The Onkyo TX-NR838 hits all the right notes. Great sound quality and a bevy of features which include WiFi, Bluetooth and Dolby Atmos make it the total package in AV receivers
Dolby Atmos isn’t quite ready for prime time and could use refinement. The Onkyo 838 sounds great, but could make do with a little warmth.
Onkyo traditionally pumps out good sounding receivers year after year. Because of this, it’s sometimes easy to take for granted the sound quality of their products. The fact that the 838 sounds great is almost expected. The inclusion of Dolby Atmos and HDCP 2.2 DRM are big pluses especially for future applications.
The 7.2 Channel Onkyo TX-NR838 on the surface appears to be pretty much the same as last year’s 828 model. However, Onkyo has made a couple notable changes to the 838 this year. The most significant of which is the support of Dolby’s new Atmos format and the dropping of Audyssey calibration.
As far as looks go, the Onkyo 838 is pretty much identical to last year’s 828. The big black box of the 838 is big and bulky. The front has a clean and uncluttered appearance. The lower trap door on the 838 is it’s secret to keeping the front tidy looking. Flipping it open reveals buttons for various sound modes and input selects as well as one analog, one USB and one HDMI input. When lifting the 838 out of the box, it’s 34 lb heft is immediately apparent.
Turning the unit around reveals an ample supply of analog and digital inputs highlighted by 7 HDMI inputs and 2 outputs. Onkyo’s even included a phono input in the rear for vinyl lovers.
When examining the remote that comes bundled with the Onkyo TX NR838, I guess the old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it” can be applied. Onkyo’s been using the same remote for their AV receivers for the past few years. Like past years models the remote is adequate. It could probably make due with a little bit of simplification as it does have a few superfluous buttons, but overall it’s not too bad. To put it bluntly, we’ve seen worse.
Every manufacturer nowadays offers some sort of app for your smart device that allows you to control your AV receiver. Onkyo is no different. The control app which is a free download for your iOS or Android device is actually pretty slick. It lets you control most of the basic functions of the Onkyo 838. Personally, I still like the tactile feel of a good old fashioned remote, but as far as remote apps are concerned, Onkyo’s is well designed and easy to navigate from an end user perspective.
The Onkyo TX-NR838 has dual 32-bit DSP engines which it uses to decode a variety of audio formats. The most notable of which is Dolby’s new Atmos format. Atmos basically allows sound engineers to add additional audio channels to their sound mix. In the case of Atmos enabled commercial theaters, this means additional side and ceiling channels can be utilized to create a 3 dimensional audio experience.
For home theater users, this means that ceiling speakers can be used to achieve the same effect. If you don’t have room for ceiling speakers, a bevy of manufacturers have begun producing Atmos enabled speaker modules which you can place on top of your existing speakers or mount to your wall. These work by reflecting sound off of your ceiling and down into your listening area simulating the 3D effect you’d get in an Atmos enabled movie theater. For our review we had a set of Onkyo’s SKH-410 Atmos speaker modules. We’ll touch upon the results in this review of the 838.
Along with decoding Atmos, the Onkyo 838 is adept at decoding a variety of other audio formats including gapless FLAC, WAV, ALAC and WMA. Of course it also handles Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats as well.
Bluetooth and WiFi are becoming ubiquitous on AV receivers today with only a handful of receivers not including them as features. The 838 includes both. However, it doesn’t include support for Apple AirPlay. The Onkyo 838, is also DLNA compatible. There was a few second delay as we got the unit on our network. But once we did, it identified our PC and we were immediately able to stream music from it. You also get quite a few music streaming options with the 838 as Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Slacker, AUPEO! and TuneIn all come included on the receiver.
Setting up the Onkyo 838 is straightforward. Recently, it seems that AV manufacturers have taken great strides to simplify the initial setup process. Onkyo has done the same with their’s. As soon as you boot up the unit it will guide you through the calibration by asking you the type of speaker arrangement you have.
Onkyo dropped Audyssey from their systems this year. Instead it’s been replaced by Onkyo’s own proprietary calibration system AccuEQ. You can’t really fault them for doing this. After all, why pay for licensing fees if you can develop your own calibration system that does the same thing. Truth be told, it worked as well as Audyssey has on prior receivers we’ve used. In fact, it may have been a little better since it didn’t label our front speakers as “large”. Whereas nearly every Audyssey equipped receiver we’ve tested has mistakenly done this.
