Let's not mince words here. If you're an AV enthusiast, you probably don't need me to tell you that Sony, while renowned for its TVs and projectors and video game consoles and portable audio electronics and all manner of other goods, doesn't generally make it to the top of the list of best AV receivers. I've never really known why, though. Before recently, no Sony AV receiver had ever crossed my threshold. Take that into consideration as I discuss my thoughts on the company's STR-DN850 7.2-channel AV receiver. I'm not judging it against previous Sony efforts, but rather trying to assess how it stacks up in its own right against other similarly priced receivers, many of which I've had the good fortune to audition.
The STR-DN850 certainly makes a great impression coming out of the box, with its gorgeous façade, its appreciable weight for such a slim chassis, and the wonderful inertia of its volume knob. Longtime readers may be aware of my particular fetish for volume knobs. Although I might be inclined to snub Sony for the plasticky feel of the STR-DN850 knob, the buttery smoothness of its operation more than makes up for that.
I'll admit, though, that the box itself did give me pause, specifically the "150Wx7" emblem emblazoned upon it. 150 watts per channel, times seven channels, for a mere $499? If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it is, as evidenced by the fine print just below it: "6Ω, 1kHz, THD 0.9%, per channel." Dig a little deeper on Sony's site, and you'll find that even these questionable measurement criteria are made more questionable by the fact that the receiver's output was measured with merely one channel driven to arrive at that number. Bump the test up to two full-range channels driven, and even by Sony's own measurements the STR-DN850 only delivers 95 watts per channel into six ohms. Swap that hypothetical six-ohm load out for more typical eight-ohm speakers, and you're getting something like half the power per channel promised on the box. For more information on the relationship between speaker impedance and amplifier power, check out our primer on the subject.
Most AV receiver manufacturers play this game when it comes to power ratings, especially with the lower-end models. They hype the highest possible spec, even if it's not entirely relevant to real-world performance. My complaint here is that, while other manufacturers also list power ratings with multiple channels driven into eight ohms, I could find no such spec for the STR-DN850 in any of Sony's literature...which makes it harder for the consumer to compare this product to its competition.
In other areas, the STR-DN850 has plenty of features worth hyping. Built-in WiFi and Bluetooth at no extra cost? Check. Apple AirPlay connectivity? Check. Spotify Connect? Yeah, baby. Along with TuneIn and Pandora, to boot.
One thing that really makes the STR-DN850 stand out in a sea of similar $500 receivers, though, is its incredibly intuitive and undeniably gorgeous user interface, which I'll discuss more in a moment.
In terms of connectivity, the STR-DN850 is pretty straightforward, in that it lacks component video switching entirely and doesn't feature much in the way of audio inputs aside from a single coaxial digital in, two optical digital ins, and a handful of stereo analog RCA ins. The front-panel USB input supports hi-res audio playback and a variety of file formats, including FLAC, ALAC, WAV, and AIFF. The receiver features five HDMI 2.0 inputs around back and one up front, one of which is labeled "(for Audio) SA-CD/CD," but that's merely the default; it can easily be reconfigured as an AV input. Even without utilizing that input, I had more than enough inputs to accommodate my OPPO Blu-ray player, Dish Hopper DVR, and Control4 HC-250 home controller. You can pass 4K signals through HDMI, but this receiver does not offer video upconversion. For speakers, I primarily relied on Aperion Audio's Intimus 5B Harmony SD 5.1 speaker system.
The STR-DN850 is a 7.2-channel receiver, with the option of reconfiguring the extra two amplified channels as surround backs, Front B speakers, front heights, or as bi-amp channels for the front mains. Unfortunately you can't use those channels as a powered second zone. Some shoppers may be concerned that this receiver doesn't support Dolby Atmos; but, until Hollywood starts delivering some worthwhile Atmos Blu-rays, I view this as mostly a non-issue (although your preferences certainly may differ from mine).
After getting everything connected, I fired up the system and was almost taken aback by the beauty of the UI. Granted, the words were all in German, a quirk that I'll chalk up to the fact that this is a review unit, not a retail box. Even still, it took mere seconds for me find the language settings and correct that minor error. With other receivers, this would have been a nightmare, especially given that I only know a few (very dirty sounding) words of Deutsch. Sony's deft mix of words, graphics, and sublime layout make navigating the menus an absolute snap, though...so much so that I can't imagine anyone needing an instruction manual during any step of the setup process or regular use.
Not to belabor that point, but it's worth giving at least one more tangible example of exactly what I mean. Even something as simple as changing sound modes can be done through the onscreen UI at the press of the Home button. Whereas most receivers may leave the novice user guessing as to exactly what the differences are between modes like "Multi Stereo" and "A.F.D. Auto," the STR-DN850 clearly and attractively spells it out for you, with descriptions like this: "Outputs 2 channel or monaural signal from all speakers" and "Sound is output as it was recorded or encoded; no surround effects are enabled." Right there on the screen and everything.
