Pioneer SC-85 Receiver Review

Over a year ago I reviewed the Yamaha CX-A5000 preamp which was one of the first to use the ESS SABRE 9016 DAC in a multi-channel product. The sound quality from this was well ahead of other preamps I had used but it is expensive at $2,500. Now Pioneer has used those same ESS DACs in their $1,600 Elite SC-85 Receiver. With 9 channels of amplification, the Pioneer Elite SC-85 offers Dolby Atmos, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and their most advanced room correction system. No only does it have good specs, but it has the bench performance to back those up.

Unfortunately Pioneer still uses the same poor remote on their receivers that they have for the past few years. Setup and configuration of Dolby Atmos systems could also be much easier. The inputs are not labeled for Atmos speakers currently, but otherwise the SC-85 is a solid package. $1,600 is a lot for a receiver, but with solid components and high quality sound, the SC-85 might be worth it to some. Getting the same features and performance from anyone else will set you back at least $2,000.

DAC Power

Specs
Manufacturer: Pioneer
Model: SC-85
Inputs: 8x HDMI (1 MHL), 1x USB, 2x Composite, 1x Analog Audio, 2x Optical, 2x Coaxial, 2x Component, 1x Ethernet, 1x IR, 1x RS232
Outputs: 3x HDMI, 11.2 Channel Preout, 1x Component, 3x Composite, 2x IR, 2x 12V Trigger, 1x Optical
Amplifier Section: 9x 135 Watts
RoomEQ: Yes
Size: 17-1/8" x 7-5/16" x 17-3/8"
Weight: 33 lbs. 5 oz.
Review Date: April 9, 2015
Price: Out of stock
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If there is one component in the receiver that is going to be the most important, it might just be the DACs. Every digital signal you feed into your receiver, over HDMI or Optical or even Ethernet, is going to use the DACs. If you use room correction on analog signals those will use the DACs as well. If the DAC is not up to the task, the quality of everything will suffer. The ESS DACs offer better performance than almost any other DAC you find in a receiver today.

It performs better than the same DAC in the Yamaha CX-A5000, helping prove again that the specs alone cannot tell the whole story. With Blu-ray soundtracks, music from a USB thumb drive or from a NAS, the Pioneer extracts every last bit of detail from the digital source.

Channels Galore

The SC-85 offers 11 sets of binding posts for speakers. As crazy as this number seems, it isn’t that much if you take advantage of Dolby Atmos. I used the Pioneer Elite Atmos speakers with the SC-85 and in a 5.1.4 system it uses 9 of the binding posts pairs with only 5 physical speakers. The height channels built-in to the speakers each have their own set of binding posts, so the front and surround speakers each use two pairs in this case. If you aren’t using Dolby Atmos then you can use these for width or height channels, but most people will likely use it for Atmos going forward.

Atmos 5.1.4

With all these channels, and with Atmos, you will need to use the Pioneer MCACC room calibration feature. With Atmos you need to know the distance from the reflecting speaker to the ceiling and then back to your listening position to get the height to work. MCACC will determine this for you, making setup of Atmos much easier than it would be without it. Unlike older versions of MCACC the SC-85 finally includes subwoofer equalization. Low frequencies are where you most often need the EQ system to work, and now that MCACC can do this my main issue with it is gone.

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If you want to run a more standard 5 channel system, you can assign these extra speaker outputs to be Zone 2 and Zone 3. Zone 2 can use most of the inputs on the SC-85, including the Media Server and Internet Radio features, but Zone 3 can only play analog audio. The Media Server function lets you play back audio files stored on your network, including 24/192 FLAC and DSD. With an available iOS app, you can control playback and volume for Zone 2 without any custom installation. Usually extra zones go to waste for this reason, but the SC-85 can feed music to a second room without much fuss.

Playback Quality

Most of my listening with the Pioneer SC-85 was to Dolby Atmos content. With all the Dolby Atmos titles out there, which is a limited number at the moment, the SC-85 performs perfectly. On the better titles like Nature and John Wick the atmospheric effects move around you and above you in a natural way. The SC-85 has done its job and measured the room and reflections to make the soundstage as immersive as possible. Sometimes a film like Transformers would have so much going on in the mix that it was almost impossible to pinpoint the sounds but this seems to be a fault of the mix.

Of course, even if you owned every single Dolby Atmos title, you’d run out of things to watch after two weeks. With its ESS Sabre DACs it also offers an impressive playback solution for all digital media. Playing back high-resolution files from a USB drive or over the network it offers the same high level of clarity that the Yamaha CX-A5000 did in my system. The opening guitar from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here SACD offers tremendous clarity.

