AV receivers tend to feel out of step with current technology: they're bulky, hard to use, and typically lack basic features that are taken for granted these days, like Wi-Fi.
Thankfully, none of that is true with the Sony STR-DN1040 ($600 street), one of the first relatively affordable AV receivers that actually feels modern. A lot of that is thanks to its slick, responsive onscreen interface that's miles better than what competitors offer. The STR-DN1040 also packs built-in Bluetooth, AirPlay and Wi-Fi, making it easy to interface with tablets and smartphones, where a lot of your music may live. If that's not enough to win you over, there are a whopping eight HDMI inputs, outclassing any other receiver in this price range.
That $600 price isn't cheap for an AV receiver, but the STR-DN1040 certainly makes you feel like you're getting your money's worth. The real question is whether you're willing to pay for the STR-DN1040's step-ups over Sony's other excellent 2013 AV receiver, the STR-DN840, which also offers the killer trio of Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Wi-Fi. None of the STR-DN1040's step-ups is truly essential (who really needs eight HDMI inputs?), but they are nice luxuries for buyers willing to pay more. The Sony STR-DN1040 may not be the absolute best value, but it's a tempting indulgence for less-budget-conscious buyers.
Design: Large, but tasteful
It's hard to make a bulky AV receiver look good, but Sony's done an admirable job with this year's STR-DN1040 and STR-DN840. The front panel has a clean, modern look that's low on the button clutter that plagues most models. The Marantz NR1403 still looks better and takes up a lot less space, but the STR-DN1040 is the best-looking "big" receiver we've tested this year.
The remote is far from the minimalism of the front panel. It's chock-full of buttons, including lots of arguably unnecessary sections like the rows of numbers given prime center placement. Crucial functions like the volume rocker are relegated to the bottom of the remote, and there looks to be two of them; one is actually for cycling through different sound modes. If you're spending $600 on an AV receiver, you'd be wise to invest in a quality universal remote to replace this clicker.
User interface: Finally, a modern AV receiver interface
We've long been critics of the archaic onscreen menus included with AV receivers, so the STR-DN1040's are a real breath of fresh air. The crisp, high-definition graphics look great and even more impressive is how responsive the interface is -- it feels like you're zipping around a PS3.
Sony has also done a good job using plain English phrases to explain the STR-DN1040 functions, like "Watch" and "Listen." It's not perfect -- you can't do simple tasks like renaming input types or changing icons -- but it's a huge step in the right direction. It's hard to complain when most AV receivers look closer to a command-line interface rather than something that should be on your HDTV.
Features: All the wired and wireless connectivity you need
The STR-DN1040 may be expensive, but it's one of the most well-featured AV receivers at this price.
There are eight HDMI total inputs on the back panel, including a front-panel input that's MHL compatible. That's more than any other receiver at this price; nobody else offers more than six. The rest of its inputs are well-covered, too, including three digital (two optical, one coaxial) inputs.
Like the step-down STR-DN840, the STR-DN1040 offers extensive wireless connectivity, including built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AirPlay. Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from nearly every smartphone and tablet, while AirPlay offers superior sound quality from iOS devices.
Wi-Fi isn't as crucial, but it allows you to take advantage of the STR-DN1040's integrated networking features without a wired Ethernet connection, including DLNA, smartphone control, firmware updates, and streaming services such as Pandora, Slacker, Sony Music Unlimited, and Internet radio. Sony's suite of streaming services is somewhat lean compared with those from other receivers, but it's a minor issue since streaming (via Bluetooth or AirPlay) directly from apps on mobile devices is almost always a better experience than using a receiver's built-in software.