by David McCallum
I’ve been waiting on this one for a
while. The last review I wrote for The Inner Ear magazine before
we shut down the print run and began the conversion to our
webzine was of a Pioneer Elite receiver. However, by the time
the webzine was up and running, the receiver had been replaced
by a newer model and my words were out of date. Three years
safe to say that I eagerly awaited the arrival of the new Pioneer
Elite SC-37 A/V receiver.
A lot has changed at Pioneer since I last looked. Gone are
the extremely good Kuro plasma displays – once the flagship
of Pioneer’s entire home electronics line. However the
drop off in plasma production is a boon for the entire Pioneer
A/V receiver line, which has received renewed attention within
Pioneer’s re-structured home electronics division. I’ve
been working with the Elite model SC-37 for a month and my
verdict is clear: It’s a winner, and here’s why.
The SC-37 Elite Receiver includes all the key features that
allow a modern A/V receiver to be relevant in today’s
market place: 7.1 channels; HDMI 1.4; 3D signal capable; audio
decoding for Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD Master audio, Dolby Digital
Plus, Dolby Prologic IIz. There are more, but you get the idea.
The SC-37, however, also includes a number of proprietary features
developed by Pioneer: ICEpower amplification; Advanced EQ via
MCAAC; Hi-bit 32/Hi-sampling signal processing; Air Studios
certification; iPhone/iPod connectivity & control (via
Ethernet); PQLS for jitterless playback of audio via HDMI (when
connected to a PQLS featured Blu-Ray player) and Marvell advanced
While having such a comprehensive feature list is undeniably
crucial to the consumer marketability of modern A/V components,
where Pioneer’s new receiver excels is in the overall
playback performance. The SC-37 offers an excellent balance
between what it can do, and how well it does it.
What’s gone into the sound?
As you might have noted in the list above, the SC-37 includes
numerous proprietary features that are only available within
Pioneer’s Elite line of electronics. These new audio
features, or in some cases audio processes, work like a chain
running through the receiver from input to output. Here are
some of the highlights of SC-37’s audio chain.
ICEPower Digital Amplification
Pioneer Electronics made the conversion to digital amplification
with its A/V receiver line-up two years ago, with the 2008
introduction of the flagship SC-09 Elite receiver. However,
including development time, Pioneer, in conjunction with
development partners ICEPower, has been working on digital
amplification technology for close to a decade. The SC-37
is Pioneer’s fourth generation of ICEpower A/V receivers,
and it features seven channels of ICEpower Direct Energy
HD amplifiers capable of driving 140 watts each into an
8ohm speaker load. More on ICEPower can be found here <http://www.icepower.bang-olufsen.com>.
Hi-bit 32 and Hi-sampling Audio Signal Processing work in
combination, creating a fully extended, smooth presentation
of digital audio signals. According to Pioneer, “the
32-bit DAC hardware alone does not produce better sound.
Maximum performance is gained by applying the Hi-bit 32 processing
to expand signal resolution.” Hi-sampling expands the
range of the high frequencies, while smoothing out the edges
of a 24bit digital audio signal, producing a smoother, natural
Pioneer’s MCACC, or Advanced Multi-channel Acoustic
Calibration - originally developed in collaboration with
AIR studios – has been updated for the SC-37 and now
includes automatic x-over setting, phase matching for all
speakers along with enhancements in full band phase control,
standing wave, more precise measurements and data export
via USB for display on a computer.
The Advanced Sound Retriever and Sound Retriever Air are
two features designed to improve the sound quality of various
forms of compressed digital audio. The Advanced Sound Retriever
takes the sound from compressed audio files such as WMA,
MP3 or AAC and attempts to restore them to near CD quality
sound. This works in conjunction with any compressed audio
file, such as those held on an iPod or other portable audio
player. The Sound Retriever Air has been developed to improve
the quality of Bluetooth audio streaming. These features
also work with multi-channel compression files such as Dolby
Digital and DTS 5.1 movie sound tracks.
It’s well known that HDMI is an imperfect interface
for audio transmission, introducing substantial audio jitter
into the digital audio signal, which negatively affects the
overall sound quality. Jitter is the result of clocking errors
that can occur between two components in an audio chain.
PQLS, or Precision Quartz Locking System, is Pioneer’s
solution to stabilize the audio signal.
PQLS serves to synchronize the digital clocks of two components
(Receiver & Blu-ray player), producing a jitter-less
audio signal. In order for PQLS to work properly both components
require the technology, so a Pioneer Blu-Ray player such
as the newly released BDP-33 is required. However the SC-37
is also able to reduce jitter with non-Pioneer players via
a phase locked loop circuit (PLL) in which the receiver’s
digital clock creates its own internal time signal in an
effort to retain accuracy.
