There’s no denying the seductiveness of today’s home theater AV receivers and the dynamic multi-channel audio performances they conduct. Powerful, loaded with technology, and brandishing large price tags, the best surround sound AVRs deliver big on audio and video. But not everyone is looking for a sensory overload of surround sound; some are looking for a much simpler musically focused two-channel experience. That’s where a less expensive segment of network stereo receivers enters the picture.
Modern network stereo receivers deliver true two-channel performance with a focus on sound quality and source versatility. Most major AV manufacturers offer a handful of models in this category, typically ranging in price from $100 to $600 US. Pioneer Elite is rather unique in that it only offers one fully integrated network stereo receiver (model SX-N30) in addition to several pre/pro component models that can be mixed and matched. Today, we’ll take an in depth look at the SX-N30 with a performance evaluation that tests its overall usability and musical prowess.
Nuts and Bolts
The SX-N30 ($600 MSRP, $400 Street) was first announced during October 2015 and featured by Pioneer at CES 2016 in Las Vegas. While it’s not necessarily a new kid on the block, the SX-N30 is far from being outdated. Its onboard feature set includes a lengthy list of playback options (including Internet radio, Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, AM/FM radio, and traditional physical sources) and Hi-Res capabilities that will keep it relevant for years to come.
The heart of the SX-N30 is a Class AB (Direct Energy) amplifier that delivers 80 Watts per channel (8 ohms, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, THD 0.1%, 2ch Driven) and achieves high signal-to-noise and signal transmission performance through a unique design that incorporates a large EI transformer and two large 8,200 μF capacitors. Onboard network audio and digital audio processing is handled by a TI Aures digital signal processor (model DA830). The SX-N30 offers two zones of audio performance via zone specific audio outputs and can drive two pairs of speakers simultaneously.
If you’re wondering about the SX-N30’s video performance, you’ll need to alter your expectations. Much like its competition, the SX-N30 is devoid of video pass-through (including HDMI connectivity). Owners can still integrate the receiver into the audio side of a television or projector set up, but audio will need to be fed through analog inputs. If you’re looking for a stereo receiver that’s capable of direct video source management, you’ll need to look at Pioneer Elite’s multichannel offerings.
The front side of the Elite SX-N30 has several key usability features.
Functionality by Design
The exterior of the SX-N30 sports classic ‘old school’ front panel functionality punctuated by modern flair. It features a black brushed aluminum faceplate with tastefully rounded corners (not unlike other 2016 Elite AVR gear), an anti-vibration oval chassis, and Pioneer’s typical orange display. Controls found on the front side include bass, treble, and balance knobs, radio preset and tuning buttons, A/B speaker selectors, a dimmer button, a large volume knob, an input selector, one headphone jack, and a USB slot. All of those are fairly standard features for stereo receivers, but the inclusion of bass and treble knobs is unique when comparing the SX-N30 to many multi-channel AVRs. The larger primary controls (i.e., volume, treble, bass, and balance) have a nice feel when manipulated, but lack the luxurious weighted feel that higher-end equipment typically presents.
The SX-N30’s back side features two adjustable Wi-Fi antennae, robust speaker posts that accept banana plugs, three 12V triggers, and two IR inputs. It also presents two optical and two digital inputs, seven gold plated analog inputs (phono, SACD/CD, TV, game, AUX, SAT/cable, BD/DVD), and dual zone and subwoofer pre-outs. Overall, Pioneer did an exceptional job keeping the rear panel’s layout simple to navigate, making the SX-N30 easy to set up and operate (perfect for less technically inclined users).
Cabinet size (17.13-inches W x 5.83-in H x 12.85-in) and weight (18.74 lbs) allow the SX-N30 to be easily managed and make it a good fit for cabinets or racks with less space.
Set Up and Network Connection
Aside from physically connecting speakers and an OPPO BD-103 Blu-ray player to the SX-N30, set up for this review was largely driven by pairing the SX-N30 to a home Wi-Fi network and the iOS SX-N30 Control App (also available for Android devices). The SX-N30 does not ship with any type of onboard room correction software, therefore the onus of sound control and optimization is placed purely on the end user, which isn’t such a bad thing. Outside of bypassing tone controls (via Pure Direct Mode) or manually adjusting bass, treble, and balance controls, owners must optimize speaker placement and manage room characteristics to find great sound. In my particular case, the SX-N30 was deployed in a dedicated (and treated) theater room, where much thought and care has been taken in speaker placement and room design.
