The VSXAX2AS, or AX2 for short, is a fairly imposing beast, with its minimalist design and hulking 16 kilogram weight. It's solidly built, and includes audiophile-like touches such as gold-plated sockets and direct mode switches.
Like other high-end amps, the Pioneer features a damped door which conceals front-mounted inputs and menu controls. The volume and source select wheels are machined aluminium, and have an excellent feel.
One build issue we didn't appreciate was the lack of banana plug sockets on the speaker terminals. In the European Union there are laws preventing the use of banana sockets, this is in order to protect children from sticking the plugs into electrical sockets. Most companies get around this by attaching a removable cover, as does this receiver. But once removed, the Pioneer's socket is way too small (at 2mm diameter) to accept anything but a spade connector. For us, it was bare wiring only.
Another minor gripe is that the display demonstrates quite a bit of bling -- during a movie there are lights of four different colours waiting to distract you. However, you can dim the receiver display if you wish.
This is a home cinema amp, as opposed to a musical amp that does AV. And the distinction is apparent in the video processing capabilities of this receiver. The AX2 features upscaling technology from Faroudja, which is one of the most respected names in video processing.
The amp can put out quite a bit of hurt, rated as it is at 170W per channel. And the rear is bustling with inputs of every type, and importantly, includes three HDMI inputs for excellent future proofing.
If you're a fan of high-definition audio, the standard to look for is HDMI version 1.2 or above. This will stream both DVD-Audio and SACD without any loss of quality. Version 1.1 will stream DVD-Audio music only. Thankfully, the AX2 is version 1.2
Though there are some concessions to music listeners -- particularly in the provision of an iPod connector, and several source direct modes which suit users with a good quality CD player. There is even a Phono input, which is still rare despite the recent resurgence in vinyl sales.
The amp has a very upfront sound, which is perfect for watching movies. Dialogue is clear and explosions are as bombastic as they can be. Watching King Kong, the sound field was enveloping -- particularly during the brontosaurus stampede where the effect brought us to the edge of our seats, even if the scene itself is quite preposterous.
The flipside of this AV-focus is that music reproduction isn't as subtle as it could be.
As with all of the receivers we have tested in our forthcoming AV roundup, we used a pair of JBL L890 speakers to test how the amps fare with music. We also used a mix of iPod, CDs and DVD-Audio disks to evaluate how it would cope with low-fi through to hi-fi sources.
At this price point we're very impressed with the amount of music features it includes, and we're sure that for people buying this amp, the inbuilt iPod connectivity will be a deciding feature.
Like most iPod docks, the amp interfaces with the iPod via a connecting cable and displays the menu on the screen, and also on the amp itself. This means you don't need to turn your TV on to use the iPod, which is great.
The iPod menu is quite slow going -- there is no way to skip to the letter you want, and there is no acceleration in the cursors such as you would see on an iPod. The menu is also a little rudimentary, but functional. There is also no way to create playlists on the fly, or to watch video. And though the manual alludes to the fact that you can watch a movie or view photos by pressing the (poorly marked) Photo button on the remote, it doesn't quite work as expected.
The Photo button simply disables the onscreen menus and lets you navigate with the iPod until you press it again. With three different iPods and the latest firmware, we were simply unable to get photos to display at all -- just a blank screen. However, we did manage to get videos to work -- eventually. N.B. You need to enable TV out in your iPod's "Video Settings" menu under Video for this to work. The manual doesn't mention this. For photos, though, you'll have to make do with viewing them on the iPod screen while the amp reproduces the audio.
Sound via the iPod is acceptable, if a little reliant on boomy bass. But this is better than emphasizing the -- often distorted -- treble of many mp3 files, we suppose. However, when using an iPod mini the sound of the hard drive spinning could be easily heard in the first 10 seconds of the song, though this wasn't a problem with a 4G iPod.
In order to test music replay we also employed the Harman Kardon DV37, which can replay DVD-Audio disks and CDs. Though unfortunately it doesn't make full use of the Pioneer's capabilities as the HK is only HDMI 1.0 audio compatible.
That said, our selection of DVD-Audio disks were brought to life by the stereo processing of the Pioneer, and painted with that same exhilarating brush used with DVD movies. Audiophiles may not be pleased, but most people will find the digital audio capabilities fun and will bring out the best qualities of rock music and dance.
OK, so it will perform the duties for music, but considering this is an video upscaling amp, how does it perform? We're happy to say -- excellently.
The AX2 boasts an automatic set-up routine named MCACC which includes a microphone. The set-up is quite straightforward: put the microphone where you sit and press the "Go" button". The routine also corrects for any problems with the acoustics in your room, and gives you a comprehensive list of all the changes made.
The Harman Kardon DVD player is also an upscaling model but the differences between the two were palpable. The Pioneer's superior processing outshone the HK significantly. Though upscaling will never fool you into thinking a VCR source is a Blu-Ray disk, upscaling will remove a lot of artefacts (such as snow, pixilation and so on) so that the picture looks better on a larger screen. Just as with audio you can never add details which weren't there in the first place -- the processing simply gives the image a polish. And on a Sharp 46" 1080p TV the upscaled DVD images looked glorious. 1080p content courtesy of WMV HD also looked good.