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Review: Sony home theater in a box delivers on features, value

Story Highlights

• Sony home theater includes a five-disc DVD changer
• Supports MP3 and JPEG playback via data CD/DVD
• System is better for movies than music
• Does not include wireless speaker modules
By Steve Guttenberg
CNET.com
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(CNET.comexternal link) -- Sony's 2007 Bravia home theater in a box (HTIB) systems represent something of a departure from the company's popular Dream systems.

The new line isn't quite as sleek -- the Bravia DAV-HDX500's AV receiver/DVD changer has a bigger footprint and is a tad more generic-looking than the Dream's, and the speakers aren't as flashy.

But the Bravia HTIBs are considerably more affordable than comparable Dream models. Even so, the Bravia's features roster exceeds that of previous-generation Dream systems. The DAV-HDX500 is near the top of the Bravia line and includes a five-disc DVD changer with 480p, 720p, or 1080i HDMI output and automatic speaker calibration.

It doesn't include the wireless rear-speaker kit that the step-down DAV-HDX267W does, but -- considering that the wireless system on that model was more trouble than it was worth -- the larger, floor-standing front speakers on this model make the overall package something of a better value.

Design and setup

The DAV-HDX500 comes with a fairly compact "head unit" that combines an AV receiver and five-disc CD/DVD changer along with a six-piece (5.1) satellite/subwoofer speaker package.

The main unit is a little more generic-looking than Sony's Dream systems, but the new model's black plastic design is classy in its own right. The front of the unit has five buttons corresponding to the five-disc capacity of the player. Disc loading is a 15-second process; the mechanism needs about 24 seconds to swap discs.

We've criticized older generations of Sony Dream DVD changers for being noisy, but the DAV-HDX500 went about its business swapping discs with relative quiet. The receiver/DVD changer weighs 11.5 pounds and measures about 3.5x17x17.25 inches (HWD). The black remote isn't backlit but it does glow in the dark. Thanks to its nicely organized button layout, we found it easy to use.

The front main left/right speakers' glossy black trim will complement most flat-panel TVs with similar trims. You can either wall mount the 32.6-inch speakers or place them on the adjustable height (41-inch to 52-inch) floor stands, which required about five minutes each to assemble.

The ultra-low-profile center speaker is less than 2 inches high and 15 inches wide while the surrounds are 8.75 inches high. Their black-and-silver plastic cabinets have keyhole slots on their rears for easy wall mounting. The matching black subwoofer sports a medium-density fiberboard cabinet and measures about 15x8.75x13.8 inches.

Once we connected all the included speaker wires and AV cables, we next hooked up the supplied microphone and ran the Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC), Sony's automatic speaker setup program. Judging by the number of tones and noises emitted by the speakers over the course of a few minutes, we expected a thorough job, and indeed, the setup was reasonably accurate. The all-manual video setup is typical of Sony DVD players and easy to accomplish.

As with most Sony HTIBs, the DAV-HDX500 doesn't offer bass and treble tone controls, nor easy access to the subwoofer volume level. Yes, it does have Dynamic Bass (on/off) to boost bass on the fly, but to raise or lower the subwoofer volume, you must first stop the disc in play and navigate the speaker setup menu to adjust the subwoofer volume. Why Sony doesn't let us adjust the subwoofer volume with the remote is beyond our understanding.

Features

The DAV-HDX500 delivers 143 watts to each of the five satellite channels and 285 watts to the subwoofer. The receiver decodes all of the standard Dolby and DTS 5.1 surround modes and its XM Connect and Play features XM HD Surround Sound.

The main front left and right speakers sport two 2.6-inch woofers and a 2-inch tweeter; the center speaker has a single 1.3-inch by 2.5-inch full range driver; and the surround speakers each have a single 2.6-inch full range driver. The speakers and subwoofer use spring clip connectors to grip the speaker wire; at the other end of the wire is a proprietary jack that plugs into the receiver/DVD changer. The sub has a front-mounted 6.3-inch woofer.

If you prefer a wireless link to the rear speakers, the Sony WAHTSD1 will handle the job for an additional $130. But if that's important to you, the Sony DAV-HDX267W may be a better choice--that system lacks the better connectivity, larger speakers, and XM Radio compatibility of the HDX500, but it includes the wireless kit for $100 less.

Connectivity ranks the highest among the most desirable features of HTIBs, and the DAV-HDX500 has a decent jack pack -- albeit with some frustrations. Video output is identical to what you'll find on a good DVD player--in addition to composite, S-Video, and component jacks, the HDMI output will upscale DVDs to 720p and 1080i resolution when connected to compatible HDTVs. There are no audio outputs -- you'll be using the attached speakers or the front 3.5mm headphone jack.

