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Sony STRDA5500ES review: Sony STRDA5500ES

The Sony STRDA5500ES is a very good 7.1 receiver featuring internet radio and is best suited to people who have a large collection of vinyl or CDs.

Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Ty Pendlebury
6 min read

Design

Sony has been rocking the "scalloped" look on its receivers for several years and in fact if it wasn't for the model number you would think this was the company's last flagship receiver, the DA5400. The receiver only comes in black, and still features the same complement of knobs across the front and the bright, readable display.

8.3

Sony STRDA5500ES

The Good

Best receiver for stereo music. Internet radio. Six-in/Two-out HDMI inputs. Excellent video processing.

The Bad

Surround sound not as strong. DLNA streaming is very limited. Pricey.

The Bottom Line

The Sony STRDA5500ES is a very good 7.1 receiver featuring internet radio and is best suited to people who have a large collection of vinyl or CDs.

Peaking through the top grille we could see that the HDMI video board has been changed — possibly to integrate the new Ethernet port — and the circuit boards are now supported by steel reinforcement

The product comes with two remotes — a learning model for the main room, and a smaller remote for use in a powered zone elsewhere in the house. The main remote is functional though nothing exciting.

Features

At its most basic level, the DA5500 is a 7.1 receiver that is capable of outputting 120W per channel and supports all of the latest surround sound codecs (bar Dolby Pro Logic IIz). Though the design may appear the same, there have been quite a few tweaks to the receiver from last year, and an AU$500 increase in price. The most obvious is the inclusion of an Ethernet port, which now enables media streaming from a network via a new input called "Server" and internet radio. While competitors offer a shopping list of compatible formats, the Sony is quite modest with just MPEG-2 and WMV for video, MP3, WMA and AAC for audio, and JPEG, BMP and PNG for images. To further limit the desirability of streaming, the Sony will only support files at a maximum resolution of 480i. However, with the additional connectivity offered, the receiver is also now able to download firmware updates from the web.

A little more esoteric is the addition of something called the "On-Screen Remote", which is as it sounds — a remote control that appears in the corner of the screen that is navigable via the direction keys on your remote. However, it seems a little redundant and it takes up valuable screen real estate. But, it looks cool!

Picture processing is catered for by the Faroudja DCDi Cinema Chipset which also provides upscaling to 1080p, and this is output through one of two HDMI ports — which can be used for a projector and a TV, for example. Getting stuff into the receiver is catered for with a total of six HDMI inputs, including a front-mounted port — something missing on the previous model. However, it's positioned awkwardly directly below the volume control, which means that if you have something plugged into it you can't operate the dial without cinching at the top like you're fidgeting with the brim of your hat.

Other connectivity is rather standard, but we will note that it now includes only a single Digital Media port whereas the predecessor included two — it's not a big deal, but it could be a problem if you've already paid for two external Sony docks and now have to manually toggle between them. Anyone? *crickets* *a dog coughs*

The receiver includes a new sound mode called HD-D.C.S (HD-Digital Cinema Sound), which promises to "realise precisely how sound intended to be". We didn't pay it much mind and preferred to use the direct mode wherever possible.

Set-up

After plugging all of our sources into the DA5500 and connecting our speakers we reached for the calibration microphone and completed the automated set-up routine.

We found that the calibration worked a lot better than the DA5400 and correctly identified all of the speakers as "Large", meaning less processing needs to be done by the amp and subwoofer which can sound unnatural. However, it still wasn't perfect, it made all of the front speakers equal volumes, but pumped the levels on the sub. As a result, music and soundtracks such as the lobby scene from The Matrix sounded overly bloated.

With this receiver there's no substitute for a decibel meter, and as they're relatively cheap we'd recommend keeping one handy when setting up any home theatre system. After a bit of manual tweaking we found the sound was a lot more focused and balanced, but we were disappointed to see that you cannot set the rear speakers to lower than 1m in distance from listening position. Most rears are much closer to you than this.

A couple of further niggles raised their heads while setting the Sony up, firstly: Dynamic Range Compression was turned on Auto by default. This means that the amp will decide on the fly whether to compress your material or not. While some recent music is already as flat as a pancake we didn't like this so we turned it off.

Secondly, the amp set itself to 480i after choosing direct mode, and our TV didn't like that. It was unable to change back and said that it "Can't change within Gui", but we found you could turn the GUI off and change the output resolution on the front screen of the amp.

Performance

With the amp set to go, we went about playing all matter of movies, TV and music at it. Despite the issues we'd have with set-up we found that it was pretty damned good, though perhaps not as fine as its predecessor the DA5400.

With the networking features the latest shiny toy in the playpen we decided to try that first. The new Server input presents you with a couple of auto connect menus, and pretty soon after we were browsing the contents of our NAS. While Sony gives you the option of browsing all your folders you still have to pick whether you want Music or Video before you can browse the available servers. It can be a little tedious watching the "wait" icon spin when you decide to go back two menus for a different type of media. While pictures have thumbnails for the current icon, movies and other video files don't. We found that the Oppo BDP-83 and the PS3 were much easier and quicker to navigate. When we did find a compatible file it worked OK, but the unit's lack of HD playback is a problem considering the AU$500 premium on the previous model.

Switching to internet radio was a happier experience, and the Shoutcast server offers an exhaustive selection of different genres, though the stations are seemingly higgledy piggledy and not in alphabetical order. We switched to "Distortion Radio" from the Emo genre and were fed a good quality stream of people crying about their haircuts and junk. No matter which station takes your fancy, the 30 preset slots should suit most people.

Receivers are often criticised for their inability to play music and we'll just say: not this beast. Like its forebear, the DA5500 is a killer stereo amp with a holographic stereo image and good attack. The on-board Digital-to-Analog (DAC) converter is very good, but the system works best when it is fed a stereo mix, such as through the excellent DacMagic. The central image is fixed in place no matter how far you move to the sides of the soundfield, which means there is an incredibly broad "sweetspot".

When fed a DVD-A of Beck's Sea Change, the on-board DAC did a better good job of both the stereo and surround sound mixes imbuing them with force and presence and an incredibly wide soundstage on Golden Age. It's cliched, but we did actually check we hadn't activated surround during the stereo mix several times.

We experimented with a couple of the sound modes available through the machine's Digital Sound Processor, and found that while Full Flat EQ mode brought out vocals and helped with stereo positioning it was at the expense of warmth.

The amp was quite muscular in its portrayal of movie soundtracks with a big beefy sound and sparklingly clear dialogue. The only seeming negative was that front-to-back panning effects seem to duck off for a quick fag between the front and rear speakers — even after manual calibration. But as this effect is only incidental in most films it's not a huge issue. Nevertheless, the sound was pants-wettingly good, and explosions trouser-flappingly thrilling.

While most areas of the receiver is as good as, and maybe a little worse than, the DA5400 the one area where the DA5500 shows its mettle is in the video processing. It's much improved and while upscaling an SD source on last year's model can result in some slight ghosting effects on occasion, the DA5500 exhibits razor sharp edges and fine detail.