Sony STR-DA5800ES A/V Receiver
A chimera is a mythical animal consisting of parts from various other animals. In Greek mythology, for example, a Chimera (with a capital C) was an unpleasant, fire-breathing creature that had a serpent’s tail, a goat’s body, and a lion’s head. (Insert standard joke about previous spouse/significant other, mother-in-law, editors, etc.) Although it’s not an official definition in the A/V world, I consider a component that’s been soldered together using parts from different components to be a chimera, too. The active soundbar with its amalgamation of amps, speakers, processor, and etc. is a good example of such an electronic creature. The deviant TV/VCR/DVD Franken-combo, on the other hand, is an example of how things can go terribly wrong.
Over the years, Sony has made its share of combo creations. Now the company is introducing a piece of gear that is, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious attempts at creating a chimeric home theater component that I’ve seen. The new Sony STR-DA5800ES doesn’t breathe fire. Nor does this staid-looking AVR have the body of a goat or the head of a lion. What this powerful, 9.2-channel AVR does possess, in addition to everything you’d expect to find in a top-of-the-line home theater receiver, are some serious networking and streaming capabilities, a built-in four-port Ethernet switch, an activity-based icon-dominated onscreen user interface, and a powerful Control4 home automation system controller all fused together. Packing these diverse elements into one piece of gear is an extremely exciting endeavor. But it’s also something that, if not done properly, could be a miserable failure.
As a result, mainstream AVRs with serious home automation capabilities built in are hardly common. Besides this STR-DA5800ES ($2,100) is its less powerful 7.2-channel STR-DA2800ES ($999) sibling and…that’s pretty much it. Mind you, I’m talking about something beyond the more common niceties of AVRs with ultra-basic distribution capabilities for two, three, or even four zones of A/V. There are AVRs—and other A/V components—that tout the fact that they’re compatible with or certified by home automation specialists like Control4 (or Crestron, AMX, etc.). But saying a piece of gear is “certified” or “compatible” simply means the necessary software drivers are available that allow a particular third party’s control system to convince the component—via IR, serial, or IP commands—to do what the control system wants it to do. It’s another thing entirely, however, to have the power—or, in the case of the STR-DA5800ES, most of the power—of an honest-to-goodness home automation system controller built in.
A Creature Full of Features
Because of its unique nature and the way in which Sony has attempted to blend the many parts into one organic whole, it’s difficult to find a starting point when describing this multifaceted behemoth. First of all, the Sony STR-DA5800ES is a high-end AVR that’s absolutely loaded with A/V features that give it impressive scope and a great deal of flexibility. In terms of power, it’s a 9.2-channel AVR with all nine amps (rated 130 watts each) on board. The surround back amps can be reassigned and used to power speakers in Zone 2, or, in conjunction with the front main speaker outputs, to biamp the front speakers.
The STR-DA5800ES has a ton of audio processing modes and comes with a proprietary Sony two-transducer, bar-style microphone for the Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) feature. This handles the menial tasks of measuring distances, setting levels and delays, checking phase, etc. As part of the process, you can set a calibration type of Full Flat (all speakers set for flat frequency response), Engineer (equalization set to match the Sony listening room standard), Front Reference (adjusts the characteristics of all the speakers to match the front main speakers), User Reference (customize your own), or Off (don’t corrupt the response of my speakers with your damn EQ settings). With the Legacy Audio speakers used for this review, I preferred Full Flat, but a system using mixed speakers in a room with different acoustics might benefit more from one of the other settings. By the way, all of the measurements and EQ choices can be separately dialed in for up to three listening positions. Or, if you’re up for it, you can make a bewildering number of manual adjustments, for example, fiddling with the bass/treble levels for each individual speaker (including the height speakers) plus the mid-frequency setting on the center channel. In fact, there’s so much to play with, you might want to schedule your next vacation to coincide with whenever the STR-DA5800ES is going to be delivered.
