Sony STR-DN1050 AV-receiver

Have you ever had a feeling of deja vu? Sometimes I get that feeling when I review receivers across multiple generations. Oh, all right, I’ll stop. Oh, all right...but having reviewed the Sony STR-DN1020 in 2011, the STR-DN1030 in 2012, and the STR-DN1040 in 2013, I am well situated to pass judgment on the STR-DN1050 in 2014.

And it’s worth the attention. Sony has been on a roll, fiercely focusing attention on its mass-market receiver line, trying to make it sound as good as possible while incorporating every feasible form of wireless connectivity. That’s no easy task because there’s always a tension between features and sound quality"due not only to the cost of parts but also, in this case, to the signal-polluting effects of digital wireless technologies on analog amplifier guts.

Sony’s designers have their work cut out for them. They have responded with a thicker top casing and stronger joints, improved power transformer and other components, and localized analog power supplies to keep electromagnetic radiation away from amplifier circuits (among other things). These enhancements usually cost money. However, Sony’s designers have also found ingenious ways to improve quality without spending a dime"like varying the size and spacing of vents on the underside of the chassis to control resonance.

Triple Wireless

Sony has two receiver lines: the high-end ES and a more mass-market line. In the latter, the STR-DN1050 is one of four new models, along with the similarly featured but less powerful STR-DN850 ($499) and the lower-end STR-DH750 ($349) and STR-DN550 ($279). The 1050 and 850 both feature triple wireless connectivity, including Wi-Fi, AirPlay, and Bluetooth"all of it baked in, with no awkward extra-cost accessories. The 1050 has the added benefit of a DSD-capable high-resolution digital-to-analog converter for high-res audio files. As with the 850, its DAC also supports up to 192/24 PCM.

Sony’s front panel has a few distinctive traits. One is the daringly asymmetrical look, with placement of both volume and source-select knobs on the right side. The row of buttons crossing the front panel is unusually skinny. While this gives the fascia an elegantly uncluttered appearance, it also makes the buttons virtually invisible; I needed a flashlight to see them. They include useful things like Bluetooth pairing and front-panel dimming along with the usual listening-mode and zone controls.

The graphical user interface is superbly well organized and visually appealing, the opening screen featuring five large vertical panels labeled Watch, Listen, Custom Preset, Sound Effects, and Settings. You’ll be using that more often than the front panel"along with the intelligently simplified remote, with buttons reduced from 65 to 34 (but no more Sony TV control). The SongPal control app is available for Android and iOS devices.

The back panel’s most notable occupant is a built-in Wi-Fi antenna, which enables DLNA media sharing as well as AirPlay. Bluetooth capability incorporates NFC (near field communication), so you can bump your mobile device against the receiver to pair them. Supported Internet radio services include the newly added Spotify, plus Pandora, TuneIn, and Sony’s own Music Unlimited.

The back panel also has three HDMI outputs"one for a second display in the main zone, one for video in Zone 2. That’s a number rarely seen, and never seen at this price point. The half-dozen HDMI inputs are all HDMI 2.0 compliant, but, notably, they lack the HDCP 2.2 digital rights management (DRM) compliance that may be necessary in the future to pass all UHD content from new 4K streamers or disc players. (The Sony is not alone among 2014 AVRs in having one but not the other, but the impact of this will depend on your future display plans and whether you expect to use your AVR as your video switcher for an Ultra HDTV.) The HDMI ports do include two MHL-capable jacks for Android smartphone streaming"one more than I’ve seen elsewhere"and of course the USB input is iOS-savvy. Sony doesn’t provide multichannel analog ins or outs, only stereo, but there are connections for two subwoofers (albeit for a single sub channel).

Auto setup uses Sony’s proprietary DCAC (Digital Cinema Auto Calibration). It starts by prompting you through component connections before inaugurating the speaker setup process with some jaunty musical tones. Unlike most other room correction systems, Sony’s measures from only one position; I’d prefer to see at least three to cover every position on a sofa. DCAC allows a choice of four EQ modes"Full Flat, Engineer, Front Reference, and off"which you can change later on the fly. I chose Full Flat, opting this time for neutrality, though in the past I’ve found Engineer an interesting alternative because it emulates Sony’s listening-room standard.

Phase correction is switchable on or off. I left it on, considering it part of the room correction system. There’s also a Digital Legato Linear enhancement for lossy audio files. I switched it off, along with the Dynamic Range Compressor.

Associated equipment included five Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v.4 speakers, Paradigm Seismic 110 sub, Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player, iPad 2 for AirPlay and Bluetooth streaming, Meridian Director USB DAC running with Foobar 2000 on a Lenovo Win 7 laptop, Micro Seiki BL-21 turntable, Shure V15MxVR/N97XE cartridge, and Onix OA 21s integrated amp serving as phono preamp.

