The Sony STR-DN840 is by far the best A/V receiver value of 2013. It starts with its outstanding wireless features, serving up built-in Wi-Fi, AirPlay and Bluetooth, which no other receiver at this price can match. That allows Sony to nail the instant gratification experience: select the STR-DN840 via Bluetooth or AirPlay from your smartphone or tablet, and the receiver automatically powers on and flips to the correct input. In other words, you can be streaming to your big speakers in seconds. If your music collection revolves around your mobile devices, you're going to love the STR-DN840.
The rest of the STR-DN840 is solid, too, with six HDMI inputs and solid sound quality. It may be slightly pricier than some of its competitors (such as the Pioneer VSX-823-K), but the benefits are worth it, especially for a component you're likely to hold on to for five years or more.
There are some other worthwhile alternatives to consider, mainly the slim Marantz NR1403, the turntable-friendly Onkyo TX-NR626 and Sony's step-up STR-DN1040, which adds some bells and whistles, including an impressive graphical user interface. But for most buyers the STR-DN840 hits the sweet spot of features, performance and pricing, which is why it earns CNET's Editors' Choice Award for the category.
Design: big, but minimal
The Sony STR-DN840 basically looks like a traditional A/V receiver: it's a big black metal box. Still, it manages to look slightly better than most, with some of Sony's design talents clearly showing through on its tastefully minimal front panel. The STR-DN840 doesn't have the refinement of the Marantz NR1403, but it won't look too bad in your home theatre cabinet, either.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The STR-DN840's remote is better than the ones that come with most A/V receivers, although it's still a bit of a cluttered mess. The bright white input buttons are distinct and easy to read, and the directional pad nicely falls right under your thumb. On the other hand, there are still just way too many unneeded buttons, not to mention secondary functions written in pink above some buttons, only adding to the confusion. There are also two rockers at the bottom that look like volume controls; one of them actually cycles through the available "sound fields", which is a dubious feature that certainly doesn't deserve dual billing with the all-important volume rocker. If you're investing this much in your home theatre system, you'd be wise to invest in a universal remote.
Features: all the wireless you could want
The STR-DN840 is hands down the most fully featured receiver at this price.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
That starts with six HDMI inputs on the back panel, which matches most you'll find short of stepping up to Sony's STR-DN1040, which includes eight. There's no MHL compatibility, like you'll find on some competitors (such as the Onkyo TX-NR626, Yamaha RX-V475, Pioneer VSX-823-K), but that's not much of a loss unless you were planning to use Roku's Streaming Stick. The STR-DN840 has a fair assortment of legacy connections, including three digital audio inputs (two optical, one coaxial) and four analog audio inputs. There aren't any component video connections at all, but that's fine by us now that most devices use HDMI.
What's most impressive is the STR-DN840's wireless capabilities. There's built-in Wi-Fi, AirPlay and Bluetooth, which make it truly stand out for receivers under US$1000. It's a potent combination, particularly the flexibility to wirelessly stream audio from nearly any smartphone or tablet. Bluetooth and AirPlay work with any app on your mobile devices, so you can easy load up, say, Spotify, stream right to your receiver and maintain playback control on your phone.
The STR-DN840 is also DLNA compliant and supports several integrated streaming services, including Pandora, Slacker, Sony Music Unlimited and internet radio, but you're best served streaming from a mobile device if you can, since A/V receivers aren't great media streamers themselves.
Sony is also smart about how the wireless features are implemented. Turning on "network standby" lets you "wake up" the receiver simply by selecting it as your source on your mobile devices using AirPlay or Bluetooth. That means you can start listening to music on your home stereo without picking up any remote other than your smartphone or tablet. It's incredibly convenient and feels like the way all A/V receivers should work with modern gadgets.
The rest of the features are less important for mainstream buyers. The STR-DN840 is a 7.2-channel receiver, but most buyers won't need the extra functionality that enables: surround back channels, dual subwoofer capabilities and Dolby Pro Logic IIz "height" channels. There's no analog video upconversion, but again, that's less of a concern now that most modern devices use HDMI. It is worth pointing out that despite supporting seven channels, the STR-DN840 does not have true second-zone functionality, so you'll need to look elsewhere if you have a two-room set-up.
If you're looking for more-detailed feature comparisons, check out our giant A/V receiver spreadsheet, which compares the STR-DN840 with other 2013 models as we review them.
Set-up: quick, but manual is better
The STR-DN840 uses Sony's Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) automatic speaker calibration system. The owner's manual recommends turning your subwoofer's volume control to the midpoint, and if the sub has a crossover control knob, setting it to the highest number setting, which is a good start. The on-screen display guides you through choosing the correct "SP Pattern" (speaker pattern) for you home theatre, which in plain English means how many speakers are in your home theatre and if you're bi-amping the front speakers or using height speakers, etc. Next, you plug in the supplied calibration microphone and the fully automatic process takes about a minute to complete.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The STR-DN840 determined that all the speakers in our Aperion Intimus 4T system were "large", and that's certainly not the case. The tower and centre speakers just have two 4-inch woofers, and the little 8.75-inch-tall surround speakers have a single 4-inch woofer. We ran the DCAC a second time, and it again identified all the speakers as large.
We listened to the STR-DN840 with those settings, and the sound was fine, but when we went into the manual set-up and changed all the speakers to small, with the 4T towers set to a 80Hz crossover and the centre and surround speakers with 100Hz crossovers, the sound improved. Even so, we noted that our Hsu Research VTF-1 MK4 subwoofer wasn't loud enough. We turned the sub's volume up to improve the blend with the Aperion speakers.
It's the same story we usually have with automatic speaker calibration: it generally doesn't bring out the best possible sound from a home theatre speaker set-up. It's worth at least giving the manual speaker set-up a try to see if you can do better. If you're not sure you improved the sound, you can always rerun the automatic calibration.
Sound quality: up to the task
Sound-quality evaluations of A/V receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all A/V receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument any time soon.
The scene in the "Jurassic Park" Blu-ray where a T-Rex chases a galloping herd of smaller Gallimimus dinosaurs demonstrated the STR-DN840's home theatre skills. When the T-Rex captures a Gallimimus and tears it to shreds, the sound was quite good, but switching over to the Marantz NR1403 receiver, the two animals' ferocious struggle was more viscerally presented. That receiver, which is "only" rated at 50 watts per channel, sounded more powerful than the STR-DN840. There was nothing "wrong" with the STR-DN840's sound, but the NR1403 sounded more fleshed out and realistic.
CDs, played over just the two Aperion 4T tower speakers, consistently produced perfectly enjoyable sound. With the best-sounding discs, like Jonny Greenwood's orchestral score to the movie "The Master," producing a huge wall-to-wall sound stage from the two speakers.
Conclusion: this is the A/V receiver to get
Sony's been on a roll with A/V receivers, as last year's Sony STR-DN1030 was also one of our top picks, and we were mighty impressed with this year's STR-DN1040, too. The STR-DN840 manages to outdo both of them, offering an unparalleled set of features for its price. If you need a new A/V receiver, the Sony STR-DN840 should be the first model you consider.