Swiss Army Stereo: Pioneer VSX-820K

Pioneer VSX 820K. Image courtesy of Pioneer.

Pioneer VSX 820K. Image courtesy of Pioneer.


How did this get on here?

Isn’t this Silver Face Stereo?

Does circa-2010 now count as ‘vintage’?

Well, those are all good questions.

First off, this is Silver Face Stereo but I will make exceptions. And no, 2010 does not count as ‘vintage’, unless you’re talking about cell phones.

But my Pioneer VSX-820k does deserve a mention.

The VSX-820k is mid-tier in Pioneer’s line of consumer home-theater receivers. I think it retailed new for $3-400; I got mine in trade for other stereo equipment.

This is what comes in the package

This is what comes in the package

Style-wise, it’s almost literally nothing to look at: various sheens and textures of black plastic with a small LED front panel. Your basic black box. It does have two nice dials on the front for adjusting the volume and switching through inputs. This second dial is in my opinion almost useless, however.

On the back are the usual connections for HDMI, S-video and digital inputs, and 5 sets of 5-way posts for the 5.1 speaker out. There are also spring-loaded posts for the ‘b’ speakers. This model does not have preamp-outs, so there’s no way to hook up additional power amps should you be so inclined.


VSX-820K rear. Courtesy of Pioneer

VSX-820K rear. Courtesy of Pioneer

But that would really defeat the purpose of this system, which is to provide as much connectivity as possible without having to mess with more boxes or wires. HDMI means your player (Blu-Ray, DVD, Roku, cable box or whatever) only has to plug into the receiver once to deliver picture and multichannel sound. 5 power amps mean you don’t need additional amplifiers. And with the Pioneer’s 80 watts per channel, there’s sufficient power to get you started. And really, with all the speakers I’ve ever run on this system I’ve never really needed more power, at least that I could tell.

Oh, another interesting note. I think that the VSX-820k uses the same amplifier/s as its lower-tier (520k) and higher-tier (920k, 1020k) bretheren – I couldn’t discern any power or performance differences in the specs. So really moving up the chain you are not buying more power or sound, just more doodads and connections.

So how does it sound?

For movies and the like, it’s great. You can calibrate your system using the onboard automatic calibration microphone. You put the mic where you usually sit and let the system push pink noise to each speaker and determine the ideal EQ, sound level and distance. It works ok, but you’ll want to tweak afterwards. For example you can’t utilize a subwoofer if you have your front speakers set to ‘large’. Best to set them all to ‘small’ and dial in the subwoofer crossover level you want to use. I also appreciated dialing in more center channel then the system suggested. But that’s small potatoes.

Here's my 820K, piled under cords while we redo the basement.

Here’s my 820K, piled under cords while we redo the basement.

Otherwise things sound good. Good speakers really help here too.

For music I really like this system too.

Sound is very accurate. It’s got a lot of high-end definition – treble and high notes come through clear and with distinction. it’s definitely a more ‘digital’ sound than the vintage units. But since I always initially judge receiver sound quality from detail, this unit stands out early.

It advertised 80 watts per channel but I suspect you’re really getting all that electricity only in 2-channel mode, so playing music on one of the 5.1 schemes the Pioneer has (5 different dolby settings from ‘theater’ to ‘concert hall’, Neo II 6.1, and others) less juice to push to each speaker. I currently have it hooked up to some larger speakers – Boston Acoustic A200s in the front, a Boston Acoustic VR-12C in the center, and Polk Monitor 5s as surrounds, and a B&W ASW600 subwoofer. It handles all of them just fine.

For me, listening to 2-channel music pushed to all 5 speakers was a little gimmicky – with the right speakers and placement this receiver is fully capable of creating a full soundstage in 2 channel mode.

So the electronic surround sound settings are not really useful. But other parts of this receiver’s prodigious processing power are.

I’m particularly fond of the automatic crossover settings that allow you to push only certain frequencies to your main speakers and pass on the rest to your subwoofer. This allows my main speakers to concentrate in the frequency range they’re best at without overextending trying to hit the lowest bass notes. For my Polk Monitor 7 and Boston Acoustic A200s that I use as main speakers, I usually set the crossover at about 80hz. This is even a little high for the Bostons but it really allows their sweet midrange to open up, and send the hardest low notes to the sub, in my case a Bowers & Wilkins ASW600.  You can get the same effect by running the speaker outs from a vintage stereo right into the subwoofer crossover and then have it run the higher frequencies to the speakers, but that is a bigger mess of cables. With the Pioneer all you have to do is shoot one RCA cable to the subwoofer and you’re done.

Another thing I do like with the Pioneer are the different processing schemes for 2-channel stereo. You can choose from ‘pure direct’ with is unadulterated sound from your source material. This usually sounds kind of thin. Or you can choose ‘direct’ or ‘stereo’, both of which have additional processing to bring more life into the sound. Basically what I think these do is pump up the gain and midrange. In any case it works to liven up the sound.

I listen to a lot of music from my iPod classic, and the Pioneer has a USB port and a special adapter to plug the iPod right into the receiver. You can actually control the iPod from the receiver remote, but I don’t – the remote and the onscreen interface for the receiver is terrible, something out of the MS-DOS era.

But what I do like is that the iPod direct-in allows the receiver to do some processing of the signal and use the Digital Analog Converter (DAC) in the receiver to improve the sound going out to the speakers. For listening to music in Mp3 or AAC format i think this is a huge help – the Pioneer does justice to the source material. On other amps my iPod just doesn’t sound as good. In particular moving to my Pioneer SX-1250 the soundstage from the iPod just isn’t as wide, I still have to do an A/B between the new and old Pioneers with other sources (CD, etc) to see how they stack up.

But overall, I am very satisfied with the Pioneer VSX-820. For someone who isn’t as obsessed with gear as me, this would be a very fine all-in-one system to enjoy music on.


~ by silverfacestereo on August 30, 2013.

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