Integration with my Control4 system was just as simple. I know this isn't a critical concern for most of you, but thanks to Sony's support for SDDP (Secure Device Discovery Protocol), the instant the STR-DN850 was connected to my home network, it appeared as a discovered device in Control4's programming software, and with but a few clicks I had complete IP control over the receiver.
If that's not your bag, Sony also offers its own control app, named SongPal, which can communicate with the receiver either via WiFi or Bluetooth. While it isn't quite as informative as the receiver's own onscreen interface, it's no less gorgeous and no less intuitive.
Despite the fact that I almost universally hate the remote controls packed in with receivers these days, I have to admit that even Sony's own wand-style physical remote is quite a pleasure to use. It isn't exactly a miracle of modern ergonomics or anything, but given the simplicity of operating the receiver, the remote simply doesn't need many buttons. The necessary few are clearly labeled and well positioned. No matter which control route you take, the STR-DN850 is a breeze to use and a cinch to set up.
Well, mostly. The STR-DN850 relies on Sony's own Advanced DCAC (Digital Cinema Auto Calibration) calibration and room correction system in lieu of Audyssey or other similar setup routines. Although it proved to be simple to use--and sonically superior in virtually every way to Audyssey's lower-tiered offerings (a point we'll get to in the Performance section)--it didn't quite nail the basics of speaker setup. Rather than screeching or hissing at you, Advanced DCAC plays a quick series of melodious test tones that are measured from one position only. This makes the automated part of the setup quite snappy, but it also gives the room correction system less information to work with. Amazingly, Advanced DCAC absolutely nailed the speaker distances in my secondary home theater system. Like, seriously, down to a tenth of a foot, the measurements between the microphone and speakers were dead-on (well, except for the subwoofer, but that's normal given that what's actually being measured is delay, not distances).
The crossover points between the satellite speakers and the subwoofer, though? Those could not have been more wrong had I simply thrown a bunch of numbers in a hat and let my pit bull Bruno chew them up and spit them out. The -3dB point of the Aperion system's bookshelf speakers, for example, is right at 80 Hz. The STR-DN850 set the fronts to large (or full range) and decided on a 160-Hz crossover for the surrounds (exact same speakers, pretty much exactly the same distance away from their nearest boundary). The 5C center speaker, meanwhile, has low-frequency extension down to around 53 Hz, but the receiver set its crossover at 200 Hz. Random.
Likewise, it set the loudness level of the subwoofer nearly six dB too high. Levels for the rest of the speakers were spot on, though, and fixing the crossover settings was super simple, thanks to the unit's marvelous UI. That, in terms of setup (not performance) is perhaps the biggest difference between the STR-DN850 and other similarly priced receivers. Virtually all auto-calibration programs are going to make booboos; few of them make it as easy and intuitive to fix them as the Sony does.
Let's talk about Advanced DCAC from a sonic perspective for a moment...because that's where it really shines, in my opinion. I started off my performance evaluation of the STR-DN850 by watching Spike Jonze's brilliant film Her (Warner Home Video) on Blu-ray. I know it's not the first film that comes to mind when you think "surround sound demo." There isn't much rear-channel activity. There aren't any sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads anywhere within the film. What I love about Her, though, especially as a test of room correction systems, is the fact that the entire sound mix is bathed in subtle but pervasive droning noises that shift in timbre and intensity from scene to scene as a way of not only establishing the environment, but the mood. Sometimes it's the distant rumble of city life filtered through thick glass. Sometimes it's restaurant walla. Sometimes it's just that quiet electronic hum that so permeates modern life that you never notice it until the power goes out and it isn't there.
Many room correction systems, especially Audyssey MultEQ, completely screw up the timbre of that droning background veneer, and they rob something essential from this film in particular. Sony's Advanced DCAC, by contrast, doesn't seem to muck a whole heck of a lot with midrange and upper frequencies; as such, it passes the ambience and sense of space in a sound mix along undamaged. Mostly. There is a toggle in the speaker settings menu to turn off (it's on by default) a feature called Automatic Phase Matching, which "adjusts the phase of speakers to match the front speakers and enhances the surround field." Enhances? Perhaps. Changes? Definitely. I didn't really dig it.
Leaving that aside, DCAC gives you three target EQs to select from: Full Flat, which flattens the frequency response of all speakers; Front Reference, which matches the response of the center and surrounds to the measured response of the fronts; and Engineer, which is Sony's own in-house target curve. I preferred the last one, but I also found that the Full Flat setting did an excellent job of mostly leaving the mids and highs alone, as I said before, while still doing a very admirable job of whipping the bass frequencies into shape. There isn't much bass in Her, aside from a few notes in the score--although I noticed even with those rare instances of LFE that, with DCAC off, the bass was a bit of a bloated mess in my room. With it on, the lows were nice and controlled, with plenty of oomph but no booming or bloat. Yet the character of voices and instrumentation and highly directional sounds and background ambience was, for the most part, beautifully maintained. In other words, Sony's DCAC lines up pretty darned well with my preferences for how a room correction system should behave.
