From its specs, the STR-DE698 ($299 list) sounds like a great buy: it's the most affordable 7.1-channel receiver on the market, and it also features SACD/DVD-Audio inputs, as well as A/B speaker switching. However, once we got it out of the box and into action, "great" quickly turned to "OK." Blame bar-raising budget receivers such as Yamaha's and Pioneer's for raising our expectations. But the STR-DE698's uninspired styling and competent but hardly stellar sound quality keeps us from giving it higher praise. The Sony STR-DE698's black plastic faceplate and knobs feel low-rent, and the styling is decidedly ho-hum. Like most of Sony's receivers, it's nice and compact (16.875 inches wide, 6.25 inches high, and just 14.5 inches deep), and, tipping the scales at a little less than 20 pounds, it's also lighter than most similarly powered receivers. The minimalist remote is less intimidating than most A/V receiver clickers, so you won't have to consult the owner's manual to figure it out.
The same can't be said about the DE698's setup procedures, which are much less intuitive than the setups on the similarly pricedand the . And like most receivers in this price range, the DE698 lacks onscreen menus, so you'll probably get a little frustrated trying to decipher the cryptic messages flashed across the receiver's display during setup. All together, the DE698 makes balancing the speakers' volume levels, size, and distances confusing.
Surround processing options include Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS ES, Neo:6, and 96/24. Sony also includes a set of proprietary surround modes. AV Sync is a rarely seen feature on budget receivers--it delays the audio from all channels, which could come in handy for owners of LCD or plasma TVs whose images lag behind the audio. Unfortunately, the delay time isn't variable; it's fixed at 85 milliseconds.
The receiver has five digital audio inputs--two coaxial and three optical ins--and one optical digital output. Two assignable component-video inputs are available, along with a somewhat anemic three A/V inputs with S-Video. Three analog stereo jacks are provided for three audio-only sources, as is a 5.1 SACD/DVD-Audio input. There's also a set of front-panel A/V inputs, and the DE698 will upconvert composite video to S-Video. It's great that Sony provides banana-plug-compatible multiway speaker binding posts for all of the speakers, including the front-channel B speakers. But they do feel a little flimsy, so be careful back there.The Day After Tomorrow DVD unleashed enough wind, rain, hailstones, thunderstorms, and giant waves pounding into Manhattan to provide a home-theater thrill fest. The STR-DE698 weathered the assaults without any signs of duress, though we did note the sound wasn't as realistic as we've experienced through some of our favorite receivers. It's acceptable, but it won't make you sit up and gasp for air when all hell is breaking loose on the screen.
Things took a turn for the worse when the DE698 squashed the sound of the White Stripes' Under Blackpool Lights concert DVD. We never doubted the receiver's power, and it certainly played loudly enough, but it blunted the texture and sting of Jack White's ferocious guitar flash and muddied the sound of Meg White's drums. This DE698 sucked the life out of their performances. Apparently, hard rock wasn't the DE698's strong suit, so we eased back on the volume and relaxed with James Taylor's JT CD. The sound was better, but this mostly acoustic recording wasn't as warm and rich as it should have been. As we listened, we became more aware of the receiver's slightly harsh sound, which will probably be more noticeable on some bright speakers. Mated with simpatico speakers, the($300) sounded sweeter with our CDs.
Bottom line: Noncritical listeners will likely find the DE698's sound quality perfectly satisfactory, but it can't match that of competing--albeit slightly more expensive--products from class leaders Denon and Harman Kardon.