Onkyo TX-NR1008 AV Receiver; Amazing Features, Awful User Interface

tl;drThe Onkyo line of receivers offer an amazing set of features and excellent quality for an extremely reasonable price. The user interfaces of such equipment continues to suck. There is a web server.

As a part of our latest remodeling efforts, we are taking the “down to the studs” opportunity to mount a TV on the wall and have a couple of wall mounted dipole speakers installed in the proper spots to create a pretty good surround sound based media consumption experience.

As the last time I upgraded AV equipment was well prior to HDMI becoming standard, this also requires a new AV surround sound processor with HDMI switching capabilities.

Thus, this is some random notes on the experience and a sort of in line review of Onkyo’s 1008 Network Ready AV receiver.


Now, I am a cheap bastard at heart. When making any kind of a buying decision like this, it often takes weeks, if not months, of agonizing over details, features, price points, and integration planning. So as to not go insane, the first step I take is to figure out the problems to be solved or features required.

For an AV receiver that will be at the heart of our entertainment system, the overarching goal was to eliminate the number of remotes required to do simple things. To these ends, that also requires a receiver that can handle all of the different signal sources and push them out to the TV across a single HDMI cable (thus turning the TV into just a big monitor which, given that all TV speakers suck, is how it should be).

Because I have a 5 channel amplifier from Outlaw Audio (who, by the way, make stunningly good stuff at very reasonable price points but do not have an AV processor right now), I was initially looking for an AV pre-amplifier.

Depressing Realization #1: AV pre-amplifiers, though they contain significantly less electronics in the box and a much simpler power supply, are significantly more expensive than AV Receivers. Combined with all the extra cabling and the need to eventually upgrade amplifiers, a pre-amplifier is significantly more costly while also being a big pain in the ass to wire into a cabinet.

Happy Discovery #1: While the THX certification stuff does have a bit of chest thumping marketing fluff behind it, the underlying certification criteria are quite specific and useful. If you get a device sporting a particular certification level, you can be confident that the performance will meet a certain level of need competently. This simplifies the buying process considerably.

In looking around — for weeks — I eventually settled on Onkyo’s lineup of AV Receivers. The feature lists were strong, covered my needs, and the reviews were unilaterally positive. As a significant plus, Integra is a subsidiary of Onkyo and makes some extremely well regarded AV pre-amps (for significantly more $$$$ than Onkyo’s AV receivers). Digging around revealed that the Integra products and Onkyo’s products share many of the same components and build quality.

Happy Discover #2: Holy Crap has full featured AV receivers gotten cheap since the last time I looked! The entry point Onkyo TX-SR308
, fully capable of driving a 5.1 channel home theater set-up with multiple HDMI 1.4a inputs, is less than $300! Wow! Last time I looked, a component video capable AV receiver was north of $1,000 as an entry point.

Depressing Realization #2: Looking at Onkyo’s lineup of AV Receivers, what in the hell is the point of the two HT products?! The HT-RC270 seems to be almost identical to the TX-NR708. This bothered the cheap bastard side of me so much that it literally delayed my final choice by a few days as I tried to figure out why the two exist and whether one of them might be the right solution. It also did not bode well that Onkyo is truly focused on simplicity; on minimizing customer confusion.

Ultimately, it came down to the 808 or 1008. After discovering that the real price was significantly less than the MSRP, I settled on the Onkyo TX-NR1008 as it adds an extra powered zone — powered set of stereo speakers independent of the primary surround sound installe — that we can actually use.


Setup & Configuration

1008Back.jpg


The back side of the TX-NR1008 is scary. Not surprising given the # of inputs it supports. Hookup, however, is pretty darned straightforward. It helps if you have HDMI sources as they only require one cable. Oddly, Onkyo decided not to group the audio-in and component-in portions of certain inputs together; thus, the Wii — a component only device — has three cables going to one spot on the back and the two audio going somewhere else entirely.

Most of my time was spent scrubbing and vacuuming the entertainment center. Amazing how much dust the damn things collect!

One of the goals of this was to eliminate remotes. So, that was the first non-cabling task; do the stupid vulcan pinch on the remote necessary to then tell the remote that it should use Sony’s codes for some arbitrary set of TV related buttons. Next up was training the Apple TV to recognize the Onkyo Remote; no problem there (other than using this ungodly over-buttoned behemoth of a remote to control such an elegantly simple device).

