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.
The STR-DA5200ES is also well-equipped for multiroom functionality. It supports two additional zones for playing music, with each zone capable of having its own source. For instance, the CD player and satellite radio can be played in separate zones while a DVD is simultaneously watched in the main room. Zone 2 is capable of driving a separate set of speakers or outputting a line-level signal, while Zone 3 requires a separate amplifier as it sends only a line-level signal.
The rest of the functionality of the STR-DA5200ES is rounded out by an XM port, which requires only a Connect-and-Play antenna to get XM reception, assuming you have a subscription for the service. On the front, there's a USB audio port that plays digital audio straight off a USB mass storage device (many MP3 players and most USB thumbdrives). There's also an RS-232 port, which can be used in some home automation systems. The STR-DA5200ES also includes a nifty picture-in-picture mode, but it's somewhat limited, since you can't have an HD source in the smaller window.
What's missing? Not much, but most A/V receivers in this price range do offer some kind of integrated iPod dock solution. We've also seen wireless USB connectivity from JVC--which we really like--and access to Internet radio stations from Denon and Yamaha. There's also the flagship receiver from Pioneer, the VSX-84TXSi, which offers four HDMI inputs--but of course, it doesn't have the Sony's slick GUI. In the end, the STR-DA5200ES doesn't have every single feature on the market, but neither does anyone else. We think the Sony STR-DA5200ES will satisfy virtually everyone's A/V needs.
Tons of features and a revolutionary menu design are great, but it would all be a big waste if the Sony STR-DA5200ES sounded terrible. Not to worry--the STR-DA5200ES sounds downright muscular, with the warmth and the refined treble we associate with the very best receivers. We revved up the animated Cars DVD and listened at higher than normal volume (for us). The receiver was definitely firing on all cylinders as the displays of rip roaring horsepower, the visceral dynamic punch was outstanding. Even older movies, such as The Godfather, Part II sounded great. The early scene in which Vito Corleone, as a little boy, enters the United States at the Ellis Island was a good example of that; we felt as if we were in the vast space, surrounded by hundreds of people. The STR-DA5200ES's resolution of the acoustic details of that scene was perfect.
Beck's Sea Change SACD sounded spectacular, and we couldn't help but notice that the string orchestrations had the sort of lush sheen we rarely experience from A/V receivers. The holographic surround mix appeared from behind the actual locations of the speakers. Our only criticism was with the bass; it was powerful all right, but hardly the last word in taut definition.
We hit the Sony with a full frontal Aerosmith attack, reveling in the band's new Devil's Got a New Disguise greatest hits CD. The ability to play this sort of music really loud had its own rewards, particularly after we hooked up a big set of tower speakers. They loved the Sony's powerful sound, and even after listening for an hour of high-volume rock and roll, we had not a hint of ear fatigue. The STR-DA5200ES likes to party.
Next, we moved on to its video-upconversion performance, which we felt was particularly important because the STR-DA5200ES puts such a focus on its video capabilities. We started out using Silicon Optix's HQV test suite, connecting our reference Denon DVD-3910 DVD player to the S-Video DVD input on the STR-DA5200ES, then connecting the HDMI output to the Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 plasma monitor. The STR-DA5200ES performed very admirably on the HQV test suite in all resolutions (480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p), although we felt that 1080p looked the sharpest, and that 480p did significantly worse on most tests. In 1080p mode, the resolution test looked mostly sharp, although we did notice that horizontal resolution was a bit soft, as thin lines were not as distinct as they should have been. The STR-DA5200ES handled tests such as a rotating line and three shifting lines admirably, performing almost as well as some of the best upscaling DVD players we've tested. The biggest issue we found on the HQV disc was on a 2:3 pull-down processing test, which involves a race car passing by some bleachers. The STR-DA5200ES failed this test in every resolution, with it never locking into film mode, resulting in moire in the bleachers.
This poor 2:3 pull-down processing seems to be a very significant weakness in the STR-DA5200ES's upconversion. We put in Star Trek: Insurrection, the opening credits scene of which is a torture test for 2:3 pull-down, and the performance was poor in every resolution. When the camera pans over some houses in a village, the roofs are filled with jaggies and look as if they are flashing. In 1080i and 720p mode, this flashing behavior continues into the next scenes showing a garden; in 1080p mode, we thought this was minimized somewhat. 480p mode easily looks the worst, and we felt was unacceptable. We switched to a more modern movie, Seabiscuit, to see if it would perform better. For the most part, it didn't. During the black-and-white photos in the intro scene, diagonal lines on the vintage cars are filled with jaggies again--in several scenes the effect is very distracting. We thought the upconversion would perform better using the component-video output, but it was virtually identical. We switched to watching the same scene connecting the Denon DVD-3910 directly to the Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1, and the video performance was greatly improved, with very few jaggies, making the viewing experience much more enjoyable.
Video performance, however, was much better when the STR-DA5200ES was fed a progressive or high-definition source. Watching the opening of Seabiscuit again in 480p, 720p, and 1080i modes over component video from our Toshiba HD-A1--which the Sony then upconverted to a 1080p HDMI signal--yielded much better results. While it didn't perform quite as well as the Denon DVD-3910, the result was much more watchable with only occasional annoying artifacts.
In the end, the video performance of the Sony STR-DA5200ES will depend primarily on how you depend to use it. If you're planning on using it upconvert several standard-def sources, you may be disappointed with the video performance. However, if you plan to mostly just use the high-definition inputs--component video and HDMI--with high-definition sources, you'll probably have no problem. We're hoping the next version of this receiver irons out some of the video-processing issues so that it handles standard definition content with a little more finesse.