Not long ago, 7.1 channel AVRs were considered to be top-tier equipment, 9.1 models were rarefied air, and Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA ruled the Blu-ray audio codec universe. Then a little thing called Dolby Atmos happened. And while a modern seven-channel receiver can offer good entry level 5.1.2 immersive sound, the birth of Atmos raised the bar on channel requirements for a full “director’s intent” sound experience. It also significantly raised the buy-in price.
Cost has certainly been a hurdle for enthusiasts desiring the maximum in-home Atmos experience. During 2015 (the first year 7.1.4 AVRs with HDMI 2.0a hit the market), manufacturers relegated 7.1.4 functionality to flagship models. That meant options were limited and price tags hovered at or above $2,000. Of course, that has changed somewhat during the current model year – more models are available and the minimum buy-in price is dropping.
Pioneer Elite is one brand that has allowed 7.1.4 sound to trickle down into its model ranks. The company currently offers three 7.1.4 models that span a rather large price range: SC-95 ($1600), SC-97 ($2,000), and the flagship SC-99 ($2,500). And while that $1600 price point is looking rather sweet, today we’re focusing our attention squarely on Pioneer’s big gun, its bellwether, the SC-99. Yes, the SC-99 commands top dollar, but it also offers the most discerning of enthusiasts uncompromised top-flight performance and some serious power.
Short of carrying 11 internal amplifiers (which is a rarity), the SC-99 truly is an enthusiast’s dream machine. On the video front, it features HDMI 2.0a (8 in / 3 out) and compatibility with every current 4K video technology including HDCP 2.2, 4K/60P/4:4:4/24-bit, High Dynamic Range, and wide color gamut. It also can perform Ultra HD upscaling and multi-zone video signal distribution. Translation: connect what you want and the SC-99 will graciously deliver the original signal (or better) to the HD or UHD television of your choice.
The front side of the SC-99.
On the audio front, the SC-99 is a gnarly beast, delivering the most powerful audio experience offered by Pioneer’s Elite brand. Tapping the company’s Class D-3 amplifier technology, the SC-99 pushes 140 watts per channel (two-channel, 8 ohms, 1 kHz, 0.08% thd) and a massive 850 simultaneous watts (all channels, 8 ohms, 1kHz, 1% thd). That’s a lot of power and the Class D amp design allows it to happen with reasonable power consumption and cool-running performance.
All of that power can be used to drive nine channels in a single room setup (two channels of external amplification is needed for full 7.1.4), or any one of a multitude of layout scenarios including bi-amplification and simultaneous audio in a maximum of three zones. The internal hardware of the SC-99 can decode routine legacy codecs and Dolby Atmos (DTS:X is still in the works, but Pioneer says a firmware update should be available this coming fall), and can also apply advanced audio listening modes to enhance music and movies (if altering original sound is your kind of thing).
Other audio features include dual SABRE-32 Ultra DACs (ESS Technology ES90165) for digital-to-analog conversion on all nine channels, and support for 192kHz/24-bit Hi-Res audio in WAV, FLAC, AIFF, and Apple Lossless formats. There’s also built-in dual band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for lots of streaming playback options. Let’s not forget Pioneer’s top-of-the-line MCACC Pro room calibration suite for fine-tuning speaker and subwoofer performance, and London’s Air Studios full stamp of audio performance approval.
Those are just some of the SC-99’s performance capabilities…believe me when I say the list is longer. It’s quite an impressive package.
Fit and Finish
The SC-99 possesses a super clean and confident look, which is what we’ve come to expect from Elite badged gear. Its black-brushed aluminum faceplate features subtly rounded corners, a drop-down door that covers a multitude of convenient and useful input controls and ports, and two large knobs that turn with weighted precision. It also features a highly readable (three stage dimmable) orange-lit display.
The front panel features highly useful menu navigation controls.
The backside of the unit is loaded to the max with connectivity options. Here you’ll find 7.1 multi-channel inputs, 11.2 pre-outs, 22 speaker terminals, and other standard hook-up options. You'll also find dual Wi-Fi antennae, a single Ethernet network connection, and FM/AM antenna connections. In general, I found the backside to have a logical layout. But, as you’ll see, I ran into a few connection hiccups that proved to be frustrating.
