Sony STR-DB790 AV Receiver

Sony UK, RRP £300, average street price £250 approximately

Being a bit of a hi-fi buff at heart, I've always appreciated the difference good quality separates can do for your system, and how long they last. Indeed, although my old Kenwood KRV-7070 was looking a bit long in the tooth, it still worked perfectly after almost eight years of use and one of the main reasons I needed to upgrade was the fact it didn't do any digital decoding. Mind you, it did at least cater for the active subwoofer...

Enter 2004, enter the fact that DVDs have become almost the de facto standards for watching films these days, and that realistically if you're into hi-fi, a good quality AV amplifier and speakers to go with the DVD players can only realistically do it justice. Sure, there's those DVD in a box kits, where the DVD acts as an amp and all the speakers come with it, and they do quite a lot of people fine, but not if you also want to connect anything else up to it at the same time, which of course most hi-fi type people will probably do.

Firstly, I must say full kudos to Sony for realising that some of us out there still use a turntable and still wish to use one. The search for an AV amp got narrowed down a bit by the fact that a fair number of them didn't include a phono stage (unless you bought an external one, say one of Project's excellent range) and also that the lower priced models compromised some of its features for quality or budget, but for me being able to play the old vinyl and get that warm feeling was an essential must have.

Specifications and Inputs

So, what does the Sony do then? It's time to look at the old specifications, and they're pretty good. In power terms, it delivers ~ 100W maximum to all seven channels (I'll explain that later on) and it's laden with inputs on the back for all your gear. It also decodes Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, DTS Neo6, DTS 96, Cinema Studio EX modes,and of course does normal stereo too. Now while this doesn't do as much decoding as the expensive amps, it does what you need it to. Of course being a receiver you also have an AM/FM stereo tuner built in, if you need it. It has digital inputs, and a digital output (say if you have a hi-fi separate minidisc recorder or cd recorder) and you can have it in black or silver. Obviously black was the one.. Note also that it's the baby of the Sony QS range of receivers currently. The QS line have been highly praised for a while for their sound quality.

Laden with inputs, I said? Oh yes. There's lots of them. In fact you're probably better looking at the diagram below to see them in full. Don't be worried though: it doesn't look as intimidating as you might think:

Sony STRDB790 rear

There's three digital optical inputs (along with one digital coaxial), a digital optical out for minidisc, and look at that! Component video switching. Now for those of you who have component video outputs on your DVD player (most Toshibas and top of the range Pioneers) and component ins on your plasma telly, this is a godsend. Hook one set of cables from the DVD in here and then hook one out to your plasma. Nice. Then there's the analogue: phono (for turntable freaks like me), minidisc/tape, cd, and then below a nice addition: proper 5.1 multichannel in (very useful for DVD Audio or Super Audio CD). Then in the video section, both video 1 and 2 inputs have in and out audio, in and out video, and also video 1 has a s-video in. Nice touch. The DVD has similar inputs, as does the TV/satellite in as well.

But what makes this stand apart is the speaker connections. Note how all the speaker terminals are proper screw terminals, not cheap and nasty spring clip efforts. These will take nice thick cable (well you can't get thicker than the Cable Talk 3 I use for my Mission M73 fronts) without a problem. There's also a set of A and B terminals for your front speakers, which may come in very handy if you wish to bi-wire your speakers or have another set of fronts rigged up in another room somewhere. As well as that, there's also a surround back speaker terminal as well as the line out for your subwoofer (highly essential in a 5.1 rig).

In case you wondered, the surround back is a channel that appears on some DVDs, encoded with Dolby Digital EX or DTS:ES. What it does is that it sends a signal to a surround speaker situated centrally behind your surround left and rights. Some people have it, some don't, but it's nice as an option if you want to go 6.1 eventually. Also, on the front panel, there's an extra video audio input (and S-video socket) and also a digital optical in, damn useful if you have a portable minidisc you want to hook up, or a camcorder for that matter. As you can see, laden with inputs you need, and enough for most people.

Setting Up

The front fascia is nice and simple and clear, free of clutter you don't need. A simple set of two dials with buttons controls the menu which allows you to set up the receiver, and there's little buttons to allow you to select the right modes etc. Most of these operations can be done on the remote control, which is a bonus as once you've set up the receiver, you can leave it well alone.

So with everything hooked up in place (inlcuding 5.1 out of my DVD player into the multi-channel in for DVD-Audio usage) I was ready to go. Switching on the amp results in it remembering the last input you selected, and we can now tweak to our desire. The menus were simple to understand, and the "easy set" for your speaker settings were a doddle. You simply select what speaker setup you have (I have 5.1) and then you can also set the size of your speakers you have, which is very useful. As all mine are large enough to handle their signals, I simply set them all to large, with subwoofer "yes" (as I have one) and sb (surround back) set to "no" as I don't. The nice thing was because I'd selected 5.1 setup, it pre-answered no to the latter anyway. You can then also set up the speaker distance from the listening position, a good idea as then the sound field can be tweaked just right for your listening position. Say if you have a settee you sit on, sit in the middle and work it from there.

