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Sony STR-DA7100ES AV Receiver Page 2

Another advanced input is the iLink jack, which allows a direct digital connection for SACD recordings from the player to the receiver. According to the manual, it can only be used in conjunction with Sony's SCD-XA9000ES SACD player (though two iLink inputs are provided). (I found at least one other player that worked through the iLink jack for both SACD and DVD-Audio: the Pioneer DV-59AVi—TJN.) If you do happen to own the Sony SACD player, you might want to engage receiver's H.A.T.S. function. The "High-quality digital Audio Transmission System" buffers the incoming iLink data stream to reduce jitter.

In addition to the HDMI and component-video facilities already mentioned, the Sony's input/output suite is relatively ample and flexible. All the usual suspects are provided, including a 7.1-channel analog input with bass management (as noted above, the digital nature of the STR-DA7100ES requires that all analog inputs be converted to digital, thus making them compatible with digital bass management), a 7.1-channel preamp output, three assignable coaxial inputs and five optical inputs (one on the front panel), one optical record output (but no coaxial), two AV inputs with record outputs, two audio-only record loops, three AV inputs (one on the front panel), and—in a touch I find a bit ironic—a phono input located right next to an audio-only input labeled SACD.

Other goodies on the back panel include a second-zone AV output (composite video only) and a third zone audio-only output. There are trigger outputs for each of the three zones, two IR outputs and one input, and Sony proprietary Control A1II and Control S In/Out jacks. An RS-232C jack for "maintenance and service" rounds out the I/O suite.

Surround Modes and Settings
As you'd expect from a $2000 receiver, the STR-DA7100ES has all the requisite DTS and Dolby surround modes, including Dolby Pro Logic IIx, which was missing from the $4500 STR-DA9000ES. You can either manually select a mode, or engage the AFD (Auto Format Direct) function and let the Sony select the mode for you. I found that AFD worked like a charm, selecting the correct mode with no fuss or bother even when switching rapidly between varying inputs receiving different digital and analog formats.

In addition to the regular surround modes, Sony has provided several Cinema Studio modes, which claim to reproduce the sound characteristics of various Sony Pictures production facilities. These modes can be fine tuned using the SP POSI (Surround Speaker Position) parameter, which allows you to specify the location and height of your surround speakers, e.g., Side/Low, Side/High, Behind/Low, and Behind/High. There are also several headphone modes.

The subwoofer crossover setting can be adjusted from 40 to 200Hz in 10Hz steps; default is 100Hz. A digital equalizer with five memory presets allows you to further fine tune each channel. There are three bands, labeled Bass, Mid, and Treble, and you can adjust the center frequency of each band as well as its level.

The 2CH Stereo mode bypasses surround processing and disengages the subwoofer, which caused me no problems because I run full-range front speakers in my system. You can run the sub in stereo, but only with processing engaged. Keep in mind again that no matter what you do, analog input signals will ultimately be digitized into DSD format to drive the unit's digital amps. No analog bypass mode here!

The Setup
I've set up many AV receivers over the years, and many of them have turned what should be a complex but straightforward job into an exercise in aggravation. This one joins the ranks, mostly due to quirks in the user interface. For example, some of the most important onscreen menus contain lists that extend below the bottom of the screen. Because there is no indication that there are functions hidden "below the fold," the user is left to stumble around looking for what they want. Furthermore, the actual sequence of button pushes required to navigate menus and select items is inconsistent and confusing.

One item that is especially annoying occurs when you press the Onscreen button on the remote to invoke the menu. Depending on initial conditions that I was never able to figure out, pressing this button more often than not caused the remote's LCD to bring up a page labeled "Cursor Type" and shift the remote to TV-control mode, which, of course, inactivates the joystick for receiver control. You end up with the receiver's menu on the screen, but you can't navigate it until you rotate the remote's little scroll wheel to the Receiver position and click to select it. Grrr!

