Editors' note: While we experienced some HDMI syncing issues with our original preproduction review sample, repeating the same tests with the shipping unit did not exhibit the same issues in our setup. It's worth noting, however, that HDMI performance can vary, so we cannot speak to compatibility in all systems.
Last year we were wowed by the Sony STR-DA5200ES because it was the first AV receiver we'd seen with a true menu-driven, graphical user interface (GUI). Most receivers still rely on archaic-looking onscreen displays with blocky white text--in combination with cryptic feedback from the front-panel readout--to accomplish speaker setup, upconversion settings, input naming, and the myriad other tasks required by a multitalented AV hub. We found that Sony's GUI was more than just eye candy, it really made the receiver easier to use on a daily basis. Other manufacturers have taken note--some of Denon's new 2007 receivers will feature a GUI as well.
While the STR-DA5200ES was groundbreaking for its interface, its successor, the STR-DA5300ES, is almost as impressive for its incredible feature set. It packs a walloping six HDMI inputs, which is more than we've seen on any other receiver in this price range, and it comes with onboard decoding for the latest high-resolution soundtracks, namely Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD Master Audio (although you can't use that decoding yet). Sony has also made a good thing even better by refining the graphical user interface so that each HDMI input can be renamed. And our complaints about the previous model's lackluster video performance have been almost entirely addressed: the STR-DA5300ES delivers very good video quality with the ability to upscale all analog sources to 1080p. The $1,700 list price on the STR-DA5300ES is steep, but it's well within reason considering how it stacks up to the competition.
As far as AV receivers go, the STR-DA5300ES has a pretty average look, with its all-black design, display in the center, and a couple of knobs and buttons scattered across the front panel. To the far right, on the bottom half, is the volume knob; on the far left toward the bottom is an additional AV input with S-Video and an optical digital-audio input. The display is a little on the small side, so sometimes we had trouble making it out from our seating distance of about seven feet.
The most enticing aspect of the GUI is that it makes using the receiver a lot easier, because it allows you to interact with an onscreen menu instead of a cluttered remote and a tiny front-panel display. To select a source, for example, you can just hit "Menu" and then select "DVR" or any other name from the device list. Without the GUI and the ability to rename inputs, you can be stuck having to cycle through all of the inputs while watching the front panel readout and trying to remember which device is connected to the "Video 2" input, for example. One nitpick we did have is that the list of inputs is pretty lengthy--we'd love the ability to hide unused inputs so we could just pick from our connected devices.
In addition to the Input menu, there are several other options: Music--which is used solely for attached DM port (Sony's proprietary connection) devices--as well as AM, FM, XM, Sirius, and Settings. The radio options are self-explanatory, and having the Settings menu in graphical form definitely takes some of the anxiety out of AV receiver setup.
The STR-DA5300ES also comes with a second, simpler remote, which takes some of the sting out of our criticisms of the main remote. The smaller remote lacks much of the functionality of the main remote--for example, you can't access any of the inputs directly--but it's a good option for those that want to navigate solely using the GUI on the receiver, then pick up the original remote for the device you've selected.
Key features at a glance:
|Connectivity||Audio soundtrack capabilities|
|HDMI inputs||6||Passes Dolby Digital and DTS via HDMI||Yes|
|Component video inputs||3||Passes LPCM via HDMI||Yes|
|AV inputs w/S-Video||5 (4 rear, 1 front)||Decodes Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master||Yes|
|Optical inputs||6 (5 rear, 1 front)||Video capabilities|
|Coaxial inputs||3||HDMI version||1.3|
|Selectable HD sources||9||1080p via HDMI||Yes|
|Satellite radio||XM and Sirius ready||1080p via component||Yes|
|Network audio||No||Upconverts analog sources||Yes|
|Phono input||Yes||Deinterlaces 480i via HDMI||Yes|
|Analog multichannel inputs||Yes||Selectable output resolution||Yes|
The STR-DA5300ES is a 7.1-channel receiver, which Sony rates at 120 watts per channel. Like essentially every other receiver available, it offers a full selection of Dolby and DTS surround processing modes. In addition, the STR-DA5300ES also offers decoding for the new high-resolution formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
On the audio side, there are nine total digital-audio inputs (six optical, three coaxial) and one optical output, which should cover even the most elaborate home theaters. There are also four standard stereo analog jacks, including two recording loops, and a phono jack for those still spinning vinyl. Rounding out the analog audio connectivity is a 7.1 multichannel input. There's also both XM and Sirius connectivity, so you only need to connect an XM Mini-Tuner or Sirius Connect unit to get reception (with a subscription).
