Having a large HD screen is one way to get more involved with your movie watching. But don't stop there. Quality sound reproduction brings clear dialog and SFX that pull you in and enhance your home cinema experience. Unfortunately, surround sound systems often involve lots of wires and patience to set up. I recently un-boxed the Sony BDV-N790W Home Theatre System and took it for a test drive. With support for Blu-ray, web streaming, and an advertised "wireless surround" feature, I was eager to find out whether Sony had a perfect home theater solution all in one (big) box.
Home Theatre in-a-box: So, what do you get for nearly 400 bucks? One console which resembles an overgrown playstation; with slide-in loading Blu-ray player, 4 speaker terminals/amps (for the left, center, right, and subwoofer), cable TV input, iPod/iPhone dock, HDMI inputs, one optical input, coaxial cable input, and one stereo RCA input. It also sports WiFi plus Ethernet connections for streaming services like Crackle and Netflix. Two wireless transmission cards are provided to send audio signals to the rear amplifier. Then, a seperate box receives the wireless signal and powers the rear surround speakers via, yep you guessed it, cables! So, kinda wireless.
Setup: The main unit that houses the Blu-ray player also has connections for the front left, center, right, and sub speakers. The speakers are wired and terminal connections are color-coded. Simply using a HDMI cable transmits the video signal to your TV. In order to get surround audio to the rear of your room, Sony has created a wireless transmission card, that plugs-in to the main unit. The surround amplifer and wireless receiver also have a slot for a wireless card. After pluging the wireless adapter into the surround amplifier, I connected the speaker wires to the rear amp/receiver. A calibration mic is included to automatically optimize the surround sound setup. My unit was mislabeled and the auto setup did not work until I flipped the front left and right speaker inputs.
Auditioning: I used a variety of action adventure movies and scary movies to test the surround sound quality. Jumping right in, I started with a movie well recognized for its sound design - Fight Club. The dialog came through the center channel, but required turning the volume up a bit too much. While the dialog sounded better than the TV speakers, I couldn't help but recognize that the surround system sounded strained when pushed to higher volume. While the system struggled to play these peak dynamics in movie SFX, I also heard the plastic speaker enclosures resonate. The subwoofer certainly added boom, but failed to envelope me as though it were coming from all around. The surround speakers felt like a toy-effect, just adding a sense of surround audio, but not really pulling me in.
Using the streaming audio content from Sony's Crackle, I watched the movie Snatch. Compared to my Roku box, I found the video quality to be lower on the Sony unit. In fact, running both units at the same time seemed to show that the Roku box had less errors or buffering of video. The sound from the Sony unit when streaming video was also unimpressive. The whole time I felt like I was listening to a facimile of surround audio.
Comparisons: While I don't have other surround sound units to compare, I do have a soundbar with built-in subwoofers. Sonically the soundbar I used provided much better dialog and the blending of low frequencies was smoother. With the Sony unit, the distinct feeling of bass eminating from the specific area of the subwoofer was pretty obvious. While the Sony provides discrete surround audio playback, enhanced surround options on my soundbar provided a simulated experience that worked well for me.
My biggest disapointment was with all the wires needed to connect a surround sound system of this type. Cables were strung all over the rear of the TV console, and under my couch. This system is relatively affordable, but is made entirely of plastic. The combination of mediocre sound and plenty of wires makes this system difficult to incorporate into a modern dwelling. Some serious movie devotees will prefer the surround audio, and less expensive units like the Sony provide an entry-level upgrade to experience surround sound.
Pros: Relatively inexpensive, better than built-in TV speakers, provides surround sound on a budget
Cons: Poor GUI, peak audio dynamics strained, WiFi streaming is spotty, surround not decoded for cable input, plastic speakers
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.