Product Review - Sony STR-DB830 DD/DTS Receiver - December, 1999 Evan Zamir
I figure the best way to build a home theater is to set aside a specific amount of money that you want to spend, and then choose components that sound the best and keep you within the budget. Money is almost always the limiting factor. Once in a while, a piece of stereo or video equipment represents such a good value, that it allows you to improve the other stuff in your system without going over your predetermined allowance.
Is the Sony STR-DB830 that piece of equipment?
You won't find the DB830 at in specialty high-end store, but rather at places like Good Guys. It looks almost exactly like the new ES models that have just come out, but it is less expensive, filling a gap between the STR-DE835 and their ESs. Some people think that no true audiophile would ever consider buying Sony, or, at least, telling any other audiophile they had bought or were considering buying Sony equipment. But, wasn’t Sony the company that made the reference quality S7000 DVD player, ES3000 CD player, and those cool new Wega televisions (consumers tend to pronounce it Vega)? I looked into what the DB model was all about and found my assumption was correct: It is based on the ES series of receivers, something of a “crossover” or “bridge” model that was originally produced for the Asian market, and has been released here to meet the demand for a better quality receiver before the new ES models are released. In Asia it is called the QS series (“Q” for quality). It turns out that the DB models share more in common with the higher-end ES series than with Sony’s bargain basement DE models, at least in terms of build quality and features. (If you ask me though, $499 is halfway down the steps to the basement.) Amazingly, however, just about the only thing that is similar to the DE models is the price. You should be able to find the DB830 for just over $400 (try http://www.crutchfield.com.) Remember only last year, we were looking at just the DD or DTS decoders in this same price range. Wow, have the prices for digital surround come down!
In terms of build quality, the DB830 is a very solid chunk of metal. Yes, I said “metal”. There doesn’t seem to be much plastic on this thing, except for the binding posts, which I’ll get to later. The receiver weighs in at around 28 pounds out of the box, which is substantial for a receiver in this price range. There is a front panel that drops down with the push of a button, and which reveals some of the more complicated control features. When the panel is up, the receiver looks very streamlined, and stylish (in a big black box sort of way). There is a really cool LED about 2” long at the top of the receiver, which turns bright blue when a Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound format is being decoded. When I first started playing movies, I would pay more attention to that blue glow than the movie, but eventually I got used to it. The default display mode is actually “OFF”, which means that you can watch a movie or listen to a CD without being distracted by a large bright display. The problem is that some DVDs have Pro Logic as the default audio selection, so that you might watch an entire movie without making sure that the Dolby Digital track is on. Well, now I just look for the blue bar to light up. If it doesn’t, then I know I’m not listening to Dolby Digital or DTS, and I check for the alternate audio tracks. DVD manufacturers might Pro Logic as the default because they assume current users don't have a DD receiver yet.
[Editor’s Note regarding default soundtracks: If a consumer is not using a Dolby Digital decoder, DVD players will do an on-the-fly fold down of 6 channels mixes. The problem is that the resultant matrix soundtrack could have all sorts of problems such as incorrect levels or elements that sound good in a discrete surround channel but not in a mono matrix one. The assumption of the disc makers is that the “serious” viewer knows enough to select a 5.1 channel track when appropriate, while for the rest, the default is a “safe” Pro Logic track.]
Setting up the DB830 is very simple. It can be set to automatically detect whatever format is thrown at it, and it even remembers the last format to be used for each source. For example, if you were listening to a CD using one of the 32 bit DSP modes, it will go back to that mode the next time you select the CD source, even if you had switched to a different mode at some point in one of the other sources. Like most DD/DTS receivers, it allows you to set your speakers to either LARGE or SMALL. If you set the rear speakers to SMALL, for example, the low bass will be sent to the subwoofer, or to the front speakers if the sub is absent. I run all my speakers in the LARGE mode, though, and just use my subwoofer below 50 Hz. Let me summarize by saying that there are enough options to configure the setup in almost every way possible. You can even specify the angle and height of the rear speakers relative to the listening position.
