AV receivers tend to feel out of step with current technology: they're bulky, hard to use, and typically lack basic features that are taken for granted these days, like Wi-Fi.
Thankfully, none of that is true with the Sony STR-DN1040 ($600 street), one of the first relatively affordable AV receivers that actually feels modern. A lot of that is thanks to its slick, responsive onscreen interface that's miles better than what competitors offer. The STR-DN1040 also packs built-in Bluetooth, AirPlay and Wi-Fi, making it easy to interface with tablets and smartphones, where a lot of your music may live. If that's not enough to win you over, there are a whopping eight HDMI inputs, outclassing any other receiver in this price range.
That $600 price isn't cheap for an AV receiver, but the STR-DN1040 certainly makes you feel like you're getting your money's worth. The real question is whether you're willing to pay for the STR-DN1040's step-ups over Sony's other excellent 2013 AV receiver, the STR-DN840, which also offers the killer trio of Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Wi-Fi. None of the STR-DN1040's step-ups is truly essential (who really needs eight HDMI inputs?), but they are nice luxuries for buyers willing to pay more. The Sony STR-DN1040 may not be the absolute best value, but it's a tempting indulgence for less-budget-conscious buyers.
Design: Large, but tasteful
It's hard to make a bulky AV receiver look good, but Sony's done an admirable job with this year's STR-DN1040 and STR-DN840. The front panel has a clean, modern look that's low on the button clutter that plagues most models. The Marantz NR1403 still looks better and takes up a lot less space, but the STR-DN1040 is the best-looking "big" receiver we've tested this year.
The remote is far from the minimalism of the front panel. It's chock-full of buttons, including lots of arguably unnecessary sections like the rows of numbers given prime center placement. Crucial functions like the volume rocker are relegated to the bottom of the remote, and there looks to be two of them; one is actually for cycling through different sound modes. If you're spending $600 on an AV receiver, you'd be wise to invest in a quality universal remote to replace this clicker.
User interface: Finally, a modern AV receiver interface
We've long been critics of the archaic onscreen menus included with AV receivers, so the STR-DN1040's are a real breath of fresh air. The crisp, high-definition graphics look great and even more impressive is how responsive the interface is -- it feels like you're zipping around a PS3.
Sony has also done a good job using plain English phrases to explain the STR-DN1040 functions, like "Watch" and "Listen." It's not perfect -- you can't do simple tasks like renaming input types or changing icons -- but it's a huge step in the right direction. It's hard to complain when most AV receivers look closer to a command-line interface rather than something that should be on your HDTV.
Features: All the wired and wireless connectivity you need
The STR-DN1040 may be expensive, but it's one of the most well-featured AV receivers at this price.
There are eight HDMI total inputs on the back panel, including a front-panel input that's MHL compatible. That's more than any other receiver at this price; nobody else offers more than six. The rest of its inputs are well-covered, too, including three digital (two optical, one coaxial) inputs.
Like the step-down STR-DN840, the STR-DN1040 offers extensive wireless connectivity, including built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AirPlay. Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from nearly every smartphone and tablet, while AirPlay offers superior sound quality from iOS devices.
Wi-Fi isn't as crucial, but it allows you to take advantage of the STR-DN1040's integrated networking features without a wired Ethernet connection, including DLNA, smartphone control, firmware updates, and streaming services such as Pandora, Slacker, Sony Music Unlimited, and Internet radio. Sony's suite of streaming services is somewhat lean compared with those from other receivers, but it's a minor issue since streaming (via Bluetooth or AirPlay) directly from apps on mobile devices is almost always a better experience than using a receiver's built-in software.
The rest of the STR-DN1040's step-ups are less important for mainstream buyers. The STR-DN1040 is a 7.2-channel receiver, but most buyers won't need the extra functionality that makes possible: surround back channels, powered second-zone audio, and Dolby Pro Logic IIz "height" channels. It also has analog video upconversion, but you won't need it if all your devices use HDMI. The STR-DN1040 is one of the few receivers to offer dual HDMI outputs, but unless you have a relatively elaborate home theater with a projector, they won't be necessary.
