Many large home theater manufacturers offer two grades of A/V receivers, a higher-end range targeted toward performance-minded enthusiasts and a lower-end range targeted at budget- minded consumers and sold in big-box retail stores. While there is some truth to the adage that you get what you pay for, I’ve long wished for a better selection of affordable receiver options. And lately, new AVRs from Pioneer, Sony, and others have made my wish come true.
Within the past year or so, several big-name manufacturers have made a concerted effort to offer value- added budget receivers—models designed to sell at entry-level prices yet that incorporate select features and functions drawn from their premium- priced brethren. A good example would be Sony’s $400 STR-DG800.
The STR-DG800 is a 100Wpc, 7.1-channel A/V receiver that is chockfull of features, some of which—such as the receiver’s DCS (Digital Cinema Sound) processing modes—are drawn from Sony’s top-tier ES series receivers. The multizone-capable STR-DG800 sports a phono section, is XM satellite radio-ready, and provides switching functions for dual HDMI Rev. 1.1 inputs. The receiver incorporates the expected suites of Dolby and DTS surround decoders, plus 11 proprietary surround modes (three for movies, four for music, and four for use with headphones). In a break with past Sony practice, the DTR-DG800 even includes automated speaker set-up functions and a calibration microphone. Dollar for dollar this AVR offers terrific flexibility, but how does it sound?
Potential customers will want to compare this receiver to Pioneer’s identically priced, award-winning VSX-816K (reviewed in Issue 70). I would describe the sonic differences by saying that the Pioneer emphasized openness and transparency whereas the Sony produces a slightly warmer sound that provides good clarity (though not quite the degree of transparency offered by the Pioneer) and that reproduces dynamic shifts in a lively, energetic way—especially on movie soundtracks. The STR-DG800 proves we’ve come a long way from the days when entry-level AVRs routinely went into thermal overload if you pushed them too hard on action scenes or large-scale orchestral pieces. Even when pushed hard on rough-and-tumble passages the STR-DG800 generally keeps its composure, though it sometimes exhibits traces of compression or coarseness on extremely loud passages or hard-edged transients. Still, this receiver delivers substantial bang for the buck.
I tried the STR-DG800 on The Hunt for Red October and found it particularly effective at revealing dynamic contrasts, such as the one between the quiet, tension-filled intensity of the control room aboard the attack submarine USS Dallas versus the cacophony of flight deck activities aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The receiver also did a good job of reproducing subtle ambient textures, such as the enveloping, gurgling sounds used by the sound designer to suggest the stealthy motion of the submarines deep below the ocean surface.
For listening to stereo soundtracks processed for surround sound, the traditional Dolby PLII Movie or DTS Neo:6 Cinema modes generally gave the best results, though I found certain tyes of material also responded well to Sony's proprietary DCS (Digital Cinema Sound) Movie modes. The three DCS Movie modes—labeled Cinemema Studio EX A, B, and C—are particularly interesting because they attempt to replicate the sound characteristics of real-world Sony Pictures Entertainment cinema production studios or scoring stages. For example, the Cinemema Studio EX A mode is modeled after Sony's "Cary Grant Theater," whose sound makes for a good standard or general purpose setting. The Cinemema Studio EX B mode, in turn, is patterned after the "Kim Novak Theater," whose sound characteristics, according to Sony, are "ideal for watching science-fiction or action movies with lots of sound effects."
The STR-DG800 is a solid performer for movie playback, and although it of course could not equal the power, detail, and smoothness of my reference Sony STR-DA9000ES receiver, it did amazingly well considering that it costs less than one-tenth what Sony’s flagship AVR does.
The STR-DG800 proved satisfying on music, too, especially when fed high-resolution, multichannel SACD or DVD-Audio material. As is the case with many AVRs, the Sony sounded its very best in analog direct mode, and when playing well-recorded material at moderate volume levels. The receiver’s subtle touch of warmth and overall clarity helped it render instrumental and vocal timbres effectively. For example, it sounded terrific on the Heifetz recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor [RCA Living Stereo, multichannel SACD], capturing the violinist’s sweet, sure, lustrous string tone. Two small drawbacks are that the Sony offers good but not great soundstaging and can sound bright or rough on vigorous transients. Fortunately, these minor flaws rarely intrude on the Sony’s warm and inviting core sound.