- Good headroom and dynamics
- Inclusion of both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth unique in its price class
- Excellent mix of networking, USB, and Airplay features
- Good video pass-through quality for its price point
- GUI navigation and set up menus still miserable
- Sounds less good for music than for movies
- No on-screen menu overlay
Sony’s recent A/V receiver offerings have been somewhat a mixed bag. On one hand, they seemed to offer a good mix of features and connectivity for the money. On the other hand, the inclusion of too many useless bells ‘n whistles mucked up their operability, and performance quality was always hit or miss at best, especially in comparison to more performance-oriented brands. In short, there just always seemed to be something better for the money than a Sony receiver.
But if the STR-DN1030 is any indication, it looks like Sony may have received the message loud ‘n clear and decided to do something about it. Sure, some quirky features remain on board, but this mid-priced offering is one of the best receivers to come down Sony’s rather large product pike in quite some time. Read on for our detailed findings.
Out of the Box
Aesthetically, the Sony STR-DN1030 looks a lot like other Sony receivers of late, which is to say mostly streamlined if still somewhat boxy. We did however appreciate the slightly inset and softly curved front panel detail, even if it does resemble many Onkyo receivers of recent vintage.
Sitting in the upper middle of the front panel is a typical multi-line, multi-character display. A dual function tone and tuning knob resides on the panel’s left hand side, and an input selector knob and large volume knob are located on the right. A multitude of small, round pushbutton controls is horizontally arrayed across the lower section of the panel. A set of quick access input jacks on the lower right hand side round out the front panel features.
Besides the usual array of input jacks on the back panel, the STR-DN1030 uses semi-translucent plastic binding post knobs for all of the speaker connectors. Sony’s had a history of saving its sturdier post-style connectors for its higher-priced models, so we were glad this model had nary a single spring-clip connector anywhere in sight.
Sony’s receivers have always been a bit less hefty than the competition, and the STR-DN1030 was no exception, weighing in at a non-hernia inducing 19 lbs. and 7 ounces. That’s actually less than the more compact, slim-line, and theoretically lower-powered Marantz MZ-NR1602 we use as one of our in-house references, which is rated at a comparatively paltry 50 WPC. Curious indeed.
Other items found inside the box were a programmable remote control, pair of AA batteries, AM and FM antennas, calibration setup mic, a quick start guide and an owner’s manual.
Looking over the Sony STR-DN1030’s features, it’s clear this receiver was designed first and foremost as a network and streaming media friendly device. It’s the first model in its price class to include built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, making it the lowest priced receiver we’re aware of with such a combo.
The STR-DN1030 also includes Apple’s AirPlay for wireless streaming audio from your iPod/iPad/iPhone device, smartphone control, and media streaming via DLNA, Slacker, Pandora, Sirius, Sony Music Unlimited, and Internet radio. Of course, a traditional wired Ethernet port is still included should you need to network your receiver the old-fashioned way.
While the included remote seems functional enough, it still has its own little quirks in traditional Sony fashion. For example, most receiver manufacturers have gotten hip to placing the volume control buttons near the middle of the remote so that you can easily access these with your thumb.
Not so with the STR-DN1030’s controller—the volume buttons are located near the bottom of it, requiring the operator to slide his or her hand almost all the way down the unit before being able to change the volume. Still, we didn’t think it was a huge deal once we got used to it. However, we would’ve liked speaker channel level adjustment buttons on the remote, another feature that’s slowly disappearing from many receiver remotes.
According to the manual, the STR-DN1030 features a 7-channel amplifier capable of producing 145 watts per channel at 1 kHz or 100 Watts per channel full band. Unfortunately that figure can be a bit misleading to some, since that’s actually specified while only single channel is being driven. Stereo power drops to an “8 0hms, 1 kHz” bandwidth-rating without any figures given for a full-band 20 Hz to 20 kHz measurement.
Once the full suite of available speaker output channels are taken into consideration however, these figures would imply the STR-DN1030’s five channels-driven, full bandwidth output power would be significantly less than 100 WPC, usually on the order of at least a 25-35 percent drop.
Luckily, this drop in separate channel power usually results in very little perceived change in output capabilities, and most folks need relatively little wattage to power their speakers anyway. Still, we’re confused as to why so many manufacturers seem hell-bent on providing misleading power figures in the first place. But in all fairness, Sony is certainly not the worst offender in this regard.
Other notable features of the STR-DN1030 include five HDMI inputs, analog video upconversion, a full suite of surround processing modes, and standby A/V pass-through with compatible televisions. Two sets of front speaker outputs and dual-zone capability are also onboard, though we were unable to test these facilities.
Once we set up the microphone in the correct positions, total auto setup time, including using Sony’s onboard automatic calibration system, took a little less than an hour. If that sounds like a lot more time than usual, that’s because it is: Setting up the STR-DN1030 was a fairly laborious and non-intuitive process.
Sony’s always been fond of using its own cryptic, coded language and acronyms for its feature set, which means we often had to refer to the user manual to understand just what sort of feature or function we were adjusting. In fact, we spent nearly half of our setup time trying to decipher the user manual while trying to follow along in the STR-DN1030’s GUI menu in real time. We definitely recommend becoming familiar with the user manual before tackling setting up the STR-DN1030.
Per our usual practice, once we completed the auto calibration process, we went back into the receiver’s manual speaker setup menu to double check its settings. While things like distance and phase were fairly accurate, we were more than a bit puzzled by the speaker size settings: The STR-DN1030 set all of our speakers to “Large” size, meaning the 1030 was set to send a full range signal to all of our speakers.
