If you know exactly what type of home theater receiver you need for your speaker arrangement, it is hard not to exclude Onkyo from the equation. They not only make fantastic high-end home theater receivers but also good entry-level receivers that are quite difficult to compete with. Entry-level receivers are often compromised but still manage to have the essentials so all competitors need to do is match the audio quality and keep those key features intact. To maintain the lead, Onkyo is doing something extra special with their 2015 lineup and that includes the modestly priced Onkyo TX-SR444. The main theme revolves around making home theaters more accessible to people.
About the Onkyo TX-SR444
The Onkyo TX-SR444 is an interesting addition to the entry-level home theater receiver category because it lacks a direct predecessor. Onkyo created this receiver to address the people who want to set up a solid 7.1-channel arrangement without breaking the bank. It retains most of the core characteristics of the cheaper TX-SR343 while possessing a couple of exclusives that may make the Onkyo TX-SR444 the better futureproof deal compared to Onkyo’s lowest-end model. The new features of the TX-SR444 compared to the 2014 models is quite staggering though.
Below is the back panel layout. Click on image to enlarge for a clearer view.
The Onkyo TX-SR444 boasts a refined design on both the front and back making the receiver have more of a unique identity of its own. The central theme of the refresh appears to be clearer labels as the buttons for changing inputs look more stylish and the labels much larger. The buttons that are less likely to be used blend in with the info display better and there are still complementing labels. The listening mode controls can also be adjusted from the front panel if necessary.
Onkyo really succeeded in making a truly unique rear panel design. There is a lot of white on the back along with large labels making it pretty easy to spot the necessary connections for your TV, Blu-ray player, gaming console, streaming box, legacy devices and speakers. The 7.1-channel speaker grouping is the best part as the terminals are paired with a cool sample speaker layout of both the Zone A and Zone B. These diagrams exist primarily to educate people who are not so familiar with home theater systems in general. Not everyone knows that the HDMI output is for a modern TV and this new port arrangement highlights it very well.
The only problem of this new setup is the reduced number of HDMI inputs compared to Onkyo’s entry-level predecessor. The Onkyo TX-SR333 featured a healthy array of 6 HDMI inputs but the TX-SR444 features only four. Onkyo makes a small exclamation point by having each HDMI port support the latest 2.0a and HDCP 2.2 standards for futureproof compatibility with upcoming 4K content.
Most home theater receiver manufacturers understand that HDMI ports are for Blu-ray and DVD players, gaming consoles, set-top boxes, DVRs and computers and that explains why these companies give each HDMI port suggested labels. But the Onkyo TX-SR444 and its 2015 siblings acknowledge the recent boom of HDMI dongles. All of the HDMI ports of the TX-SR444 have the same function but the HDMI port in the “STRM BOX” group is conveniently placed next to a USB port. Streaming HDMI dongles like the Chromecast rely on the TV’s USB port for power so the STRM BOX HDMI port enables you to plug the dongle there instead and have easy access to the receiver’s power source.
The Onkyo TX-SR444 is the first product in the entry-level SR series to support the new Dolby Atmos technology effectively making this one of the cheapest Dolby Atmos-enabled receivers ever. Dolby Atmos basically allows you to have a standard 5.1-channel setup along with 2 additional channels designed to generate sound from above creating a highly realistic sound space. Obviously, you won’t get the very best of Dolby Atmos since more ceiling channels add more depth but given the ever expanding library of Dolby Atmos movies, it is nice to see even $499 receivers ride on the Dolby Atmos train.
The TX-SR444 also comes with a slightly updated version of the 2015 AccuEQ room calibration technology featured in the older TX-NR535 model. In addition to the usual optimization that takes the level, crossover and distance of all the speakers and subwoofer into account, the calibration performs a second measurement designed to eliminate standard waves.
With 115 watts per channel, the Onkyo TX-SR444 is only a little bit more powerful than the TX-SR343 and its performance just matches the TX-NR535 although it is worth noting that model is a 5.2-channel receiver. The Dolby Atmos addition is the biggest gain but for music and standard movies, there isn’t much of a difference in audio quality. The ability to stream lossless audio from PC and NAS devices is pretty cool though.
• Front and back panel redesigns make the receiver more inviting to newbies.
• Dolby Atmos support on the cheap.
• Ready for today’s and next year’s 4K displays thanks to HDMI 2.0a.
• Room calibration is slightly improved.
• 4 HDMI ports might not be enough for some people.
The Onkyo TX-SR444 is a formidable force in the $499 price point. It is designed for first-time home receiver owners with the option to expand the experience to Dolby Atmos level. If you can deal with the limited HDMI ports, the Onkyo TX-SR444 is an easy winner and finally makes home theater receivers feel fresh and interesting again.