We're not sure exactly what the issue was, but to make a long story short, Audyssey kept setting the subwoofer level much too high, no matter how we ran the autosetup. There were other quirks -- the crossover setting kept changing whenever ran the setup program -- and it never quite sounded in balance. Last year Onkyo's TX-NR616 included the same MultEQ calibration, and the sound balances for the speakers and subwoofer were fine.
Also frustrating was that after running the MultEQ calibration, the default settings are "Movie" EQ, with both Audyssey Dynamic EQ and Dynamic Volume are turned on. That's a shame; those features are useful for maintaining volume and tonal balance for late-night listening levels, but they add unwanted processing and limit dynamic range for normal listening. If you're paying $500 for an AV receiver, you deserve to hear it at its best.
Sound quality: Solid, but not a standout
Sound-quality evaluations of AV receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon.
What we can say is that AV receiver sound quality has much, much less effect on overall sound quality than speakers or room acoustics, so you're better off spending your home theater budget there. CNET's sound quality evaluations are strictly subjective, with resident golden ear Steve Guttenberg comparing similarly priced models in an identical listening environment using the same speakers.
The TX-NR626's subwoofer volume was too high to proceed with our listening tests, so we manually turned it down, and the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray still sounded forceful. The skinny Aperion 4T towers sounded more powerful and full than we're used to, but with action movies the added heft was a plus.
We switched over to the Sony STR-DN1040, which had a lighter sound balance, so the battle scenes' explosions and the Black Hawk helicopter crash didn't pack as big a wallop as we heard from the TX-NR626. Even so, the STR-DN1040 sounded clearer and more transparent than the TX-NR626 when we played Steven Wilson's excellent "Grace For Drowning" Blu-ray music-only disc. With the STR-DN1040 every instrument in the mix seemed to come from a distinct point in the wraparound soundstage. The TX-N626's fuller sound was more laid-back and sweeter, while the STR-DN1040 was tonally cooler and drums' dynamics sounded more alive.
Mike Garson's "Jazz Hat" CD sounded wonderful on the TX-NR626, Garson's piano had terrific presence and weight, and the sax, bass, and drums were all nicely developed. The stereo sound stage was almost 3D in its depth and spatial presentation.
Overall, we'd give the edge to the STR-DN1040, but both receivers offer high-quality sound that's hard to complain about.
What are the alternatives?
The TX-NR626 is a strong value, but it faces tough competition from two Sony models: the STR-DN840 and STR-DN1040.
The STR-DN840 is currently $50 cheaper, plus it has built-in AirPlay. The main downside is it lacks a dedicated phono input, so you'd need to supply your own preamp if you use a turntable. The TX-NR626's other step-ups (dual HDMI inputs, more extensive multiroom functionality) are less compelling, although it comes down to your personal home theater setup. We think the STR-DN840 will be a better value for most buyers.
The STR-DN1040 ($600) is more expensive, but you get two worthwhile step-up features. The first is the STR-DN1040's new graphical interface, which is the best we've seen at this price; the second is the eight total HDMI inputs. If you're willing to pay extra for the pretty menus and extensive HDMI connectivity, the STR-DN1040 strikes us as a worthwhile alternative.
Finally, it's worth considering whether you even need an full-fledged AV receiver in the first place. If you're willing to downsize your home audio system to stereo, you might be able to use a compact integrated amplifier. They sound great, take up a lot less room, and can make your home theater much simpler.
Conclusion: A great value, but not the best
Onkyo's TX-NR626 trumps most AV receivers in overall value, but it can't quite top Sony's formidable STR-DN840. Still, it should definitely make your shortlist of AV receiver picks, especially if you've still got a turntable.