That done, you can do a quick test tone to confirm the speakers are all up and running, as well as (if you need to) scan for stations and store them. This worked pretty well and it managed to find the right stations along with their corresponding RDS names. You can even have these in alphabetical order too, neat. One thing you can also do is set the equaliser on or off, so if you aren't bothered about tweaking the bass or treble, leave it off. As you'll see later, I needed to come back to this setting!

Anyway, that all done, time to do some tests, and this although taking some time was immense fun to do so, not least as it also gets you used to listening to the receiver as well as watching some great films and listen to some excellent music at the same time, which is what it's all about.

Test 1: Monsters Inc (2 Disc Collectors' Edition) (Region 2)

A simple reason to pick this disc: the soundtrack is encoded as Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, so you can try out both. Now, as default, the receiver has this function called AFD (Auto Format Direct) and what this does is work out the signal it receives digitally, and decode it accordingly. I started off with the Dolby Digital soundtrack, and that was extremely pleasurable. Not just because of the weight and accuracy of the bass that the subwoofer, but the precision of all the other channels. I should warn you, it's very precise indeed and some might find it a little too much, but it really locks you in to the film well, particularly this one. The dialogue comes at you really well from the centre speaker, and the surround effects cascade well in the surrounds, and it all adds up to one very nice package. Now, I switch the audio soundtrack to DTS, and it's no less impressive. The display on the receiver changes and tells me it's now getting a DTS soundtrack, and all is very well. What is quite nice on the eye is a little blue light that comes on at the top of the receiver, telling you it's decoding a digital signal. After I'd switched soundtrack, the receiver had worked out in no time what channels came in from the DVD, and displayed accordingly. It definitely gives you more than enough reason to watch the film again and again (as if I need one).

Test 2: Finding Nemo (2 Disc Collectors' Edition) (Region 1)

So why an R1 DVD? Simple. This DVD is superb (see my review if you don't believe me) and for testing purposes what's important is that it has a Dolby Digital EX soundtrack, so we can see how that plays. Off goes the film, and within seconds the display comes up with Dolby Digital EX on,and shows the suround back speaker display. Of course, as it's not being output to the surround back, the display doesn't put a box round the input (whereas the fronts etc have a box round to show it's being output) but it's nice to know the extra channel is there anyway. And if I thought the sound was good before, then it's really out of this world now. When Marlin and Dory get released out of the whale, the shudder of the explosion really is clean yet very bass-heavy, giving my Mission MS8AS sub plenty of work (and it passed). Even when switching the menus or watching the other features, the AFD worked out the enconding and did the rest.

I should add if you press the AFD button, it toggles from AFD Auto to any other surround mode you like, such as Dolby Pro Logic II (music or movie), DTS Neo 6 (music or movie). Handy if you wish to use one of those modes when receiving an analogue Pro-Logic signal, for example. There's also the Cinema Studio EX modes which generate different cinema-type sound fields too, but most people will leave them off or play with them if required.

Test 3: Various Artists: Rise Above (CD) and Meitz: Vertikal (CD)

As I listen to a fair bit of rock and a fair bit of more laid back music, it was interesting to see how it'd cope in stereo. First things first, I'd make sure you pick 2 channel stereo on the receiver. You can use AFD if you want, except you'll use the front speakers and the subwoofer. Some might prefer it this way if their fronts are weak, but as I have floorstanding Mission M73s, the sub isn't needed here. However, I tried music with the subwoofer attached in AFD mode and it didn't sound too bad, something worth considering for sure.

Now my Pioneer DV646A is very good with CDs (a rarity for a DVD player) because it uses a separate laser for CDs only, and also it requires a good DAC (digital analogue converter) or use with DVD Audio. So on with Rise Above, and the thing I noticed about the two channel stereo mode was that for me it seemed to be a little lacking in the bass department. A quick tweak in the menus later to turn up the bass a notch in the EQ settings, and that did the job perfectly. The bass is tight and controlled, but sounds dirty enough to go at low levels without distortion, and the treble of the cymbals and the vocal punched forth and sounded crisp and clean. Okay, so maybe a standard two channel amplifier is better here, but to be fair to the Sony, stereo performance here was very nice, and much better than my Kenwood. I also selected analogue CD input as well and tried to see how it would work using the Pioneer's DAC instead, going analogue out. That too was pleasure itself and in fact it's testament to the Pioneer's DAC that this sounded so good. Those of you who own the DV656A and can play Super Audio CDs are in for a nice treat, I can tell you.

Onto Vertikal, and what impressed me here was the placement and soundstage that was generated. It's crisp and precise, and a blast of Get on Up only served me well with the timbres of the drum instruments coming across very nice and sounding very wholesome indeed, and the vocals did the job, and the bass was very low down but controlled through the Missions. Again, this sounded fine whether using the digital out or the analogue out from the DVD player, so whichever input you prefer, you'll go home pretty happy I'm sure.

