Sony STR-DG910 A/V Receiver

Just how much A/V receiver can they contrive to give us for $500? The current answer, at least from Sony, is "Lots!" The no-baloney brand's new STR-DG910 hits the pavement with three 1080p HDMI inputs, transcoding of component (and composite) analog video to HDMI, XM sat-radio readiness, automatic speaker setup with a supplied calibration microphone, a Digital Media Port for use with an optional iPod dock or Bluetooth dongle, and seven 100-watt amplifier channels, and a good deal more.

Sony crams all this in at this price, at least in part, by omitting some items we've come to consider pretty much standard on receivers in recent years. For example: Although the Sony STR-DG910 A/V receiver is amply equipped with composite- and component-video inputs and outputs, it has no S-Video connections whatsoever. Surprising at first, on reflection this seems perfectly sensible, since component has pretty much superseded Y/C hookups altogether.

Even more radically, the Sony eschews multichannel analog inputs, which means that some systems wouldn't be able to present multichannel SACD (or DVD-A) recordings at all, given that some current and most earlier players furnish no high-resolution multichannel digital output, and this receiver does not decode SACD's DSD-multichannel stream as do some higher-end models. (Is this tacit admission from Sony that SACD is, practically speaking, moribund - or at the very least, pining for the fjords?) The DG910 further lacks any second-zone capabilities, which however rarely exploited are a receiver staple at this level.

Nonetheless, the STR-DG910 still packs in a lot of good stuff. But "stuff" is only good if the underlying performance is there to back it up, so I was anxious to get the receiver up on my rack and under power.

SETUP As is usual these days, I began by connecting the STR-DG910's supplied microphone and firing up its auto-cal routine. This one begins with a nice European-railway-station chime to alert you that the cal train is leaving the station, and it uses fast-acting chirp-sweeps for test signals. Initial results in my room were well off-target, so I tried another microphone position and got levels within a 3-dB window of correct - except for the subwoofer, which was at least 10 dB hot, making for obviously excessive bass. This is better than no setup adjustment at all - a state that many a budget receiver finds itself in - but far from the best results I've gotten from auto-cal routines on other models. Clearly, a manual fine-tuning of levels was in order.

Trying to make these adjustments was exasperating, however. Despite following the manual, I could not initially get the receiver to cycle it's internal noise signals while permitting channel-level adjustments, nor did the receiver provide any on-screen displays, forcing me to attempt navigation of the menu system from the front-panel readout - a process that was far from intuitive. I ended up using noise signals from a test DVD to complete level setting using my SPL meter. Only later did I discover that the manual omits a critical step for setting levels: You're required to press the "Menu" button while the test signal is active to regain access to the Level menu.

It also turns out that you can, after all, display the menus on your TV - a fact the manual divulges only in a marginal note - if you activate the OSD (on-screen display) in the Video menu. The Sony's OSD is an opaque, full-screen text display, and to cycle it on and off you have to go back thru the Video menu. (Jeez, would a direct-access "OSD" remote-key have been be too much to ask?) Bottom line: The DG910's setup tools are usable, but I wouldn't want to be a first-time home theater buyer trying to use them unaided.