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Onkyo TX-NR5100 8K receiver, hands-on: Not the best option for gamers

CNET logo CNET 7/29/2021 Ty Pendlebury
a person sitting at a desk in front of a window: Gamers looking for 4K/120Hz will find a lot to like in the TX-NR5100, some not. Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET Gamers looking for 4K/120Hz will find a lot to like in the TX-NR5100, some not. Ty Pendlebury/CNET

After an initial rash of excitement over the next generation of 8K receivers -- OMG! 8K! The future is here! -- the tumult quickly turned to a sense of confusion. The category is currently in a holding pattern and there's one major reason why. In late 2020, when the first 8K-compatible models came onto the market, problems occurred when users tried to connect the Xbox Series X at its peak capability -- namely 4K at 120Hz with VRR, which is as good as it gets until real 8K sources come along.

© Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Now that 8K TVs are available, the new Onkyo TX-NR5100 receiver offers the cutting-edge connectivity that gamers and early adopters have been clamoring for -- and after testing it I can confirm it passes the 4K/120Hz signals that some competitors cannot. But a few design issues hold it back.

Before I get into all that, however, here's a little background.

What is 4K 120Hz anyway?

The Yamaha RX-V6A is one of the affected 8K-compatible models. Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET The Yamaha RX-V6A is one of the affected 8K-compatible models. Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The newest PC video cards and game consoles can output 4K resolution at higher frame rates than before, up to 120 frames per second, which supposedly leads to smoother gameplay. The Xbox Series X also supports a feature called virtual refresh rate, where the refresh rate can change dynamically to reduce tearing and similar artifacts. (The PlayStation 5 will also eventually support VRR, but Sony hasn't implemented it yet.) 

It turns out that the initial crop of 8K receivers from Denon, Yamaha and Marantz were manufactured using a chipset that's incompatible with 4K/120Hz and VRR. When a user connects a device using VRR at more than 4K/60Hz, the receiver refuses to pass the signal. The screen is simply blank and high-end gamers who bought the new receivers are understandably annoyed.

Of the three brands it's Yamaha which is taking the most drastic step of enabling users to send in their "faulty" receivers to have a main board replaced for free. Yamaha's program is coming in the fall of 2021, but the company has been unable to confirm when fully-compliant models will be available for sale at stores.

Meanwhile Sound United, which is responsible for Denon and Marantz, tells me replacement models slipped onto the market in April. Users who bought an 8K receiver before then can request an HDMI dongle, but the initial shipment has run out and so new requests won't be filled for another five months, the company says.

Until the fix is in, so to speak, buying an Onkyo or Pioneer will seemingly circumvent the issue entirely as its models never had a video problem. I have tested the TX-NR5100 and found that it will pass 4K/120Hz signals, but there are some good reasons why it won't end up on my recommended receivers list.

Using the TX-NR5100

The Onkyo TX-NR5100 is the first receiver to prove its compatibility with 4K/120Hz video. Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET The Onkyo TX-NR5100 is the first receiver to prove its compatibility with 4K/120Hz video. Ty Pendlebury/CNET

It's 2021 and the 2019 Onkyo TX-NR696 is still my favorite AVR, as it offers almost everything you need: music streaming, plenty of HDMI inputs, Dolby Atmos and of course, excellent sound quality. I had hoped that, for the same $599, the TX-NR5100 could fill the shoes left by its venerable forebear. In two aspects it has: Yes, the new model is able to pass 4K/120Hz and yes, it sounds just as good as I remember the NR696 being.

In order to get 4K/120Hz out of the NR5100 first I needed to go deep into the receiver's menus: Settings > 1. Input Output Assign > TV Out/OSD > HDMI 4K/8K Signal Format > 8K Standard (the default 4K Enhanced didn't work).