The SC-99 reeks of high-quality design and construction. It’s a decently heavy unit (39 lbs) that’s sized to traditional standards (17-1/8-inches W x 7-5/16 H x 17-3/8 D), which made it easy to fit in my theater room’s cubby rack.
What’s in the Box?
Pioneer’s chosen packaging is of high quality, mirroring what you’d expect to find protecting products from the company’s competition. The SC-99 ships with a remote, an MCACC microphone, a printed Quick Start guide, an AM/FM antenna, and a compact disc containing the manual (which is also available online).
If you’re a previous or current owner of Pioneer gear, then you’ll quickly find a familiar comfort level with the included remote. It presents a button layout and labeling that are true to remotes shipped with previous Pioneer and Elite receivers. It also has intuitive color-coded text that delineates button controls for the receiver versus those intended to operate other devices. What's lost, however, is any kind of button backlighting. Some of the buttons glow in the dark, but I found them hard to see. For dark environments, you’re much better off downloading and using Pioneer’s slick iControlAV5 remote control app.
Normally I’d tell you there’s nothing fun about uninstalling a system’s AVR, creating a rat’s nest of speaker wires and RCA plugs in the process. But when you’re staring a beast like the SC-99 straight in the eyes, creating a mess is a rather joyous (not to mention: hurried) experience.
The backside of the SC-99 is loaded with connection options.
Much like most top-line AVRs, the backside of the SC-99 is a bit intimidating at first glance. In order to evaluate setup intuitiveness, I holstered the manual and decided to wing it on my own. I quickly stumbled upon awkward 7.2.4 speaker connection requirements, several of which rendered the SC-99’s backside labeling somewhat useless. Alas, the manual had to be opened. Just to frame my confusion, understand that my reference AVR supplies internal power to all seven multi-channels in addition to top front presence channels (it relies on external amplification to power the top rear channels). The connection process intuitively follows those requirements to a T, and backside terminals and pre-outs are used as expected.
The SC-99 has slightly different 7.2.4 installation requirements, ultimately requiring rear surround channels to be powered by an external amp. Easy, right? Well, here’s where some confusion occurred. One would assume the external amplifier would be connected to the SC-99’s “Surround Back” pre-outs, when in fact I had to tap pre-outs labeled “Extra 2.” To further muddy the situation, both speaker terminals labeled “Top Middle” were not used. Instead, the unit required me to hook my top front presence channels to the “Rear Surround” terminals and the top rear presence channels to connectors labeled “Extra 1.”
To be fair, the manual clearly identifies the need to use the “Extra 2” pre-outs for the rear surrounds, but my cursory read of the speaker connection pages didn’t clearly identify which terminals should be used for presence channels. Nothing a few test tone trials couldn’t solve, but less experienced owners might find this to be a wall of frustration. Not to belabor the point, as this was a small bump in an otherwise smooth ride.
Establishing both network and Bluetooth connections was quick and painless. In fact, establishing my network connection was as easy as plugging my iPhone into the AVR’s front USB port and pressing a few buttons.
Having owned several Pioneer and Elite models, I’m fairly familiar with the MCACC Pro calibration suite. It’s powerful, easy to use, software that literally requires placing the supplied microphone at your middle listening position and navigating through a friendly GUI menu system. I chose to select a full auto calibration and let the SC-99 take care of the rest. The system caught one speaker that had been connected with reverse polarity (a trick I pulled to see if it was paying attention) and, following a quick speaker wire swap, proceeded to apply measurable improvements to my theater room’s sound.
To note, MCACC (much like my experience with other calibration suites) was a little "off" on channel level settings when compared to my handheld SPL meter. In some cases I found differences of up to 3 decibels. This is an easy fix, but a good reminder to always double-check post calibration settings.
In order to look for changes in acoustic performance, I used Room EQ Wizard (REW) to measure in-room response for my speakers when set to large (no sub) and small (dual subs engaged). For those of you that use REW, you’ll be interested to learn that the SC-99 does not have front side RCA inputs. That omission forced me to regain access to the backside of the unit prior to taking measurements (not a huge deal, but notable for gear-head geeks). See Image One for my pre- and post-MCACC measurements for speakers set to large (without subs), and Image Two for measurements with subs engaged. It’s worthy to note that my theater room is treated with acoustic panels, rear diffusion, and corner bass traps.
Image One, 1/6 smoothing, speakers set to large (no subs).
