Onkyo's Jan Brady might be the Best Sub-$750 Receiver this Year
In years past, many Onkyo owners (myself included) tended to migrate to either the value-curve melting entry-level 6-series or the full chassis muscle of the 8 series and up. The 7 series has long been an "in-between" model in Onkyo's lineup. It was omitted in 2006 altogether and seems to be an easy step to overlook as prices naturally descend above and below it. To this extent, the 70x was the proverbial Jan Brady - not quite the brawny muscle of the 80x or the entry-level, high bang for your buck 60x.
Networking, THX certificiation, and quality video processing have all tricked down the lineup even further this year, making model differentiation for the 709 more difficult. That said, the 709 presents a big leap over the 609 in respects of the version of Audyssey auto room callibration (2EQ vs MultiEQ XT); multichannel pre-outs for the connection of a separate amplifier; dual HDMI outs for video toggling between two displays; the historical inclusion of a learning feature in the remote; and a somewhat ridiculous 8 HDMI inputs. These are all (and in particular MultiEQ XT) considerable reasons to opt for the 709 over the 609. The advent of HDMI and rapdily falling prices have led to a scarcity of inputs on most modern mid-range receivers, notably with Denon. The onkyo tx nr709 and upcoming pioneer vsx-1121 probably offer some of the best connectivity in this space.
I have owned numerous Onkyo products in the past and am well aware of their quirks (massive heat, moody HDMI boards, etc), but have always been impressed by their raw power, strong featureset, and intuitive setup menus. Onkyo appears to have addressed a number of its predecessors' shortcomings in the 709. Gone is the easy-bake oven operating temperatures of past models. In fact, I was shocked to compare it to Denons, Marantzs, and Pioneers operation in an enclosed cabinet to find the 709 an incredibly cool-operating machine. I believe there is an internal fan, but its operation is silent from normal distances.
Somewhat strangely, I have always relied on Onkyos exclusively for my mother and mother-in-law as they are the only receiver that can be setup over the telephone easily. Their menus are intuitive and easy to navigate, unlike modern Denon and Marantzs that seem to always hide something at some point. Beginning in 2010, Onkyo introduced an overlain onscreen display similar to Denon, but an abstract of the full menu/GUI (Denon offers overlain access to the full setup menu). In some ways Onkyo's approach is superior in that it offers great aspect adjustments (ie zoom in on blu rays to remove black bars) and the full picture simultaneously (Denon and Marantz gray the picture to some extent). I must admit I am a fan of the quick-reach tweaks to video and audio settings in addition to input (which is largely redundant considering the remote is already in your hand). The 709 relies on video-processing from the highly touted Marvell Qdeo chipset. This is a significant improvement from the long-in-the tooth Farjouda chip Onkyo dragged in various versions since 2008. The Marvell chip was also used in mid-range Pioneer and Pioneer Elite receivers last year and I found performance to be excellent in both. That said, video processing in receivers is helpful, but far from essential - most displays will offer identical or better processing. From a competive perspective, it should be mentioned that Denon (and Marantz) has dropped the very good ABT-2015 chipset in its mid-range receivers in favor of none or an Analog Devices chip. Pioneer continues to rely on the Marvell chip as well.
Speak setup and callibration is very easy with the Onkyo once the setup microphone is plugged in. Initially, the Onkyo confirms the speaker setup (height, wide, rear/normal, or zone 2) and confirms whether you want to run full audyssey or a quick setup. The former is what I strongly recommend as it unlocks the amazing ability of Audyssey to set speaker distances, levels, crossovers, and other equalizer filters to get the most out of your speakers and set reference volume. The current iteration of Audyssey MultiEQ XT foregoes the center/left/right measurements it did two or three years ago. It does offer multi-positional measurement, but I have found from experience that letting it remain in the center of the listening environment throughout the measuremetns yields the best result.
Real-world power and sound quality is excellent for a receiver in this price range. Many people overstimate the actual power they need in real-world usage and rely on ignorant comments such as "it must be less powerful since i have to turn it up to -20 on movies" as anecdotes of amplification power. The 709 provides ample amplification power that will leave all but truly inefficient speakers struggling at reference volume. In mere anecdotes, the 709 seemed to offer power nearly to the level of my Denon AVR-3311ci, which is a complement to its amplification ability. The 709 is a THX Select2 Receiver, which is largely marketing save the listening modes THX offers (they anecdotally provide a thuddier version of the orignal audio).
In respects of networking, the 709 provides what I would classify as the essentials - Pandora, Napster, Rhapsody, and DLNA streaming. It lacks the bleeding edge Airplay Denon introduced last year and Pioneer improved upon this year in respects of multi-zone playback. The lack of Airplay is somewhat disappointing, but could be overcome with an Apple TV2, which offers video-streaming unlike the aforementioned receivers.
All in all, the Onkyo TX NR709 is an incredible value, although it is not perfect. It lacks a dettachable power plug, which is incredibly pedestrian in light of pre-outs and dual hdmi outs. The lack of airplay relegates the 709's appeal in a world where most people's music library now resides on a pc and an ipod/iphone. That said, I would encourage many people to find a receiver that offers the same featureset, power, and connectivity at the same street price ($650). Well done Onkyo even if most people will still end up picking Marcia.