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.