Sony STR-DN1020 review:

Sony STR-DN1020

The Sony's audio connectivity is again slightly below average. Most competitors have four digital inputs (two optical, two coaxial), but Sony includes only one coaxial input. We're more forgiving of fewer digital audio inputs if a receiver has tons of HDMI connectivity (as on the Denon AVR-1912), but that's not the case with the STR-DN1020.

Network features
Ethernet Yes Pandora No
Wi-Fi dongle No Rhapsody No
DLNA-compatible Yes Sirius No
Internet radio Yes Slacker Yes

It may feel like we're piling on, but Sony's streaming-media suite is also a step behind. Slacker and Internet radio are nice, but competitors typically include Pandora, Rhapsody, and Napster. And, as previously mentioned, the STR-DN1020's difficult user interface detracts from the services it does include.

You'll also notice there's no Wi-Fi dongle available, which is disappointing, especially since the similar Onkyo TX-NR609 offers a dongle for just $40. However, there are several affordable Wi-Fi alternatives, including power-line adapters, so we don't consider this a deal-breaker.

Like every other midrange receiver we've tested this year, the STR-DN1020 is DLNA-compliant, so you'll be able to stream music from compatible networked devices running a DLNA server. If you have an Android phone, you can use a DLNA app like Skifta to enable AirPlay-like functionality, although it's not quite as flexible. You can also play back digital music by connecting a USB drive to the front-panel USB port.

The STR-DN1020 is also compatible with Sony's HomeShare streaming-audio platform. While we were impressed with the concept of HomeShare back at CES 2011, the platform doesn't seem to have much traction, which makes it hard to consider this a major selling point.

Audio decoding features
Dolby TrueHD Yes DTS-HD Master Audio Yes
Dolby Pro Logic IIz Yes THX Neural Surround No
Other: None

Like virtually every receiver these days, the STR-DN1020 supports all the standard HD audio codecs. Though there isn't any support for proprietary sound-processing modes from companies like Audyssey and THX, Sony has its own technologies, such as Sound Optimizer, that work similarly.

Additional features
THX-certified No Satellite radio Yes
USB port Yes Bluetooth dongle No
Other: IR input/output

Many AV receivers are ditching traditional satellite radio support, opting instead to support Sirius XM's online streaming feed. But Sony (like Yamaha and Pioneer) still provides a port for connecting an external tuner. Note that there are quite a few features missing from all 2011 midrange receivers that home theater enthusiasts may be interested in, such as pre-outs, HD Radio, and RS-232. Again, you'll need to spend more if you want those features.

Multiroom features
Line-level 2nd-zone outputs Yes Powered 2nd-zone outputs No

Every 2011 midrange receiver we've tested has powered second-zone outputs except the STR-DN1020. If you're not planning on using a second zone, that's fine, but if you are, you'd need a separate amplifier in the second zone.

Audio setup
The STR-DN1020's Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) auto setup system is super easy to use. Just plug in the supplied microphone, bring up the Auto Cal page on the GUI menu, and have the program initiate its very short series of test tones through the speakers and subwoofer. Unlike Onkyo's or Denon's Audyssey calibration routines that require you to repeat the procedure three or more times with different microphone positions, the STR-DN1020 gets the job done from a single mic position.

Auto setup mic
Our included setup mic was defective, but a replacement worked fine.

We're very familiar with DCAC from our previous Sony receiver reviews, but this time our initial attempts to use it were unsuccessful. The receiver dutifully sent test tones to all the speakers and the sub, but once the DCAC was complete our display informed us that an "Error 32" had occurred. We ran the test over and over, checking the connections, but still no luck. The owner's manual indicated that an Error 32 message means the mic hasn't detected the sound of any speakers. It turned out that the supplied mic was defective and substituting another Sony calibration mic solved the problem.

With that snag out of the way, DCAC determined each speaker's "size," frequency response, volume level, distance from the listening positions, equalization for the speakers, and the optimal subwoofer-to-speaker crossover points for each set of speakers. After we completed the DCAC we noted that the STR-DN1020 correctly identified the size of all the speakers in our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD system as "small" speakers and the DCAC measurements for the speaker distance and delay settings were accurate, though the subwoofer distance was off by 3 feet, which is about average for most autocalibration systems. The DCAC set the subwoofer-to-speaker crossover points for all the speakers at 120Hz. The subwoofer volume level was +10.

We briefly checked the sound with music and movies and felt the subwoofer volume was much too loud. That so colored our impressions of the STR-DN1020's sound that we decided to turn the subwoofer volume down. That helped, but we still felt the sound wasn't right, so we next altered the subwoofer-to-speaker crossover settings. The DCAC had set the crossover points for the front, center, and surround speakers at 120Hz, but we know from experience that lower settings sound better. So we changed the settings to 60Hz for the front-speaker crossover point, 90Hz for the center channel, and 100Hz for the surround channel speakers. The changes improved the sound, but our usual approach with receiver reviews is to base our impressions on the sound as determined by the auto setup. Not this time, so bear in mind that our remarks in the Performance section of this review are based on the sound of our manual speaker setup.

We made one other change in the Audio Settings menu. The STR-DN1020's factory default setting for Dynamic Range Compression is Auto. With the Dynamic Range Compression turned on our DVDs' and Blu-ray Discs' dynamic range and impact were reduced, so we turned the Dynamic Range Compression setting to Off. The default setting baffles us, especially since many owners will never realize the compression is turned on, unless they read the STR-DN1020's instruction manual or fully explore the manual setup menus.

We started our STR-DN1020 auditions with the "Avatar" Blu-ray. It's a great-sounding movie and the densely mixed jungle scenes demonstrated the STR-DN1020's ability to fully conjure a 360-degree surround experience from five Aperion speakers. The sounds of the little creatures and birds carrying on all around us was impressive, and we could almost feel the ground move when the charging Hammerhead Titanothere knocked down a bunch of trees with its massive head. The Hammerhead's antics and the huge animals fighting with each other make great home theater demo material. Comparing the STR-DN1020 with a Yamaha RX-V671 receiver, we heard greater clarity and more sharply focused front-to-rear sound imaging with the Yamaha.

We also spent some time watching Cream's 2005 "Royal Albert Hall" concert DVD, turned up nice and loud. The STR-DN1020 didn't have any problems keeping up, even when Ginger Baker was really going to town on his drum kit. It's an extremely dynamic recording of a live rock band, and it sounded better and more realistic as we turned the volume higher and higher. The RX-V671 receiver wasn't any more dynamic or powerful, but Jack Bruce's bass guitar's notes had more punch and better definition than we were getting from the STR-DN1020. You might say it's a matter of tonal balance: the RX-V671 had more treble detail, the STR-DN1020's bass was richer and fuller sounding. What's better is a matter of taste, and we preferred the RX-V671.

Those impressions didn't change when we played CDs in stereo. The front soundstage was big and wide on Joel Fan's "West of the Sun" solo piano CD. It's one of the better-sounding piano recordings we know, and the STR-DN1020 did its job well. The piano's lower keys had plenty of weight, and the treble notes were clear.

The STR-DN1020 has ample power and a sweet, relaxed sound that's easy to listen to for hours on end, but the Denon AVR-1912 and Yamaha RX-V671 receivers both deliver greater clarity.

The Sony STR-DN1020 isn't a bad AV receiver, but it lags behind its competitors in just about every attribute we consider important.

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