Just a few years ago, HDMI connectivity was a major step-up feature on AV receivers; now, it's standard for all but the least expensive models. That's mostly a good thing, because although HDMI can be finicky, its one-cable simplicity makes it much easier to set up an AV receiver.
The Pioneer VSX-1018AH is a midrange AV receiver with three HDMI inputs, which is actually fewer than you'll find on competitors such as the Onkyo TX-SR606 and the Sony STR-DG920. And even though it's easy to add more connectivity with an HDMI switcher, it's still nicer to have it built into the unit. Luckily, that's our only major complaint with the unit, as we were pleased to find the VSX-1018AH was easy to use and sounds great. It upconverts analog video up to 1080p over its HDMI output, and actually does a decent job. We also liked that the USB port allowed for onscreen navigation of a connected iPod — the blocky white text menus don't look nice, but they get the job done. Altogether, the VSX-1018AH has one of the more attractive combinations of features to performance in this AV receiver range, making it a good choice for those satisfied with only three HDMI inputs. Just keep in mind that its successor, the VSX-1019AH, will offer four HDMI inputs when it debuts in the next six months.
The Pioneer VSX-1018AH has a classy look. The faceplate is covered with a glossy black finish, which means it will look right at home in most modern home theaters. On the far right and left are large knobs for volume and input selection, respectively. In the centre toward the top is the LCD screen, and underneath is a line of input buttons, which seem a bit superfluous given the aforementioned input knob. Further downward are some additional front panel buttons, a headphone jack, as well as a front panel AV input, including a USB port and optical audio jack.
The onscreen interface doesn't look nice, but it's easy to use.
While the outside looks good, the VSX-1018AH's onscreen interface isn't quite as friendly. Competitors such as the Sony STR-DG920 include a basic graphical user interface, but the VSX-1018AH is limited to just white text on a black background (think VCRs, circa 1991). That being said, the onscreen menus are relatively easy to navigate, which is more important than them being nice to look at.
We weren't big fans of the included remote. It's filled to the brim with small square buttons, and even important functions like volume aren't properly differentiated from less important buttons.
Given the onscreen menus' straightforward appearance and navigation, making our way through Pioneer's MCACC (multi channel acoustic calibration) auto setup was a breeze. The system automatically determines speaker sizes, speaker-to-listener distances (including the subwoofer), sets the volume levels of all of the speakers and the sub, and calculates the subwoofer crossover point.
The included microphone and auto setup program makes setting speaker levels easy.
To initiate MCACC, simply plug in the supplied microphone and follow the instructions of the onscreen prompts. The MCACC sent a variety of tones and whooshes to our speakers and subwoofer for close to 8 minutes, but unlike the Audyssey-based auto setup systems we didn't have to repeat the process over and over again in different positions in our room. The MCACC is easy enough to implement and is highly effective.
The key features for the VSX-1018 are fairly standard. The VSX-1018AH will upconvert analog signals to 1080p, but note that it will not convert 1080i component video signals to 1080p over the HDMI output. Most displays are able to do this as a matter of course, anyway.
Connectivity is mostly solid on the Pioneer VSX-1018AH. Three HDMI inputs may be enough for most home theatres, but it's worth noting that competing receivers such as the Sony STR-DG920 and the Onkyo TX-SR606 both offer four HDMI inputs (as does the aforementioned 2009 follow-up, the Pioneer VSX-1019AH). We're disappointed to see the VSX-1018AH doesn't offer any S-Video ports, which are still available on the Denon AVR-1909 and the Onkyo TX-SR606. The Pioneer, however, does still offer five AV inputs with just composite video.
We were also happy to see enough input "slots" so that six HD devices can be connected at the same time. All of the inputs are also renamable, which means you'll have no problem assigning your inputs to something easy to remember like "TiVo." It's worth mentioning that three of the input slots (BD, HDMI 1, and HDMI 2) are locked into being assigned to their respective HDMI input. Still, there are plenty of slots to go around, so it should suffice for all but the most complex home theatres.
