Everything about A/V receivers seems to be changing. HDMI and video upconversion, as well as a virtually endless list of additional features have changed receivers from being essentially an amplifier to being the true brain of a separates-based home theater system. But up until the Sony STR-DA5200ES, even the most technologically advanced receivers had a feature that seemed inexcusably backward: ugly white, block lettering text for onscreen menus. The STR-DA5200ES is the first receiver we've seen with a completely graphical user interface (GUI), using slick graphics and icons to handle menus, input selection, and setup. The benefit is more than just aesthetic--for the most part, the GUI (based on the onscreen menu found on the Sony PSP and PlayStation 3) is much more user-friendly, so that almost everyone should be able to navigate to what they want to use, whether that be a DVD player, a game console--or just to watch regular TV.
Innovative menu system aside, the STR-DA5200ES is packed with features such as three HDMI inputs, extremely flexible video upconversion, and tons of digital audio inputs. We still had some nitpicks: the menu system has a few annoying limitations, and the remote makes it slightly harder to navigate that slick menu system than it should be. And perhaps the biggest knock against this receiver is that it does a poor job upconverting standard-definition sources for high-definition displays. Considering the price of the receiver, it might make sense to wait until these issues are sorted out next year to make the investment. That being said, our gripes are mostly overshadowed by the groundbreaking menu design, the extensive feature package, and the excellent sound. Even at its relatively high $1,500 list price, the Sony STR-DA5200ES is an outstanding and highly recommendable receiver.
In terms of physical style, the Sony STR-DG5200ES isn't a radical departure from any other A/V receivers you've seen--its black front panel has a section that is angled back to make it stand out a little, but that's it. Besides a smattering of small control buttons on the receiver's front face, you'll find knobs for volume, input selection, and tuning AM/FM radio. The LCD readout is centered on the top of the front panel, but we felt that it may be a little small to see from across a living room. Home theater purists will be relieved to know that the display can be dimmed and even turned off completely.
Sony's real style pizzazz is saved for the GUI. As we mentioned before, no matter how high-tech other receivers get, they're usually stuck with some ugly, white text menus that look to be straight out of the VCR era. The STR-DG5200ES, however, is the first receiver we've seen with slick, icon-based graphical menus. Press the Menu button and up pops the GUI, which gamers will recognize as a near clone of the Cross Media Bar ("XMB") nav bar found on the PSP and PS3 interfaces. The first option is Input, which allows you to select an input visually--by name and icon--and you can also tweak which video and audio sources are assigned to each input. You can even change the icon next to the inputs, so it matches the source you have connected. For the most part, this setup works well and should make it easier for even technophobes to watch what they want. For example, instead of having to remember that Video 2 is the input for your DVD player, you can simply select DVD Player in the menu instead. After Input, the following options are Music--which is used solely for attached USB devices--as well as AM, FM, XM, and Settings. The radio options are self-explanatory, and having the settings menu in graphical form definitely takes some of the anxiety out of A/V receiver setup.
There are a couple of hitches with the GUI that were somewhat disappointing, given that most of it is so well done. The biggest annoyance is that it is impossible to rename any of the three HDMI sources. This means that you have to select HDMI 2 from the graphical menu instead of something easier, such as HD DVR. And while it almost seems as if you can work around the problem by assigning HDMI video sources to other inputs, the STR-DG5200ES inexplicably does not let you assign HDMI audio in the menu. You can still work around this using digital audio cables, but it requires you to sacrifice the one-cable luxury that HDMI connectivity was supposed to deliver. The other slight annoyance we noticed is that the GUI cannot be superimposed over HDMI video sources; instead, the video goes to black, then the menu pops up. Considering that some HDMI receivers can't display menus via HDMI at all, we didn't think it was a big deal.