Image Two, 1/6 smoothing, speakers set to small (subs engaged).
Associated equipment for this review included dual Power Sound Audio XS-30s (subs), Polk Audio RTiA5s (mains and center), RTiA3s (rears), FXiA4s (surrounds), 70-RTs (front/middle presence), an OPPO BDP-103 (Blu-ray), an Emotiva XPA-5 (external amp), and Emotiva CMX-6/CMX-2 line conditioners.
Ready to Rip: The Music Test
My demo journey began with two-channel music listening (no subs) and the SC-99’s Pure Direct mode engaged. First, I reached for “Clint Eastwood” from the Gorillaz’s self-titled debut album (CD). The initial presentation was good, but the song didn’t spring to life until I ditched Pure Direct and engaged the MCACC correction file. Over the years, I’ve used a variety of correction packages on various AVRs with little to no remarkable effect; this is the first time I’ve actually heard a striking difference. To best summarize: Pure Direct had a narrow and centered sound stage with thin-ish depth and texture. The calibrated sound mode, on the other hand, allowed the track to swell with luscious life. The soundstage stretched wider, details popped, and the overall stereo image blossomed. I was as shocked as I was pleased, and the SC-99’s handling of “Clint Eastwood” became exacting and potent. The track stayed crisp and sharp, even as I drove the receiver to reference levels. Lack of clean power was never an issue. MCACC’s effect was also notably present on “Double Bass” and “Rock the House,” where I heard both tracks swell with warmth and vibrancy. This represented a major score for MCACC Pro.
Image: Gorillaz, Parlaphone UK
Next, I reached for a USB stick loaded with Hi-Res Audio. I popped it in the front panel USB port and pressed the iPod/USB button on the remote. The receiver quickly displayed a list of songs contained on the stick via my projector, while simultaneously displaying singular track names on the front of the receiver, itself (perfect for playing Hi-Res files without a video system engaged). My ear-pleasing two-channel experience with Gorillaz was repeated (MCACC file engaged). The Persuasions’ “Angel of Harlem” (The Persuasions Sing U2, AIFF 96 kHz) and John Mayer’s “Wildfire” (Paradise Valley, FLAC 96kHz) sounded vibrant and sharp, with dynamic and spacious soundstages.
The final music selection, Meat Beat Manifesto’s In Dub (5.1 channel, DVD), was the perfect choice to challenge the SC-99 with a heavy multi-channel workload. With the receiver set to five-channel sound (front three and side surrounds, no sub), I pressed play and unleashed glorious waves of electronica. In Dub is a torture test DVD, laced with complexly layered bass and aggressive sonics from all directions. “Radiation Dub” had music swirling around my head, creating an enveloping dome of lively sound. Even when taken to volume levels that any sane person would consider too loud, the SC-99 didn’t flinch. Later, with the subs engaged and speakers set to small, the SC-99 continued to drive the show with an expertly balanced presentation. “Carmel Dub” filled the room with devastating bass that remained controlled and taut, while the track’s slick multi-channel attack echoed beeps and bops that attacked with mesmerizingly sharp precision.
Following my journey into Meat Beat Manifesto’s world of electronic soundscapes, I left the subs engaged and revisited earlier demo material. Bass balance proved to be strong and the integrity of the musical experience remained intact.
I also explored the SC-99’s music streaming capabilities. The receiver played everything I tossed its way without a hiccup or a second guess. It also successfully navigated Bluetooth testing, streaming decent-sounding Low-Res tunes stored on my iPhone.
Moving onto the movie portion of the review, I gathered several of my favorite Blu-ray demo films and grabbed a bowl of popcorn. Listening to the SC-99 drive music to great heights more than primed the pump of anticipation and I couldn’t wait to hear it unleash cinematic fury. Interstellar came first, taking me for a deep space ride loaded with absolutely filthy amounts of bass. The SC-99’s handling of the film’s raucous 5.1 DTS-HD MA track did not disappoint. In particular, Chapter 6’s rocket launch sequence sent my theater room into a fantastic frenzy of explosions and fire, complete with bone-rattling bass and creaks and rattles emanating from around the room. Then there was the wormhole entry scene, which literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck. The SC-99 took my theater room to even deeper levels of sub-sonic chaos with bass mercilessly pounding away well bellow 20 Hz. Cries from the ship’s alarm system seemed to envelop the room. The experience was breathtaking.
