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.