Every year there's usually one new AV receiver feature worth considering. This year it's built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and the Sony STR-DN1030 is the only receiver at this price that supports both wireless networking features. It's surprising that Sony is alone in offering wireless capability, since it's such a convenient feature for anyone without Ethernet wiring in their living room. Onkyo has a $25 Wi-Fi dongle for its AV receivers, but other manufacturers expect you to come up with your own solution or pay for a dongle that costs a lot more.
Aside from its wireless prowess, the STR-DN1030 also has built-in AirPlay functionality, support for DLNA and a few built-in streaming services, including Pandora and Slacker. Its five HDMI inputs are fewer than some competitors have, but it should be enough for most home theaters. The toughest decision is whether to favor the STR-DN1030 over Onkyo's value-packed TX-NR616 ($410 street), which lacks AirPlay, but has eight HDMI inputs and can be made wireless with the cheap dongle. For our money, the TX-NR616 is an overall better value, especially since you can add a full-fledged Apple TV for a total cost that's just a bit more than the Sony, but the STR-DN1030 is a very close second, especially if you don't want to deal with dongles or a separate box.
The front panel of Sony's AV receivers always have a surplus of buttons and knobs, the vast majority of which you'll never use. The STR-DN1030 is no different, with an overpopulated front panel that makes it tougher to find the controls you're actually interested in versus seldom-used buttons like "movie" and "music" modes. AV receiver looks aren't that important, but Sony's busier, less elegant design puts it in the bottom of the pack, with Onkyo's utilitarian style.
You know a remote's gone wrong when you see text on the buttons, different colored text above the buttons, and a cryptic yellow circle that appears above some buttons, but not all. The STR-DN1030's included remote isn't much worse than the clickers that come with Yamaha or Pioneer's remotes, but they're all equally difficult for tech novices to use. However, if you're willing to invest $500 in an AV receiver, you'll likely consider using a universal remote to render Sony's lousy remote irrelevant.
When connected to your home network, the STR-DN1030 can also be controlled by Sony's smartphone app, Media Remote, available for iOS and Android. It largely just duplicates the buttons on the physical remote, rather than offering an interface more customized for the smartphone, like the remote apps from Denon and Onkyo. But remote apps in general aren't as useful, where, again, you'll be better off with a universal remote.
The STR-DN1030 may be ahead of competition in terms of networking features, but its user interface is archaic even by AV receiver standards. Despite the fact that most people have wide-screen TVs these days, the interface has a smaller, boxier shape that makes it feel cramped. In fact, the onscreen display often only shows a few characters at a time, leaving you to wait for the slow, automatic scroll to reveal the full line. It's no fun. And although AirPlay interfaces on AV receivers never look as good as the one on an Apple TV, Sony's interface is the crudest.
If you only have to use the interface when you first set up the receiver, it's fair to discount its importance. You'll see it more frequently, however, if you plan on using built-in streaming media services, such as Pandora or Slacker. If you're going with the STR-DN1030, you'll have the best experience by avoiding its frustrating interface as much as possible, for example by using those apps on your smartphone or tablet and streaming via AirPlay or Bluetooth.
Five HDMI inputs: The STR-DN1030 has five HDMI inputs, all on the back panel, which will cover most home theaters, although many of its competitors offer more. If you want the most HDMI connectivity for your buck, however, go with Onkyo: the TX-NR616 ($410) and TX-NR515 ($400) both offer eight HDMI inputs. The rest of Sony's AV connectivity is actually pretty extensive, with three digital audio inputs (two optical, one coaxial), two component video inputs, and five analog audio inputs. That's nice, but probably unnecessary since most home theater devices use HDMI these days. (Check out CNET's 2012 AV receiver spreadsheet for a more detailed comparison of AV receivers' connectivity.)
Built-in Wi-Fi: The real standout feature of the STR-DN1030 is its built-in Wi-Fi, which isn't offered on any competitors at this price. Onkyo's receivers do come close since you can add Wi-Fi functionality with a tiny USB dongle for just $25, you'll need a different dongle for Bluetooth. (Pioneer and Yamaha also offer Wi-Fi dongles, but they're annoyingly expensive and not nearly as compact.) If you prefer the stability of a wired connection, the STR-DN1030 also has an Ethernet port.
The built-in networking features of the STR-DN1030 allow for all kinds of networking functionality, including firmware updates, AirPlay, smartphone control, and media streaming via DLNA, Pandora, Sirius, Slacker, Sony Music Unlimited, and Internet radio. I still don't think networking is an absolutely essential AV receiver feature (largely because AV receivers shouldn't be media streamers), but it's a nice bonus. The STR-DN1030's set of streaming-audio apps is somewhat limited compared with Onkyo's, but in reality it's much more limited because of how poor Sony's onscreen user interface is. Buyers should ignore the built-in apps and plan on using the STR-DN1030 with AirPlay or Bluetooth.
Built-in AirPlay: If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, the STR-DN1030's built-in AirPlay is a nice bonus, although it's not essential since you can always add AirPlay later with a $100 Apple TV. If you're not sure whether you should pick a receiver with built-in AirPlay, check out our rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of built-in AirPlay versus buying a separate Apple TV box.
The STR-DN1030 also goes above and beyond with built-in Bluetooth, making it easy to wirelessly stream audio from non-Apple smartphones and tablets. Sure, you can add Bluetooth connectivity to any AV receiver with a simple dongle like the Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter ($40) and Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver ($25), but having it built-in is a more streamlined solution.