This review originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.
• Lowest jitter level in the sub-$5,000 category
• Uses the same DAC that's used in many studios
• Very good built-in phono stage
• Only global cut-off frequency for all speakers
• Remote is too sparse
I started my journey in home theatre with processors made by Yamaha DSP-1 and Pioneer SP-101. Since then, I've had the opportunity to test and try countless different models from various brands - from Akai, Sansui, and Nakamichi, to Lexicon and Marantz, all the way up to Storm Audio and Trinnov.
A decade ago, Pioneer introduced me to its ICE Power in the now-legendary $1,500 SC-05 receiver. It was a mid-level Elite receiver with full-fledged pre-outs, phono pre-amp - the whole shebang, including the advanced version of MCACC auto calibration. Since then, sadly, many of the features once found in the mid-level receivers, like a phono stage, dual HDMI out, and pre-outs, have been stripped out, and reserved only for higher-end models. (Thankfully, the performance hasn't been impacted.)
So imagine my surprise when I found out that Pioneer's mid-level Elite VSX-LX503, priced at $1,450, brings everything back to the fold, along with a better DAC.
While the SC-05 used the (also) legendary Wolfson DAC - the same DAC used by Wadia, a legendary standalone high-end DAC company - the sound is pleasing to my ears, but not necessarily drop dead accurate. Today, Pioneer uses an AKM (Asahi Kasei) DAC in the LX503, the go-to DAC used in many pieces of studio-level equipment, thanks to its ability to reproduce studio sound the way it's intended. What do you expect, after all, when the recordings were most likely done using the same chip as the reproduction engine?
A phono stage has returned as well. Although it doesn't compare to high-end sisters in the audiophile world, the built-in phono stage is pretty darn good. Using my Technics SL-1000 direct-drive turntable, it gives very satisfying sound. From Frank Sinatra to Judas Priest to Nikki Yanofsky, every recording was reproduced nicely with a high level of detail and rather wide imaging. It was almost as detailed and wide as with my dedicated phono pre-amp that, on its own, costs close to half of what this receiver does.
Historically, Pioneer has been the pioneer (pun intended) of automatic calibration for the home market at a price (almost) everyone can afford. Many companies have been trying to play catch up with Pioneer's Advanced MCACC room calibration. Is it perfect? No. Tweaks still need to be done manually by professionals (just like with any other automatic room calibration) but Pioneer gets it mostly right out of the gate by implementing several crucial items that, for reasons unknown, no other company (other than very high-end ones and/or ones that require an additional kit and a laptop) can achieve.
During the process of bass management, pre-pro and receivers use a Low Pass Filter (LPF) to process low-frequency signals for subwoofer output. This causes "phase lag" - a delay of approximately 6 msec (minimum) - of the low-frequency signals in comparison to the main channel signals. As a result, the delayed bass makes the sound lack synchronization which, in turn, muddies the sound reproduction of any given soundtrack. Pioneer's exclusive Phase Control technology effectively eliminates phase lag and significantly improves the multi-channel sound without any extra operation. During Blu-ray Disc/DVD/multi-channel file playback, Auto Phase Control Plus makes real-time analysis of the phase difference between the LFE (low frequency effect) and the main signals, and automatically compensates for the gap.
Another exclusive feature available only from Pioneer is Standing Wave Control. Standing waves occur when the sound waves from your speaker resonate with those reflected off the walls. Regardless of the speaker placement, your listening position, or the shape of the room, standing waves will have a negative effect on the overall sound, especially in certain lower frequencies. Standing Wave Control effectively decreases resonance and reduces errors in Advanced MCACC EQ-setting calibration for both speakers and subwoofers. My quibble is that the frequency cut-offs are identical to all channels. So you can't have, say, 40Hz for the front channel, 80Hz for surrounds, and 100Hz for Atmos. There is no way for the average user to have all speakers cut off at 80Hz, for example. In ceiling speakers for Atmos or DTS:X will usually need to be cut off at 100Hz due to their size.
Further, Dolby-enabled speakers need to be cut off at 200Hz, so if you're using them with this receiver, and set them at the appropriate 200Hz, your surrounds will also automatically be set at 200Hz, including fronts, too. This isn't exactly ideal.
The Sound Retriever technology, also referred to as MP3 Enhancer, Compressed Music Enhancer, and many other names by various manufacturers, is actually very unique. In itself, it may not sound impressive. But Pioneer combs and enhances compressed music in various ways, depending on the playback source.
Just like its competitors, Advanced Sound Retriever restores the output of compressed audio - such as WMA, MPEG-4 AAC, and MP3 - to the level of CD sound. The technology creates new signals to restore the minor details left out during the compression process. Advanced Sound Retriever for multi-channel sound is compatible with DVD and streaming soundtracks, including Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS. This algorithm also works with audio coming through the HDMI Audio Return Channel. The beauty of the Pioneer system is that you can just leave it turned on, regardless of what sound source you are playing because it detects the original audio file information such as source type, codec, and bit rate played on a Blu-ray Disc player, and automatically switches to the most suitable Sound Retriever algorithm (below 128 kbps, 128 kbps - 640 kbps, lossless). So there is no need to switch on/off according to the source. Of course, these algorithms are available for the Bluetooth/Airplay connection, too.
After watching Deadpool 2 in Dolby Atmos, listening to DTS-audio 5-channel music, and multi-channel SACD recordings using this unit, it's clear that the LX503 is a great device to use to run 9-channels of every popular audio format available.
The rated power output is somewhat unrealistic: who is going to listen to only two channels when buying a 9-channel receiver? So I ran a full-frequency test tone with all channels driven. You know what? Not bad at all. The amplifiers manage to produce 90 watts for each channel when all channels were driven at the same time. Most important, if you need extra power, the receiver is equipped with a pre-out for every single channel. With my home theatre, I use a separate stereo power amplifier for the front left and right towers, and the rest of the channels use the receiver's internal amplifier.
As mentioned, $1,500 was the price of the mid-level Pioneer SC-05. And 10 years later, the price remains the same for the LX503, which includes the same functionality, a better all-around algorithm, two additional internal amplifiers, and with full HDMI 2.0a inputs and outputs, offering about triple the video bandwidth of the SC-05.
The Pioneer Elite VSX-LX503 is a mid-level receiver, or maybe we could call it an entry-level audiophile-grade receiver, with jitter value of merely 37 pico second compared to other brands that are double the price and offer 183 pico second at best and 560 pico second at worst. It's also a videophile-grade pre-pro (tested using various NHK laboratory reference video signals) filled with plenty of cutting-edge technologies, from immersive sound technologies, to superior 4K video upconversion.
Considering all of this, the LX503 has talents that should be deemed a benchmark for receivers and pre-pros that sell for as much as double its price. Anyone looking for a high-end receiver, or even a high-end pre-pro for the price of a receiver, would be more than happy with this model.
Top 10 Features of the Pioneer VSX-LX503 AV Receiver
- 9-channel amp to create Dolby's Reference Atmos set up (5.1.4)
- Pre-outs for 13 channels to create 7.2.4 configuration
- Extremely high level of tweakability on its automatic calibration system
- Standing Wave Control
- High quality phono pre-amp section
- Reflex Optimizer
- Advanced Sound Retriever
- eARC ready (via firmware update)
- Stable amplifier down to 2 Ohms (tested)
- Built in Chromecast