Pioneer provides SX-N30 owners with two remote control options: a physical remote and the SX-N30 Control App. My preference favored the App, which I found to be indispensable. However, Pioneer’s physical remote features a user friendly design punctuated by a spacious and clearly labeled button layout. Unlike Pioneer multichannel AVR remotes, the SX-N30’s remote only has one button with dual-labeled functionality (making use of the remote simple and straight forward). The remote’s largest omission (which isn’t uncommon) is the lack of button back lighting for use in dark rooms. But since the SX-N30 isn’t a home theater AVR (and less likely to be heavily tied to dark room use), this is a minor nit-pick.
Screen shots of the SX-N30's Control App showoff its clean user interface.
Pairing the SX-N30 to my home Wi-Fi network was a foolproof process. Following a few simple clicks of the remote, an onboard network auto-find feature made establishing a Wi-Fi connection quick and painless. Those of you with minimal technical inclination need not worry, as Pioneer’s included paper manual does an excellent job of outlining the set up process. Also, the SX-N30’s front display menu makes great use of its limited size, effectively guiding the set-up process from network discovery through entering a password. Pairing the Control App to the SX-N30 was just as easy and practically automatic. Just to note, I generally found command latency between the App and the SX-N30 to be instantaneous. However, the App did exhibit a small pairing delay each time it was re-opened for use (or following performing other tasks such as checking email or surfing the web).
Over a period of several weeks, the receiver was paired to 6 different speaker configurations comprised of GoldenEar Technology’s Triton 2+ towers (16Hz – 35kHz, 91dB), Polk Audio’s RTiA5 towers (40Hz – 26kHz, 90dB), Polk Audio’s RT3 bookshelf speakers (50Hz – 20kHz, 89dB), and a single Power Sound Audio XS30 subwoofer. Other associated gear included an iPhone6, a Mac desktop (OSX El Capitan, 10.11.6), and an OPPO BD-103 Blu-ray player.
To note, the Triton 2+ towers (previously reviewed, here) feature onboard powered subwoofers, while both the RTi5 towers and RT3 bookshelves are both passive models.
Listening evaluations included the following:
- GoldenEar Triton 2+ (solo)
- GoldenEar Triton 2+ and Polk RT3 (simultaneous)
- Polk RT3 (solo)
- Polk RTiA5 (solo)
- Polk RTiA5 and Polk RT3 (simultaneous)
- Polk RtiA5 with Power Sound Audio XS30 linked via sub-out
The back side of the SX-N30 is easy to decipher and navigate.
The quick and dirty is that the SX-N30 drove each speaker configuration to perfection during low to moderately loud listening sessions, and overall speaker performance and sound output fell in line with expectations based on previous experience. Sound quality was exceptionally clean and well-rounded with a hint of warmth due to my preferred set up tweaks. I experimented with the Pure Direct Mode during early stages of the evaluation, but ultimately found my ears preferred Pure Direct turned “off” with the bass adjusted to +2 and treble adjusted to -2. Of course, the decision to alter the bass and treble output was solely due to my particular listening space and seating position. Owners of the SX-N30 will need to experiment with their own receiver and speakers to see what best suits their unique environment and preferences.
As noted above, I felt the SX-N30 performed best at low to moderately loud listening levels. The receiver’s display marks volume level on a scale of 0 to 100 (zero being the lowest), and the outer limits of best performance topped-out at 60. Anything above 60 (best generalized as reasonably loud) resulted in some distortion and loss of sound quality. I found this held true even when incorporating the PSA XS30 subwoofer via the receiver’s sub-out connection.
The GoldenEar Triton 2+ showed the most leniency as volume levels approached and surpassed 60, even when compared to the RTiA5 towers paired with the PSA sub. And the SX-N30 had relatively consistent performance when asked to drive both A and B speakers simultaneously (as compared to driving a single pair of speakers). All considered, the receiver delivered impressive levels of performance. However, owners interested in driving speakers to extremely high volume levels should consider adding a standalone amplifier to the mix.
The following are source-specific evaluations of sound and performance, detailed while using the SX-N30 in conjunction with Polk RTiA5 towers.
The SX-N30 ships with two separate radio antennae: one for AM and the other for FM. The AM antenna is a 4-1/2-inch by 5-1/4-in black plastic rectangle with a 31-in connection wire that attached to two spring-loaded push posts on the back of the unit. The FM antenna is an 88-in thin white wire that attached to a similar area of the receiver via a simple push-on plug.
The SX-N30’s radio functionality includes both auto and manual tuning, as well as the ability to directly enter a station’s frequency. Owners can program up to 40 different radio station presets.
