Sony's Dream Systems have set the pace for stylish home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIBs) for years. Now, with its new DAV-X1 Platinum DVD Dream System, the company's designers have downsized the formula. Sony has added new features, such as high-resolution upconversion via HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) output. It has also drastically reduced setup hassles and deleted three satellite speakers from the standard 5.1 array. The DAV-X1's new S-Force Pro 2.1 Surround Sound technology uses an all-digital process to synthesize a surround experience from its 2.1-channel satellite/subwoofer system. And while the X1--like all simulated-surround products--can't match the output quality of bona fide multichannel systems, we found it sonically competitive with other virtual-surround HTIBs. The micro DAV-X1 Dream System comes with a full-size $1,000 list price, but it's a worthwhile investment for HTIB shoppers who place a high priority on compact size, high style, and streamlined setup. The Sony DAV-X1 is the smallest Dream System ever--a mere 2 inches high by 15 inches wide by 11.6 inches deep. The ribbed-aluminum receiver/DVD player's front panel has just a few buttons and an easy-to-read display, and its svelte, curvy body looks far more stylish than the boxy designs of most home-audio components. A sleek remote hides less-used buttons under a sliding door so that only the everyday controls are exposed.
The two silver-plastic satellites are a petite 3.1 inches high, 6.5 inches wide, and 5.2 inches deep. The rounded wood-and-plastic subwoofer is about average size for a $1,000 HTIB sub: 14.2 inches high, 8.2 inches wide, and 19.2 inches deep. The black beauty weighs 21.6 pounds.
Hooking the system up couldn't be easier: you get one long cable that forks out to three, with special plugs for the satellites and the subwoofer. The satellite sections extend a total of 16.4 feet; the centered subwoofer cable, a mere 9.8 feet. Each plug is clearly labeled for its intended destination, so we're sure that even the most technophobic buyers will have their DAV-X1s up and running in no time.
The X1's operating instructions explain how to position the two speakers. For best results, you should place each one the same distance from your listening position, forming an equilateral triangle. You also want to elevate the speakers to the height of a seated listener's ears. The area to the front and the sides of the speakers must be free of reflecting obstacles or furniture. The DAV-X1 comes with a setup DVD that includes test tones, a helicopter effect, and the sound of a baseball getting hit and bouncing around your home theater. We never quite achieved a perfect surround effect, but it was definitely above par for a virtual-surround system. Other than that, you won't have to fuss with audio setup, but you may need to navigate the Screen Setup menu to select your TV's aspect ratio. If you're using the HDMI output, you can set the output to 720p or 1080i video resolution--a boon for HDTV owners. The main unit of the Sony DAV-X1 houses the A/V receiver and the disc player. It plays DVDs, audio CDs, and SACD discs as well as the standard variety of home-burned DVD-R/RWs, +R/RWs, CD-R/RWs, and MP3 CDs. The system supports standard Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS surround-decoding modes, but it uses a digital-signal-processing system Sony calls S-Force Pro 2.1 to simulate a surround-sound field from two speakers. The receiver's six-channel digital amplifier supplies 40 watts to each front speaker (20 watts to each of the speaker's two 2-inch drivers) and another 20 watts to each of the subwoofer's two 6-inch woofers. The DAV-X1 lacks bass and treble controls, but you can adjust the subwoofer's level. A/V Sync is supposed to compensate for video displays that lag behind the X1's audio--but because the control isn't adjustable, it's almost useless in re-establishing lip sync.
In terms of connectivity, the X1's highpoint is its HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) output, which lets you scale your DVDs up to 720p or 1080i resolution when connected to HDMI-equipped HDTVs. Of course, it also has standard composite, S-Video, and component connections for connecting to older TVs. Otherwise, the DAV-X1's jack pack won't compete with that of a full-on A/V receiver, but it's not bad for such a tiny all-in-one system: two A/V inputs (with composite and S-Video) and one stereo in; three coaxial/one optical digital input, and one optical digital output. However, the X1 doesn't have a headphone jack or any front-panel inputs. We put the Sony DAV-X1 through its paces with the I, Robot DVD, and the wee system projected a big, satisfying sound. When Will Smith blew the head off one of the robots, the subwoofer's deep bass showed impressive authority and dynamic range. Twenty-watt amps rarely sound this gutsy and powerful. We continued with another DVD, Birth, a stately drama set in NYC, which sounded lovely over the X1.
Since the DAV-X1 lacks a center speaker, we were concerned it wouldn't produce a stable "phantom" center channel for dialogue. That fear was unfounded--as long as we stayed near the center of our couch. The two speakers project dialogue toward the center position for listeners seated in-line with their TVs. But if you sit off-center, the sound seems to come from whichever speaker is closer, and the surround effects disappear. In other words, if you want to hear the X1's virtual surround at its best, sit equidistant from the speakers. Like most other virtual-surround rigs, the X1 provides a satisfactory surround experience for only one or two listeners.
Moving on to music, we popped in the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense. The concert DVD's funky bass lines sounded a little muddy, and the drums' cymbals lacked sparkle and real detail. That's not to say we didn't enjoy the DVD, only to note that the system doesn't quite measure up musically to other virtual-surround HTIBs we've tested, such as the . Similarly, with some of our CDs, the X1's speakers sounded anemic, like a pair of underpowered table radios, though the faux-surround options fleshed things out somewhat.
In the end, we felt the surround processing for stereo music sounded a little weird and disembodied; Super Audio CDs didn't fare much better. No, we much preferred the sound and the envelopment the X1 could achieve with DVDs. But we're hardly singling out the X1 for its subpar performance on music--every other virtual-surround system we've tested suffered the same fate.
Of course, you'll get better sound from conventional--and less expensive--multichannel HTIBs such as the Onkyo HT-S780 ($500). But that's not exactly a fair comparison, since the S780 features a full-size A/V receiver, seven large speakers, a bulky subwoofer, and lots of wires. The whole point of the ultracompact DAV-X1 is that it's smaller, better looking, and a lot easier to set up, and that it reduces the wire count to as few as two cables. It's a bonus that it sounds decent, too.