The STR-DA5800ES includes nine HDMI inputs, with three of them capable of 4K passthrough. There are two HDMI outputs for the main zone, as well as an HDMI output for Zone 2. (There’s also an RJ-45 jack for sending component video to an HDTV in Zone 2 via a dedicated Cat-5 cable—but you’ll need to purchase a Sony CAV-CVB1 component video balun to make the connection to the TV in Zone 2.) All of the inputs, with the exception of the composite video and analog audio inputs, are assignable and can be renamed.
Among the STR-DA5800ES’s more unusual features is HDMI Preview, which allows you to display live PIP windows showing video from HDMI inputs 1 through 4 (as long as the Zone 2 HDMI output is not enabled). In lieu of AirPlay, there’s an iPhone/iPod-compatible USB port with a composite video input on the front panel that lets you access audio and video (an Apple Composite A/V Cable is required for video) from your iOS device—and charge it, too. By far, though, the most useful of the unusual stuff on the STR-DA5800ES is the built-in four-port Ethernet switch. One port is used to connect this electronic chimera to your home LAN, giving it access to the Internet as well as to digital media stored on DLNA-compliant devices connected to your home network. The remaining three Ethernet ports can be used to connect other A/V devices in your system to the LAN—or, when in full Control4 mode, take control of IP-enabled components—potentially eliminating the need for a dedicated Ethernet switch in your A/V cabinet. The STR-DA5800ES can directly access a superabundance of online streaming media services, including all the majors (Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and the Sony Entertainment Network). The AVR (annoyingly) checks for updates to the online service providers before listing those that are available. At the time of this review, I counted 56 choices—with my favorite being the Wiggles & Friends Channel. (Oh, Teletubbies, where is your channel?)
This One’s Just Right
Without reservation, the STR-DA5800ES is one powerfully impressive beast of a standalone AVR. While the video quality is excellent, I was even more taken by the AVR’s audio performance. Sony’s new HD Digital Cinema Sound (HD-DCS) does a wonderful job in the Studio mode at adding breadth and, for my tastes, the right amount of ambience. I found the default Theater setting and, more so, the Dynamic setting to be too lively and reverberant, especially with voices in the front channels. In Salt, for example, when Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) attempts to escape her pursuers by walking along the ledge of her apartment building eight or 10 floors up, the dialogue is crisp and maintains focus while the subtle surround details of the car traffic below and the breeze are clearly there without drawing attention to themselves. With the Theater and Dynamic settings, I found the slight echo in the dialogue to reduce some intelligibility; and the surround channels became too lively.
The STR-DA5800ES treats music with equal aplomb. Normally, I don’t care for DSP concert hall settings, but the three venue re-creations (Berlin Philharmonic Hall, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, and Musikverein Vienna) are extremely well done. While listening to the Life and Breath: Choral Works by Rene Clausen SACD, I was quite pleased with the fact that the choral group’s voices remained distinct while each venue created its own atmospheric identity without the typical edginess or artificiality that a lot of processing can produce.
Time to Leave Home
When it comes to setting up and operating this magnificent and beautifully engineered piece of equipment, there’s the exceptional…and the not so exceptional. As far as the not-so-exceptional part goes, there’s simply no other way to say it than that the STR-DA5800ES’s IR remote control blows some of the biggest, slimiest, greenest, and grossest chunks you can imagine. It’s the archetypal AVR remote control with a strict arrangement of small buttons, tiny lettering, and mostly unintuitive layout. To make matters worse, only five of the buttons are backlit, literally leaving you in the dark when it comes to finding your way around the remote while watching a movie. Ironically, even the buttons used for turning on (and off) the lights in your home theater room aren’t backlit. But the killer is the placement of the Home button only a fraction of an inch below the cursor Down key, a super-aggravating design flaw that often rudely yanked me out of a movie or a menu screen (after navigating through many prior menu screens) and took me back to the Home GUI page, forcing me to go through the entire process again.