FM reception in my rather challenging basement-based home theater room was excellent. The SX-N30 was able to auto-find my favorite Washington DC and Maryland radio stations without a hiccup. Sound quality was topnotch.
While some may consider AM reception to be a moot point, I found AM performance to be more than acceptable. The SX-N30 wasn’t able to find my two favorite baseball broadcasting channels via auto tune, but the receiver did pick up solid reception with manual tuning and some careful antennae placement. Both broadcasts were devoid of the typical hisses and hums that an older AM/FM rig in my adjacent workshop likes to add to the listening experience.
The Internet radio evaluation began by signing into a Pandora account. While it’s possible to sign in using the physical remote and front panel display, I expedited the process by jumping on the Control App and using the iPhone’s onscreen keyboard. Within seconds I was listening to the Eagles Radio station and “The Best of My Love” was shimmering through my theater room. Sound quality was excellent (considering the source) with warm bass and reasonably sharp highs, easily matching my Pandora expectations. The Control App allowed me to skip through songs on the Eagles channel, and the receiver’s front display showed both artist and song information.
Next, I returned to the Control App and tapped the SX-N30’s onboard TuneIn Radio feature. Using the App, I quickly navigated through several different folders of music before settling on an 80’s station from Australia. Queen’s “Breakthru 1989” began pouring into my room. Once again, sound quality of the internet feed seemed to favor the lower end, however highs were more than passible.
The Internet functionality of the SX-N30 presents nearly endless amounts of music, which is perfect for music fans looking for free diversity and choice. I found total ease of use as I played with the above mentioned sources, and had a similar experience with Spotify and Deezer Radio. Kudos to Pioneer for excellent execution on the Internet Radio front.
Both Airplay and Bluetooth have become wildly popular ways of sharing music between a computer or mobile device and a receiver. I had zero issues connecting my iPhone 6 and Mac Computer (El Capitan, iTunes version 12.5.1) with the SX-N30 and (much like the internet radio sources) sound quality was on par with expectations. Demo songs were crystal clear and lacked any noticeable quality issues.
USB / Hi-Res Audio
The SX-N30 ships with wide ranging Hi-Res Audio performance, including compatibility with MP3, WMA, WMA Lossless, WAV, AAC, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, LPCM, Apple Lossless, and DSD files types. I chose to feed the receiver Hi-Res files via a USB stick inserted in the front facing USB port. Following a few selections with the remote, the SX-N30’s front display showed song and artist information. Song navigation and selection was achievable by relying on the physical remote and front display, but I found that the detailed song/artist lists available on the Control App provided a better searching experience.
I’ve used John Mayer’s Paradise Valley album (FLAC 96kHz) in several reviews this year, and have spent months listening to its richly textured tunes. That made it perfect go to Hi-Res demo material for this review. The SX-N30 drove the Polk RTiA5 speakers flawlessly at low to moderately loud volume levels, demonstrating effortless playback and dynamics. For example, Mayer’s soothing voice in “Dear Marie” was delivered with fantastic depth and warmth while the accompanying guitars were sharply detailed. Vocal imaging during “Waitin’ on the Day” was simply spectacular, as were Mayer’s playful guitar riffs in “Paper Doll.”
Pioneer deserves high marks for the SX-N30’s Hi-Res playback functionality and performance.
The compact disc playback evaluation portion of the review included widely varied material, covering a range of stylistic possibilities and sound demands.
Banco De Gaia's “Kincajou” (Trance Europe Express 3) challenged the SX-N30’s power capabilities with a presentation of throbbing bass littered with loads of samples and percussion. I pushed the receiver to volume levels (60+) earlier identified as the outer limits of distortion free composure; the sonic presentation was absolutely delightful. The song’s bass was tightly controlled and detailed, while the dynamics of the song were razor-sharp, exacting, and intense as the soundstage danced and expanded with confidence. The next track on the Trance Europe Express 3 compendium (Luke Slater’s 7th Plain “Pearl”) presented material with even more demanding bass that led me to reduce volume levels to less than 60. Higher volumes introduced instability and distortion that altered the character of the song.
Image: Alexi Murdoch, Alexi Murdoch Music
Looking for a slightly softer sound with warmth, I reached for Alexi Murdoch’s debut EP 4 Songs. The track “Blue Mind” was exactly what I had in mind, and the SX-N30 didn’t disappoint with a perfectly layered presentation that played well at higher volume levels. The song’s rolling low end nature flowed beautifully and Murdoch’s voice soothed with rich detail.
