Were you to catch the prime movers and shakers at Sony at an unguarded moment or ply them with drink, many would admit that, until comparatively recently, the company was going through a dull patch lasting some years.
There was nothing wrong with what they made, but somehow many of their mainstream products lacked the pizzazz historically associated with the brand. Denon and Yamaha seemed more on the ball with technical (and sometimes also sonic) innovation and, more recently, Onkyo has stolen a march on most others with their combination of technical wizardry and impressively low prices.
But Sony appears to be fighting back. Okay, so the STR-DH810 obeys all the usual clichés of mainstream receiver design. That is to say it looks boring, and lacks personality – if you removed the Sony badge, there would be no way of identifying where it came from.
Even Sony can only find one thing of interest to say about its receiver's front fascia: that it employs a new 10-digit dot matrix for a sharp and clear display.
But dig a bit deeper into the STR-DH810 and it's a different story. I was surprised to find that it was widely on sale at an unfeasibly low £300, especially as it soon became apparent that it is a bit better than you might expect.
It could easily form the core of a quite sophisticated system, offering many of the latest tech tools such as a 3D passthrough and upconversion from composite and component (PAL/576i or NTSC/480i) video to HDMI.
Another weapon in Sony's armoury is Anchor Bay's AutoCUE-C, which removes the artifacting associated with the chroma upsampling errors associated with some DVD players and set-top boxes.
The receiver comes with a programmable, multi-component remote, and it even allows a slightly-limited wireless speaker capability called S-AIR (though you'll need to add some external hardware, and, for a variety of reasons, this is not an option I would normally advocate). Yet on a purely-practical basis, it's laudable; S-AIR is intended for wireless surround, or painless multi-room.
The STR-DH810 is a full-on 7.1 channel receiver, with a nominal (okay, hopelessly optimistic!) 140W per channel. Our Tech Labs rate it as 50W per channel (and that's with only five of the possible seven driven), which puts it in line with similarly priced rivals.
This overhyping of power output is a deception that is all too widely practiced in the industry, particularly at this end of the market.
A look inside the unit reveals a relatively small mains transformer – a key component of the all-important power supply. Not even the corporate might of Sony can magic up reserves of juice from nowhere.
Internal construction is excellent, Sony having clearly paid a lot of attention to such matters. The company is of the opinion that chassis rigidity can influence sound quality; much like a car, the STRDH810' s strengths in this area are derived through clever design rather than throwing mass at the problem. Indeed, this AVR is fairly lightweight by contemporary standards.
Rear-panel furniture is not as extensive as you'll find in more upmarket receivers, but still generous enough to offer inputs for most practical purposes. The only notable omissions are S-video and a multichannel audio input – but the target customers for the STR-DH810 are unlikely to possess a collection of 5.1 SACDs or DVD-A discs, never mind compatible hi-res playback equipment.
There are four HDMI v1.4 inputs, which should just be enough for the kind of buyer that this budget AVR is aimed at. It is this adherence to the latest revision of the HDMI standard that readies the STR-DH810 for 3D and the flexibility of the 'audio return channel'.
Shame there isn't an extra port sited round the front, though. I'd have swapped one of the trio of component inputs for a little more HDMI flexibility.
The STR-DH810 has seven pairs of 4mm speaker binding posts, which amply provides for front height speakers to be connected, if you decide to experiment with Dolby's Pro-Logic IIz surround format. The main front speakers can also be bi-amplified, or you can opt to run a more traditional 7.1 setup with surround-back channels.
There are two terminals that may be unfamiliar: one is labelled 'Digital Media Port' (DMPORT), and is intended for Sony aftermarket accessories like iPod docks and Bluetooth adaptors. The other is a recessed connector labelled 'EZW-T100.' Into this slot will plug the optional wireless transmitter/ transceiver, which is part of the aforementioned S-AIR system.
As part of its basic setup, the STR-DH810 includes a slightly more than routine auto-calibration function that Sony calls DCAC (Digital Cinema Auto Calibration). covering the presence and polarity (phase) of speakers, speaker distance, level and basic equalisation. To achieve all of this, the unit comes with a matching calibration microphone. This is pretty comprehensive for what is after all a budget AVR.
The STR-DH810 has been through an audio tuning exercise, independent of the headline features already mentioned, and includes wide-band phase-accurate power amplifiers, a new audio circuit-layout with shorter signal-paths and some detail improvements to the design of the power supply and its layout within the chassis, compared to previous models.
Taking price into account, the performance of this AVR was both surprising and gratifying, though it is quite likely that many users will never fully get to grips with its extensive capabilities.
After connecting it to our Onkyo DV-DB502 Blu-ray player and display, one of the first tasks the Sony was put to was playing Wagner's Tristran und Isolde – in our case, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack of a Blu-ray issue.
This is heavy-duty material whose sound is generally very dense in texture, and sonically intense in a way that more mainstream material seldom achieves. The result, though slightly short of the highest standards, was nevertheless listenable, and generally did justice to the music.
But DVD and Blu-ray movie material is really what this amp is about, and it made a great fist of multichannel material. Cloverfield (Blu-ray, Dolby TrueHD) delivered an immersive and realistically-scaled image.
Dolby Pro-Logic IIz also allows the addition of extra front high speakers above the standard front speakers with 5.1 channel soundtracks. This gives a height dimension that would otherwise be missing, and which is impressive with suitably-encoded 5.1 channel material.
Dolby Pro-Logic IIx works similar magic, by adding audio to back-surround speakers. If you have the right setup, you can switch freely between Pro Logic IIx and Pro Logic 11z and decide for yourself which works better.
Leaving aside the complications of additional speakers, many people will simply not have room for extra boxes. So, the STR-DH810 also offers the option of adding a bi-amplified output for the front main L/R speakers, and this is certainly worth doing if you want to add muscle and consistency to music reproduction as well as dynamic movie material.
The verdict here is no surprise. The Sony doesn't set new standards for sound quality, but what it does do is cover the standard bases, and sound significantly better than you might expect for a £300 receiver.
There are shortcomings, though, such as the patterning akin to (but not quite the same as) moiré with some video material, for example, but the STR-DH810 is, by any standards, exceptional value for money.
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