I have to give a little background before you read this review further; I’m not a new to the commercial version of Dolby Atmos technology. In fact I have designed and installed more than a dozen commercial theatres with Dolby Atmos is South East Asia. However, even after the multitudes of home Dolby Atmos demonstrations conducted by various manufacturers in various countries such as Dolby UK, Pioneer USA, Denon Hong Kong and a whole lot more during CEDIA 2014 , I was still skeptical on how will it implement in a real-life situation. Don’t get me wrong, the demonstrations were amazing, but they are in controlled rooms with room size larger than most real-life room sizes and/or acoustic treatments.
Thanks to Pioneer Canada, Andrew Jones (also from Pioneer), and for accepting my “dare” in reviewing the home version Dolby Atmos, now I have the very first home Dolby Atmos set up in Canada…and that is nice 🙂 So, to start, here is the list of the equipment used in this review: Pioneer Elite SC-85 receiver, Pioneer Elite Andrew Jones 5.1.4 Dolby Enabled speaker system, my old but trusty Pioneer Elite PRO FPJ1 projector, BDP-09 blu-ray player, CLD-604D LaserDisc player, Technics SL-1000 turntable and the newly acquired Stewart StudioTek 130 G4 screen powered through Torus Power AVR 15 Plus.
One of many “wow” moments for me while checking out the cosmetics of this receiver is the return of Elite’s original proper-amber coloured fluorescent display. It’s minimal for most people, perhaps, but it is one of many details I love from the Elite line up. The usual rigid structure and minimalist design that fell in love with close to two decades ago are all still there. Even the Dolby, DTS, and the rest of the technology offerings logos are located on the top right side of the receiver almost hidden away unless you really try to find them. All the buttons are also hidden behind a front flap panel. It’s very clean, classy, and un-gaudy. My jitter test indicated that the SC-85 jitter is below 50 picoseconds – all other receivers and pre-pro I have tested thus far yield jitter levels between 600 picoseconds and 5,000 picoseconds. Jitter is time-base error. It is caused by varying time delays in the circuit paths from component to component in the signal path. The two most common causes of jitter are poorly-designed Phase Locked Loops (PLL’s) and waveform distortion due to mismatched impedances and/or reflections in the signal path. The higher the jitter value means the worse the sound quality will be. As a comparison, the highly regarded Bryston DAC costing $2,500 runs in the 15 picoseconds. Thus having a 50 picoseconds jitter rate on the SC-85, a receiver which MSRP being merely $1,800, is truly amazing. Something that never been achieved by any receiver I’ve encountered thus far.
As for the speakers go, the built is super solid. Hefty and weighty at the same time with an elegant Elite logo made of metal at the bottom of the grille. Something that you don’t usually find in speakers at this price level. They feel a whole lot more expensive than the asking price ($1,500 for a pair of SP-EFS73 towers, $829 for a pair of SP-EBS73 bookshelves, $450 for SP-EC73 centre channel speaker, and SW-E10 subwoofer). Moreso, the finish is surprisingly good. Much better than “vinyl finish” descriptor used on the website. Yes it’s made of vinyl, but it’s an extremely high-grade vinyl which can easily pass as wood veneer. You really need to see and touch them to understand my amazement.
As far as sound quality goes, the Pioneer use a proprietary Dual Concentric Drivers dubbed as “Coherent Source Transducer”. This type of driver dramatically reduces interference between the midrange and tweeter, precisely controlling sound directivity at all frequencies and ensuring that direct and reflected sound arrive at the listening position with identical timing and timbre. It does this with a 1-inch tweeter positioned centrally at the apex of the 4-inch midrange drive unit. Unlike a coaxial driver, which positions its high-frequency driver further forward of a larger cone, the CST concentric design eliminates audible time domain errors that cannot be avoided when drivers are not aligned on the same axial or vertical plane. Such distortion is virtually eliminated in the sophisticated, proprietary CST used in the Elite Home Theater Speaker range.