The DB830 has preamp outputs for all 5.1 channels, and even an extra subwoofer output so that you can add a second sub, which some insane people actually do. (The editor uses 4 subs, so call out the guys with the straight-jackets.) It also has 5.1 analog inputs, so that you can connect an external processor to it. This will be very useful when DVD Audio gets underway. Hidden by the drop-down front panel are an S-Video input, composite video input, and L/R analog audio inputs. There are three more S-Video inputs on the back panel (for TV/SAT, DVD/LD, and any other video source). There are a total of eight analog RCA input pairs, including the surviving vinyl (phono), CD, MD/DAT, cassette, DVD, and TV. As for digital inputs, there are three optical (Toslink) connections, but just one coaxial connection. I would have traded about three of those analog inputs for another coaxial digital input. The DB830 has S-Video and composite outputs, as well as an optical digital output.
Now let’s talk about the speaker connections. There are A/B outputs for the front speakers, and one set for the rear and center channel. The two-way binding posts (banana plug and bare wire) have plastic knobs, and do not really inspire much confidence. I prefer using bare wire over banana plugs, but I would have liked if the binding posts allowed for spade lugs. There is an impedance selector that allows you to switch between 4 and 8 Ohms, but you should use 8 Ohm speakers if possible. I suppose this feature might be handy for some, though. The manual, which is "OK", notes that you will want to “set the IMPEDANCE SELECTOR to “4 Ohms” if you want to select both sets (A+B) of front speakers (see page 26).” Note to reader, there is no page 26 in this review.
Regarding the remote control, I programmed it in about 2 minutes to be able to turn on and control most of the features of my Toshiba DVD player, and Toshiba television. I rarely use it for that, because I feel like my other remotes will get lonely if don’t use them. The only bad thing I can say about the supplied remote is that it doesn’t light up. Instead, it glows in the dark, albeit very faintly. Well, actually, another bad thing about the remote is that the buttons for selecting the different sources are too small, and all look alike. Inevitably, I forget which button is which, and end up turning on the MD source instead of the DVD player. This gets annoying because it seems that you have to turn on the system by choosing one of the sources first. I’m not sure if this is the case, but I haven’t been able to figure out any other way.
So, what is good about this receiver besides the features and build quality? Answer: the sound, especially for movies. Did I mention the DB830 is rated at 100 W/ch? There have been rumors in newsgroups about some Sony receivers being deceptive with their power ratings, but all manufacturers stretch the words a bit in the marketing department. It could be 100 watts in one channel at a time, or maybe 100 watts per channel, all channels driven, but only for a microsecond. Whatever. The bottom line is, as always, the actual performance. Everything I’ve thrown at the DB830, from “The Matrix” to “Blade”, comes out fighting (no pun intended). When watching movies, I set the sound level according to the normal dialog. Then, I turn the volume up until the dialog becomes congested or uncomfortable, and from there I turn it down a couple of notches. This method seems to work well for most movies, because the continuous power of the amp can easily handle this level, and for bursts of action or special effects the amp draws from its reserves. Having done this test on various receivers, I can say that the internal amplification of the DB830 is robust, given its price range. Of course, there are limitations to the DB830’s power, but it is able to fill my moderately sized room with sane volume levels. If you are the type who opts for the insane, or have a very large room, you might want to think about getting an external 3-channel amp for the fronts and center channel. The DB830 internal amplifier is more than enough for the rear channels of any setup, though.
It is always hard to compare the sound of a home theater to that of a commercial movie theater. For most of us, we are limited by budget and space (and girlfriends or wives, I am told) so that we can never really get the full-blown theater experience. This receiver brings me a little closer to that standard. One of my references for evaluating dialog or voice, is the hauntingly intimate intro that Kiefer Sutherland gives in the opening scene of “Dark City”. I have literally watched it dozens of times through this receiver, because it is so “there” in my room. Another great way to evaluate a receiver’s ability to play the human voice is the scene in “The Matrix” (chapter 12) where Laurence Fishburne has about a 5 minute monolog in which he describes the “real world” to Keanu Reeves. Not only does this sound realistic, but the isolation of Fishburne’s voice is almost eerie. As for female voices, I again return to “Dark City”, to the two scenes where Jennifer Connelly is singing in the jazz band. She’s nice to look at for sure, but these scenes are spectacular for evaluating the midrange and upper bass capabilities of a receiver. The plucked bass in the background and Connelly’s voice (is that really her?) give me shivers every time. I should mention here that I experimented with some of the DSP modes with this scene. I didn’t find any of them worth using over the native Dolby Digital decoding. On the plus side, they don’t seem to degrade the sound (as most tone controls or equalizers do). I did use the Cinema Studio mode for playing CDs through all five speakers. Evidently, Sony left out a simple 5-channel stereo mode, which would send the sound to all speakers equally, so this was the only way to accomplish that. Normally, the “32 bit” Cinema Studio modes are supposed to make the sound of movies more spacious and exciting by reproducing, and I quote from the manual again, “the sound characteristics of the Sony Pictures Entertainment “Cary Grant” Theater cinema production studio.” I’m not sure what that means.