Next was calibrating the speakers. Onkyo includes a microphone and, through the on-screen UI, you are asked to place the microphone wherever the primary consumer’s head will generally be and it detects which of the potential 9 speakers you have hooked up and what their general characteristics are. From this, it calculates an optimal set of parameters for spewing sound.

It does a surprisingly good job. A friend picked up a 608 and we did a before/after listening test. It went from “hey, there are speakers back there” to “if you sit here, here, or here, the sound is inside your head”.

Very impressive.

The Internet Radio / Music Server / USB interface sucks. I lump them together because they are modal on the remote. It is the one “mode selector” button where you have to hit the button multiple times to switch between “modes”; a sub-mode selector, maybe? Annoying.

The actual UI is limited to a 480p 1993-called-and-wants-it’s-UI-back presentation.

However, Pandora integration just works (and even shows album art, totally pushing the 1993 tech to the limit!), including connecting to your account and adding/remove stuff from your profile!! Very cool and immediately cost me $20 in that Pandora introduced me to a classic bit of Funk Diva-ness that then led to James Brown’s Funky Divas collection. Must have.

Depressing Conclusion: After all these years, on screen user interfaces for home entertainment devices still completely suck. So do the remotes. It is stupidly confusing, ugly as hell, and feels like a user experience created by engineers. Most problems are solved by throwing a button or five at it. Or, in the UI, by throwing a menu item or 5 at it. The Onkyo’s UI and remote work, but that is the nicest that can be said for them. Looking around, I see no alternatives that are any better and many that are much worse.

I’m looking forward to the day when someone applies HCI design to home entertainment.

Happy Conclusion: Most importantly, though, the Onkyo sounds great, does an awesome job of up-scaling video to 1080p, and generally “just works”. For well less than $1000, it is truly an astounding AV decoder/receiver/controller compared to where the market was even 5 years ago. Ignoring the silliness of the HTC products, Onkyo has an awesome product line with price points that are quite reasonable while also providing somewhat sensible additional features for the dollar as you move up the line.

I’m exceptionally satisfied with this upgrade.



5 Responses to “Onkyo TX-NR1008 AV Receiver; Amazing Features, Awful User Interface”

  1. Peter Lyons says:

    The way I see it, consumer home electronics should stop shipping remotes, remove all but the most basic power/volume physical knobs and buttons, and integrate with iOS devices for the remote. I had a very similar experience setting up my system about a year ago. Just last night my girlfriend got an iPod touch and we loaded up the sonos app. Very nice compared to the first generation behemoth sonos controller I have and of course much smaller and multi-purpose.

  2. Ian says:

    FWIW, I tried for years to solve the remote control problem. No receiver remote I ever saw did it. The only ones that came close were like aircraft carriers, complete with doors, sliding panels, and overlays. I was waiting for one to have an elevator.

    I kept hearing people I trust saying “just get a Logitech Harmony remote and be done with it forever.” But that line of remotes has a lot of models, with unobvious differences, and I suffered buyer’s paralysis. Until finally a friend of mine happened to buy three of them and only need two, so he sent me the third… and, no lie, it’s the ONLY remote I’ve used since. After you set it up, it JustWorks(tm). My wife can use it. It is organized by “activity.” What do you want to do? Watch TV? Push the “Watch TV” button. Want to play video games? Press the “Play Xbox” button. It’s a thing of beauty.

    So I recommend to you: banish what sounds like your latest aircraft carrier and buy a Logitech Harmony. Buy the cheapest/simplest one that has the features you need. (Do note that not all of them are Mac compatible, and you need to hook it up to a computer to initially program its brain. So make sure to check the “Mac compatible” box on the comparison chart. Also note, that software sucks, but you only have to use it once.)

  3. CJ Johanson says:

    Oh, I feel your pain. I got an Onkyo TX SR304 a while back after a similar process. It is the most confusing, non-intuitive piece of equipment I have ever owned.

  4. Jeffrey J Hoover says:

    Nice write up, as always.

    Have you looked at the Logitech Harmony remotes? Maybe getting one of those would help?

  5. Mike Swingler says:

    If you are interested, I have a programming guide for the network interface. You connect to it over a raw socket on port 60128, and shoot commands like “!1PWR01” (power), “!1SLI02” (switch to CBL/SAT), or “!1MVLUP” (raise volume).

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