The remote itself is a universal model with macros and learning capability. It has a backlit LCD, but the buttons are not illuminated. All I ask from any AV receiver remote is that it be optimized to handle the key receiver functions: volume, mute, surround mode, and—most critical—input selection. Anything else is gravy. This remote does not have dedicated buttons for the source inputs, but instead relies on a single "Input Selector" button that brings up a scrolling list on the LCD. You rotate the scroll wheel to bring up the input you desire, then push the wheel to "click" and select the input. This is too many button pushes for my taste.

A dedicated remote is provided for the second zone. Ironically, it has dedicated source buttons, and although plain in appearance, it is in many ways a better remote than the fancy-schmancy RM-AAE003 that operates the main system.

The front-panel display is excellent, clearly spelling out the current input and surround mode in blue dot-matrix characters. There's also a useful graphic speaker-channel indicator and volume display. Note that even though the volume adjusts in 0.5dB steps, the control curve is such that you can quickly go from 0dB to a reasonable listening level with a quick spin of the big volume knob. I also love having a dedicated input-selection knob on the front panel; a quick twist of the wrist, and you're there.

The Soundtrack Speaks Volumes
In my review of the Arcam AVR250 receiver, I noted, "When reproducing a well-engineered stereo recording of acoustic musical instruments or voices—still the acid test for a receiver, in my view—the Arcam produces a realistic sense of air around the instruments. You feel that you are listening in on musicians performing within an actual acoustic space, rather than just hearing a flat representation coming out of a speaker. To me, this is what high-end audio is all about."

Sadly, the Sony failed this acid test on 2-channel material. Although never actively unpleasant to listen to, the STR-DA7100ES sounded homogenized and colorless, even when reproducing the most outstanding recordings in my collection. The soundfield never seemed to extend beyond the boundaries of the speakers, and in fact seemed to be trapped between and behind them.

My notebook is also sprinkled with comments about the bass, which I found "tight but restrained, with little body and a lack of roundness."

Multichannel DVD soundtracks are better served by the Sony, though even here the dynamics struck me as a bit flat and constrained. This is surprising given the unit's ample 170Wpc output. Touchstones such as Saving Private Ryan, Apollo 13, and even Toy Story 2 came across as plenty loud and powerful, to be sure, but other, more subtle scenes with startling dynamic contrasts just didn't make my family jump the way they did when the Arcam or even the Harman Kardon 7300 ($2399) were installed in our theater.

Sony has equipped the STR-DA7100ES with a function called a DC Phase Linearizer. To quote from the manual: "With analog power amplifiers, phase shifts take place at frequencies lower than tens of Hz. But with digital power amplifiers, phase does not shift so the phase characteristic is flat. Speakers available on the market are designed for analog amplifiers and therefore [have low-frequency characteristics that do not] match the characteristics of digital amplifiers. S-Master Pro reproduces the phase characteristics of analog amplifiers by digital processing to deliver familiar low frequency sounds."

The DC Phase Linearizer function has Low, Standard, and High settings, with an additional set of "B" settings said to provide "more enhanced bass characteristics." I experimented with these for many hours, but in the end came to the conclusion that they either produced at best no effect or at worst a negative effect on the bass.

Cinematic Conclusion
The summer of 2005 was not kind to blockbuster movies. Instead, audiences flocked to quirky, low-budget films from smaller independent studios. I have no idea how much Sony spent to develop and market the STR-DA7100ES, but I'm sure it was plenty. The question is, should you buy a ticket for the Sony blockbuster receiver, or opt for a less well-marketed product from a smaller company? My reaction to the Sony was admittedly tempered by my extremely positive response to the receiver that preceded it in my equipment rack. Arcam, a relatively little-known independent, obviously does not have anywhere near Sony's name recognition. But in my system their little AVR250 excited me in a way that the STR-DA7100ES did not.

Was it you I saw in line for March of the Penguins?

Highs and Lows

Highs
• HDMI and component-video switching/processing
• Ample input/output matrix with assignable digital and component-video inputs
• Attractive and user-friendly front panel display and controls
• Knobs and buttons have great tactile feel

Lows
• HDMI upconversion feature accommodates only 480i component-video signals
•Digital amplifier produces flat, uninvolving soundfield, restrained bass, and compressed dynamics
•Confusing menu navigation and quirky remote make setup an exercise in aggravation

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