AIR Studios Certification
While AIR Studios Certification isn’t an audio processing
tool you can turn on or off, it can’t be measured or
adjusted, it does represent a stamp of approval for the Elite
line of electronics from an independent, third-party entity
that is also invested in the process of bringing good audio
into your home. The engineers at AIR Studios work in collaboration
with their compatriots at Pioneer, fine tuning the final
performance of Pioneer’s Elite line of products. The
partnership has resulted in the co-development, design and
tuning of numerous Air Studios certified reference-class
home theater products and high-end components, including
Pioneer’s TAD professional speakers, Elite EX speakers
along with the Elite A/V receivers. More on AIR Studios can
be found here <http://www.airstudios.com/ <http://www.airstudios.com/> > .
What happens when listening?
Moving over to the performance analysis, when the SC-37 arrived
my first step was to remove both an older Pioneer Elite A/V
receiver and a Bryston 9B SST2 power amplifier. My normal
set up uses an A/V receiver (which provides power to the
surround speakers) and the separate power amplifier (connected
via the pre-out’s from the receiver) to drive the main
L-C-R speakers in a bi-amplified configuration. My speakers
include a pair of ATC SCM 40’s with an ATC SCM 19 for
a center speaker, along with 4 surround channels. For the
analysis of the SC-37 Receiver I set the system up in a traditional
7.1 configuration, with the new A/V receiver providing amplifier
power to all channels.
After the quick setup I began my analysis with a variety
of television programming. There are a number of great shows
that I watch, either from PVR, DVD or Blu-Ray, and I’m
quite familiar with the sound of each show. Some are very
good, but others aren’t, and as a professional sound
editor who works on both television and movies, I’m
as interested in hearing flaws as I am in good work.
The first show up was Mad Men. While I love writer and producer
Matthew Weiner’s show dramatically, there are also
a few attributes to its sound that I find quite interesting.
Mad Men starts with a great opening theme, but overall there
isn’t a lot of music in the show. When score is used
it usually drifts in quite softly and never really reaches
an aggressive peak. The subtle use of music has the added
effect of often leaving the sound of the dialogue exposed,
revealing to the listener some of the technical challenges
that occur when recording, editing and mixing sound for television.
While technicians such as myself work tirelessly to create
a seamless presentation for the viewer, a high-end home theater
will reveal the subtle details and flaws that are inherent
in the work.
With the SC-37 the opening theme of Mad Men had an aggressive
kick that I quite liked, and I perceived slightly more openness
via an extension of reverb than I was familiar with. I also
found the timbre in the voices to be quite good with some
added high-frequency extension, but I was also able to perceive
a few more technical flaws in the dialogue than I’m
normally used to. It’s possible these flaws were simply
a part of that one particular show, and not related to a
change in my system, but overall I responded very positively
to both what I could and couldn’t hear in the sound
of Mad Men.
Other shows that made their way into my viewing list that
first week were two episodes from The Sopranos Season III
on DVD, a new AMC show called Rubicon and the premiere of
the new HBO show, Boardwalk Empire.
I’m very familiar with The Sopranos, having watched
the entire series twice. However, I’m making my way
through it again with my fiancée. Like Mad Men, The
Sopranos is driven by dialogue while the producers don’t
use score music at all. In contrast to Mad Men, however,
The Sopranos will often have a very aggressive overall sound,
using both source music and sound effects to add tension
or drama to any given scene. During the two episodes we watched
I heard everything I would have expected from the dialogue,
with a bit of extra kick in both sound effects (such as the
sound of cars racing by) and the source music songs.
With new shows that I was watching for the first time (Rubicon
and Boardwalk Empire), the SC-37 produced an engaging sound
that helped immerse me in the new dramas. It wasn’t
always pretty – sound for TV is never flawless – but
that simply means the system wasn’t glossing over the
imperfections. But it was dynamic, rich and filled with the
attribute I love most, detail.
After a week or two of normal use, I got down to some critical
testing. A marvelous visual and auditory experience, Robert
Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact is something I’ve
been using for home theater analysis since the early days
of DVD, when analogue televisions and projectors still graced
our living rooms. A new 1080p Blu-Ray disc has replaced the
original 480i DVD, getting you even closer to the intended
When in test mode I jump to chapter 31, which, if you know
the film, is just prior to the launch. I’ve probably
watched this section of the film 589 times (I’m guessing).
I just love it. It really is 15-20 minutes of auditory heaven.
