The Sony STR-DA3200ES is a 7.1-channel surround receiver which boasts a significant amount of features for a reasonable price. Like most of Sony's recent receivers it's a digital amplifier which makes it more economical to run and, theoretically at least, can take up less space on your equipment rack. But here, it's a full-sized box but with enough inputs and outputs to satisfy most home theatre lovers.
The STR-DA3200ES sports the scalloped-front design Sony components have used for the last few years, and comes with most of the buttons and knobs you'll need on the front panel. For the neat freaks, there is also a removable flap to disguise the front AV inputs.
Unlike many other manufacturers who've opted for one colour or the other, Sony still offers the choice of a black or silver finish with this receiver. This is especially convenient to users who have existing components in one particular colour and want to maintain a consistent "look". We've always been partial to black components ourselves, but the silver option we saw did look quite fetching. The rear of the receiver is sensibly laid out, and we appreciate the rubber caps on the RCA sockets. These help prevent unused sockets oxidizing over time and, we suppose, children from attempting to plug foreign objects into them.
What wasn't entirely appreciated, though, was the layout of the speaker terminals -- they are labelled so that it's impossible to tell what they are unless your head is underneath them, which is not always easy if the receiver's on a bottom shelf. They are also mounted vertically which means all the wires bunch together. When the sockets are laid out horizontally, across the bottom of the receiver perhaps, it is much easier to connect and remove speaker cables.
A trend we've seen emerging is manufacturers to include Phono inputs on their mid-level receivers. Vinyl records have been enjoying a renaissance for the past few years, and even brands like Marantz have begun selling turntables again. Having a Phono amp onboard is not only more convenient, but saves you the AU$150 or so you'll need to buy an external one.
Like many new receivers, the STR-DA3200ES includes HDMI switching (2 in/1 out) and upconversion to HDMI from analog. We would have liked to see more inputs -- at least three -- as it would enable your system to grow over time. Sony have just announced a new range of budget amps with three HDMI inputs, but unfortunately little else in the way of connectors.
The receiver uses HDMI version 1.2a, which is good if you listen to SACDs (as it will transmit SACD information via the single cable), making it one of the most up to date receivers yet. There are models which use version 1.3 coming in the next few months, so if you're looking to invest in Blu-ray or HD DVD it may pay to hold off a little longer.
Like most other receivers, the Sony comes with a number of music modes such as Jazz, Live Hall, etc, and usually these are worth keeping your distance from. Additional reverb in our music? We say nay! But one of the modes is actually quite useful -- it's labelled "Portable Music", and with a Sony NW-HD5 Walkman connected it managed to bring out the vocals and add a little extra zing to the treble in some poorly encoded 128kb/s files. It didn't make them CD quality but it became more immediate.
Unlike many competitors, the STR-DA3200ES is a digital amplifier, which means it has a very different character to its analog competitors. Digital amps have a reputation for sounding "dry" and "clinical", and while that's true to some extent of this Sony, it's certainly not unpleasant. Using the onboard DACs to decode music, for example, gives further scale and menace to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Red Right Hand. It certainly makes our own Pioneer DV-655A DVD player, a mean music maker in its day, seem anaemic in comparison.
Stereo music is one thing, but most people who buy a receiver like this will be looking for some big-screen entertainment. And in this role we found it to be exceptionally capable. Though we had some problems with HDMI (see box at right), we found the system to be very easy to set-up and use -- thanks in part to a straightforward menu system.
The automatic calibration utility is one of the shortest we've ever used at 25 seconds. The first time we used it we were sure it was simply checking to see if the speakers were connected, but it seemed to do a decent job of equalizing the speakers in two different test set-ups. But it's certainly not as comprehensive as the one inside the Pioneer VSXAX2AS-S.
Helpfully, the receiver shows you the bitrate of the source it's decoding -- this is especially useful if you want to check at a glance whether you're listening to Dolby Digital or a higher DTS encoding, for example.
Once set-up, with a copy of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the player, the result was enthralling and enveloping. The sound of arrows flying around the soundstage during the siege at Helm's Deep were well handled, though we never thought we needed to duck, and the explosions were also dealt with effectively. The sound was never too in-your-face, and was subtly administered, so the autocalibration seems to have done its job well.