If you can live without some of the more advanced frivolity infiltrating the AV receiver market, there are some remarkable bargains to be had. Straightforward multi-channel amplifiers that used to cost around £500 now routinely sell for less than £300. This is great news if you need an upgrade principally for HDMI connectivity or 3D compatibility. Pioneer's 5.1-channel VSX-521 is one such cheapie. It will set you back around £280.
Design and connectivity
At a glance, you'd never think the VSX-521 costs less than £300. It shares the same glossy black aesthetic and build quality as step-up models in the Pioneer line. There's some flex to the chassis but, overall, the finish is of a high standard.
Connectivity is also decent. You get four 3D-friendly HDMI 1.4a inputs -- one more than the even cheaper VSX-421 -- plus two component, four phono AV, two analogue stereo and three digital audio (two optical) inputs.
There's also a subwoofer output for the low-frequency effects channel, plus pre-outs for hooking the VSX-521 up to a second amplifier, which is then hooked up to an additional two speakers, if you want to get 7.1-channel surround sound. The VSX-521 supports Dolby Pro Logic IIz too so you can feed sound to seven channels, rather than five.
This may be a five-channel amp, but only the main stereo speakers benefit from decent binding posts. It's disappointing that both the centre and the surround speakers have to use spring-clip terminals.
The VSX-521 lacks any media-streaming talents. Indeed, you won't even find a USB port for local media playback. But you do get a front-mounted 3.5mm mini-jack for your portable music player, and a rear-placed Bluetooth port. If you pay around £50 for Pioneer's AS-BT200 adaptor, you'll be able to stream music wirelessly from a Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone or another compatible device.
The VSX-521 may be a budget option, but it's not devoid of extras. For a start, Pioneer includes the entry-level iteration of its MCACC calibration tool. This is designed to balance and equalise the AV receiver to the acoustics of your listening room. It's simple enough to use -- just plug in the supplied microphone and follow the display prompts.
One feature that's easy to overlook but that's well worthwhile is HDMI standby pass-through. This allows kit to be routed through the VSX-521 via HDMI, without requiring the AV receiver to be powered up all the chuffing time. We suspect this feature will be a godsend for family users.
On the downside, there's no video up-conversion, leaving you at the mercy of any scaling circuitry in your source components, and no on-screen display. Having to use the receiver's fairly small display to make big adjustments is something of a trial.
The VSX-521 uses the same design and power supply as last year's VSX-520, but it's been retuned by Pioneer's engineers in Kawasaki, with some success. The result is a faster and more exciting listen than last year's model, with the receiver more than capable of delivering highly dynamic sounds.
By default, all low-frequency sounds below 100Hz are sent to the subwoofer, rather than the main speakers. That setting is too high, leaving the main speakers sounding thin. Lower the setting to 80Hz, however, and the unit delivers deep, non-localisable and controlled bass. Pioneer rates the power output of the AV receiver at 130W per channel, which seems slightly optimistic. But, while it's not a volume monster, it doesn't readily run out of puff either.
Indeed, the overall performance of the VSX-521 sparkles for the price. It may be more cubic zirconia than diamond, but two-channel Super Audio CDs over HDMI sound delightful. Its light touch makes short work of complex classical pieces -- Mozart's Violin Concerto in D Major is a blast -- but this receiver is just as happy with bombastic multi-channel action movies. Surround-sound panning is fast and accurate.
The VSX-521 is fully compatible with all the key Blu-ray codecs -- Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, Dolby Digital EX and Dolby Digital Plus, as well as DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS 96/24, DTS-ES and DTS Neo:6. There are also ten generic digital-signal processing modes to experiment with. Should you ever feel all over-processed, there's also a 'stream direct' mode.
It's easy to see where Pioneer's cut corners with the VSX-521 to keep the price down. The calibration tool isn't as precise as Advanced MCACC, and the lack of an on-screen display means you have to depend on the front panel's awkward screen. There's really no excuse for the low-grade spring clip on the centre channel either.
But the VSX-521 is a surprisingly capable performer all the same. Also, having pre-outs for 7.1-channel surround sound is a welcome refinement. If you're after an entertaining 5.1-channel AV receiver with a distinctly musical tone, then this is definitely one to consider.
Edited by Charles Kloet