There's also an argument that the GUI makes it a little more tiresome to use the receiver. For example, having to cycle through the menus to get to certain functions requires a lot of button presses--for one, changing the output resolution using the GUI takes about 15 presses. However, since these buttons presses are just for moving the directional arrows, we found it easy to zip through the menus with little annoyance. Anyone that is comfortable with a directional pad for video games or with flying through the menus on a DVR will probably have no problem with this setup. Not only that, but if you prefer using a remote's buttons rather than using a directional pad, many functions are also available directly on the remote. Changing resolutions, for example, can be accomplished with only a couple of buttons presses via this method.
Although we love the interface for the most part, our enthusiasm is curtailed somewhat by the lousy remote. While it doesn't have the look of a poorly-designed remote, we started experiencing hiccups as soon as we started toying with it. The most troublesome behavior is how the remote mixes receiver and device control. For example, if you switch to the TV input, then a little later you want to switch to the DVD input using the graphical user interface, pressing the Menu button will have no effect. The problem is that when you initially hit the TV input button, the remote then interprets all future Menu commands as commands for the TV. This results in having to hit the Receiver button before you bring up the GUI, an annoying situation. Even after we figured it out, we kept intuitively hitting Menu to try and bring up the GUI--we'd really prefer if there was a dedicated button for summoning it. Luckily, this issue can be completely avoided by picking up a good universal remote. Beyond the design issues, the remote is pretty functional, as it can program multistep macro commands, and it can also learn the IR codes from other remotes. Sony also includes a second basic remote for multiroom functionality, although you need to buy a remote extender to make it truly effective.
The STR-DA5200ES uses its GUI to provide visuals to help simplify the speaker setup process. The onscreen display presents the user with a field of icons, such as a toolbox for setup, then you use the remote's cursors to navigate to the desired result. If you perform the manual speaker setup, the GUI displays the speaker's size, its distance from the prime listening position, and so forth. It's kind of cool the way the images slide into place, but sometimes the logic of Sony's menu navigation was tricky to master. Sony also includes the DCAC (Digital Cinema Auto Calibration) system, which determines your speakers' sizes and their distance from the listening position, then balances all the speakers' volume levels. To perform the autosetup, simply plug in the supplied stereo microphone--every other receiver we've tested has come with a mono microphone--bring up the onscreen display, then let it run its course.
The Sony STR-DA5200ES is a 7.1 A/V receiver, which, according to Sony, offers 120 watts to each channel. It comes with the standard array of surround sound processing options, such as Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, and Dolby Pro Logic IIx. The receiver can also accept uncompressed multichannel linear PCM audio via HDMI from HD-DVD and Blu-ray players, including the PlayStation 3.
The STR-DA5200ES is packed with connectivity options rivaling other uber-receivers, such as the Denon AVR-4306 and the Pioneer VSX-84TXSi. Most important are its three HDMI inputs and one output, which makes enough digital video connections to handle an HD cable/satellite box, an HD-DVD player and a PlayStation 3. There also are three component-video inputs and a component-video output, so just about everybody should be set for all their HD video needs. For standard-def, you're covered on the rear panel with four A/V inputs with S-Video and also two A/V recording outputs. There's also an additional A/V input on the front, replete with S-Video and an optical digital audio input.
Enhancing the functionality of these video inputs is the STR-DA5200ES's ability to upconvert analog video sources. All analog video sources--composite, S-Video and component--can be upconverted to the HDMI output in 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolutions. Although the menu has an option for 480i, our displays indicated it was in fact sending a 480p signal instead. It also has excellent support for 1080p video sources, passing 1080p signals via both component and HDMI connections.
On the audio front, the rear panel offers up a total of seven digital audio inputs--four optical and three coaxial--as well an optical output. There are also three standard analog audio inputs--two with outputs for recording--and a dedicated phono input, which means you don't need an additional preamp to use your turntable. The STR-DA5200ES is equipped with an analog multichannel audio input that can be used for DVD-Audio and SACD, as well as for high-resolution video formats; many HD-DVD and Blu-ray players can decode and output their higher-resolution Dolby and DTS formats via 5.1 or 7.1 analog outputs (as an alternative to HDMI). Audiophiles will also appreciate the pre-outs, which open the possibility of connecting a separate amplifier.