Having commented on how well dialog is reproduced, I think most of you out there want to know how the receiver can handle the punches that Russel Crowe (a.k.a. “Bud White”) lands in “L.A. Confidential”, the train crashing scene in “The Fugitive”, the club blood scene in “Blade”, the helicopter crash in “The Matrix”, and the WWII battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” (which I saw only days before I bought my subwoofer). To all of those people, rest assured, the DB830 can do that, too. If it weren’t for scenes like these, we wouldn’t spend all this money on “surround sound”, and subwoofers, right? It movies just had dialog, only one speaker would be necessary. What this receiver provides in the way of action and special effects make the investment worth it. I was watching “The Shining” with some friends of mine who had never seen my system before. During one scene, my French friend Matthieu almost got up to answer my telephone because he thought it was strange that I wasn’t answering it, even though it was right behind me. I told him it was in the movie. He was like “Oh . . . cool”.
The DB830 has the two Ds: dynamics
and detail. Sounds come out of
nowhere, and go back to where they came from soon after. High-frequency details like the ringing after a gunshot, or
the spinning of a very sharp metal boomerang (courtesy of "Blade")
sound sharp, but not fatiguing. Everything
sounds like what you would expect it to. Of
course, we all know that most of these sound effects are produced in a sound
studio, so the placement of special effects in space is somewhat harder to
evaluate. For example, when the
buffalo start to go down one by one in “Dances with Wolves”, I noted that
the transition from the center channel to the right speaker was somewhat
awkward. It’s hard to tell if
that is the fault of the soundtrack or the receiver.
I’ve heard so much through this receiver by now, that I’m willing to
bet that the soundtrack mix was the perp. I
have yet to get annoyed by any aspect of the sound that comes through the
receiver during movie playback, and that is perhaps the highest complement I can
give. Isn’t it the things we
don’t like about equipment that cause us to upgrade in the end?
The DB830 does movies well, but how does it handle music? I play CDs through the same coaxial digital output of my DVD player that is used by the processor for movies. In essence, the DAC of the receiver is responsible for the sound I am getting, and it is perfectly OK. This receiver is fantastic for the heart of a home theater, and if you don’t have audiophile tendencies, it will definitely suffice for regular music. The speakers I use for my home theater are not what I would use (or do use) for my audio-only system, so it is hard to criticize the receiver alone, without comparing it directly to other receivers or amplifiers. The main thing suffering is the soundstage, which is essential for playing back music recorded in two channels. Dolby Digital and DTS sort of take care of that for you. The CD sound through the receiver is accurate enough in terms of tonality and dynamics, but the sound is just not as engaging as it could be on a dedicated system. The bass is good, the midrange is good, the highs are good, but they don’t fit together to make a truly realistic presence in the room. So, it turns out I am using the receiver mainly for watching movies, and playing real music on occasion in the background. The problem might be a limited bandwidth (typical in low cost mass market receivers), which would result in some phase shifting in the higher parts of the audible spectrum, and misalignment of harmonics. Who cares? For $400 I am happy, especially since it has DD and DTS decoding.
The DB830 is excellent, amazing, terrific for movies, and OK for music. I would say it's worth buying for movies alone. If you already have a dedicated two-channel audio-only system, and are looking to build a separate home theater, this is the quintessential first draft pick. You can build a team around it, and be content for years. It is the franchise player, the all-star. Whoops, sorry, about that Dick Vitale-like outburst! I’m still reveling about the start of the 82 game NBA season this year. For most people, the DB830 will be all they ever need for movies and music. As a compromise, I would consider buying an external amp to get the most out of CDs and future surround audio formats, if music appreciation is your sole purpose in life. Did I mention that this receiver is a bargain? A bargain among bargains. It makes the equipment around it better, literally, because it allows you to spend more money on other components without going over your budget.
Evan Zamir -