Sony STR-DE897With its STR-DE897, Sony has managed to pack a full set of A/V receiver functions into a simple, compact, and great-looking component. Besides the large volume knob, there's a somewhat smaller knob for input selection, minimizing the front-panel button count (the Yamaha has a similar arrangement).
Like the JVC, the STR-DE897 provides no onscreen displays or menus. You have to step sequentially through speaker "sizes," distances, and other lists of options - some of which are a bit confusing. The good news: you only have to pass this way once. And to be fair, Sony makes the routine of balancing your speaker levels controllable from the remote, so you can make adjustments from your listening position. (My only complaint is that the manual does a lousy job of explaining this feature.)
There's also an Easy Setup option that lets you speed things along by choosing from common speaker layouts. One unusual setup fact: the receiver sports two multichannel analog audio inputs, one with eight channels and one with six, which is great if you want to hook up, say, separate players for Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio.
MOVIE PERFORMANCE Like both of its fellows here, the STR-DE897 delivered more than enough power for most real-world home theater setups. It also includes three Cinema Studio EX modes for either multichannel or stereo soundtracks, each mimicking the acoustics of an actual Sony Pictures production or screening facility, such as the Cary Grant Theater and the Kim Novak Theater production studio.
The climactic battle scene from Master and Commander demands dynamics, precision, and naturalistic ambience, and I got all three in spades. Nine-pound cannonballs whistled overhead while bar-shot roared through the rigging (yeah, I'm a Patrick O'Brian reader of long standing), while the ranging shots echoed across the water - suspiciously so, since there's no source of reflections on the open sea! All this let me compare Sony's Cinema Studio EX modes (named simply A, B, and C) with "plain" Dolby Digital EX. Each of the Sony modes did a nice job of expanding the sense of space as you watch the movie and shifting the apparent locations of surround effects beyond the room. The cost is some coloration - for example, male voices took on a slight metallic quality.
MUSIC PERFORMANCE Unlike the JVC and Yamaha receivers, Sony's STR-DE897 provides only Dolby Pro Logic II, not the newer DPL IIx, for enhancing stereo or matrix-encoded four-channel surround sources. Nonetheless, its 5.1-channel DPL II playback sounded clean and spacious on material like Billy Joel's "This Is the Time" from The Bridge. Of course, the Sony also includes DTS Neo:6, which provides 6.1-channel playback. I found the DE897's three DSP music modes to be synthetic sounding - in other words, stick with DPL II or Neo:6.
The Sony STR-DE897 is a fine value at its list price, let alone a discounted one. The remote is smaller and a bit more crowded than the others, but the layout is sensible and easy to follow. If simplicity was one of the chief design goals for this receiver - which seems to be the case - then Sony has hit the nail on the head.
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