The SC-95 ($2,000) is the baby of the three new receivers in the Elite line. If you need slightly more power and a phono input, you can step-up to the SC-97; and if you need a sync-USB DAC, multi channel input, and even more power, opt for the SC-99. Each model has nine amp channels.
The SC-95 receiver includes Apple AirPlay wireless connectivity, HTC Connect for smartphones, Spotify Connect and Pandora audio streaming, and is Roku-ready. It offers Windows 8 and DLNA certification for media access from a computer (I used Windows 10), and has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi built-in.
It is compatible with AMX, Control4, and Crestron automation standards, although the most complete control of the receiver, from my personal experience with Pioneer Elite in the past 5 years or so, is through using Control4.
The onscreen interface has been updated from its predecessor, the SC-85, to look fresher, and it appears to be purely a cosmetic upgrade. The remote control is mostly unchanged.
The iControlAV5 Android/iOS app is now in its sixth or seventh generation, and still allows front/back and side/side channel adjustments with a tilt of the mobile device. From my personal measurements, with all channels driven with full spectrum audio burst, the receiver outputs 65 Watts per channel RMS. But don’t let this number deceive you. Never in the history of a movie soundtrack have all channels been driven to the max with full spectrum audio continuous burst from 20Hz to 20kHz.
It is important to note that at the time of this review in early October, Pioneer had already sent a firmware upgrade to turn the unit’s three HDMI 2.0 inputs into HDMI 2.0a, now allowing for High Dynamic Range and High Frame Rate video pass through.
I used Andrew Jones Atmos towers for the fronts, Andrew Jones Atmos bookshelf speakers for the rears, a PSB Image C5 as the centre channel, and PSB SubSeries 300i for the sub.
The SC-95 weighs a hefty 35 lbs. It has source-select and volume knobs at the sides of the front panel, and navigation, mode, and other controls behind a sloped flip-down door – a slight variation versus previous models.
Connectivity includes the aforementioned three HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 inputs, five HDMI 2.0 inputs, and one dedicated analog input marked as CD (though you can rename it anything you want). These HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 inputs are ideal for the upcoming UHD Blu-ray, Rogers or Bell UHD broadcasts, and Netflix 4K streaming units like the Roku 4.
A noteworthy plus is Pioneer’s use of an ESS SABRE 192kHz/32-bit DAC, with a selectable audio upscaling option. This means you can choose to play your 16-bit and 24-bit digital audio signal as is, or convert it to 32-bit, and/or use 2x upsampling or 4x upsampling (with or without adding the bit depth conversion). My choice after playing with this feature is to play all sources’ bit-depth as-is with 4x upsampling.
With the SC-85, I found speaker setup to be frustratingly confusing. I was setting up a nine-channel Atmos configuration of 5.2.4, and had to use the “surround back” terminals for Atmos’ front height channels and the “front wide” terminals for Atmos height at the rear. With the SC-95, the confusion is there but nowhere near as confusing as its predecessor. This year, the flow chart in the manual clearly shows what goes where.
But setup with the SC-95 is not without its hiccups. At first glance, there’s no option for a 5.2.4 set-up with this receiver. Luckily, I figured out a workaround by selecting the 7.2.4 configuration, then going to the speaker menu and “telling” the receiver that I’m not using any surround back speakers, resulting in the SC-95 automatically re-mapping the 7.2.4 setup to 5.2.4.
The Atmos-enabled speaker settings, which share specifications with a DTS:X setup, includes a low-frequency cut-off at 180Hz. A system with Atmos-enabled speakers should redirect bass below 180Hz to the front channels, then to the subwoofer as needed. This is not a flaw of the receiver, though, it’s a Dolby Labs specification. As per Jones’ recommendation, I set my front Pioneer Elite tower speakers to Large and the rest of the speakers to Small with a 50Hz cut-off point, and the rest goes to the sub. For reasons unknown, I found that the MCACC-Pro, Pioneer’s auto setup program, set the levels of Atmos and surround speakers 2 dB too low (this is consistent regardless of which room I was in, of the four in which I tested.)
It’s worth noting that the MCACC Pro features other refinements, including room correction for dual independent subs, finer analysis of phase and group delay, phase correction between channels, and 0.5” increments in setting speaker distance.