Test 4: DVD Audio: Koyaanisqatsi

Now for some serious multichannel audio (so time to press multichannel in on the receiver's remote). DVD-Audio advanced resolution really needs a good DAC to convert to six channel analogue before going out to your receiver, and the Pioneer DV646A does that well. So how well does the Sony receive the classic Philip Glass soundtrack? Very well indeed. Because the channels being sent out are one phono socket for each, the receiver does the work for you and outputs the channels to the speakers very nicely. The soundtrack was again controlled, did everything right, and even with the rush of strings and instrumentation coped extremely well. Definitely going to have to get REM's "In Time" best of on this format to really explore DVD-Audio a bit more, as it was superb. Both machines worked in harmony for the audio duration and the effects were placed effortlessly.

Test 5: Other Video/Audio Sources, Tape and Vinyl

Using the analogue ins for video 1, and TV/sat, I tried both the video recorder playing audio, and the audio input from my Nokia Freeview box. In these cases, I set the AFD to read Pro Logic II movie, and that came across very nice and controlled, with good audio soundtracks from most digital TV channels (most are Pro Logic or II these days now) and from the video, the sound was punchy and very forthright, but listenable too. Even when watching some of the Freeview channels, wasn't that bad on the ears, all things considered. I didn't bother using them as video switching sources, but I guess that's handy for people with a lack of SCART sockets on their television as you can theoretically rig up sources via S-Video and output them S-Video to your TV (or even use a S-Video to SCART lead between the sources and the receiver). Having said that, my TV and DVD both use RGB SCART, so I was leaving that well alone. But at least you have the option.

My humble Marantz SD545 deck played the tapes well, then I came across a little annoyance when trying to record. It seems that if your source is digital (for example DVD or CD) you can't record onto analogue from it. Bit annoying, but as I'd hooked up a normal analogue connection from the DVD player to the CD in on the receiver, I switched the input to that and pressed record. The recording was pretty nice on the whole, and definitely sounded warm and lush, which was good. I checked around the back of the receiver when playing a digital source, and the digital out lights up on the back, probably indicating that's where you need to plug the recorder in!

Vinyl was a nice surprise too. The humble old Dual CS-415-2 did the job with a cross-section of 7" singles an LPs and the Sony played them pretty well on the whole, with some good control in the bass department and a nice clear vocal. Only minor snag was I had to turn up the volume on the receiver a little bit, but nonetheless it was pretty much as you'd expect from a phono stage on an amp or receiver at this price range, not the best ever, but still with a pretty nice sound quality all round that seemed t do the job well.

Instructions and Remote

Now for an important bit, the documentation. To be fair to Sony, the manual's actually very good and one of the best I've read for some time. It explains things clearly, with often showing you displays of what you should expect (very useful for the menu screens of the receiver for example) and also goes into detail about all the various modes and settings, and what to expect on the display. The remote controller's instructions worked spot on too, so much so that all the codes worked first go without any problems (see below) and also that it showed you what to do. A surefire case of RFTMing being more than worthwhile. Essential, in fact.

The remote control itself although lightweight is built well, with easy to understand buttons to press, and you can select the input sources easily without hassles. There's also a little cursor stick to navigate the DVD menus built in (it worked for me anyway) as well as a TV volume control as well as the receiver's volume control. The only annoying thing was that if you wanted to press a number key, you had to press ALT first as the number keys shared their functions with others. However, at least the ALT button is lit when you select it, so you're in no doubt at all what you are doing, so that's something.

The remote control, incidentally, can also be used as a controller not just for your receiver, but for other components in your AV rig. The manual that comes with the remote is very handy indeed and tells you all the codes you require to set up your components so the remote can use some of the basic functions of that component. And, even better, it worked too. I managed to set up my Pioneer DV646A DVD player, my JVC HR-J696 video, and my JVC AV28T25EKB widescreen TV so I could use the Sony remote to work. And it did. If you also select the input source on the receiver's remote, such as DVD, the DVD player will come on. Just how good is that? It worked much better than I expected, and while not a replacement for my remotes, at least it allows you to work the thing. Very very nice indeed and an extra plus point for sure.

Overall Impression

Well, I have to say, for pure bang for the buck I'm heartily impressed. The receiver sounds good no matter what you throw at it, you've got two channel stereo that actually sounds useful (not all receivers are too good in stereo, so a definite plus) and also the added bonus of multichannel input for DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD. Add to that a good plethora of connections, a sensible remote controller, and a precise sound, and it's got a fair bit going for it. Don't be put off by its size, it needs to be big to handle what you throw at it, and also wouldn't you rather have proper speaker screw terminals for your speaker cable?

Not the best AV receiver of course, but for the price tag (and that's borne in mind here), a steal and a half. It does what you like it to with the minimum of fuss, and also offers a good level of decoding as well as being highly tweakable to your own needs. Having said that, once you set up the speaker setup in the main menus most people will hardly need to tweak, and that's also a strength of its very likeable sound.

Don't believe me? Well Home Cinema Choice also reviewed this recently and gave it four out of five and were pretty impressed. As I am. If you need an AV receiver that does what you want, and also is future-proofed by being able to handle DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD, and gives you the power you need to play everything in the right way, as well as play your vinyl then this is the baby for you. But remember to demo it out first before you buy, as everyone's ears are different and what I like might not be your cup of tea.

In short: very nice at a nice price.

Warren's rating: 91%