By connecting an iPod to the USB port, you can browse your music collection using the VSX-1018AH's onscreen display.
The VSX-1018AH also has a USB port for listening to MP3s on a USB drive. What makes the feature even more useful is that if you connect an iPod you'll be able to browse your music collection using the onscreen display. The onscreen display is certainly a little rough on the eyes, but for many it's a better option that getting off the couch and using the iPod. That said, it would've been nice for a USB port to be on the rear as well, so you wouldn't need to have the white iPod cable so prominently hanging off the front of your receiver.
The VSX-1018AH's multiroom features are pretty standard, although the addition of the second zone composite video output is relatively unique, as competitors such as the Denon AVR-1909 and Onkyo TX-SR606 don't offer this feature at this price point.
Pioneer's latest version of MCACC features "Professional Acoustic Calibration EQ," a new room/speaker correcting EQ program to further improve sound quality. We're always skeptical about such claims, as these programs usually change the sound, but rarely improve it. However, this time MCACC made good on its promise, enhancing the sound of our reference Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD speaker/subwoofer system. Bass went deeper, and it was clearer; front-to-rear surround imaging was more coherent. Overall, sound quality was significantly improved by MCACC.
Our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD speaker/subwoofer system needs a fair amount of power to sound its best, and the VSX-1018AH was definitely up to the task. We started our auditions with the Blue Man Group's How to be a Megastar Live concert DVD to use as many of the Pioneer's 110 watts per channel as we could. In concert, the Blue Men play a vast range of percussion, and the VSX-1018AH let us hear their full dynamic impact. The bass was a wee bit clearer and more precise than we were getting from the Denon AVR-1909 receiver. With the VSX-1018AH we felt each thwack of the drum head.
Next up was the Ratatouille Blu-ray. The opening sequence with rain sounded especially realistic; we weren't aware of each speaker's placement in the CNET listening room. The individual speakers disappeared as sound sources, so the rain seemed to be coming from all around us.
The rats in the restaurant's kitchen scurrying about demonstrated the VSX-1018AH's softer side. Every plop of the ingredients as they were tossed into the simmering pots was palpable. The knives chopping the vegetables; the clicking of the rats' paws against the tiled floors; and the hushed murmurs of the restaurants' guests in the dining room were all very natural sounding.
CD sound was also above par. With classical music strings sounded sweet, with just the right balance of warmth and detail. The sound had a weighty, three-dimensional presence.
The Pioneer VSX-1018AH is capable of upconverting analog signals to its HDMI output, so we put it through our video testing suite. We connected the Panasonic DMP-BD35 via component video to the Pioneer VSX-1018AH, with the DMP-BD35 set to 480i output. The Pioneer VSX-1018AH was set to output at 1080p over its HDMI output, connected to a 65-inch Panasonic plasma, which was set in "external scaler" mode, to disable its own video processing.
We loaded up Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD, and the first test was disappointing as the VSX-1018AH did not preserve full horizontal resolution on the test pattern. There was also a good deal of image instability that was not present when we connected the DMP-BD35 directly to the display. The rest of the tests went better, with the VSX-1018AH looking good on a video-based test with a rotating white line, and doing an OK job of a test with three pivoting lines — although the bottom-most line clearly had too many jaggies. The VSX-1018AH also passed the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, although we'd note that the processing took longer than usual to kick in.
We switched over to program material and the VSX-1018AH fared better. It looked good on the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, clearly rendering the curved boat hulls and bridge railings. Similarly it did a good job with the difficult Seabiscuit opening sequence, showing much less jaggies than we often see. While the movies did look a touch softer than we'd like, it was relatively minor.
We attempted to test the VSX-1018AH's ability to convert analog 1080i signals over component to 1080p over HDMI, but the VSX-1018AH lacks this capability. The VSX-1018AH also does not scale incoming HDMI video signals, and instead passes them perfectly through to the display. This means that if you only intend to use the HDMI video inputs on the VSX-1018AH, you can ignore the previous comments on video performance, as they only apply to analog signals.