Sony STR-DN1030 review:

Sony STR-DN1030

Two-year warranty: The STR-DN1030's two-year warranty is standard, although it's better than the one-year warranty offered on Pioneer's competing receivers. And if you're really looking for peace of mind, Marantz's NR1403 and NR1603 feature three-year warranties.

3D pass-through, audio return channel, standby pass-through: The STR-DN1030 supports all three of these HDMI features (each of which is explained in more detail here), but while they're all useful, you can largely ignore them when making a buying decision, since almost every newer receiver supports them.

iPhone/iPad-friendly USB port: The USB port on the front panel supports iPhones, iPods, and iPads, so you can connect those devices directly using a standard cable and navigate your music collection onscreen. We also had success using the USB port with a standard USB drive filled with music.

Unpowered second-zone audio: The STR-DN1030 has bare-bones multiroom functionality, with just line-level, unpowered second-zone analog outputs. That means you'll need a separate amplifier in the other room to power speakers. Most receivers in this price range will offer powered second-zone functionality, and Onkyo's TX-NR616 is again the champ, with powered second-zone audio, unpowered second-zone audio, and unpowered third-zone audio.

Additionally, the STR-DN1030's second zone is even more limited than that of most receivers. The manual states, "BD/DVD, GAME, SAT/CATV, VIDEO 1, VIDEO 2, TV, USB, AirPlay, HOME NETWORK, BLUETOOTH and SEN inputs can be selected in main zone only." Most receivers can't convert signals from HDMI or digital audio inputs to second zones, but the STR-DN1030's second zone is limited strictly to analog audio and AM/FM radio -- AirPlay, Bluetooth, and streaming music services won't work.

Other features: The STR-DN1030 can upconvert analog video signals to 1080i over its HDMI output, but that feature isn't nearly as important as it used to be, since analog video devices are pretty rare. It lacks support for Dolby Pro Logic IIz processing, allowing for "height" channels, but we don't think the minimal sonic benefits are worth the extra effort. The STR-DN1030 doesn't have any THX certification, but that's not worth factoring into a buying decision, since the Sony sounds great anyway.

Setup and calibration
The STR-DN1030 uses Sony's Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) auto setup system, which is one of the easiest receiver calibration systems to use. There's just one slightly unusual step: you need to select an SP Pattern (speaker pattern), which means you tell the receiver how many speakers are in your home theater.

After the SP Pattern is set, Sony has a checklist of setup tips you'll need to confirm before you plug in and place the supplied calibration microphone. Next, bring up the Auto Cal page on the GUI menu, and initiate the program to run a series of beep tones through the speakers and subwoofer. At about a minute to complete, the tone series is shorter in duration than most calibration programs. Unlike Audyssey calibration routines that require the user to repeat the procedure three or more times, moving the mic each time to a different position in the room, the STR-DN1030 gets the job done from a single mic position.

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The STR-DN1030's manual notes that the Advanced Volume Function (which in principle is similar to Audyssey's Dynamic Volume mode) does not work with Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Advanced Volume Function promises to reduce sudden soft-to-loud volume shifts from TV commercials and standard Dolby and DTS encoded movies. The Audyssey system works with all soundtracks, including Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD, and Master Audio-encoded Blu-rays.

If you're using the built-in Wi-Fi, you'll also need to set that up. The Sony's cramped user interface again makes it a challenge, and it's extremely tedious to enter your Wi-Fi password using the remote. There's no onscreen keyboard, so you have to press buttons several times to get the letter you want, like an old cell phone. Just to enter in the number 0 took more than 10 button presses. Luckily you'll only need to do this once.

Sound quality
Sound quality evaluations for AV receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon. CNET's sound quality evaluations are strictly subjective, with resident golden ear Steve Guttenberg comparing similarly priced models in an identical listening environment using the same speakers.

Starting with Peter Gabriel's recent "New Blood: Live in London" concert Blu-ray, the STR-DN1030's sound was absolutely first-rate. Gabriel was backed up by a full orchestra in a large concert hall, and the overall clarity and spaciousness of the sound was excellent. Voices sounded truly lifelike, and the strings were natural. There's a richness to the sound that we really liked, and the blend between the subwoofer and the speakers in our Aperion Audio Intimus 4T Hybrid SD system was perfect, so the skinny 4T towers sounded like much larger speakers, and we weren't aware of the sound coming from the subwoofer. The speakers' front-to-rear, wraparound soundstage seamlessly filled the entire CNET listening room. That's exactly what a well-set-up system should sound like.

For our soft-to-loud dynamic range tests we used the plane crash scene in the "Cast Away" Blu ray. The high-impact jolts rocking the plane's cabin when it first gets into trouble were exciting, and cargo crates smashing into each other inside the doomed FedEx plane sounded realistic. The quieter sounds, like the whine of the jet engines and outside wind turbulence were also faithfully captured. Later in the film Tom Hanks' monologues sounded natural. At this point we compared the STR-DN1030 with the Denon AVR-1912 receiver, and found the two receivers sounded almost identical. That's great; we loved the Denon, and the STR-DN1030 was on par with it.

CDs, in stereo, also sounded great. In sum, the STR-DN1030 is among the best-sounding receivers we've heard this year.

What about Sony's other AV receivers?
At $500, the STR-DN1030 is most expensive model in Sony's "main" line of AV receivers. Sony offers two step-down models, but the STR-DN1030 is the best value of the bunch. The STR-DH830 doesn't offer any networking features at all, which is unusual for a $400 receiver this year. The STR-DH130 is a two-channel receiver and doesn't support HDMI or digital audio inputs at all, which makes it a poor choice for a modern home theater, even at $150. If you're going with Sony, the STR-DN1030 is by far the best choice.

Sony was falling behind in AV receiver tech over the last few years, but the STR-DN1030 shows that the company can still make a great AV receiver. It may be slightly behind the Onkyo TX-NR616 in overall value, but it's a better choice if you want more features built-in, rather than dealing with accessories.

What you'll pay

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