There is a video input marked "satellite/cable" that can accept standard (composite) and high-def video (component) from a set-top box or DVR; it also offers stereo analog or digital audio (coaxial or optical) inputs as well. A set of rear analog audio RCA inputs (dubbed "TV") is also provided. The XM satellite jack allows for connection of a Connect and Play satellite tuner, such as the XM Mini-Tuner--which, along with the monthly XM subscription, needs to be purchased separately. On the front panel, a 3.5mm jack does double duty as a microphone jack (for the autocalibration routine) and as an input for portable devices such as iPods and MP3 players.

Actually, the back panel also includes not one but two of Sony's proprietary Digital Media Ports. Each DM Port can accommodate one of four compatible accessories, which range in price from $80 to $200: the TDM-NC1 (a Wi-Fi music streamer), the TDM-BT1 (a Bluetooth adapter), the TDM-NW1 (a dock for certain Sony Walkman MP3 models), and the TDM-IP1 (an iPod dock). While the two we auditioned worked well enough with the DAV-HDX500, nonproprietary alternatives will function just as well and be able to connect to other, non-Sony devices. In other words, we much would've preferred that the DM Port jacks had been replaced by standard analog or digital jacks instead.

Even if you pass on Digital Media Port accessories, you can still have a total of three other devices attached to the DAV-HDX500 -- one video (with stereo or surround sound), and two analog audio sources (including the front panel) -- and that doesn't count the built-in DVD/CD playback, AM/FM tuner, or (if you choose) XM Radio. Unfortunately, the video inputs aren't as useful as they appear. They're pass-through only, so unless you're using the same outputs for DVD playback (composite for composite, component for component), you'll get nothing but a blank screen when you toggle to the input (such as when watching via HDMI). As a result, you might as well just use your TV for video input switching duties anyway.

DVD and CD media playback

Like the models below it in the same series, the DAV-HDX500 can upscale DVDs to 720p and 1080i resolutions. That won't equal the native high-def images found on HD DVD and Blu-ray discs, but it can make for better-looking DVD picture quality when connected to HDTVs with subpar video processors. Additionally, you can switch between 480p and 720p and 1080i, all on the fly. We tested the DAV-HDX500 using the HQ benchmarking DVD and like the DAV-HDX267W, we were generally impressed with the results. The DAV-HDX500's player delivered good detail, and was able to smooth out the jaggies on a variety of test patterns.

We had hoped this higher-end model in the Bravia series would be able to handle film detection, but unfortunately the system faltered on the 2:3 pulldown test and didn't kick into film mode on cue. Of course, there's a marked difference between test patterns and real movies, and the HDX500 performed perfectly well on the latter. The opening black-and-white stills of Seabiscuit looked great, as did the action-filled scenes in King Kong.

The DAV-HDX500 supports MP3 and JPEG playback via data CD or data DVD. The functionality worked as advertised, but the onscreen interface was severely lacking--another feature we wish would have been improved on over the DAV-HDX267W. Instead of a user-friendly environment, you'll find yourself often consulting the manual in order to perform certain operations (such as creating a slide show or pulling up MP3 metadata).

Audio performance

The DAV-HDX500 conducted itself with honors when we played the "House of Flying Daggers" DVD. The skinny tower speakers and subwoofer belted out the sound of our favorite circle of drums scene in Chapter Four (The Echo Game) with real gusto. Each thwack of the drums was clear and distinct, though we could feel a gust of air belching out of the subwoofer's front-mounted port, which was about 10 feet away! It's a gutsy little beast. Much later in the film, in the Bamboo Forest battle, the sounds of splintering wood, the whoosh of fighters flying through the air, and the thud of wood hitting bodies were all presented with above-average detail.

The metallic clang of sword against sword was also surprisingly detailed. Dialogue emerged from the skinny center-channel speaker on the anemic side of neutral; on some DVDs we sometimes wished for a little more warmth on dialogue.

Music tends to be more revealing of speaker quality, so we next checked out the One Night With Blue Note concert DVD. Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" sounded decent; the pianist and trumpet player Freddie Hubbard came off best, but Tony Williams' drums sounded a little crude -- especially the cymbals, which were on the edge of sounding tizzy and harsh; easing back on the volume to a more moderate level helped matters.

The limitations of the DAV-HDX500 were much more apparent when we played R.E.M.'s "And I Feel Fine" greatest hits CD, especially when we cranked up the volume. The skinny speakers started to sound thin and hollow, and the little subwoofer's definition headed south. Acoustic music from Rosanne Cash's 10 Song Demo CD faired better, her vocals and guitar were nicely balanced.

Still, the DAV-HDX500 is easier to recommend for home theater-oriented buyers. If you're interested in a more musically oriented HTIB, check out the Onkyo HT-SR800 -- that model doesn't include a DVD player or the stand-mounted front speakers, but it offers improved connectivity options and better overall sound quality.


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