To give the receiver itself and its room correction system a bit more of a workout, I threw in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (Warner Home Video) on Blu-ray and skipped forward to the scenes set in Hawaii, in which the titular beast hunts down his MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) prey. Here too the stability and clear authority of the bass was impressive, and overall the STR-DN850 proved itself more than capable of delivering the soundtrack with equal parts detail, dynamics, and clarity. Everything from the frequency-sweeping electromagnetic pulse early in the sequence to the ominous grumble of Godzilla toward the end to the staccato rat-a-tat of machine guns came through with exactly the right amount of punch, texture, and sheer scope...to a point.
The only caveat I would hang on that last observation is that I wasn't comfortable driving the receiver as loudly as I would like in my secondary listening room, which measures about 13 by 15 feet. Throughout the Godzilla sequence mentioned above, if I adjusted the volume such that dialogue measured around 66 or 67 dB on average, with dynamic peaks around 96 dB, things were pretty comfortable. Push the volume much higher than that, though, and the sound began to strain. I started to worry about clipping the speakers. This is a subjective concern for me because, in a smaller room or for listeners who don't necessarily like to listen to films at reference level the way I do, this probably wouldn't be an issue.
Perhaps a greater concern is the STR-DN850's emphasis on higher frequencies, which I'll admit I didn't really notice until I switched to two-channel music listening. With movies, this nudging-forward of treble frequencies registers as extra spaciousness. With tunes, though, especially ones I know by heart, the extra brightness had a twofold effect. First, it definitely had what I would consider to be a positive impact on the depth of the soundstage. However, it also added a brittleness to many of my favorite albums, especially those recorded in the analog age.
Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks' "Whenever I Call You Friend" from the former's Nightwatch (Columbia) is a great example of this. It isn't the thickest-sounding recording in my collection to begin with, but the STR-DN850 pushed it over the edge from "a little thin" to "full-blown eating disorder," whether DCAC was engaged or not. I loved the way the harmonies danced out into my listening space (so much so that I walked over to my surround speakers just to make sure that the receiver was, indeed, in pure 2.1 mode), but Nicks' voice slammed into my ears like a rocket-propelled cheese grater.
This turned out to be even more noticeable when I switched over to more detail-forward speakers like NHT's excellent Absolute 5.1 surround system. The STR-DN850 does come with a user-customizable two-band EQ (aka bass and treble controls) that allows you to make some adjustments to suit your listening tastes.
In the features realm, I guess my biggest beef with the STR-DN850 is the same beef I have with virtually all receivers in this price range: the lack of multichannel preamp outputs. I would love to see this feature become more common around the $500 price point. For those who are starting out small, it would be great to have the option of adding external amplification down the road to beef up the receiver's home cinema capabilities.
Comparison and Competition
Yamaha's $450 RX-V477 comes to mind as a pretty obvious competitor to Sony's $499 STR-DN850. The Yamaha does feature component video switching (which, the last time I looked, seems pretty rare at this price point these days), but on the other hand it delivers five channels of amplification to Sony's seven, and Bluetooth capabilities require an additional add-on module, sold separately.
Pioneer's $500 VSX-44 is, on paper, a bit more similar to the Sony, in that it features seven amplified channels. Unlike the Sony, though, the extra two channels can be configured as a second zone. On the downside, both WiFi and Bluetooth require optional accessories.
Denon's $450 AVR-S700W is probably the closest match of the bunch, with its built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as its complete lack of component video switching. It has even fewer analog audio inputs than the STR-DN850, but its extra channels can be configured as a powered second zone. As with all of Denon's receivers, the AVR-S700W relies on Audyssey room correction (in this case, vanilla MultEQ), which will either be a high point or a low point according to the listener's preferences.
Thinking over my entire experience with the STR-DN850 7.2-channel AV receiver, it strikes me as a little odd that the other receiver manufacturers haven't completely ripped off Sony's user interface, or at least tried to bring their own efforts up to this level. In terms of day-to-day use, either with its own remote control or the iOS app, the STR-DN850 is simply a pleasure to interact with. Thinking back to the days spent with my first multichannel receiver, when I found myself turning to the telephone-book-sized instruction manual on a nigh daily basis, what I wouldn't have given to have all of the relevant terms and acronyms spelled out for me right on the screen, via menus so intuitive and so well laid out that I had no trouble navigating them even in a foreign language.
Add the fact that this receiver features integrated WiFi and Bluetooth at no extra cost, along with the streaming apps that I actually want (and not the other zillion and eleven that I don't), and I think the STR-DN850 is a good pick for someone looking to put together their first surround sound system. As for my issues with the sound quality? Well, to be blunt, how many $500-ish receivers can you think of off the top of your head that excel with two-channel music? Onkyo's TX-NR636 comes to mind; past that, I'm drawing a blank. Just know going in that the STR-DN850 is at its best with movie soundtracks.
Overall, the STR-DN850's performance is roughly on par with most receivers in its class, but its functionality is on another plane of existence altogether. If Sony could tame the brightness a little with stereo music and work to make setup parameters like crossover points and subwoofer levels more accurate with its auto-calibration routine, the company would have an undeniable winner on its hands here. If anything, though, the STR-DN850 really makes me want to audition Sony's step-up models.
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