Surround sound is the essential companion to a good TV. There really isn't any point in spending thousands on your screen and using the built-in speakers: you just won't get the best out of films. It's like being a double-hard marathon runner and wearing a pair of crocs to race in -- people who know about running will laugh at you, and ultimately your feet will hurt.
The Onkyo TX-SR576 aims to provide a good solution: it's a 7.1-channel surround-sound decoder and amplifier, with support for Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. It offers loads of features for people who want involving surround sound in their lives. It's available now for around £270, but of course you'll have to add speakers to that.
The Onkyo SR576 is a little under £100 cheaper than the SR605, which is the company's cheapest Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoder. It's really very important to remember you don't need a receiver capable of decoding the two Blu-ray lossless codecs. All you need is a player that can output analogue 7.1 or LPCM via HDMI -- the PlayStation 3 is a great example of a player that decodes digital audio and then passes it unpacked to the decoder over HDMI.
This means if you have the right playback hardware you can save money by not buying the top of the range receiver. And this makes the SR576 seem like a particularly good buy.
First off, we should point out that surround-sound systems are rarely very good with music. Generally speaking, they're designed for multi-channel audio and that means good old stereo music gets neglected slightly. So when we listened to some tunes, we really weren't expecting that much from the SR576, but boy were we wrong.
Music, especially in the stereo and Dolby ProLogic II Music mode sounded truly amazing. There was a clarity and richness to everything we listened to and the receiver directed sound to the rear channels and centre channel in a way that felt engaging instead of clinical, while preserving the fine detail in the music. Our FLAC lossless music sounded especially lovely, with plenty of subtleties you wouldn't notice on cheaper hardware.
As you'd hope, movie soundtracks sound genuinely great too, but without being too overwhelming. We fired up some of our favourite Blu-ray movies, including Batman Begins and Spider-Man and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We never felt that any channel lost balance and dialogue was especially crisp, without destroying the subtle effects.
We're also big fans of the simple set-up procedure. In common with some other similar AV receivers, the Onkyo has Audyssey built-in. This system couldn't be easier: you simply plug in a microphone, stick it in your usual sitting position and press the auto-setup button. The receiver pumps out some random noises, and then configures itself. This reduces the need for any sort of speaker placement expertise.