Given that we’ve measured clean response down to about 55Hz, 80Hz and 120Hz on our front towers, center and surround speakers respectively, we couldn’t figure out what would’ve caused the 1030 to come up with such wacky readings. Many other auto set up programs, including all of the Audyssey variants, and least get you in the ballpark when it comes to crossover frequencies. We decided to let it remain a mystery and put the 1030’s speaker size settings and crossovers to the appropriate values. Bottom line: Be sure to double check the receiver’s speaker size and crossover settings if you’re using the STR-DN1030’s auto calibration program.
We tested the Sony receiver using a variety of A/V gear, including: A Samsung UN40C6300 LED TV; Samsung BD-C5500 Blu-ray player; Denon DCD-CX3 SACD player; Dell latitude D810 laptop; Apple iPhone 4; Bowers and Wilkins P5 and AKG K701 headphones; and Aperion Audio Verus Forte surround loudspeaker system. We also had on hand a Marantz NR1602 A/V receiver and Schiit Lyr headphone amp for comparison.
The STR-DN1030 we received appeared to be a broken-in reviewer’s sample, so we only gave it an additional 10 hours of break in. We then proceeded to turn the Sony receiver loose by blasting our room with the bank robbery and chase scenes from The Dark Knight were pleasantly surprised by what we heard. The Sony STR-DN1030 had a big, gutsy, and powerful sound, with excellent bass heft and impact. Any reservations we may have had about this receiver’s rather optimistic power ratings were quickly laid to rest. In fact, the droning, low-frequency effect from the bank robbery scene was some of the best we’ve laid ears on from a mid-price receiver. This made for a highly convincing, foreboding sort of feel that heightened the drama of this scene.
Highly dynamic sounds, such as explosions and gun shots, boomed and cracked with authority. Despite how many times we’ve used the ending battle sequence from Iron Man as a test scene, we’ve seldom heard a sub-$500 receiver reproduce it with such startling realism.
Another strong suit of the Sony receiver was its excellent way with dialog and vocal sounds. We tried watching some of our favorite episodes of Top Gear through the STR-DN1030 and had an easy time understanding Jeremy Clarkson’s voice while being swamped by a loud jet plane in one scene and a ginormous dump truck in another. The Sony had a nice way of making the midrange consistently stand out from the mix, regardless of movie type or quality.
The Sony’s way with music was also surprisingly good. Gone was any of the cool, thin, and often hazy sound character endemic to many Sony receivers of yore. Instead, this new breed of Sony receiver had a clean, clear, and highly-listenable tonal balance. Here again the bass was strong suit of the STR-DN1030. Christian McBride’s upright on “Zarafah” from Joshua Redman’s album Back East had excellent pitch definition and articulation, as did John Hebert’s bass on Noah Preminger’s Dry Bridge Road album.
Not all of the STR-DN1030’s movie sound excellent translated as well for music however. Compared to the similarly priced Marantz NR1602, the Sony’s midrange sounded somewhat harsher and brassier. Miles Davis’ Trumpet and John Coltrane’s sax from Kind of Blue both sounded a little rougher and less smooth than via the Marantz. Cannonball Adderly’s sax in particular also had noticeably more bite than we’re used to hearing.
The Sony receiver also seemed to do less well in the lower mids through lower treble than the Marantz. Bill Evans’ piano had a bit less warmth and richness than it should have, leading to a slightly thinner sound than expected. Pipe organ on classical recordings also seemed to be missing a bit of warmth. Lastly, lower treble was smoother and more refined through the Marantz, whereas the Sony seemed a bit too tizzy and bright. Still, the STR-DN1030’s music chops were nothing to scoff at, especially in comparison to some other Sony receivers we’ve heard.
One area where the Sony receiver did come up aces however was in its video pass-through quality. For whatever reason, all manner of video and film consistently looked crisper, better defined, and more detailed through the STR-DN1030 than the Marantz. Intricate details, like the finely-woven tweeds and herringbones worn by some of the actors in Quantum of Solace, for example, were noticeably easier to see and looked better textured through the Sony receiver.
Though the Sony STR-DN1030’s user interface is much improved over previous versions, we do have a major bone to pick with it regarding the GUI menu: accessing and exiting it is deathly slow. It took a positively Darwinian 14 seconds to activate it after we pressed the menu button and another 10 seconds for full exit. There’s absolutely no excuse for such slow response times.
What’s more, the Sony’s GUI menu doesn’t overlay over existing video. And seeing as how the only way to adjust individual speaker levels is through the STR-DN1030’s GUI menu, this otherwise simple adjustment procedure becomes a major pain in the hiney. Even a basic onscreen display graphic a la the Marantz NR1602 would’ve been exponentially more enjoyable. Seriously: If the Sony receiver wasn’t such a good performer in all other areas, we’d tell you to run far, far away from it on the basis of its user interface alone.
We’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, but it bears repeating: The Sony STR-DN1030 receiver was quite the pleasant surprise. Its brawny, dynamic sound and excellent networking features prove Sony still knows a thing or two when it comes making a heck of a fine A/V receiver. And at around $500 or so street price, this is just the type of high performing, high-value product that darn near anyone shopping for an A/V receiver can afford.
Were it not for the STR-DN1030’s lethargic GUI system and slightly less convincing way with music, we’d have probably given this receiver an even more surprising 8.5 or 9 out of 10 rating. Still, the Sony STR-DN1030 is a smashingly-good performer on all other counts and is confidently recommended to anyone looking for a well-rounded, theater-oriented A/V receiver.