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 fa�ade, 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: "6?, 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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...