Opened Up

The STR-DN1050 is the top model in this series of Sony receivers, with a decidedly balanced sound. While it has a family resemblance to my vague memories of the STR-DN1040’s warm tone, the top end strikes me as more open, detailed, even airy"and that’s not a word often applied to $600 receivers. It also seemed to have more juice than I’d expect in a modestly priced receiver"at least, I seemed to be running the volume knob lower than I would normally have to with similarly priced products in order to achieve appropriate output for movies, and the dynamics were superb.

814sonyrec.rem.jpgThe Lord of the Rings trilogy remains my idea of the perfect surround demo material, combining tsunamis of high-decibel effects with great visuals and an epic story that never pales. The Return of the King (DVD, DTS) is as remarkable for its quiet effects as for its noisy ones. I love the moment when Pippin sings on demand for the delusional steward of Gondor as the siege of Minas Tirith rages outside. The Sony encompassed both the frail voice and the bombastic battle that followed. The avalanche of skulls in the cave of the dead and the thundering feet of attacking mastodons didn’t faze the receiver; it maintained the integrity of the soundfield, and the sheer force of these effects was impressive. But the echoing female voice that accompanies Gandalf and the eagles in their search for Frodo and Sam was just as effective, more moving. There was little sense of strain as the receiver dominated the speakers.

The Philadelphia Experiment (Blu-ray, Dolby TrueHD) showed the receiver adroitly splitting bass-making duties with the subwoofer. In a repetitive bass line, the crossover was hard to discern. The same was true of the space-time rumble effect. This is how 5.1-channel sound is supposed to work, with the speakers and sub joining to produce a seamless whole. But that can happen only if the receiver can deliver power to the woofers in the main speakers as masterfully as the sub can control its own driver. The Sony and my Paradigm Seismic 110 were a great team.

I hear new things every time I try the 2013 DTS Demo Disc with different equipment. The pursuing fires of The Hunger Games got things off to a roaring beginning as the receiver stringently controlled the rampaging flame effects, with their massive starts, whooshing articulation, and abrupt stops. But the highlight was another forest scene, the chase in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The Sony’s dynamic abilities enabled me to access the soundtrack’s complexity in a newly intense way, integrating the music, gunshots, bullet and shell trajectories, and splintering tree trunks.

Old, New, Borrowed

I bought Deep Purple’s Made in Japan on the advice of a high school classmate, which would make my copy of the double LP set about 40 years old. Fanatically cleaning my records with a Discwasher was an investment that has paid off later in life. I switched the room-correcting DCAC off and on. It improved imaging slightly but tampered very little with my room’s midrange character, and do-no-harm is always a good thing. Switching to pure analog mode"which disabled both room correction and the subwoofer"I was surprised at the weight the STR-DN1050’s amp gave the bass guitar and kick drum. Sony’s design team in Tokyo is known to tweak receivers while listening with B&W Matrix 801 speakers, a tougher load than most receiver buyers will ever use. It shows. This thing is a dynamic marvel.


Janos Starker’s Mercury Living Presence recording of cello concertos by Schumann, Lalo, and Saint-Saëns (with Antal Dorati and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting the London Symphony Orchestra) arrived on three-channel SACD. The three channels were originally mixed down to stereo, but it’s great to hear all three going at once. The cello was precisely, even lovingly, imaged (perhaps love was in the ear of the beholder) against an orchestra in which strings were not only strongly outlined but also thoroughly filled in; most receivers do one or the other, but it’s a joy to come across a model that does both. The front-row perspective favored by legendary recording co-director Wilma Cozart Fine (who was once told: “Women don’t run sessions. Women don’t edit tapes”) was mesmerizing. This demo represented everything I hope and pray for when I listen to high resolution audio.

The Bill Evans Trio’s Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 were from CDs ripped to Apple Lossless. I played just one track from my laptop into a high-performance Meridian USB DAC to get a handle on the sound, then switched to an iPad streaming AirPlay and Bluetooth. All three were quite close, suggesting that you won’t lose too much by switching to either kind of wireless connection. With AirPlay, the onscreen video display showed “AirPlay,” track, artist, and album; with Bluetooth, just “Mark’s iPad.” The Sony’s bass prowess, already firmly established with heavy metal, extended to the more subtle pleasures of Scott LaFaro’s string bass, making it “solid and grippy,” according to my notes. The bandleader’s piano was decidedly un-grippy, and a lesser receiver might have let it go bland"but the Sony caressed its Debussy-like gossamer beauty and the soft shimmer of Paul Motian’s cymbals.

The Sony STR-DN1050 is the best receiver I’ve ever heard selling for $600, and I’ve heard quite a few. Saying a lower-priced product performs like a higher priced one can be wishful thinking, and I rarely trot out those tired old clichés"punching above its weight, champagne performance on a beer budget, blah blah blah. But there’s no way around it: This receiver has dynamics reminiscent of something much more expensive, perhaps even twice its price, along with a fine-tuned tonal balance that benefits anything you might listen to. A high-end-of-the-low-end champion, it is now my top recommendation at this price.

Sony STR-DN1050 AV-receiver photo