Upon the initial setup, the Onkyo 838 walks you through connecting your devices to the proper inputs on the receiver. Overall, it does a pretty good job. On screen menus and icons are clean and easy to read making navigation relatively simple. Onkyo’s GUI won’t win any awards, but it’s a definite step-up over what they’ve used in the past.
Five of the Onkyo TX-NR838’s seven HDMI inputs support the latest HDMI 2.0 standard for 4K-Ultra HD. It’s also capable of 4K upscaling and passthrough. More importantly, the 3rd input on the 838 and the main output are compatible with the latest HDCP 2.2 DRM copy protection standard which makes the 838 somewhat future proof. Other AV manufacturers have issued concerns over bandwidth and color constraints because of the current limitations of HDCP DRM. This could be why Onkyo has decided to only bind it to the 3rd HDMI input. Either way if and when broadcasters accept HDCP 2.2 DRM for 4K video, the Onkyo 838 will be in good shape.
Nearly every TV, Blu-Ray player and AV receiver offers some sort of video processing. In fact it’s almost pointless to really discuss it. In our test we didn’t notice any artifacts or defects in the image quality, so the Onkyo TX-NR838 gets a passing grade for video processing. As we mentioned, the 838 also does 4K upscaling and passthrough but since we didn’t have any 4K source material to test this with, we really can’t comment about it. However, the ability to upscale to 4K is probably more for publicity than anything else since nearly every 4K TV on the market offers some sort of upscaling capabilities. Having this feature on the 838 probably isn’t necessary in the long run, but it looks good on the stat sheet.
With all of the minutia out of the way, I’m sure you want to know how the Onkyo TX-NR838 sounds. To sum it up….excellent. For pure stereo output it sounded fantastic. I usually feel that dedicated stereo receivers do a better job for pure stereo applications. Most AV receivers usually come up a little short in this department. However, the Onkyo 838 proved me wrong.
If there is one flaw with it’s audio performance, it could be a lack of warmth. While the 838 has excellent dynamics, it doesn’t quite have the warmth of a Marantz or Pioneer receiver. This is purely subjective of course as I’ve had other’s listen to the 838 and they thought the differences were subtle at best.
For movies we decided to test out the Onkyo 838 with the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We reviewed the Onkyo TX-NR636 a few months ago and came away impressed with it’s home theater prowess. Considering the 838 is more expensive, we had high expectations. As soon as we plopped the blu-ray in, the Onkyo TX-NR838 grabbed us and never let go. When we reviewed the 636 we felt that the sound produced by it’s surround channels were a little too directional. The 838 was the exact opposite The Onkyo 838 emitted a wide net of sound that filled our listening area. The same was true with the front sound stage. No matter where we positioned ourselves in the listening area we were greeted by amazing sound. Vocals were clear and precise and bass was thunderous.
Atmos movies are slim pickens’ right now. Luckily, our copy of Transformers: Age of Extinction happens to be one of the first blu-ray releases that supports the fledgling format. Equipped with our Onkyo SKH-410 atmos speaker modules we were eager to see what Atmos had in store for us.
Overall, Atmos nearly delivers on it’s promise. It does create a much fuller room filling sound stage with some sounds appearing to come from above and wrapping around your head. However, it wasn’t quite as engaging as we expected. Also, in our listening area there appeared to be a “sweet spot about 8′-10′ in front of the speaker modules where the spacial sound effects were the most convincing. If we stood further back or moved further to the right or left it wasn’t quite as effective. This being said, it did provide a more realistic sound stage than you’d get with a traditional setup.
The Onkyo TX-NR838 is another great receiver from Onkyo. While none of the features it offers are groundbreaking, they do show that Onkyo has an eye towards the future. HDCP 2.2 DRM compliance means the 838 will be prepared for the onslaught of 4K video. Even though Atmos needs some refinement, it shows lots of promise. In a few years when Atmos becomes a standard, those who purchase the 838 will be happy they did.