Twelve months ago, we were wowed by the Sony STR-DA5200ES because it was the first A/V 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 the myriad tasks required by a multi-talented A/V 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 as a result -- some of Denon's new receivers 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. 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 lacklustre 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 AU$2,999 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 centre, 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.
By renaming the inputs, you can choose easy phrases such as "Apple TV" instead of having to remember that it's connected to the "HDMI 2" input.
Like its predecessor, the STR-DA5300ES features a slick, icon-based graphical user interface. While certain Denon and Yamaha receivers feature a GUI, the vast majority of AV receivers with onscreen displays still use white, blocky text that looks dated in the high-def era. Press the Menu button and up pops the GUI, which gamers will recognize as similar to the Cross Media Bar ("XMB") navigation 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 change which video and audio sources are assigned to each input. You can also change the icon next to the inputs, so it matches the source you have connected, and rename the inputs themselves.
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 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 Sony Bravia's 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 devices attached to the DM port (iPod/Walkman dock) -- 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 AV receiver setup.
We were pretty harsh on the older 5200ES' remote, and, unfortunately, the 5300ES' remote is almost identical. All AV receiver remotes have a lot of buttons, and the 5300ES is no different. Our main gripe is that the DA5300ES mixes -- read confuses -- receiver control with device control. For example, if you press the HDMI 2 button, and then switch to another input using the GUI, hitting Menu will most likely result in nothing happening -- because the remote thinks you want to bring up the menu on the HDMI 2 device. Despite knowing how to avoid this mistake, we found ourselves inadvertently repeating the process quite a few times. We'd much rather see a dedicated button, just for the GUI menu itself, to eliminate some of this confusion. To be fair, however, we expect most people buying a receiver in this price range will have enough dough for a quality universal remote.
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 receiver's GUI.
The STR-DA5300ES comes with a stereo mic for automatic calibration of your speaker system. The calibration program is accessible through the GUI, and it's dead simple to run. Overall, the setup did a pretty good job of setting the levels on our speaker system, although we still went into the manual settings to make a few tweaks -- for example, it never asked for the size of the front speakers, which we set to small. On the upside, we did find it was faster than the Audyssey 2EQ setup system found on competing receivers, if a little less accurate.
The STR-DA5300ES is a 7.1-channel receiver, which Sony rates at 120 watts per channel. Like essentially every other receiver available, it offers a full selection of Dolby and DTS surround processing modes. In addition, the STR-DA5300ES also offers decoding for the new high-resolution formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
The benefit of having onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio is that compatible HD DVD and Blu-ray players (such as the Sony BDPS500B)can send these soundtracks to the receiver to be decoded, instead of the players needing onboard decoders themselves. Some existing players decode these formats internally, and then send the decoded signals to attached receivers via HDMI (as uncompressed linear PCM) or multichannel analog-audio connections.
The STR-DA5300ES has a truly impressive connectivity package. The highlight and true standout feature of this receiver is its six (!) HDMI inputs. These are rated at HDMI version 1.3 and support the expanded x.v.Color space specification. While this is a nice feature from a future-proofing perspective, it's not currently that useful, as there are currently no x.v.Color-compatible Blu-ray or HD DVD discs, let alone games or HDTV programming.
For analog high-def video, there are three component video inputs, plus two component video outputs (one for the main room, and one for a second zone). For standard-def sources, there are five AV inputs with S-Video (four in back, one in front), including one recording loop for a DVD recorder or VCR.
On the audio side, there are nine total digital-audio inputs (six optical, three coaxial) and one optical output, which should cover even the most elaborate home theatres. There are also four standard stereo analog jacks, including two recording loops, and even a phono jack for those still spinning vinyl. Rounding out the analog audio connectivity is a 7.1 multichannel input.
The STR-DA5300ES is also equipped with Sony's Digital Media (DM) Port, a proprietary connection that allows you to connect one of (currently) four Sony accessories, which range in price from AU$149 to AU$249: the TDM-BT1 (a Bluetooth adapter), the TDM-NW1 (a dock for certain Sony Walkman MP3 models), and the TDM-IP1 (an iPod dock). The two we auditioned previously will work well enough with the STR-DA5300ES, but competitor's docks function just as well and are able to connect to other receivers as well.
Between HDMI and component video, it's possible to connect nine HD sources to the STR-DA5300ES at a time -- very impressive. If you manage to use up all those labels, there are still two additional standard-def-only video labels--Video 2 and Video 3--that can be used and renamed. It's also possible to use any of the component video labels for standard def sources, by using the simple input-assigning menu.
The STR-DA5300ES's video-upconverting capabilities are a strong point. All analog signals can be upconverted to the HDMI output, and you can select up to 1080p. Note that the STR-DA5300ES cannot scale HDMI sources; HDMI video signals are output at the same resolution at which they come in to the receiver.
Yet another strength of the DA5300ES is its multiroom flexibility. It supports both second and third zones. Zone 2 is supported by powered speaker terminals plus a component video output -- which means you can run a high-def source in a second zone. Zone 3 is limited to just standard stereo RCA-jack outputs, so you'll need a separate amp to make that work.
In many ways, the STR-DA5300ES is beyond compare in its price range. For less than $3,000, we're not aware of any receiver that has five HDMI inputs, let alone six. Of course, if you're enamoured by six HDMI inputs, but don't want to spend so much on a receiver, you'd be wise to check out an HDMI switcher.
The STR-DA5300ES is certainly feature-filled, but the real test for any AV receiver is how it sounds. We're pleased to say the DA5300ES does not disappoint, offering up the kind of stellar sonics you'd expect for a receiver in this price range. The Sony didn't flinch while delivering frontman Josh Homme's riff-heavy tunes on Queens of the Stone Age's latest, Era Vulgaris. It was also up to the task for more subtle discs like Duke Ellington's Money Jungle -- doing an excellent job of delivering fine detail such as the overtones in Charles Mingus' acoustic bass.
The STR-DA5300ES was also up to the task with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest on Blu-ray, which delivers a lush soundtrack in uncompressed 5.1 PCM. The STR-DA5300ES deftly delivered all the audio detail on the disk, which certainly doesn't go lightly in terms of sonic impact. The Sony did a great job during the ship-borne sequences in letting you hear every creak of the timbers and the crash of the ocean. Even when we cranked up the volume, we didn't notice any strain or harshness -- the DA5300ES won't disappoint movie buffs.
We knocked the Sony STR-DA5200ES pretty hard for its video-processing issues, and we're happy to report that Sony has addressed them with the 5300ES. We used Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD for the first part of our test, and the 5300ES handled itself very well. The initial resolution test looked sharp, proving that the 5300ES properly scales and delivers the full resolution of DVDs. The next two tests were handled adeptly as well, with almost no jaggies on a spinning white line or three shifting line. It even passed the difficult pull-down test, as there was no moire in the grandstands as the car drove by.
We switched over to actual program material, and the 5300ES continued to impress. It had no trouble with the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, demonstrating that it does have 2:3 pull-down processing as it smoothly rendered the hulls of the boats and the curved edges of the railings on the bridge. It even did a solid job with the difficult intro on Seabiscuit. To Sony's credit, the company addressed our major video quality concerns on the 5200ES, making the 5300ES completely recommendable from a video quality perspective.