like to see an 11.2 Elite receiver too, but Pioneer has clearly not jumped on that bandwagon yet. Overall, I really like the SC-89. It would be right at home in most high-end home theaters. It's pricey, but if you love Pioneer and want the best, it's a great option.
Review Discussion Thread