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.