The STR-DA5300ES is also equipped with Sony's Digital Media (DM) Port, a proprietary connection that allows you to connect one of (currently) four Sony accessories, which range in price from $80 to $200: the TDM-NC1 (a Wi-Fi music streamer), the TDM-BT1 (a Bluetooth adapter), the TDM-NW1 (a dock for certain Sony Walkman MP3 models), and the TDM-IP1 (an iPod dock). The two we auditioned previously will work well enough with the STR-DA5300ES, but nonproprietary alternatives will function just as well and be able to connect to other, non-Sony devices. While nonproprietary alternatives do take up an extra input, that's nothing to worry about on this receiver.
While we criticize some receivers for not including enough input labels to take full advantage of their connectivity, we can level no such complaint against the STR-DA5300ES. To start off, there are six independent labels for each HDMI input, and you can rename them however you'd like within the eight-character limit. For component video, there are three labels you can use--Video 1, BD/DVD, and SAT/CATV--and again, each of these can be renamed to your choice (yes, you can even rename BD/DVD to HD DVD on a Sony receiver). That means, between HDMI and component video, it's possible to connect nine HD sources to the STR-DA5300ES at a time--very impressive. If you manage to use up all those labels, there are still two additional standard-def-only video labels--Video 2 and Video 3--that can be used and renamed. It's also possible to use any of the component video labels for standard def sources, by using the simple input-assigning menu.
The STR-DA5300ES's video-upconverting capabilities are another strong point. All analog signals can be upconverted to the HDMI output, and you can select precisely which output resolution you want: 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. Even 1080p signals input via component video can be output via HDMI without a problem. The extensive upconversion capabilities are a nice convenience, because they allow you to keep your TV tuned to one input while you change sources. Without video conversion, you need to change the inputs on the receiver and the TV each time you move from HDMI to analog sources and back again. Note that the STR-DA5300ES cannot scale HDMI sources; HDMI video signals are output at the same resolution at which they come in to the receiver.
Yet another strength of the DA5300ES is its multiroom flexibility. It supports both second and third zones. Zone 2 is supported by powered speaker terminals plus a component video output--which means you can run a high-def source in a second zone. Zone 3 is limited to just standard stereo RCA-jack outputs, so you'll need a separate amp to make that work.
In many ways, the STR-DA5300ES is beyond compare in its price range. For less than $2,000, we're not aware of any receiver that has five HDMI inputs, let alone six. The STR-DA5300ES's graphical user interface has been nicely refined over its predecessor's, and we're interested to see how Denon's new GUI-capable receivers stack up. Of course, if you're enamored by six HDMI inputs, but don't want to spend so much on a receiver, you'd be wise to check out an HDMI switcher. For example, budget-conscious buyers can pick up the excellent Onkyo TX-SR605 and pair it up with a 5x1 Monoprice HDMI switcher for a total $460 street price at the time of this review, and it will deliver six HDMI ports, video upconversion (although not as good), and Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding.
The STR-DA5300ES is certainly feature-filled, but the real test for any AV receiver is how it sounds. We're pleased to say the DA5300ES does not disappoint, offering up the kind of stellar sonics you'd expect for a receiver in this price range. The STR-DA5300ES was up to the task when we had a listen to Queens of the Stone Age's latest, Era Vulgaris. While not as heavy as the earliest albums, the Queens still manage to pack quite a punch on this album, and the DA5300ES didn't flinch while delivering frontman Josh Homme's new riff-heavy tunes. The STR-DA5300ES was also up to the task for more subtle discs like Duke Ellington's Money Jungle, doing an excellent job of delivering the fine details such as the tone of Charles Mingus' acoustic bass.
The STR-DA5300ES was also up to the task with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest on Blu-ray, which delivers a lush soundtrack in uncompressed 5.1 PCM. The STR-DA5300ES deftly delivered all the detail on Dead Man's Chest, which certainly doesn't go light in terms of sonic impact. The sequences on the ship do a great job of letting you hear every creak of the boards and crash of the ocean. Even when we cranked up the volume, we didn't notice any strain or harshness. The DA5300ES won't disappoint movie buffs.
We knocked the 5200 pretty hard for its video-processing issues, and we're happy to report that Sony has addressed them with the 5300ES. We used Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD for the first part of our test, and the 5300ES handled itself very well. The initial resolution test looked sharp, proving that the 5300ES properly scales and delivers the full resolution of DVDs. The next two tests were handled adeptly as well, with almost no jaggies on a spinning white line or three shifting line. It even passed the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, as there was no moire in the grandstands as the car drove by.
We switched over to actual program material, and the 5300ES continued to impress. It had no trouble with the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, demonstrating that it does have 2:3 pull-down processing as it smoothly rendered the hulls of the boats and the curved edges of the railings on the bridge. It even did a solid job with the difficult intro on Seabiscuit. To Sony's credit, the company addressed our major video quality concerns on the 5200ES, making the 5300ES completely recommendable from a video quality perspective.