George Winston’s Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vine Guaraldi isn’t loaded with deep base and doesn’t deliver an intense high frequency attack. It’s more of a laidback affair that rides somewhere in the middle, leaving lots of room for small playback errors to be exposed. The SX-N30 rose to the occasion and delivered Winston’s masterpiece with a presentation punctuated by smoothness. Once again, the SX-N30 was happiest at middling (to slightly above) volume levels – more than enough to project a festive atmosphere into the listening room.
For a final act, I invited Pearl Jam (Ten) to the party, just to introduce a little bit of an edge. “Why Go” poured into the room with an aggressive stance. The song’s bass was on full display and Eddie Vedder’s voice was beautifully sharp and intelligible. “Why Go,” much like the rest of the album, is full of screaming guitars, which the SX-N30 delivered to perfection. Perhaps my favorite track on the album, “Black,” rang with echoes and narrow imaging that punched the track through the front wall (nearly the opposite of a song like “Jeremy” that presented itself with a much more forward and wide soundstage). I’ve never considered Ten to be a reference recording, but the SX-N30 didn’t add to fuel to its flaws. In fact, the receiver’s easy to access treble and bass controls helped me to tame some of its deficiencies, making for a great overall presentation.
Considering its street price (currently $400), the SX-N30 is a killer package of connectivity, source diversity, and output quality. It’s an all-around solid performer and delivers tremendous value when considering price-for-performance. While the receiver’s amp section lost some luster when volumes eclipsed moderately high listening levels, it’s overall performance was confident and clean. In my opinion, the SX-N30 is aimed squarely at enthusiasts looking to drive a two-channel system in a relaxed environment. If you’re looking for a party pounder to shake your house, the SX-N30 would be better suited when used in conjunction with a more powerful external amplifier. If, however, you’re looking to take advantage of a range of musical sources and want a smooth sound that can be taken to semi-loud levels, then the SX-N30 should certainly be considered. Recommended.
- Direct EnergyAnalog Discrete 2ch Amplifer
- Large EI Transformer
- Two Large 8,200 μF Capacitors
- TI AureusTM DSP (DA830) for Network Audio and Digital Audio Processing
- 80 W/ch (8 ohms, 20 Hz-20 kHz, THD 0.1 %, 2ch Driven FTC)
- Aluminum Front Panel
- Anti-Vibration Oval Chassis
- Gold-Plated Analog/Digital Audio Input Terminals (Phono MM, SACD/
- CD, TV, GAME, AUX, SAT/CBL, BD/DVD, COAXIAL)
- Gold-Plated Analog Audio Output Terminals (LINE, PRE, ZONE2 PRE)
Audio and Network Features
- Pure Direct Mode
- Direct Mode
- Apple AirPlay® Certi ed
- DLNA Certi edTM (1.5)
- Windows® 8.1 Compatible
- Music File Playback via Network/USB: WAV, FLAC, Apple Lossless,
- WMA Lossless, WMA, AAC, OGG Vorbis, MP3
- • 192 kHz/24-bit Audio Playback (WAV*1, FLAC*1) • DSD*2 Playback (2.8/5.6 MHz)
- Spotify® Digital Music-Streaming Service Ready*3 › Internet Radio with TuneIn®
- Built-in Wi-F (2.4 GHz)
- Built-in Bluetooth Wireless Technology (Version: 2.1+EDR, Pro le: A2DP/
- AVRCP, Codec: SBC)
- ControlApp Ready (iOS/AndroidTM)*4
- AM/FM Tuner with 40 Station Presets
- Preset Station Naming (Up to 10 Characters) › Auto Power Down
- SR Remote Control
- Front USB 1 in
- Phones 1 out
- Ethernet 1 in
- Analog Audio in (Phono MM, SACD/CD, TV, GAME, AUX, SAT/CBL, BD/DVD)
- Line 1 out
- Digital Coaxial 2 in
- Digital Optical 2 in
- Preout 2.1ch
- Zone 2 Preout 2.1ch
- IR 2 in/1 out
- 12 V Trigger
- Power Requirements: AC 220-230 V, 50/60 Hz
- Power Consumption (in Use/in Standby): 220 W/0.2 W
- Dimensions (W x H x D): 17.13 x 5.83 x 12.85 inches, Weight: 18.74 lbs
- UPC: 889951000013
Image Credits: Pioneer Electronics, Todd Anderson / Home Theater Shack, Alexi Murdoch / Alexi Murdoch Music, Pandora, Spotify, Microsoft, Apple, TuneIn Radio