While the sequence includes tremendously dynamic passages,
full of surround information, one of the aspects I’m
drawn to most is the detail in the dialogue work.
The sequence starts with a TV news announcement from CNN
anchor Bernard Shaw, and then quickly moves to the preparation
for the launch – intercutting between Jody Foster (as
Jena Malone) inside the pod, and the launch team, led by
Sami Chester (as Vernon).
While Jena gets strapped in, Vernon and the launch team are
able to both see and hear her via video monitors and audio
headsets. During this sequence the clarity with which we
hear Jena is constantly shifting, as we see the pod (and
Jena strapped in it) shake with increasing violence. At first
the sound is clear but over the course of the scene, as the
launch approaches, growing interference in both the video
and audio transmission make the communication between Vernon
and Chester increasingly difficult to follow. As tension
builds, the launch crew gets more anxious and Vernon considers
aborting the mission. The sequence culminates in William
Fichtner (as Jena’s blind colleague, Kent) announcing
that he can still hear Jena, and that she’s “good
to go…” – Kent after all, has an extremely
acute sense of hearing.
A wide array of audio effects and/or reverb mixed into the
dialogue help build suspense and add tension within the sequence.
The beauty of the scene is just how clear the dialogue remains
for the audience.
What follows after the launch is an extremely intense, dynamic,
surround filled montage of sound as Jena, while inside the
pod, is sent off through both space and time. Over a decade
after Contact’s release, the sequence remains one of
the richest and most rewarding sound montages in film.
So now that you know why I watch it, you’ll be happy
to hear that with the SC-37 at the heart of my system the
presentation of the sequence certainly didn’t disappoint.
I was particularly impressed with the dynamic range, my ATC
SCM 40s kicking out an incredible amount of controlled bass
and low frequency detail, while protecting and revealing
all of the subtle details in the dialogue. I’ll add
that just before the launch occurs, the balance and blend
of the surround information really caught my attention as
my listening room slowly filled up with a barrage of swirling
whooshes and musical score. The dynamics in the surrounds
also maintained an striking presence through Jena’s
traveling sequence until she drifts down onto the beach (have
you ever noticed the waves moving backward on the shore?).
Other movies that made their way into my testing session
included Amélie, Shutter Island, John Mayer’s
Where the Light is and Passchendaele. I could go into detail
about all of them, but the summary is most important - the
more I watched the more impressed I became with the SC-37’s
ability to present multi-channel movie and television sound.
A little bit of music
After the successful film and television viewing, I decided
to try out some music listening, curious to see how the SC-37
would adapt to stereo music. One CD that I’ve been
listening to a lot lately is Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges
Ruth (MCAD-10475). Produced by George Massenburg (an outstanding
music producer who also happens to use ATC loudspeakers),
Lyle Lovett’s album is a soulful collection of songs.
The production is wonderfully clear, with outstanding dynamic
As with the multi-channel sound, the SC-37 produced a lot
of natural energy, demonstrating excellent kick and dynamics,
revealed nicely during the piano and kick drum on track one,
I’ve Been to Memphis. Good energy was certainly present
and the music sounded full, creating an immersive feel in
the room. However when track three started, called North
Dakota, I did perceive a slight fall off in detail, noticeable
in the reverb and sustain during the opening passages.
I mention these examples because these two perceptions remained
during the rest of my music listening – with the SC-37
at the heart of the system, music was full, energetic and
dynamic – very engaging, but it did lack just a slight
amount of detail. Now before you react too aggressively to
this observation I should qualify it by mentioning that in
setting up the SC-37 for music listening, I removed almost
$20,000.00 worth of very high quality stereo electronics
from my system - so the comparative benchmark is set quite
It’s impossible to separate one feature of the SC-37’s
performance from another. They all work in unison, each contributing
to the final presentation. For this review I asked Pioneer
to include a new Blu-Ray player that included PQLS so that
I could utilize as many features as possible. I experimented
heavily with the updated MCACC acoustical calibration/ equalization
features, including Standing Wave Control, Precision distance
and Full Band Phase Control. I tested numerous audio decoding
codec’s that are featured on the unit; the iPod connectivity,
both playback and control; RF remote control (rather than
IR) as well as thoroughly testing the Marvell video processor
(which is very good). With each test the SC-37 performed
exceptionally well. Ok, maybe, just maybe I was hoping for
more from the iPod Control/AV application. But that’s
There are many possible ways to judge an A/V Receiver, from
ease of use to connection options to performance. In the
end it’s the performance that matters, and that’s
where the new SC-37 Pioneer Elite Receiver really shines.