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RATED POWER 90 W x 7 into 6 ohms with maximum 0.09% THD DIMENSIONS 17 x 6 1/4 x 14 5/8 inches WEIGHT 19 3/4 pounds PRICE $300 MANUFACTURER Sony,, 800-222-7669
PLUS • Fairly easy to use • Good selection of music modes • Well laid-out remote control
MINUS • Underpowered for surround sound in large rooms • Easy Setup routine may not ideally match your speakers
Sony Compact pricing for compact rooms Sturdy and streamlined, Sony's STR-DE698 makes a nice first impression. The least expensive receiver here by far, it offers sleek minimalist styling, with a narrow vacuum-fluorescent display on the front panel that has excellent legibility. The remote is both efficiently laid out and easily navigated thanks to a few glow-in-the-dark buttons and silver paint around some critical controls. With its library of preprogrammed commands, it can control 13 different types of components. Switching inputs - perhaps the most often used function after volume adjustment - is fairly easy thanks to a dedicated button for each device.

For surround sound playback, the STR-DE698 offers a lot besides 6.1/7.1-channel Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES decoding. Dolby Pro Logic IIx, or DPL IIx (with its separate Movie, Music, and Game variants), and DTS Neo:6 (with its Cinema and Music variants) transform two-channel stereo, four-channel Dolby Surround, or 5.1-channel Dolby Digital/DTS into 6.1- or 7.1-channel surround. You also get three Digital Cinema Sound modes intended to give you the impression of being in one of Sony Pictures' Hollywood production studios. The Kim Novak Theater mode, for example, is said to be "ideal for watching science-fiction or action movies with lots of sound effects." For music listening Hall, Jazz, and Live Concert ambience modes are provided, while a Headphone Theater mode attempts to create a surround effect in a pair of headphones.

This receiver, like the others, will upconvert composite- to S-video. But while that may simplify connections to your TV, it won't usually lead to a substantial improvement in image quality - the signal degradation associated with composite video has already occurred by the time it reaches the receiver.

0708_cc_sony_remote.jpg SETUP A beginner might find the speaker-setup menus on the STR-DE698 tricky to set correctly, as they were on all receivers in the days before onscreen displays. Sony attempts to ease the burden by supplying an Easy Setup mode, in which you match your setup to speaker arrays described on a supplied sheet. But the Easy Setup sheet asks only for the number of speakers you have hooked up, not which of them can best handle deep bass - information that allows the receiver's bass-management system to direct lows to the appropriate speakers.

You'll need to beware of the fine print in the setup section of the owner's manual as well. Sony makes several arguably erroneous recommendations for setting speaker "size" and distance that could result in less than optimal sound. In any case, speaker balancing can only be done manually - using the built-in circulating test tone and your ears (or, better yet, a sound-level meter).

MOVIE AND MUSIC PERFORMANCE Sony's Digital Cinema Sound modes proved to be of limited value in actual use, though they can make for an impressive demonstration. Movie soundtracks sounded cleaner, with the dialogue more intelligible, when I turned these modes off. I had a more favorable impression of the music ambience modes, depending on the mode and type of music, with classical, acoustic jazz, and "unplugged" pop gaining the most in you-are-there realism. The core Dolby Digital and DTS decoding modes worked fine. On the other hand, this receiver's ultralow price tag finally caught up with it when I started to drive it hard. Playing any surround sound material at high volume caused audible strain on the amplifier, clearly the result of a substantial falloff in output power as more channels are pushed (see extended "in the lab"). The STR-DE698 had difficulty with the sonically impressive though visually disturbing crash sequence from The Flight of the Phoenix, with slight, intermittent distortion audible even through the DVD's sonic mayhem.

Sony's STR-DE698 is easy to control and boasts a good mix of features for the least expensive receiver in this lot. But getting the setup right will take some work, and its amplifier would be most suitable for smaller rooms.