If you're looking to expand your home-theater horizons beyond just your TV and a sound bar, then a receiver and discrete set of speakers is the next step. For a midrange price, the Sony STR-DN1050 offers a great mix of features and performance, excellent sound quality and a class-leading user interface.
The Sony has most of the wireless features you'd expect including Bluetooth, Spotify, and Apple AirPlay. It also comes with a simplified user interface and a remote that is head and shoulders above other products at the price, which in the US is in the neighborhood of $525, £499 in the UK, and AU$1,199 in Australia.
Performance too is another step beyond the similarly ticketed Onkyo TX-NR636 . For the money, it's almost neck-and-neck between these two receivers, but ultimately if it's sound quality you're after, then opt for the Sony.
Unless you're looking at a top-end Marantz or an even more esoteric brand, home-theater convention dictates that receivers should be squat, black rectangles with a large, blue LED display emblazoned across the top. In recent years, Sony has hewn its receivers to this aesthetic, and the STR-DN1050 does so too, looking identical to the 1040 model it replaces. We praised that model for its simplicity and lack of button clutter, and the front-mounted USB and HDMI ports enhance convenience.
While the exterior of the DN1050 is relatively untouched, the company has made improvements to the remote. It is now a good deal smaller and no longer resembles a scientific calculator: it has a tighter collection of buttons, and its ergonomics are a step up. My only gripe is that, unlike with the Onkyo's remote, the Sony's wireless features aren't directly accessible with a shortcut button. Instead, the streaming options need to be accessed from a nest of menus via the home screen.
After years of flogging the XrossMediaBar, Sony overhauled its interface last year. The DN1050 continues in this vein with an attractive selection of screens that have colorful icons and readable text. Dig a little deeper, though, and the menus morph into the familiar long lists accompanied by a scroll bar as seen on the Onkyo. But at least the Sony's home screen and Settings page (arguably the two most used) are much less intimidating than the Onkyo's.
The STR-DN1050 is a 7.2-channel receiver rated at 165 watts per channel that decodes all of the important standards, save for Dolby Atmos.
While last year's STR-1040 featured eight HDMI inputs, this year's replacement pares that extravagance down to a still-healthy six. Times are tough at Sony, and now maybe at your place, too. The receiver does feature three HDMI outs (A, B, and Zone) in addition to two component ins and two composite ins. Audio inputs include four analog-in, two optical, and a single coaxial digital.
While Sony does support HDMI 2.0, if you're a stickler for future-proofing, you may want to know that the Onkyo TX-NR626 also has HDCP 2.2, and Dolby Atmos. I don't consider them very important, however, so I'm not dinging the Sony for their absence.
To utilize the onboard wireless -- and the dedicated antenna to prove it! -- you'll find a host of features including Bluetooth with NFC and aptX in addition to Wi-Fi capabilities. While the competitive Onkyo system utilizes its network functionality with a half-dozen streaming-music services, the Sony offers four with Spotify Connect, Sony's own Music Unlimited, Pandora, and Internet radio service TuneIn.
Bluetooth also plays a part in the company's SongPal app, which enables you to control the receiver. And while the menu says you can use the TVSideView app, Sony advises me that it is not supported, and as I confirmed with testing that it didn't work.
Using the wireless features on a home network was relatively stress-free with (almost) seamless switching between Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Spotify Connect. As you'd expect, the Wi-Fi features boasted better sound quality than did Bluetooth, and maintaining a solid connection wasn't an issue.
The STR-DN1050, like every Sony receiver we've tested for years, features Sony's Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) auto setup. One mic position is all that's required, and after you initiate it, the beep tones sequentially fire through all the speakers and sub. It's the fastest auto-calibration routine we've tested; full setup takes about a minute.
Thankfully, the routine is dead simple, because the Sony STR-DN1050's printed or PDF Reference Guide isn't of much help. Most pages just offer warnings, cautions, license agreements, and specifications. Sony's online Help Guide does have some useful information, but it mostly assumes you know what you're doing.
Frankly, we didn't have much confidence in the DCAC's ability to bring out the best possible sound, because in previous years Sony receivers' "calibrated" sound was frequently out of whack. This time with the STR-DN1050, however, the calibrated sound balances were pretty good. The subwoofer volume was a little too loud, so we turned it down.
The STR-DN1050 sounded consistent from bass to treble, and the stereo and surround imaging was excellent. The receiver's rich tone added some heft to the sound of our Aperion Intimus speakers, which are usually a wee bit too lean. Big, high-impact movies won't be reined in by the STR-DN1050; it has plenty of power to play nice and loud.
Live concert music from Cream's "Royal Albert Hall 2005" Blu-ray sounded powerful, and the front and surround speakers together created a cohesive, you-are-there experience. There was a good sense of soundstage depth to the presentation, where the sound appeared to come from slightly behind the plane of the front speakers.
I've played this disc on many systems, but there was something about the STR-DN1050's sound that made me want to play it louder than usual. The music sounded better that way, so I turned it up even more, and the sheer intensity of listening to a great band that loud was a tremendous thrill. Which is, after all, the reason to buy this type of receiver, and the STR-DN1050, mated with an equally accomplished 5.1- or 7.1-channel speaker/subwoofer system, will far outrun even the best sound bars.
Onkyo's new TX-NR636 receiver played as loud, but the dimensions of its 5.1-channel soundstage were pulled back relative to what we heard from the STR-DN1050. The two receivers were close overall, but the STR-DN1050 unleashed more of the Blu-ray's live sound quality. Quieter fare, like "Toy Story 2," demands less from a receiver, and the two receivers sounded the same.
Jack White's "Lazaretto" album has a varied mix of acoustic and electric tunes, and the STR-DN1050 brought out the best in both. Listening in stereo with two Aperion 4T tower speakers consistently produced perfectly enjoyable sound; no need to employ any of the STR-DN1050's faux stereo-to-surround processing tricks.
While it's disappointing to note a reduction in the number of HDMI ports and that there are no significant feature additions over last year, the lower price and still-solid sonic performance of the STR-DN1050 means it remains a superb deal and one of our favorite midpriced receivers of the year.