The pursuit of high-end values is as much about style as it is about advancing the state of the art. Take Sony's ravishing A/V receiver, the STR-DA3100ES: it has the broad-shouldered stance of a Chrysler 300, and when we revved up the Aviator DVD, it sounded almost as powerful. As expected from a $1,000-list receiver, the STR-DA1000ES is jam-packed with just about every feature you could want, including a lip-sync delay, multiroom capability, and video upconversion. Yes, we would have liked a third component-video input, and we did find the big Sony's setup routines challenging, but all in all, this receiver competes well with the likes of and . The Sony STR-DA3100ES is one of the most attractive receivers we've seen in a long time. Its satin-finished aluminum faceplate and the gratifying feel of the solid aluminum volume-control knob work their magic; this is one gorgeous component. In the middle of the faceplate, behind the thick, flip-down, metal door, you'll most of the DA3100ES's controls, including bass and treble, A/B speaker switching, tuner controls, and so on. Like most of today's higher-end components, this receiver is kind of huge: 17 inches wide by 18.5 inches deep, and it weighs 46.3 pounds. The DA3100ES can run fairly hot, which means that it needs to be placed either out in the open or in a ventilated cabinet.
Maybe it's just us, but we found the logistics of the DA3100ES's setup menu irritatingly illogical. The Easy Set Up is anything but; we needed a solid half hour of study to master the Sony's tricky menu system. The onscreen menu navigation is nowhere near as intuitive as that of Harman Kardon or Onkyo. Once you roll up your sleeves and explore the DA3100ES's capabilities, it's pretty comprehensive. It even includes a separately set subwoofer volume level for SACD/DVD-A, and that's a good thing, because most high-resolution players' bass output is on the low side.
Sony supplies two remotes: a small one with an illuminated LCD window, and a second, more straightforward remote for use in another room. Potently powered with 120 watts per channel, the Sony STR-DA3100ES can energize even tough-to-drive speakers with gusto. Surround processing covers most of the current options from Dolby and DTS; all that's missing is Dolby Headphone. Sony also supplied the STR-DA3100ES with a lip-sync delay function to compensate for gaps between audio and video. You can adjust the delay from 0 to 200 milliseconds in 10ms increments.
Connectivity should satisfy all but the most complex home-theater installations, but we were disappointed to find just two component-video inputs on the back panel; competing units such as the and the offer three. The Sony has a total of four A/V inputs with S-Video; six digital inputs (four optical and two coaxial); one optical output; four analog inputs, including provisions for two recorders as well as a turntable input; a complete set of 7.1-channel SACD/DVD-Audio inputs and 7.1-channel preamp outputs; a second set of 5.1-channel analog inputs; plus a versatile array of Zone 2/3 multiroom options such as RS-232, IR, and three voltage triggers. Speaker connections include A/B switching, and you can reassign the surround-back channels for use as stereo speakers in another room.
Strangely, the owners' manual also refers to a 9.1-channel speaker system but fails to include a wiring diagram. In any case, the DA3100ES is and will always be a 7-channel receiver, so we can't fathom the 9.1 designation. You can still go ahead and hook up nine speakers, but the number of discrete channels remains the same: 7.
The receiver can upconvert composite and S-Video sources to component video, and composite signals to S-Video. There are even hue, color, and sharpness controls that apply to the component-video output, although we prefer to adjust these controls at the display rather than via the receiver. If you're lusting for HDMI audio/video switching and upconversion on a Sony, however, be prepared to pony up $2,000 for the STR-DA7100ES receiver, due out this summer. That model might also include a FireWire connection for use with equipped SACD players. Alas, the DA3100ES does not.
If the DA3100ES is a little out of your price range, check out Sony's STR-DA2100ES ($800) 110-watt, 7.1-channel receiver. Aside from the smaller amplifier, it has only one remote, has provisions for only two zones instead of three, and has just one 12-volt trigger instead of three. The Sony STR-DA3100ES's sound took flight as soon as we revved up the Aviator DVD. Oh, boy--the sonic grandeur of swooping and soaring airplanes blew us away, but it was the intricately layered scene where Howard Hughes crashes his plane in Beverly Hills that proved the DA3100ES's true mettle. Just before the plane finally crashes, its landing gear tears up the tiled roofs of several houses, and the ensuing fires and explosions were brilliantly reproduced. The sound of the approaching fire engines from way off in the distance was also perfectly portrayed. In short, the mega Sony is a home-theater ace.
We put the DA3100ES's sonic resolution to the test with the Three Guitars multichannel SACD from Larry Coryell, Badi Assad, and John Abercrombie. This SACD was recorded live in a church, so not only did the guitars sound realistic, we could hear the subtle details of their tones filling the church's acoustic space. Duke Ellington's Piano in the Foreground CD forgoes the big-band arrangements for a more intimate setting. When the Duke jabs the piano's keys to create a percussive effect, the DA3100ES reveals even his most subtle dynamic shadings. That incisive display makes the music feel live, and it's exactly the sort of nuance that lesser receivers gloss over.
Even the full force of the Queens of the Stone Age's aptly titled new CD, Lullabies to Paralyze, didn't faze the DA3100ES. We cranked the hell out of the Queens' melodic thrash, killer guitar riffs, and feedback walls, but the Sony kept rockin'. You can't count on every 120-watt receiver to play this loudly, but this Sony's power was never in doubt.