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.�
� Sony SS-CS3 Floorstanding Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
� Sony's 2015 Bravia UHD TV Lineup Announced at HomeTheaterReview.com.
� Check out our AV Receivers category page to read similar reviews.