With the introduction of DTS:X, DTS also has an upmixer technology called DTS Neural Surround. Interestingly, I can play a DTS-HD soundtrack processed using Dolby Surround Upmixer and play a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack processed using DTS Neural Surround upmixer. If you want a more natural approach, with more openness of the sound, choose Dolby Surround. If you want a more sensationalistic approach, with more in-your-face height speaker playback, choose DTS Neural Surround. I have no preference between them – they each have their strengths. Playing movies with orchestral tracks such as A Million Ways to Die in the West, for example, I preferred Dolby Surround Upmixer as it opened up the soundfied to the point that my room seemed to disappear. For movies like Live. Die. Repeat, however, I found DTS Neural Surround to be the better option, as the ceiling speakers generated a more localized effect, which I felt to be more appropriate for this type of soundtrack.
Music in Dolby Surround & DTS Neural Upmixers
Newly-minted immersive-sound fans truly need to try Dolby Surround and DTS Neural upmixing technologies as a near-perfect stand-in for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. I loved both of them: from Madonna’s Sticky and Sweet Concert (5.1), to Chris Botti Live in Boston (5.1), various orchestral CDs from Telarc, and even Frank Sinatra’s Duets 20th Anniversary 180g vinyl. With not a single synthesized effect or manmade pan in the recording, Dolby Surround and DTS Neural upmixers steered such natural sounding concert-hall ambience toward the ceiling. Never intrusive; it was a truly natural-feeling enhancement. Although for music, I prefer Dolby Surround and for movies with a lot of action, I prefer to use DTS Neural Surround.
Does music need this? Two-channel audiophiles almost always fail to recognize how much artificial effect is built into two-channel productions. The smallest number of tracks I ever used in a so-called live recording was eight, and it goes all the way up to 64, then polished with various processors such as dynamic compressor, EQ, reverb, and finally mixed down to two-channel to create a master Digital Audio Tape. Even an orchestral project I did at the Roy Thompson Hall has the soloist and the different orchestral sections separately mic’ed and mixed. If you’re already listening to a beautifully-crafted recording with all the sonic spices added in, then why not enhance it?
I’ve always liked the Dolby Pro Logic II music-mode adaptation… until now. To my ears, Dolby Surround Upmixer is a much better version of it.
5.1 Cinema Lives
Tomb Raider 2 is irrefutable proof that the surround upmixers of 5.1 (be it Dolby or DTS) are greatly underrated. The perpetually busy soundfield suggests a mixer that knows and pushes the boundaries of 5.1, filling the room with cavern ambience, gunshots and a spatially rich orchestral score.
For this nine-channel receiver, the five-channel surround with added immersive surround upmixing was a walk in the park. I often forgot that I was watching a regular 5.1 movie, not Atmos or DTS:X. Only when the helicopter approaching Croft’s Manor flew overhead did I miss the true immersive surround sound tracks. But for the most part, I was locked into the story.
Moving to the opposite extreme, I found the TV series Criminal Minds to be 5.1 at its most rudimentary. The soundtrack of this TV show consists of almost exclusively dialogue in the centre channel and sprinkles of music and effects in all four corners of the sound field. It can’t get any more basic than this – yet the receiver delivered the dialogue with purity and clarity and made the occasional music and effect lively and realistic.
The Pioneer Elite SC-95 is a great way to run nine channels of every popular audio format available (not counting Auro3D and Hamasaki surround technologies as “popular formats.”) Yes, it’s on the pricier side at $2,000. But that’s a relatively small price to pay for cutting-edge everything, from immersive sound technologies to superior 4K video up-conversion, and analog-sounding Class D amplification.
The internal set of class-leading DACs and the sound up-conversion package is a ticket to high-resolution audio, and the D3 amp is powerful, colourless, and energy efficient. This receiver is just the nine-channel Swiss Army Knife needed for immersive surround sound.
- Dolby Atmos out of the box, and Dolby Surround Upmixer
- DTS:X (firmware upgrade required), and DTS Neural Surround Upmixer (firmware upgrade required as part of DTS:X Suite)
- HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 on three HDMI inputs (upgradeable to HDMI 2.0a via firmware upgrade)
- Somewhat confusing setup menu, although much improved in contrast to last year’s models and other brands
- Difficult to read remote layout due to micro sized buttons
- Somewhat gimmicky smartphone app, allowing you to adjust channels by tilting the device