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 AU$2,499 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 pizzaz 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, 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Tonnes 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 behaviour 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.