Monday, March 24, 2008

Sony Bravia DAV-X10

The home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) market is about as commoditized a category as you'll find when shopping for consumer electronics, but Sony's stayed in the game by offering a line of all-in-ones at a wide array of price points. For the 2007 line, the company retained its generally sexy design schemes and added the Bravia branding that's been such a success in the TV space. (The 2008 models won't be unveiled until late February, with the older products tending to stay available for several months thereafter--often at discounted prices.) In addition to several traditional 5.1-channel models, Sony is again offering a 2.1 (two speakers plus subwoofer) version for the high end. The DAV-X10 ($800 or less online) is effectively an update of 2006's DAV-X1V--the features set is nearly identical--but the new model's angular AV receiver/DVD player, rounded satellites, and only slightly more restrained subwoofer represent a radical rethink of Sony style. The new model ditches the slow and clunky five-disc-changer mechanism and replaces it with a silky smooth single-disc transport. You also get 720p/1080i video over its HDMI interface. But virtual surround from a pair of beautifully finished satellite speakers and a midsize subwoofer are what sets the DAV-X10 from Sony's more conventional 5.1-channel HTIBs. Virtual surround isn't nearly as enveloping as a properly setup and installed multichannel system, but for those who don't want to deal with the extra wires and speakers, the DAV-X10 can produce a spacious, room-filling sound--and unlike a lot of these sorts of systems, it sounded equally accomplished on music and movies.

The Sony Bravia DAV-X10 is a 2.1 audio system that's composed of four components: two small stereo speakers, a subwoofer, and a svelte "head unit" that combines the disc player and receiver controls. The head unit is 15 inches tall by 3 inches wide by 12.8 inches deep and weighs 14.1 pounds. Its high-gloss black front and sides are slanted inward at a steep angle and the top surface is mirrored. It's a great look. The redesign eliminates all but one visible button: the power key. The rest of the controls--Volume Up/Down, DVD drawer open/close, Play, Stop, Previous/Next, and Function--are back-illuminated, soft-touch icons on the mirrored top panel. The matching remote is more conservative and certainly easy to use, though at the price Sony's charging for the DAV-X10, we would have expected a backlit remote--alas, it's not.

The shiny black satellite speakers have a distinctive shape--looking straight down on them, they're round--and from the side, they're truncated cones. The sats can be placed on shelves or mounted on Sony's optional WS-X10W wall brackets ($80/pair) or WS-X10FB floorstands ($300/pair). The speakers are really small--just 5 inches high and 6.75 inches in diameter. The square-ish medium-density fiberboard subwoofer (14 by 7.1 by 15.4 inches, 25 pounds) doesn't match their curves or the receiver's rakish angularity, but it's definitely attractive. The two satellites each have a pair of 2-inch woofers and a 1-inch tweeter; the subwoofer has a down firing 6-inch woofer and a front 6-inch woofer.

Speaker and subwoofer hookup chores couldn't be easier: You get a 1-to-3 breakout cable that's 16.4 feet long and fitted with four special plugs. Each of the plugs is clearly labeled for its intended destination--the head unit, the two speakers, and the sub--and you can't put it in the wrong way. The only catch is you're stuck with that cable, so you can't place the speakers and sub farther away than the cable allows without investing $50 in a proprietary extension cable (the Sony RK-SX1).

The DAV-X10's auto calibration balances the volume levels of the speakers and measures the relative distances of the speakers to the main listening position. Even so, for best results Sony recommends the two speakers be placed the same distance apart as they are from the listening position (forming an equilateral triangle). The speakers should be positioned at or close to the height of the seated listeners' ears to produce the best sound quality.

The receiver/disc player uses Sony's S-FORCE Pro digital signal processing to synthesize a surround sound field from two speakers. The receiver's S-Master Digital Amplifier delivers 38 watts to each speaker and 38 more to the subwoofer. The AV Sync is intended to compensate for video displays that lag behind the DAV-X10's audio, but instead of offering a continuously variable control you get just two delay options: 70 or 130 milliseconds. We were pleased to note the DAV-X10 has bass and treble controls, directly accessible via the remote, but adjusting the subwoofer's volume level requires going into the speaker setup menu.

The DAV-X10 delivers the same video output options you'd find on any standard DVD player these days: composite and S-Video for connecting to older TVs, along with component and HDMI for HD sets. DVD resolution can be upscaled to 720p or 1080i resolution via HDMI, but not 1080p.

There are two AV inputs, which can accept composite video only plus analog stereo audio (red and white RCA plugs) or digital surround sources (one coaxial only, and one user-selectable coaxial or optical). There's also an audio only input labeled "TV" (analog stereo or optical digital). The upshot of those inputs is that the DAV-X10 can toggle between two external video sources--say, a Nintendo Wii and a VCR--in addition to the built-in DVD, but they'll be limited to standard-definition output. Worse, because the DAV-X10 lacks video format upconversion, the video streams won't be visible via the component or HDMI outputs--only the X10's composite output. In other words, you're almost certainly going to need your TV to handle video-switching capabilities instead, while only using the X10 for audio hookups from external sources (such as game consoles, cable/satellite boxes). That's a disappointment on a system at this price range, especially when far cheaper HTIBs from rivals Samsung and JVC offer (at least) HDMI passthrough for connecting other HD sources.

While it lacks a front-panel audio input, headphone jack, and USB jack, the Sony DAV-X10 does offer two rear-panel Digital Media Ports, a proprietary connection that can only be used for one of Sony's four compatible accessories. The good news is that Sony throws the TDM-BT1 Bluetooth adapter in the box (it otherwise costs $80), which means you can play a device that supports the A2DP Bluetooth profile--such as many music phones and some MP3 players--through the DAV-X10 wirelessly. That leaves the second port open for any of the other three DM Port accessories currently available: the TDM-NC1 Wi-Fi music streamer, the TDM-NW1 Sony Walkman MP3 player dock, and the TDM-IP1 iPod dock. Sony would've been far better off including an extra set of stereo audio inputs, which would've allowed users to connect virtually any audio product ever made (including Bluetooth adapters, iPod docks, and music streamers, which are all readily available from third parties); instead, you're limited to those four proprietary accessories, or whatever DM Port products Sony deigns to release in the future.

The DAV-X10's single-disc transport can play standard DVDs and audio CDs, as well as VCDs, stereo-only SACDs, and MP3 and JPEG files from home-burned discs. Rounding out the DAV-X10's bag of tricks is a built-in AM/FM radio.

As far as the competition goes, the Bravia DAV-X10 compares well with the pricier Denon S-102 and the various permutations of the Bose 3-2-1 system. But bargain hunters should note that they can get the same general look and feel from far cheaper models such as the Samsung HT-X200 and the Philips HTS6500. Likewise, if you like the Sony but prefer a full 5.1 system, check out the Sony Bravia DAV-IS10, which utilizes five super-tiny satellite speakers.

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