Image: Paramount Pictures
After refilling my popcorn, I reached for Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Despite a questionable plot, this Blu-ray contains some of the best multi-channel audio (Dolby TrueHD, 7.1 channel) ever committed to disc. The SC-99 presented the late-movie city attack scene with jaw dropping precision. My theater room was literally bombarded with clean surround activity and explosions of deep bass. All the while, dialog remained clear and concise.
The final movie demo act involved one of (if not) the best Dolby Atmos films to date, Gravity: Diamond Luxe Edition. This particular film required the SC-99 to send information to all 11 speaker channels (full 7.2.4 Atmos sound). The SC-99 scored a perfect “10,” delivering a presentation reaching absolute perfection with moments of breathtaking dynamics and glorious presence channel activity. The SC-99’s ability to delicately deliver subtle dynamics within the audio track (such as adding height and three-dimensionality to Sandra Bullock’s heavy breathing as the camera enters her helmet during her post-disaster float away from the space shuttle) was simply fantastic. The full-Atmos experience delivered by the SC-99 was a total delight, easily matching what I’ve come to expect from my reference system.
Pioneer Elite’s SC-99 is a gorgeous looking and great sounding flagship receiver, filled to the brim with bells and whistles and reasonable user convenience factors. It easily handled everything I tossed its way. The audio impact of the receiver's MCACC Pro room correction software was notably impressive, not to mention the amp section’s seemingly endless amounts of power. Overall audio performance was top-notch, the overall user experience was smooth, and (spec-wise) the SC-99 appears ready to handle UHD video needs well into the future. If you’re in the market for the best of AV receivers, the SC-99 should be on your short list. It’s absolutely killer gear. Highly recommended.
- Amplifier Design:Class D3 (Direct Energy HD)
- Channels: 9.2
- Power Output: Watts per Channel (8 ohms, 1 kHz, 0.08 %, 2 ch Driven FTC) 140 Watts
- Power Output: Watts per Channel (4 ohms, 1 kHz, 1 %, 2 ch Driven) 255 Watts
- Power Output: Watts Multi ch Simultaneous Drive (8 ohms, 1 kHz, 1 %) 850 Watts
- 4 OHM Speaker: Yes
- Estimated Power Consumption/Standby with HDMI Control off: 370 W/0.1 W (standby)
- USB DAC: 192kHz/32-bit
- DSD Music File: 2 Ch (5.6MHz/2.8MHz)
- Audio Processing: Hi-bit 32
- Dialog Enhancement: Yes
- Advanced Sound Retriever: Multi-Channel / Auto with ARC
- Sound Retriever AIR: Yes
- Digital Noise Reduction: Yes
- Tone Control Multi
- Sound Delay (Lip Sync): Yes (800 ms)
- Speaker A/B: Yes
- Bi-Amp: Front, Center, Surr, SP-B
- 4K 60p Ultra HD Passthrough: Yes
- 4K 60p Ultra HD Video Scaler: Yes
- 3-D Ready: Yes
- Audio Return Channel: Yes
- HDMI 36-bit Deep Color: Yes
- x.v.Color: Yes
- Video Converter to HDMI: Yes
- Video Scaler: Yes (1080p to 4K)
- Stream Smoother: Yes
- Pure Cinema: Yes
- Super Resolution: Yes
- Video Parameter Adjustments: YNR, CNR, BNR, MNR, Detail, Brightness, Contrast, Hue, Chroma, Black Level
- HDMI Input / Output: 8 in (7 Rear, 1 Front)/3 out
- MHL 2: 1 (Rear)
- Wi-Fi Built-In: Yes (5GHz/2.4GHz)
- Bluetooth Built-In: Yes
- Component Video Input / Output: 2 In (Assignable)
- iPhone / iPod / USB Memory Input: Front USB
- Ethernet Input: Yes
- Composite A/V Input / Output: 2 In / 1 Out
- Analog Audio Inputs / Output: 1 In
- Phono Input: Yes
- Digital Inputs / Output: 4 In / 1 Out
- Pre-Amp Outputs: 11.2ch
- Headphone Output: Yes
- Front A/V Inputs: USB & HDMI
- AM/FM Presets: 63
Image Credits: Pioneer Electronics, Gorillaz, Parlaphone UK, Paramount Pictures