There are plenty of AV receivers that can easily make your home theater build leaps and bounds better, but there’s also the potential to go overboard when moving beyond a sound bar. With the right set of speakers you really don’t have to go beyond a midrange price to make something like Sony’s STR-DN850 7.2 Channel 4K AV Receiver shine without much effort.
You’ll get an agreeable blend of features and performance, and much of the experience is tied around one of most user-intuitive experience I’ve had in recent memory. To that point, this is a traditional receiver that not only sounds good, but also works for normal people or those curious but not-yet audiophiles.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that most receivers more or less look the same. Every brand has its own aesthetic black, metal, and rectangular cues while other boutique offerings thrive on eccentric touches unlike the norm; for the most part though, Sony has stuck with familiarity and carried over the clean looks from last year’s lineup. With dials asymmetrically placed on the right and flushed panel buttons along a glossy front strip that displays the necessary status messages and icons.
With only a USB, headphone, and optimizer microphone jack up front, most of the important stuff sits around back. You get a respectable amount of ports centered on HDMI (5 inputs/1 output), one less input compared to last year’s model. MHL is another new addition, while the emphasis on analog remains a much lesser priority with only two video inputs and a monitor output. Legacy audio fares better, with an assortment of four analog inputs and three digital (two optical and coaxial). Component video won’t be found on this unit anywhere, but I doubt many will care if they’ve already moved on to HDMI.
Thanks partly to a little antenna, wireless capabilities are well accounted for with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, AirPlay and AptX audio reduction technology built right in. Despite most competing manufacturers finally getting to it, Sony has been including most of these features in their mainstream lineup for a while and making it standard in receivers below $500. Audio streaming includes only four services (Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Internet Radio, and Sony’s own Music Unlimited service), and of course, through Bluetooth with the SongPal app controlling much of the STR-DN850 functions is adequately possible with a tablet or smartphone.
The remote gets the biggest exterior treatment by far, and I appreciate the fact that the engineers finally acknowledge the need for simplicity; I’d also like to think that someone in the lab realized not everyone enjoys using their main clicker like a graphing calculator. It’s smaller with the selection of number of buttons narrowed down to the important ones, and the general layout is greatly streamlined. My only criticism is the lack of backlighting, but good job overall.
Sony carries over the visual interface they debuted with last year’s model, which was so dramatic that it actually made sense for anyone to navigate. If you know nothing about AV systems you’ll definitely appreciate that literally everything is about prominent imagery and straight-to-the point descriptions for the DN850’s typical settings. Eventually, you’ll find the long scrolling lists of options buried under the attractive layout, but it’s not as exasperating in execution to fiddle around with.
The setup is pretty easy whether you stick with the Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) approach. You place the mic in the sweet spot and let it interpret the best audio configuration through sequential tones and beeps on your speakers and subs, for what it’s worth the process is quick and guides you through in less than a minute after the initial calibration. I usually don’t put much faith in this method as it often turns out wonky, and as expected my small speakers was identified as large sizes and the subwoofer, although correct at 110Hz, had the volume much louder than necessary.
It’s worth noting that while subjective any sort of sound quality from an AV receiver, no matter how expensive, will probably mean next to nothing without considering your room acoustics and speakers beforehand. We’re not here to debate either point, we’re just here to evaluate.
Fortunately, knowing all of this, the STR-DN850 can sing if you decide to do the setup manually. Movies like Prometheus best portray how the presentation is evenly consistent rather than powerful. Tense scenes where all hell breaks loose as a mutated Fifield ravages the remaining crew and when the surviving Engineer’s spacecraft is destroyed has a brighter sound without being overly dramatic, although the balanced feel replaces some of the desired ‘ warmth’ and ‘depth’ that’s more pronounced on pricier models.
With games like Battlefield 4 on hand, the noise of gunfire were appropriate as caliber bullets clapped with a deep bang, and the presence of helicopters overhead were clean well before they entered the screen. Music wasn’t too far behind either as the “Sade: Bring Me Home” Blu-ray came through lively and intimately when the mood changed, and alternative music from Stereolab was cleanly and thoroughly separated with the instrumentals in mind.
The STR-DN850 is impressive but other features that are less important to typical everyday owners such as analog video up-conversion, and proper dual-zone functionality for multiple room setups are absent here. You do get Dolby Pro Logic IIx for matrix channels and for more piece of mind, Sony does include HDMI 2.0 which grants you 4K resolution at 60fps (4K/60p), although they forgot to add HDCP 2.2 (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) which is the next big thing for serious future-proofers. I can’t say how important these features will be in the long run but they’re worth noting if such things are deciding factors.
Sony has always been a respectable choice with AV receivers and their STR-DN850 clearly demonstrates it here. Of course there are other brands with a longer list of abstract features and enthusiast heritage. But for me, it’s a top pick that comes with the right features and a much lower price that’s hard to ignore, especially if this is your first AV receiver.