Real World Receivers Page 5

A somewhat bizarre setup option lets you create a two-zone system by instructing the receiver to use its center and back surround outputs to drive a remote room's stereo speakers. That seems to suggest you don't "need" the center speaker up front - if that's what Sony means, then I strongly disagree.

However, for people like me, playing with all the setup options may be half the fun - and whatever their contributions, in a conventional configuration the Sony receiver delivered outstanding sound. Its power amps were appropriately transparent for straight-through listening to DVD-Audio discs or Super Audio CDs, and its straight Dolby Digital and DTS decoding was unimpeachable with both 5.1- and 6.1-channel soundtracks.

The STR-DB1070's palette of DSP modes is easily the most extensive of any receiver I've encountered at this price level. The Digital Cinema Sound collection ranges from spread-and-expand modes, like the three multispeaker Cinema Studio variants, to "old fashioned" ambience-enhancement music modes like Opera House, Disco/Club, and so on. These varied in quality and usability, but there's also an above-average number of user-adjustable parameters.

One of the receiver's most intriguing DSP modes is Night Theater, which combines fairly severe dynamic-range compression with plenty of reverb and ambience. Fortunately, as in most of the Sony's DSP modes, the reverb time delay and effect level are user adjustable. By suppressing reverb altogether and the ambience effect to its minimum, I derived something that made even wildly dynamic symphonic music pretty listenable at whisper-soft levels - in my book that's a very useful, if not often heralded, application of modern digital signal processing.

In ergonomic terms, I liked the Sony receiver's front-panel layout with its multifunction jog-dial and group of setup-control keys; seldom-used operating controls and a set of A/V jacks are concealed by a flip-down door. But the remote control left me lukewarm. It offers access to the receiver's thousand-and-one features, plus more limited control of other system components, but its mostly small, identically shaped, closely spaced keys are labeled with crowded small lettering, devoid of any illumination, and not very intuitively arranged. Phooey! A kilobuck-class receiver should do better.

Yet the Sony STR-DB1070 has enough strengths to excuse these foibles, especially its vast array of customizing options. It's clearly the most flexible A/V receiver here. If you want the power to create surround environments to order and tweak your speaker outputs to the nth degree - and if you're prepared to put in the time to understand how to use all of its settings - then the Sony is likely to be your choice.

Now (drum roll, please), which of these midprice A/V receivers would I be most likely to buy with my own money? It's a tough question, one requiring considerable thought, so let me concentrate - stop hitting that damned drum! Okay: the Denon AVR-2802. For a couple hundred bucks less than the Sony and a little over a hundred more than the Pioneer (we're talking list pricing here, not what you'll pay "on the street"), the Denon performs all the basic tasks of a serious home theater receiver very well indeed, and it does so in an up-to-date, reasonably intuitive manner at a fair price.

If my budget was tight, I wouldn't hesitate a second to choose the Pioneer VSX-D850S. And if I had a stronger yen for DSP enhancements, as opposed to straight Dolby Digital/DTS and DVD-Audio/SACD playback, I would have to look long and hard at the Sony STR-DB1070. But thanks to the wonders of trickle-down technology and a competitive marketplace, whichever way I ultimately jumped, I'd be assured of getting a tremendous helping of multichannel quality and performance for my money.