Technology

Sony's STR-DA5200ES: A Sound Sensation


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Editor's Rating: star rating

For movies, Internet radio, and even albums, videophiles and audiophiles alike will love this accommodating, high-def-ready receiver

One of the casualties of the flat-panel TV craze of recent years has been home audio systems. Sales have slumped as consumers used discretionary dollars on giant screens, not stereo receivers.

Now, as flat-panel prices fall, home audio sales are on the rebound. People are taking perceived TV savings and investing in better sound systems, not just for playing music but also for enhancing those home theaters that are beginning to include next-generation DVD players, game consoles, and other high-end gear.

Sony's (SNE) STR-DA5200ES is aimed squarely at that group. Stylishly designed, the $1,500 receiver has an equally stylish user interface for controlling the plethora of features. The STR-DA5200ES is the first piece of stereo equipment to sport a graphical, on-screen system that uses icons to zip through setup, menus, and input selections. It's very similar to the Cross Media Bar that Sony is implementing in many electronics, including the PlayStation 3.

A Look Under the Hood

Simply put, the STR-DA5200ES is an outstanding receiver. Despite a somewhat daunting number of inputs, the 7.1-channel system, delivering 120 watts to each channel, was very easy to set up. It creates impressive sound, particularly with high-definition movies, and uses video up-conversion to improve picture quality to at least 480p enhanced definition and as high as 1080p, the best source available today. The device comes with the typical array of surround-sound processing options, such as Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, and Dolby Pro Logic IIx.

Outwardly, the Sony unit doesn't look that different from other receivers. It's black, with small control buttons on the front, a few knobs for volume, input selection, and radio tuning. Behind a small panel on the left, there's an input for regular video and digital audio, as well as a headphone jack.

Sony borrows a page from Bose and includes a digital cinema auto calibration system, which determines your speakers' sizes and distance from the listening position, then balances speakers' volume levels accordingly.

Entertainment Zones

The rear of the unit has more inputs than most people would ever need, including three high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) pass-throughs for uncompressed video and audio content, three digital audio inputs, and multiple composite and component settings. There's even an input for folks who still keep a turntable to play their old Beatles records.

The receiver also includes nifty "zone" settings for two other rooms. Imagine piping in sound from HBO's Rome series through the main speakers in one room while the kids crank up a CD or XM Satellite Radio (XMSR) in another room. The third zone does, however, require a separate amplifier, which of course, the Sony unit has inputs to handle.

The liquid-crystal display panel on the top of the front panel is a bit too small to read from a distance, but Sony makes up for it with the best graphical user interface (GUI) I've come across. Basically, once connected to the TV, the receiver is controlled via an on-screen display. The less technically inclined should love the simplicity of such a setup. Once you turn on the GUI, all you have to do is press the menu button to see it on your display. And for those who prefer not to use the GUI, the accompanying remote lets you make the same adjustments.

Highly Accommodating

For most inputs, you can assign a name or icon—say, DVD. The one glaring omission is for the HDMI inputs, which do not let you assign a name. Given that the receiver is created specifically for high-definition sources, this is a surprising oversight. After dealing with inputs, you play music from attached USB digital audio devices, and tune AM and FM presets.

In terms of performance, the Sony receiver rarely misses the mark. Video, a big feature of the relatively expensive box, passes through quite well. One of the big problems many HDTV owners are just now beginning to experience is the lack of HDMI inputs on sets. If you own a satellite or cable receiver with HDMI, and then purchase an HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc player and a PlayStation 3, you'll find that only in the last year do sets have three inputs to accommodate them. And separate HDMI switchers from privately held peripheral maker Gefen cost $200 to $400.

The STR-DA5200ES's built-in HDMI switcher, with a Faroujda processor for upscaling, did an able job handling multiple sources when I hooked it up to 1080p sets such as Sharp's Aquos LC-52D62U and Samsung's 46-in. LN-S4696. There were no noticeable artifacts watching Black Hawk Down and other action movies on a Blu-ray player, though the "jaggies," as they are called, were more apparent in lower resolutions.

As Good as Live

That could be attributed to the signal moving through three different 1080p sources. Indeed, video looked the worst in 480p mode. With more TV programming becoming available in at least 720p nowadays, though, most people won't notice.

While videophiles are likely to love this receiver, audiophiles won't be disappointed, either. I play much of my PC-downloaded music and Internet radio through a wireless Sonos system. But Sony's sound demonstrates the continued value of owning such a system (and good speakers to match). Classical and jazz music sounds simply sublime, while the surround sound that accompanies movies can make you feel you're in the heart of a war or at the races with Seabiscuit. Vocals are clear and distinguishable from other background noise.

Sony uses digital amplification technology to achieve this, meaning digital signal from a source remains in the digital realm longer and provides a purer audio signal. With all seven channels firing, you won't be disappointed. As I mentioned earlier, this Sony receiver is quite a bit more expensive than most others on the market. But for the discerning person looking for very good sound and video, and one box to manage all sources, it's worth every penny.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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