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Sony STR-DN1030 review: Sony STR-DN1030

Every year there's usually one new AV receiver feature worth considering. This year it's built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and the Sony STR-DN1030 is the only receiver at this price that supports both wireless networking features. It's surprising that Sony is alone in offering wireless capability, since it's such a convenient feature for anyone without Ethernet wiring in their living room. Onkyo has a $25 Wi-Fi dongle for its AV receivers, but other manufacturers expect you to come up with your own solution or pay for a dongle that costs a lot more.

Sony STR-DN1030
8.4

Sony STR-DN1030

The Good

The <b>Sony STR-DN1030</b> is the only midrange receiver with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Its networking features also include built-in AirPlay, plus plus support for DLNA, Pandora, and Slacker. And the STR-DN1030's sound quality is excellent.

The Bad

The STR-DN1030's five HDMI inputs are fewer than many competitors have. The user interface is particularly bad and makes it frustrating to use some of the streaming music services. And the STR-DN1030's multiroom functionality is very limited.

The Bottom Line

The Sony STR-DN1030 is the only midrange AV receiver with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, making it one of best receiver values this year.

Aside from its wireless prowess, the STR-DN1030 also has built-in AirPlay functionality, support for DLNA and a few built-in streaming services, including Pandora and Slacker. Its five HDMI inputs are fewer than some competitors have, but it should be enough for most home theaters. The toughest decision is whether to favor the STR-DN1030 over Onkyo's value-packed TX-NR616 ($410 street), which lacks AirPlay, but has eight HDMI inputs and can be made wireless with the cheap dongle. For our money, the TX-NR616 is an overall better value, especially since you can add a full-fledged Apple TV for a total cost that's just a bit more than the Sony, but the STR-DN1030 is a very close second, especially if you don't want to deal with dongles or a separate box.

Design
The front panel of Sony's AV receivers always have a surplus of buttons and knobs, the vast majority of which you'll never use. The STR-DN1030 is no different, with an overpopulated front panel that makes it tougher to find the controls you're actually interested in versus seldom-used buttons like "movie" and "music" modes. AV receiver looks aren't that important, but Sony's busier, less elegant design puts it in the bottom of the pack, with Onkyo's utilitarian style.

You know a remote's gone wrong when you see text on the buttons, different colored text above the buttons, and a cryptic yellow circle that appears above some buttons, but not all. The STR-DN1030's included remote isn't much worse than the clickers that come with Yamaha or Pioneer's remotes, but they're all equally difficult for tech novices to use. However, if you're willing to invest $500 in an AV receiver, you'll likely consider using a universal remote to render Sony's lousy remote irrelevant.

Sony STR-DN1030 remote app

When connected to your home network, the STR-DN1030 can also be controlled by Sony's smartphone app, Media Remote, available for iOS and Android. It largely just duplicates the buttons on the physical remote, rather than offering an interface more customized for the smartphone, like the remote apps from Denon and Onkyo. But remote apps in general aren't as useful, where, again, you'll be better off with a universal remote.

User interface

Sony STR-DN1030 user interface

The STR-DN1030 may be ahead of competition in terms of networking features, but its user interface is archaic even by AV receiver standards. Despite the fact that most people have wide-screen TVs these days, the interface has a smaller, boxier shape that makes it feel cramped. In fact, the onscreen display often only shows a few characters at a time, leaving you to wait for the slow, automatic scroll to reveal the full line. It's no fun. And although AirPlay interfaces on AV receivers never look as good as the one on an Apple TV, Sony's interface is the crudest.

Sony STR-DN1030 user interface

Sony STR-DN1030 user interface

If you only have to use the interface when you first set up the receiver, it's fair to discount its importance. You'll see it more frequently, however, if you plan on using built-in streaming media services, such as Pandora or Slacker. If you're going with the STR-DN1030, you'll have the best experience by avoiding its frustrating interface as much as possible, for example by using those apps on your smartphone or tablet and streaming via AirPlay or Bluetooth.

Features

Click to enlarge.

Five HDMI inputs: The STR-DN1030 has five HDMI inputs, all on the back panel, which will cover most home theaters, although many of its competitors offer more. If you want the most HDMI connectivity for your buck, however, go with Onkyo: the TX-NR616 ($410) and TX-NR515 ($400) both offer eight HDMI inputs. The rest of Sony's AV connectivity is actually pretty extensive, with three digital audio inputs (two optical, one coaxial), two component video inputs, and five analog audio inputs. That's nice, but probably unnecessary since most home theater devices use HDMI these days. (Check out CNET's 2012 AV receiver spreadsheet for a more detailed comparison of AV receivers' connectivity.)

Built-in Wi-Fi: The real standout feature of the STR-DN1030 is its built-in Wi-Fi, which isn't offered on any competitors at this price. Onkyo's receivers do come close since you can add Wi-Fi functionality with a tiny USB dongle for just $25, you'll need a different dongle for Bluetooth. (Pioneer and Yamaha also offer Wi-Fi dongles, but they're annoyingly expensive and not nearly as compact.) If you prefer the stability of a wired connection, the STR-DN1030 also has an Ethernet port.

The built-in networking features of the STR-DN1030 allow for all kinds of networking functionality, including firmware updates, AirPlay, smartphone control, and media streaming via DLNA, Pandora, Sirius, Slacker, Sony Music Unlimited, and Internet radio. I still don't think networking is an absolutely essential AV receiver feature (largely because AV receivers shouldn't be media streamers), but it's a nice bonus. The STR-DN1030's set of streaming-audio apps is somewhat limited compared with Onkyo's, but in reality it's much more limited because of how poor Sony's onscreen user interface is. Buyers should ignore the built-in apps and plan on using the STR-DN1030 with AirPlay or Bluetooth.

Built-in AirPlay: If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, the STR-DN1030's built-in AirPlay is a nice bonus, although it's not essential since you can always add AirPlay later with a $100 Apple TV. If you're not sure whether you should pick a receiver with built-in AirPlay, check out our rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of built-in AirPlay versus buying a separate Apple TV box.

The STR-DN1030 also goes above and beyond with built-in Bluetooth, making it easy to wirelessly stream audio from non-Apple smartphones and tablets. Sure, you can add Bluetooth connectivity to any AV receiver with a simple dongle like the Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter ($40) and Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver ($25), but having it built-in is a more streamlined solution.

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.

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.

Conclusion
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.

Sony STR-DN1030
8.4

Sony STR-DN1030

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 9Performance 8