Pioneer has improved upon the MCACC room correction system from earlier versions of the SC receivers. Before I found it to muddy up the sound and there was the complete lack of subwoofer calibration. The updated version takes more measurements, at least from what I recall, and offers different modes to listen to. While the Symmetry and All Channels calculations sound good, the Front Align did not sound as good. This is bizarre as Front Align is meant to apply no correction to the front channels and have the other speakers match up, but the sound felt hollow in this preset. Perhaps it was a bad run and doing MCACC again would have fixed it, but make sure to listen to all the modes to determine which sounds best to your ears.

Value Spot

Compared to the other receivers in the Pioneer SC lineup, the SC-85 represents the best value. It has the same DAC as the $2,000 SC-87 and $3,000 SC-89, as well as the same MCACC room correction and other features. The main options you are giving up are a little bit better construction, a USB DAC input (on the SC-89), and an HDBaseT Zone on the SC-89. There might be other little differences inside that we can’t see from the specs, but the SC-85 offers all the major features the other models do.

You can also disable the amplifiers on the SC-85, which might sound like a strange thing to do. Why would you buy a receiver with 9 channels of amplification and then not use it? Well this is the cheapest way to get an Atmos receiver with ESS Sabre 9016 DACs at the moment. Even for those that already own an external amplifier and don’t need amplification. Disabling the amps reduces the noise that is present in the system and offers better sound quality for the preouts. The next cheapest receiver with Atmos support and the ESS 9016 DAC is the $2,000 Yamaha RX-A3040 so the Pioneer is 25% less at $1,600.

A Key Omission

The only key point that keeps me from straight-on recommending the Pioneer SC-85 is the one feature that it lacks: HDCP 2.2. It has HDMI 2.0 so it can do 4K video at 60Hz, but that might not matter. Other than gaming computers, all 4K content is certain to need HDCP 2.2 or it will not play back. UltraHD Blu-ray will need HDCP 2.2, Sony’s custom 4K media player requires HDCP 2.2, and so will everything else.

If you aren’t going to get a 4K display anytime soon, you might not care. Or if your main source of 4K content will be Netflix and other streaming services built into a TV, you also might not care. Initial 4K sources will probably have dual HDMI outputs so you can send audio to a receiver and video to a TV to get around this, but that’s not an ideal situation. I’d expect Pioneer to have an HDCP 2.2 version of the SC-85 this year, since they are currently updating their other receivers with HDCP 2.2. As it stands today, there are no receivers with full HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2, so there isn’t a product out there that is completely future-proof.

Conclusions

The Pioneer SC-85 is a full-featured receiver that handles all the updated audio formats including Dolby Atmos. It has more inputs than almost anyone can ever need, and the networked audio playback has improved to the point that it does that flawlessly. $1,600 can seem like a lot for a receiver, but the Pioneer offers a lot more value for the price than other options out there. You can’t get the high-quality DACs and Atmos without spending 25% more from any other company, or spending way more to get a dedicated preamp.

My only real hesitation is about the lack of HDCP 2.2 support. How important this is going to be is uncertain since the only external HDCP 2.2 source may be UltraHD Blu-ray players. I’m sure someone will make a model with two HDMI outputs to fix this problem. Of course if you’re worried about this, then the only receivers you can buy today are from Onkyo and Integra, and those don’t have support for all HDMI 2.0 features like HDR.

For a fantastic receiver today, the Pioneer SC-85 performs very well, supports Dolby Atmos, has tons of inputs, and sounds fantastic. With its combination of features and price, I think it is the sweet spot in the Pioneer SC lineup and the receiver I’d buy for myself if I was looking to spend $1,600 today.

Review Summary
Product: Pioneer SC-85 Receiver
Reviewer:
Pros: Dolby Atmos support, high-quality ESS Sabre 9016 DACs, plenty of inputs and outputs, great sound quality.
Cons: No HDCP 2.2 with HDMI 2.0 support, sometimes have to run MCACC multiple times to get correct results.
Summary: The Pioneer SC-85 offers a lot for it's $1,600 price tag. Dolby Atmos support, with the power to drive 9 channels, gives you the most immersive sound you can have in your home theater at the moment. The only worry is the lack of support for future UltraHD sources that need HDCP 2.2.
Value: 4/5
Performance: 4/5
Overall: 4/5

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