The same goes with the subwoofer. Having used various subwoofer from Pioneer, I was pleasantly surprised how well designed the subwoofer is and how deep and taut the sound coming from it. Yet again Pioneer proves itself to be the best-in-class in everything they do.
The Set-up and Listening Tests
To my surprise, even with Craig Eggers from Dolby Labs and Andrew Jones, the speaker designer, are “on call” to support my install, calibration, and optimize my system, I did it all on my own. The set up process of the entire system is a breeze for those with the know-how. For first timers you will need to read the manual carefully, however. I did my entire setup (installing the receiver, updating the firmware, customizing all inputs, unboxing all the speakers, wiring and full manual MCACC calibration) in a mere six hours. That includes fishing the extra speaker wires into my dedicated home theatre room!!
Playing the Dolby Atmos demo disc and Transformers 4, it is very clear to me that Dolby Atmos works as advertised. The extra layer or surround sound above my head is pure joy. It’s very effective in creating the sense of height and extra dimensionality to the overall sound.
Contrary to statements by Dr Van Baelen, the inventor of Auro3D surround format that suggest “Dolby Atmos cannot do music,” in my tests, Atmos did music very well. The music video for the song Bailando by Enrique Iglesias showcases how well Dolby Atmos handles music. The movie Step Up All In showcases the capabilities of Dolby Atmos in handling music even more. The reverb and echo from the soundtracks seemingly pushed the ceiling higher and the walls deeper and wider. Placements of audio effects such as shouts, secondary instruments, and panning sounds natural without any hint of being gimmicky at all.
The Dolby Surround Upmixer (officially called “Dolby Surround”) works fabulously. Watching movies such as “Live, Die, Repeat” the receiver upmixes the regular 5.1 soundtrack to 5.1.4 quite convincingly. Surprisingly, however, at certain points in the movie, the upmixer creates a more effective soundfield than Transformers 4 that is natively mixed in Dolby Atmos. I also tried the upmixer using “A Million Ways To Die In The West”, the orchestral soundtrack sounds very enveloping as if the ceiling of my home theatre have been lifted. As for the performance of Dolby Surround Upmixer for two channel audio, I find the better the recording quality, the better they are upscaled by the Dolby Surround Upmixer to 5.1.4. My go-to recordings of “Tonight We Fly” which was recorded sparsely with lots of reverb (it was recorded in my recording studio at 20-bit 96 kHz almost two decades ago) was convincingly upmixed to Atmos with the reverb pushed upwards creating the illusion of cathedral-ceiling in my 8-foot ceiling listening area. The same can be said when the tests are repeated using various sources including CD playback, turntable or even internet radio. Again, this is yet another proof that the Dolby Atmos works well with any type of source…be it music, movies soundtrack, two-channel, multi-channel, or native Atmos soundtracks.
Now let’s move on to the Audio Upscaler. Unlike most companies that upconvert all audio input to (say) 32-bit 192 kHz, you can choose what bit dept and sampling rate you want…be it 16 bit or 24 bit or 32 bit and/or 2x upsampling or 4x upsampling. This way you can customize how you want your sound sounds like. I personally prefer the bit depth to be the same as original source file and set the upsampling to 4x. From the scope reading, when the sampling rate of any source is pushed to higher than 96 kHz, the pre-echo digital distortions are masked by the heightened sampling rate; much like the lesser known Dolby 96 Khz Upsampling technology able to achieve. Conclusion Having lived with Dolby Atmos for a full month and having tested the system using various sources (including vinyl playback, actually; LaserDisc playback, and Rad.io internet radio streaming), I now have a renewed vigor in music listening and ultimately watching movies while looking forward to the sound reproduction as I had back then when Dolby AC-3 was first introduced on LaserDisc around 20 years ago. Thanks to Pioneer Electronics and Andrew Jones’ speaker design, Dolby once again revolutionizes home audio. My advice to anyone sitting on the fence as I was? Jump into the Dolby Atmos technology and bring along this amazing Pioneer Elite set together with you. You won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it!