If you're looking for more detailed feature comparisons, check out our giant AV receiver spreadsheet, which will compare the Sony STR-DN1040 with other 2013 models as we review them.
Setup: Just missing the mark
The STR-DN1040 uses Sony's Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) autosetup system, which takes about a minute to complete. We've had good success with the DCAC in the past, but this time the STR-DN1040 determined that all of the speakers in our Aperion Intimus 4T system were "large" -- and that's certainly not the case. The tower and center speakers each just have two 4-inch woofer and the little 8.75-inch-tall surround speakers have a single 4-inch woofer. We can't recall another receiver that identified the center or surround speakers as large speakers.
We listened to the STR-DN1040 with those settings and the sound was fine, but when we went into the manual setup and changed all the speakers to small, with the 4T towers set to a 60Hz crossover, and the center and surround speakers with 100Hz crossovers, the sound improved. With our settings, the Hsu Research VTF-1 subwoofer handled more of the bass frequencies, so the system's sound filled out, was richer, and reproduced action movies' dynamics with greater ease. The STR-DN1040 just sounded more powerful with all of the speakers set to small. We can't explain why the STR-DN1040 misidentified the speaker sizes, but we auditioned the receiver with all the speakers set to small.
Sound quality: First-class sound
Sound-quality evaluations of 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.
What we can say is that AV receiver sound quality has much, much less effect on overall sound quality than speakers or room acoustics, so you're better off spending your home theater budget there. 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.
Caveats out of the way, the STR-DN1040's sound quality was excellent. We started our evaluations with "Moulin Rouge," a film set in a Paris nightclub in 1899. Our five Aperion speakers created an enveloping surround field, so the audience cheers seemed to come from all around us. The big band's dynamics were thrilling, and the singers' voices clear. We experimented with the STR-DN1040's four EQ "Auto Calibration Type" settings: "Full Flat" makes the frequency response of all the speakers "flat"; "Engineer" matches your speakers' EQ to the Sony listening room standard; "Front Reference," matches the center and surround speakers' balance to the front left and right speakers; and "Off," which turns off the equalization. Engineer is the factory default setting, which we liked, and we also used the Front Reference for our listening tests.
The STR-DN1040 also has an "Advanced Volume Function," which in principle is similar to Audyssey's Dynamic Volume mode, but Sony's system 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. It worked well, Advanced Volume Function maintained a more consistent volume level than the same soundtrack with that feature turned off.
Switching back to the Yamaha RX-V475 receiver, the sound was brighter and more immediate than the STR-DN1040's, but the sound had less depth. The subwoofer and speakers' blend was better on the STR-DN1040. We also listened to jazz singer Patricia Barber's excellent "Modern Cool" 5.1 channel high-resolution Blu-ray. It's a fairly sparsely mixed recording, and the sound of the acoustic stand-up bass was perfect; we could hear the woody texture of the large instrument. The full immersion surround mix over the five speakers was also well played by the STR-DN1040. We've auditioned a handful of 2013 receiver so far, and subjectively the STR-DN1040 has been our favorite of the bunch.
What are the alternatives?
The STR-DN1040's strongest competitor is actually Sony's step-down STR-DN840.
The STR-DN840 maintains all the wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AirPlay) that makes the STR-DN1040 so attractive, yet it's $150 cheaper. You're stepping down to "just" six HDMI inputs and there's no pretty interface, but for most buyers you're getting more bang for your buck.
The other options worth considering are smaller, less-complicated alternatives. Marantz's NR1403 is little more than six HDMI inputs and an amp, but it's a much slimmer, more attractive unit. Along the same lines, if you're willing to downsize your home audio system to stereo, you might be able to use a compact integrated amplifier. They sound great, take up a lot less room, and can make your home theater much simpler.
Conclusion: Expensive, but worth it
Not many home theaters will need all the step-ups the STR-DN1040 offers, but it's an undeniably nice package if you're willing to spend a little more.