Sony STR-DE998 A/V Receiver

The $500 receiver thicket gets thicker.

It's odd that when you're really good at one thing, people tend to forget that you might be good at other things, too. Take Babe Ruth. Everyone remembers the bat, but not everyone remembers that he was strong in the field, as well. The guy even pitched in the majors, winning 23 games one year. Let's see Barry Bonds do that, with or without steroids. Sony's situation is somewhat similar. Play quick association with the word Sony, and you'll most likely get the word "video," if not "televisions" specifically. Their video reputation is well deserved, but people sometimes forget that Sony has some solid audio products as well—products that are bigger than Walkmans and headphones.

Sony has been splashing around in the A/V-receiver pool for a while, and the new $500 STR-DE998 steps in as the company's top model outside of the ES line. It enters a combative market at this price (virtually every mass-market receiver maker on the planet is offering something here), but it brings a competitive list of features and connections with it. Power is spread out across seven channels rated at 110 watts each. Output options are flexible, with A and B connections for the left and right front channels and the ability to use two of the amp channels either for surround speakers in a 7.1 setup or as stereo power for a second zone. Many receivers offer independent source selection for the second zone, but power for it is always a bonus, especially at this price. The STR-DE998's processing list boasts everything but THX, including Dolby Surround EX and Pro Logic IIx, DTS ES Discrete, 24/96, and Neo:6.

A decent array of digital audio outputs are aboard, but don't let the SACD labeling on the coaxial or optical inputs lead you to believe this model can accept high-resolution SACD (or DVD-Audio) material digitally, although some of Sony's higher-end receivers can do so from Sony disc players via a proprietary link. Like every other receiver at this price, analog inputs are the gateway for high-resolution material on the STR-DE998, including a 7.1-channel input for high-resolution/

multichannel sources that you can set to bypass all digital conversion and processing. There's also a comprehensive lineup of video inputs and outputs, including component video. The STR-DE998 will convert any incoming signal to component output, which clearly simplifies video connections from the receiver to the TV. The speaker binding posts are relatively versatile and don't suffer from crowding quite as much as on some other receivers. You'll still need nimble fingers to connect anything but banana plugs, though. An extra S-video and optical digital input are conveniently located on the front panel, along with a standard composite A/V input.

Setup is quick and simple, as it should be on any receiver. The onscreen menu system is somewhat of a bonus and about as advanced as it needs to be, at this price. The setup—from box to final tweaks—couldn't have taken me much more than 30 minutes, including connection time. All but the most A/V-phobic should find the going easy. The remote helps matters with comprehensive control of the STR-DE998's functions and built-in control of other Sony devices. I set up the STR-DE998 primarily with a 5.1-channel Phase Tech Teatro 11.5 speaker system. I also gave it some time with the Klipsch RVX-42 speaker system featured in this month's Spotlight System. A Marantz DV8300 universal disc player supplied the signals.

You never entirely know what you'll get musically from a $500 receiver, as movies are often their primary specialty. The STR-DE998 is solid with music, however, with a candidness and tonal balance that quickly caught my ear. Its sound isn't as full-bodied and dynamic as you'd expect from bigger-ticket receivers, but it's certainly above par for the price in these departments. Well-recorded CD material like the second Burmester collection or Chesky's second Super Audio Collection was pleasantly delivered, with more warmth than I'd anticipated. Even older, choppier material like Muddy Waters' His Best (Chess) wasn't as rough around the edges as it can be with other $500 models.

It's hardly surprising that high-resolution/multichannel material produced the most satisfying musical results, and the STR-DE998 did an excellent job of passing these signals through its amplification stages unharmed. Some of the body and dynamic range that was missing with CD material emerged here, most noticeably with "The Generals" from the SACD collection of Jerry Goldsmith's movie medleys (Telarc). The STR-DE998 handled both the powerful peaks and subtle interludes of this piece with considerable composure and only showed signs of compression or fatigue at hefty volumes. I also noticed the deftness of its midrange reproduction on multiple occasions. For me, that's one of the most critical performance indicators for electronics at any price.

The STR-DE998's solid performance continued with movie soundtracks. It seemed to show a consistent preference for DTS soundtracks over Dolby Digital 5.1, delivering more body and depth on most occasions with DTS tracks. This was relatively clear with movies like Saving Private Ryan that are available in both formats. An A/B test of the Omaha Beach scene revealed considerably less top-end compression on large explosions and a slightly smoother edge to metallic sounds with the DTS track, but without any hint of artificial softening. Both soundtracks delivered a tight, stable soundstage with a surround-effects field that wasn't limitless in dimensions but was well controlled from side to side and front to back.

DTS tracks may have sounded a little better overall, but Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks sound just fine on the STR-DE998, too—which is good, as the latter are much more abundant. I liked how the receiver handled Gandalf and the Balrog's fiery descent in chapter 1 of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers with aplomb, balance, and a minimal amount of overbite on harsh sounds like those of the combatants crashing into the rock walls on their way down. I also like the way it calmly switched gears from the cacophony and disorganization of sounds in the tunnel to the highly structured sound of the dramatic music as the characters emerge into the giant cave at the end of their fall. As it had done with music-only material, the STR-DE998 handled movie music thoughtfully and thoroughly, even with all the extra interference that movie music must contend with. I liked that a receiver at this price showed the ability to identify and reproduce individual acoustic elements—even subtle ones—discretely and naturally.

That Sony, or any other manufacturer, occasionally gets lost in the shuffle when people talk about A/V receivers is probably due in no small part to the multitude of models currently on the market (particularly at the sub-$1,000 price points). Also playing a part in Sony's case are the close associations people make between the company and video products—although this is a good problem to have, as it is a measure of respect. But models like the STR-DE998 show that Sony is doing what they can to remind everyone about their audio skills (and let's not forget about their SACD thing, either). The STR-DE998 brings a solid combination of performance, features, and ease of use to the table that definitely deserves some notice as people cut their way through the dense thicket of $500-receiver offerings.

• Solid with music and movies
• Power for a second zone

(800) 222-SONY