Sony has been hitting hard in the serious-but-on-a budget sector of the AV receiver market, and the STR-DH800 promises to be a veritable Brian Lara.
The STR-DH800s £350 price tag is attractive in itself, but Sony's fairly loose pricing structure means that it's likely to go for even less, making this baby more exciting still.
And don't be fooled by those numbers either – it boasts 7 x 85W, Full HD audio decoding, auto set-up and Room EQ. More to the point, while its humble price tag may suggest humble electronic design, the STR-DH800 has been tweaked and tuned by the same folks that brought us the lush ES series receivers.
In fact, word on the street (well, Kyu kaigan-dori Ave outside Sony HQ) is that the team spent a whole lot more time and money designing and tuning this amp than the retail price is ever likely to recoup.
Could this be a serious product at a bargain price designed to secure market share and brand equity? (Otherwise known as 'doing an Onkyo'). I have my suspicions.
Not least of which because the feature list of the STR-DH800 is long, comprehensive and jam-packed with proprietary Sony technologies. Take, for example, BraviaSync for Sony TVs, or the DMport. Of course, Sony could have used USB, Ethernet or Firewire, but the company's DMport is a bespoke gateway to a range of accessories including iPod docks, Bluetooth receivers and network audio devices.
Then there is S-Air, a wireless transmission technology for wire-free rear speakers. Okay, you will still need to purchase the Sony WAHTSA1 wireless transmitter and receiver amp, but it does save several miles of speaker cable to trip over.
On the less bespoke side, the little STR-DH800 also offers an FM/AM tuner with 60 presets, DeepColour and x.v.Colour compatibility, and a bi-amp mode should you only want to use a 5.1 multichannel speaker system.
Out of sight
I say 'little' for a reason. Despite being full width and quite tall, the depth front-to-rear is a waif-like 320mm, which makes it perfect for installing inside a typical furniture cupboard in the living room. As the power amps also run relatively cool, the STR-DH800 has immediately become a favourite recommendation to those who don't want their kit on show.
On the obvious missing list are any S-video inputs, multichannel inputs, hard-wired multiroom features and, surprisingly, video upscaling. Will you miss it, though?
Setup is as simple as connecting the supplied microphone and pressing Go, but the lack of an onscreen display is a bit surreal.
Fuelled by having seen a long line of amps with high-tech multicolour GUIs, the Sony's simple front fascia-only display took a while to get used to. Then again, such simplicity does mean it is very difficult to mess anything up completely.
Moreover, the day-to-day operation is slick, bug-free and intuitive. You just wouldn't expect anything else from the big S.
If there is one thing that really underlines the outstanding value of the DH800, it is the sound. For such an unassuming box of tricks, the Sony punches out action and drama like its life depends on it.
Bass is big, bold and brazen through all channels (when all speakers are set to large) and the sub comes in on top like a jackhammer. With an adrenaline-fuelled movie like Heat on Blu-ray, the Sony is right at home banging out the bullets. The effects are a little more hyperactive than sophisticated, but the bang you get per buck is incredible.
Sony's power claims are fair, too: our Tech Labs measured 87W-perchannel with five channels driven into 8Ω. No way near the levels reached by the big boys, but still a respectable figure.
A real smoothie
With a more genteel film like Coraline (Blu-ray), the Sony's rich and full-bodied approach offers a smooth and even-handed character. While really high-frequency effects don't exactly leap out of the speakers and syringe your ears, the sound is never fatiguing.
Coraline's first meeting with Wybie Lovat on his bike is a sudden rush of sound with a big bass boost across all speakers. His push bike, which, for no easily explainable reason, sounds like a Harley Davidson Fatboy, and the near silence as he stops, is a massive dynamic swing.
The dialogue is neat, clean and polished – albeit just a little softer and further back in the soundstage than absolutely ideal. When Coraline first enters her 'other' bedroom with its immaculate furnishings, four dragonflies buzz around the room. This clip is an overt camera trick for the 3D video version, of course, but it is matched by a surround sound effect that pans across the soundstage. Well, it's supposed to.
The Sony STR-DH800 does a clean job of creating the audio-effect but the dragonflies are confined to flapping around the centre of your room rather than outside the perimeter of your speakers. But this is a rather minor criticism, as the only amplifiers I have heard that really create the space are at least three times the price of the DH800.
The STR-DH800's character is very hard to dislike across a wide range of films, managing to draw you in to every one. Watching The Matrix (for the 45th time...) the amplifier and speakers simply disappear into the mix of great sound effects, and as the volume raises the Sony steps up the challenge admirably.
The shots and metallic clang of the Agents' guns recycling explode into the room with a punch that firmly puts you on the edge of the seat. Switch to the BBC's Life in HD (through Sky HD) and the smoothness gives all due weight and respect to David Attenborough's unique voice.
I partnered the receiver with a number of speakers from the 'review samples I'm still waiting to be picked up' pile (this fills my hallway like the north face of K2), and it showed itself as reasonably speaker agnostic.
The balance is probably better suited to smaller compact sub-sat systems or smaller-driver mains, which, at this end of the market, is what it is mostly likely to be paired with.
Multiroom – sort of
With no S-Air module to hand I could not try the wireless rear speaker concept.
The optional pack comprises a transmitter module that plugs into a slot on the rear of the AVR and a slimline box receiver complete with two 100W S-Master amps for around £180 in total. And although you will never find this out from Sony's marketing literature (you have to get to page 81 of the manual) the output can be configured as main channels and sent to another room.
As you can pair a couple of receiver/amps with the STR-DH800, the unit can be said to offer true multiroom wireless audio. I spent rather a long time with this little Sony and I warmed to it the more and more I used it.
Okay, it's a little on the safe side at the top-end of the audio spectrum, which in turn keeps the soundstage rather compressed, but it does all-action feats well and is smoother than a panther in a smoking jacket.
Add to this a wide gamut of AV goodies, some bespoke functions that allow you to expand the system at a later date, and its slick, simple operation, and Sony's STR-DH800 looks like a barnstorming bargain.
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