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Sony STR-DN850 review: Complete receiver package a great value

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Last year, the Sony STR-DN840 was our favorite receiver of the year due to its mix of affordability and performance. The company has returned with the DN850 which improves in some areas -- namely adding a slick user interface and 4K throughput -- and takes away in others: fewer HDMI inputs.

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8.3

Sony STR-DN850

The Good

The Sony STR-DN850 receiver offers a very good selection of features for the price, including built-in Wi-Fi, AirPlay, Spotify, and Bluetooth. It delivers excellent sound quality for both surround sound and music. Sony's user interface and remote control are attractive and easy to use.

The Bad

Lacks the extended connectivity of the DN1050 including component inputs, MHL HDMI and Zone 2 amplification.

The Bottom Line

The Sony STR-DN850 has it all: bountiful Wi-Fi networking features, the brawn to provide maximum home theater fun, and the refinement to bring a string quartet recording to life.

Give and take notwithstanding it's still an excellent performer which shines with both movies and surround soundtracks. It offers a ton of wireless connectivity and is actually fun to use -- rare praise indeed for an AV receiver.

But is the DN850 as recommendable as last year's? Well, not quite, but only because of a threat from ts very own stablemate. The price differential between this receiver and the step-up STR-DN1050 is now just $70. That extra outlay gets you some nice features, namely Zone 2 capability and legacy inputs. Both receivers are great values, and it just depends on the features you are looking for.

Design

Sarah Tew/CNET

While it would be hard to pinpoint which would be the prettiest piece of equipment in a home theater setup--probably the speakers -- it's easier to say which are the ugliest: the AV receiver. The Sony STR-DN850 receiver is still relatively sleek for the breed, with a minimum of bamboozling controls, but it's still basically a huge black box. It features a source selection knob in addition to a volume control on the front panel, as well as a slick blue LED readout.

Sarah Tew/CNET

After years of flogging the XrossMediaBar, Sony overhauled its user interface last year. Newly added to the DN850 this is an attractive selection of screens that have colorful icons and readable text. While the makeover is only one layer deep, the home screen and settings page are nonetheless much less intimidating than competitor's.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The receiver ships with the same remote as the STR-DN1050 and is a no-frills clicker which is refreshingly easy to navigate.

Features

Sony has pushed the Hi-Res Audio thing pretty hard in 2014, and of course the DN850 takes advantage of this with 24-bit/192kHz decoding of most disk based and digital formats. Just don't expect it to be much chop at streaming content via the antiquated menus -- it's much better when using features such as Spotify Connect.

The DN850 is very similar in specifications to the slightly more expensive DN1050 so its easier to note what it doesn't have in comparison. The 850 lacks the 1050's DSD decoding over USB/network, a Zone 2 option and a 4K upscaler. While DSD over a network might, just might, be of interest to you, 4K upscaling is a non-issue: 4K TVs do this automatically, and likely much better than a receiver. Furthermore both receivers can pass-through native 4K signals anyway.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 850 has fewer HDMI inputs than both the 1050 and last year's '840: 5 versus 6. In addition the Sony 1050 offers a second HDMI output, in addition to a Zone 2 HDMI. If you don't have legacy equipment without HDMI, like a Wii or PlayStation 2, you can survive without the component inputs of the more expensive model.

The only other difference is that the DN1050 has a little more power (165W per channel versus 150W, or 100W and 95W at real-world, non-distortion levels), but that didn't cause an audible difference we could discern.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The DN850 receiver includes wireless connectivity in the form of Bluetooth with aptX in addition to wi-fi (as well as wired Ethernet). Streaming services include Spotify Connect, Pandora, Sony's own Music Unlimited and internet radio. Additionally you can link up the Sony with your phone via Bluetooth and you can control it via the Song Pal app: source, volume, and even streaming applications.

While the DN850 appears similar to the version available in the UK and Australia, it lacks the 4K upscaling those models include and the price is much higher, particularly on the Australian models.

Performance

Getting to know the Sony STR-DN850's sound with some of the "Gravity" Blu-ray's quieter scenes aboard the International Space Station, the receiver revealed a keen sense of refinement. As Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) floats from one chamber to the next, the ambient sound of the air-circulation systems, the buzz of the lights and crackles of damaged electronics filled the CNET listening room. The way the textures of the sound environments shifted as she moved from place to place heightened the realism of the film. Sometimes the subtle details are at least as important as big, high-impact explosions and effects. The STR-DN850's front-to-rear surround filled our room more evenly than what we heard from the cheaper Denon AVR-S500BT receiver with those "Gravity" scenes.

We used Pioneer's excellent SP-PK52FS speaker system with an Aperion Bravus 8D subwoofer for all of our listening tests. Turning up the heat with the "Birdman" soundtrack CD put the STR-DN850 through the wringer. The score mostly consists of a series of well-recorded Antonio Sanchez drum solos. That's all there was to it, just his drum kit. Pushing the volume up and up to approximate the sound of a real drum kit the STR-DN850's sound just got better and better. Each thump of the beater against the bass drum head sounded like it was coming directly through the Pioneer tower speakers, without any smearing or bloating. Running the same tracks through the AVR-S500BT, the drums' power and dynamics were a little less convincing.

Encouraged by the STR-DN850's uninhibited power delivery we popped on the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray and went straight to the scenes where US soldiers take heavy fire on the streets of embattled Mogadishu, in Somalia. The intense gunfire and explosions gave us a new appreciation for the budget-priced Pioneer speaker system. It sounded bigger and more powerful with the Sony than when we teamed it with the AVR-S500BT.

The STR-DN850's refinement again came to the fore with Jan Kraybill's extraordinary "Organ Polychrome" CD. Recorded in Helzberg Hall, in Kansas City, Missouri we had a sense of the organ pipes' sound filling the concert hall. The sound appeared behind the plane of the two Pioneer tower speakers; we also heard the subtle mechanical "tracker" action sounds of the organ, riding under the notes. That level of detail in the quietest sounds of the organ added to the realism of the music.

Conclusion

The STR-DN850 is a highly accomplished performer, and definitely a good value proposition. We were particularly impressed with its musical performance and laundry list of usable wireless features. If you're looking to spend in or around $400 this is where we'd look.

However, given the extra list of features the DN1050 and only minimal extra outlay (in the US at least) you may find it suits your needs better. Either way these two receivers offer the best bang-for-buck we've tested in 2014.

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8.3

Sony STR-DN850

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Sound 8Value 9