Sony's new STR-DG800 is a major upgrade from last's year midpriced receiver contender, the STR-DE998. Sony's refreshed styling looks nicer than last year's plain-Jane cosmetics. Better still, the new model adds HDMI switching, autosetup, and XM Radio capability--that's a sweet feature package for a $400 receiver. Home-theater sonics are exciting, but we're less thrilled by the Sony's musical side. The last few generations of Sony's midpriced and entry-level speakers were among the most drab and dowdy-looking things we've ever seen. So we were especially pleased to note that the Sony STR-DG800 now sports a crisp and thoroughly contemporary look. Also noteworthy, the STR-DG800's 14-inch depth is 2 to 4 inches more compact than most A/V receivers, so the svelte Sony will fit in places that would be too cramped to house the competition's models. It weighs 24.3 pounds.
Sony's Digital Cinema Auto Calibration autosetup, a new addition for 2006, is simple enough to use; just plug in the supplied microphone and press one button on the remote. That's way easier than Denon's autosetup routine, but Sony's system isn't as accurate; it sets only the volume levels of the speakers and measures the distances between all the speakers and the mic. By comparison, the autosetup modes of other manufacturers (such as Denon) also determine the speakers' sizes, set the subwoofer's volume and crossover point, and provide speaker-correcting equalization. The Sony's test tones and whooshes were a lot louder than we've heard with other brands' systems, so we went into another room until the tones ran their course.
Worse yet, after the Sony completes its autosetup, you still have to deal with Sony's less than intuitive menu navigation and manually enter the speaker sizes--large or small--on all the speakers and set the subwoofer/satellite crossover point (you can select between 40Hz, 60Hz, 80Hz, 90Hz, 100Hz, 110Hz, 120Hz, 140Hz, and 160Hz). That'll be useful with some speaker packages, such as the Mirage Nanosat 5.1 and the KEF KHT-3005. But it doesn't help that the STR-DG800 lacks onscreen menus, so you have to muddle through the receiver display's cryptic messages to complete the setup. Thankfully, the receiver's sleek remote is logically laid out, so it's easy to use. The Sony STR-DG800 is a seven-times-100-watt receiver, though we did note that the power rating is specified only for stereo operation--not for all channels driven, which is usually a lower number. The receiver offers a full selection of Dolby and DTS surround modes--Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS-ES, and DTS Neo:6--plus Sony's proprietary surround options. There's also a dialogue-sync option to compensate for lagging video displays.
For a $400 receiver, the STR-DG800 offers some better-than-average connectivity options, highlighted by two HDMI inputs and one output. That means you can switch between two HDMI sources--say, a high-def cable or satellite box and--eventually--a PlayStation 3. It's important to note, however, that the STR-DG800 will not convert your analog video sources--those plugged in via composite-, component-, or S-Video connections--to the HDMI output; you'll need to step up to the recently announced $800 Sony STR-DG1000 for that feature. Because it lacks analog-to-HDMI conversion, the DG800 will need HDMI and component cables run to your HDTV--assuming, of course, that you're on the HDMI bandwagon.
Aside from HDMI, there are two component-video inputs; we prefer three, but the two HDMI ins ameliorate that somewhat. There are also a total of five A/V inputs, including three with S-Video and one on the front panel. Moreover, the STR-DG800 can convert any of those video sources to its component-video output (but not HDMI, as mentioned above). On the audio front, there are six digital audio inputs--three rear optical, one front-panel optical, and two rear coaxial--as well as an optical output. Analog audio inputs include three stereo, including a dedicated phono input, as well as a 7.1-channel analog set that will come in handy for use with Blu-ray, HD-DVD, or SACD/DVD-Audio players.
Zone 2 outputs are limited to one stereo audio set, but in order to use that, you'll a separate stereo amplifier. Otherwise, go ahead and use the STR-DG800's A-B speaker switching to run the sound directly to a second pair of speakers.
The Sony STR-DG800 is XM ready. To receive XM's dozens of music, talk, and entertainment channels, you'll need to buy an XM Connect-and-Play antenna, such as the Audiovox CNP1000 or its XM Pass-compatible replacement. And, of course, you'll need to sign up for an XM subscription.
In addition to the aforementioned STR-DG1000 ($800, available August 2006), Sony offers two step-down models. The $300 STR-DG600 shares the STR-DG800's 7.1-channel configuration and power rating as well as its autosetup and XM-ready capabilities, but it lacks plenty of its big brother's features (no HDMI, no component-video conversion, and no phono input). At the $200 price point is the entry-level STR-DG500, a comparatively bare-bones 6.1-channel model. We started our audition of the Sony STR-DG800 with two very different DVDs. First up was a racially charged crime thriller, Freedomland, starring Samuel L. Jackson as a cop trying to keep the peace in a rough neighborhood. The film's realistic sound mix put us in the midst of some tense action scenes where the seething energy of the crowds was palpable. Thereafter, we moved on to Saving Private Ryan. The STR-DG800's gung-ho home-theater chops were ably on display throughout the film's visceral combat action sequences.
Turning to music, we popped in Pearl Jam's Live at the Garden concert DVD. Eddie Vedder and the guys were clearly having a good night, but the band's full-throttle wallop felt a little reined in by the STR-DG800. The ambient sound of the Madison Square Garden was enveloping, though nowhere near as spacious as we've heard from the Harman Kardon AVR 140, let alone what we experienced from the better Sony receivers such as the STR-DA3100ES ($1,000). That said, the STR-DG800's bass definition was excellent, so Matt Cameron's drums sounded especially good.
On quieter music, such as Lyle Lovett's masterpiece Joshua Judges Ruth, the sound wasn't as smooth and clear as we would have liked, but we're nitpicking. Listening to it on its own merits, we were perfectly satisfied with the Sony STR-DG800's sound, especially when we were reminded of its affordable price tag.