Sony DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System

This Sony HTiB does the listening for you.

Sony may not have invented the Home Theater in a Box, but it's certainly gone a long way in perfecting the concept. Where most companies make just a couple of HTiBs, Sony has close to a dozen ranging from a cute "1000-Watt" system with a five-disc changer and bookshelf speakers costing $299 all the way up to a 780-Watt $1,999 package that includes floorstanding front speakers, wireless rear speakers, and a DVD/ CD/SACD player. With so many choices, we wondered, what could we get from Sony for five hundred bucks? They answered the question by sending us the DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System.

The DAV-HDX500 is an HTiB built around an all-in-one receiver/DVD changer that Sony generously rates as putting out143-Watts per channel (x 5) plus an additional 285-Watts for the subwoofer – but that's at 10% THD. The receiver/DVD changer includes an AM/FM tuner, auto speaker calibration, and an HDMI output with upconversion to 720p or 1080i. There are inputs for an additional A/V source, an audio-only source, and an optional XM satellite radio antenna. Two Digital Media Ports on the back allow you to connect Sony Digital Media Port accessories, such as a Bluetooth Interface ($80) or a Walkman cradle ($50), both of which are currently available. Future accessories will include an iPod Dock ($100) and a Wi-Fi Client ($200). That's a pretty impressive range of features and inputs for a sub-$500 HTiB.

For years, one of Sony's strong points has been the industrial design of the gear it makes, and this HTiB is no exception. Rather than incorporate a standard flat front faceplate that looks both boring and cheap, Sony chose to endow the DAV-HDX500 with a cool-looking, split-level front panel. The main display is visible on the recessed top half while the DVD drawer, transport buttons, and volume control are located on a silver strip that extends outward about half an inch. Although the buttons are small, they're spaced well enough apart from one another, making it very easy to operate the system without the remote control.

Speaking of the remote control, the one included here is unfortunately typical of most Sony system remotes. It's filled with tiny buttons, many of which do double duty and therefore have double labels. Using it may be an engineer's delight, but it's an average Joe's distress. It's long, feels awkward in your hand, and the only TVs it will operate are compatible Sony models. This is not a family-friendly remote control.

The five-disc DVD changer is a front loading type, not a carousel. The video output can be upconverted to 720p or 1080i, and the image quality with DVDs is consistent with those I've seen in the $150 range. The time it takes to change discs is a bit longer than you'd experience with a carousel. It's pretty noisy when changing discs, but you won't be listening to music while the mechanism is operating anyway.

The front left and right speakers are two-way monitor-types. They're skinny, tall, and look high-tech when used with the included pedestal stands (thin silver tubes with large, flat, circular bases). They can also be mounted on the wall where they'll look like most other plasma-matching, on-wall speakers.

The center channel, in contrast, is tiny – so much so that it looks like it doesn't belong with the system. Whereas the main speakers are over 33-inches tall and almost 4.5-inches wide, the itty bitty center speaker is under two inches tall and only 15.25-inches wide. Put two stacks of three DVD cases side-by-side, and you'll have almost exactly the size of the front face of the center channel – although the speaker is only about half as deep (approximately 2.5-inches).The rear speakers are small, too, but not so much so that you'll do a double take when you first see them. All the speakers are silver with black metal grilles. Like the fronts, the center and rears can be wall-mounted using keyhole slots.

The size of the subwoofer is about average for an HTiB in the same price range and has a cabinet that's predominantly black with a silver trim ring around the front and a black metal grille that cosmetically matches the other speakers. There's a large port – with a thin silver ring around it to highlight the fact that it's there – on the front of the sub. The metal grille, by the way, is especially nice to have on the subwoofer since it's going to live down low where toddlers are amazingly adept at finding things to push, pull, prod, and poke. That metal grille will certainly save the bass driver itself from damage, but I think Sony made a mistake by not similarly protecting the port which is big enough to make a great hiding place for Hot Wheels cars, half-eaten crackers, and maybe the family gerbil.

Setting up the system is incredibly easy. Sony uses special color-coded speaker wire connectors on the back of the receiver/DVD player, so you plug those in and connect the wire with the matching color at the end to the appropriate speaker. Since the amplifier for the subwoofer is in the receiver/DVD player, there's no power cord to plug in. That's nice because it means you can place the sub anywhere that looks good, sounds good, and/or you can easily run the speaker wire to. Unfortunately, since the system doesn't include a low-level subwoofer output or the ability to set the system's processor/crossover to "no subwoofer", it will be hard to upgrade the speakers later on if you get the inclination to do so.

After the speakers are in place, you connect the included microphone to the jack on the front of the receiver/DVD changer. In the calibration menus, you can choose from several different system configurations ranging from the standard three-front-and-two-back (plus subwoofer) arrangement to one that has all the speakers lined up on the front wall. While that's a thought sure to make any true home theater lover sick, I give Sony credit for including it since for some people that might be the only way they can set up the system. After that it only takes the automatic circuitry a couple of minutes of pops, clicks, and thumps before it's ready to go.

I found the calibration routine to be pretty accurate when it came to setting the delays as well as the volume levels. With the exception of the tiny center channel, I was almost ready to say that the dawn of a new era in the HTiB world was about to begin. That was before I sat down to do some serious listening to the system.

Don't misunderstand. When compared to most of what's on the market in the under-$500 range, the DAV-HDX500 is a solid contender when it comes to performance. It's just that, in my opinion, Sony has made the same mistake that almost all companies do with their HTiBs: they scrimped on the sound quality of the speakers.

The center channel offers a clue. It's just too small to do the job the way it really ought to be done. Because it, and the rest of the speakers, can't handle much in the way of bass response, the subwoofer is crossed over at a frequency that's high enough to make it easily localizable in the room. (One way to minimize this, of course, is to set up the subwoofer on the same wall as close to the main speakers as you can.) The bass is a bit boomy, but it's as good – and maybe a bit better – than what you'll hear with other $500 HTiBs. No, it's not going to knock you out of your chair, but you'd have to spend $500 or more just on the subwoofer for that kind of experience.

The main speakers tend to resonate a bit in the vocal range giving them a slightly hollow sound. It's not so noticeable with movies, but it became more obvious with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's Live concert DVD. The highs are a bit aggressive, which can put you slightly on edge when you're watching a movie like Monster House that has lots of high-frequency creaks and cracks. On the other hand, the cannon bombardment scene early in Master & Commander and the circle of drums scene in House of the Flying Daggers were both reproduced very well with a nice sense of space.

All things considered, especially the price point, I've got to give the DAV-HDX500 pretty high marks relative to its competitors. It's a fun system to use (except for that blasted remote), and the auto calibration makes getting the best sound possible out of the system as brainless as possible. It looks good, and if you're a Sony TV owner, it'll look especially nice next to your TV. I wish the speakers sounded a bit better, but that's a common knock against HTiBs, anyway. All in all, it's a good value in a one-box system.

Sony Corporation
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