With an Xbox Series X connected, I then had an enjoyable time playing the new Call of Duty: Special Ops Cold War -- one of the few games that offers 4K/120Hz support. I'm usually a PC gamer and I use V-Sync to prevent the screen tearing that VRR is also designed to tackle, and on this version of Call of Duty I found there were no artifacts to speak of. However, it didn't matter whether I used 60Hz or 120Hz with the Xbox as I didn't experience screen tearing and the smoothness of gameplay between the two refresh rates was very similar. I had a similar experience with the game Ori and the Will of the Wisps; I could see the resolution change in the menu, but it looked just as good in either mode. 

a screen shot of a computer monitor: Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Though more games will be released that offer support for 4K/120Hz and may offer starker differences, I'm not sure why most people would actually care. Just like 8K resolution offers diminishing returns -- unless you're projecting onto a building -- 4K/120Hz playback doesn't seem like a huge improvement at this stage.

On the other performance point, the TX-NR5100 sounds big and dynamic with the right material. I connected a pair of Q Acoustics 3050i speakers and a SVS SB1000 Pro subwoofer for gaming sessions as well as music listening and both were as entertaining and as detailed as I could have hoped for. I especially liked the Onkyo's ability to simultaneously stream music over Chromecast built-in while also indulging my kid's love for Minecraft on the TV, using its separate video switching capability.

Where does the TX-NR5100 fall short? 

The pandemic has affected the prices of a lot of products and this includes home theater. The thing that really hurts the NR5100, at least for the first few months it's on sale, is that it is the same price as the excellent TX-NR696. Sure, the NR696 is older and doesn't have 4K/120Hz capability, but for that issue there is an easy work-around (see below). The NR696 also offers more HDMI ports (six, with one front input) and proper binding terminals for the speaker outputs.

Spring clips on a $600 receiver? Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET Spring clips on a $600 receiver? Ty Pendlebury/CNET

On the other hand the TX-NR5100 has a limited number of HDMI ports -- four HDMI 2.1 ports (plus two outputs) and only includes the spring clip speaker connections for all but the front stereo pair. While four HDMI ports is a drag, especially for gamers with a lot of devices, it's the latter point which is worse for enthusiasts. If you are looking to upgrade an existing AVR you will need to ensure you have bare wires only to connect to the spring clips, and a small gauge at that. I tried buying a set of 2mm banana-to-spring adapters on Amazon, but even then they didn't fit. I managed to pop three of the clips out when trying to connect them without an easy way to reinstall them.

In terms of power specifications, though, the TX-NR5100 carries over the power ratings from the NR595 at 80 watts per channel in stereo. Likewise, it also shares that model's extensive streaming capabilities including Apple AirPlay, DTS Play-Fi, control of Sonos devices and the aforementioned Chromecast.

The workaround: Just connect HDMI directly to your TV

As VRR and 4K/120Hz are only supported by the newest TVs, the inability to display this mode isn't an issue for most people anyway. However, if you do want to connect an Xbox Series X to your sound system -- any sound system at all -- you simply connect the console to the TV first (preferably to an HDMI 2.1 port, if you're lucky enough to have one) and then use HDMI ARC/eARC to the receiver. 

Regardless of whether you have a 2012 or 2021 receiver this will still work, and while it may not give you the latest Dolby Atmos sound (depending on the age of your receiver), it will supply video to a 120Hz-supporting TV. Check Geoff Morrison's list here for compatible 4K televisions.

Is it worth buying the 5100 purely for 4K 120HZ?

A worldwide semiconductor shortage and a newer, more expensive HDMI standard make Onkyo's reasons for the TX-NR5100's price hike understandable -- in January this year it was only expected to cost $500. However, the increase becomes difficult to justify when it's the same price as the superior TX-NR696.

The TX-NR5100 does have its positives -- excellent sound quality is one, alongside its comprehensive streaming suite. If you really must have 4K 120Hz, then go, have at it -- the Onkyo TX-NR5100 offers features that few other competitors can match. But be aware it's a model poorly suited to the enthusiasts it's trying to cater for.

The $699 Denon AVR-S960 may not offer the bling and sonic zing of its competitors but, according to Sound United, it now offers 4K/120Hz compatibility out of the box. If you can spare the extra $100 it will be worth it for more HDMI ports and a full set of binding terminals. Plus, it still sounds damn good.

Until I get to test the TX-NR6100 or TX-NR7100, it's worth adopting a wait-and-see attitude with the rest of the next-gen receivers.

Update, 1:10 p.m. PT: Added further information on the current availability of 4K/120Hz Denon and Marantz models.

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