Sony STR-DA4300ES A/V Receiver and BDP-S500 Blu-ray Player

Now this is the way to set up a system.

This month, we break new ground in Spotlight Systems. Normally, we pair off a surround speaker package with surround electronics. But that ignores the whole subject of signal sources, without which, after all, all of our systems would be dark and silent. So this time out, we’re mating an up-to-the-minute receiver, the Sony STR-DA4300ES, with an oh-so-hip Blu-ray player, the Sony BDP-S500. And no, Sony didn’t slip me a suitcase full of cash for doing this.

I did enjoy other forms of compensation, though. Never has a system installation cost me so little red-faced squatting and so few muttered curses. I slipped the STR-DA4300ES into the guest-receiver rack slot, replaced my Pioneer BDP-HD1 with the BDP-S500, connected the two with a single HDMI cable, and ran my banana-plug speaker cables into the receiver’s binding posts. That’s all she wrote.

I Was Made to Love Magic
The alphanumeric magic that eased the installation was HDMI 1.3a. That single interface handled all video and audio signals, replacing the digital coaxial cable and six analog cables I’d normally run between my SACD/DVD-Audio/DVD player and the receiver. In the best of all possible worlds, all of your signal sources would be HDMI compatible. In the real world, you’ve probably got legacy sources and software incompatibilities requiring additional cabling.

As far as those go, Sony has limited connectivity by totally eliminating S-video from the back panel. But there are plenty of composite video jacks for your ancient VCRs (which might include a Betamax, if you’re a hard-core Sonyphile). For high-def sources, there are trios of HDMI and component video inputs. There’s only one HDMI output. As someone who uses a front projector and a flat panel in the same room, I’d like to see a second HDMI output become standard equipment on all receivers. But if you want to feed two displays, you can resort to the component video output.

The metal front panel is divided into three planes by Sony’s characteristic step-down shape. Knobs abound, for volume, input, tuning, and tone. The white fluorescent display is on the small side, and the buttons are hardly larger than pinheads. Sony probably assumes that you’ll stick with the remote, which is rudimentary but well organized, with intelligent use of button shape and layout.

Where Sony shines, however, is in the graphic user interface, which derives from the Xross Media Bar used in the company’s PlayStation 3 console. It’s organized into two columns that simultaneously reveal the main menu and next layer of submenus. Step-down items in the left column and different items appear in the right column. The selected item goes from white to amber.

If you opt for manual setup, as I did, you’ll love the full-color graphics of the speaker-position menu. They show speakers arranged around a red sofa with almost 3-D realism. Sony is among the few manufacturers who let you specify height for surround channels (high for ceiling mounts, low for stand mounts).

My only ergonomic problem was getting the GUI to show on the video display. I held down the shift key and hit the remote’s oblong menu button twice, since the menu takes a second to appear. Sony tells me you just need to press the shift key to make sure you are in the receiver menu, as most often you will be operating another source and would need to make sure the remote function was changed to operate the menu in the A/V receiver. The menu takes a second to appear, which was why I hit the menu button twice. If you are using HDMI output, it will take at least a second for the menu to appear on screen, so be patient.

Fascia Strip Tease
You just may fall in love with the BDP-S500 Blu-ray player at first sight. It’s refreshingly different. Along the player’s top edge are power, eject, and (interestingly) up/down keys. Hit the eject key, and the top portion of the front panel slides down to reveal the disc drawer along with five small—and not terribly visible—transport buttons. The white fluorescent display is split between the left and right sides. Your eyes will generally move to the left to see time, chapter, and other frequently needed information.

The remote is modest but pretty, with menu navigation taking the form of a four-way Blu (blue) rocker for up, down, left, and right commands. Enter is in the middle, and other menu-navigation staples are at the side, with Sonyesque labeling (System Menu for player setup, Pop Up/Menu for menu). Unlike Sony’s white-on-black receiver remote, this one uses black-on-black buttons, and that’s not helpful. The transport keys are too small and too close together. I would often hit the Chapter-Skip button when I meant to hit Scan. The scan function (which, with my wandering attention, I used often) was on the slow side.

Like all high-def disc players, this one takes a while to get going; powering up is a 45-second wait. Compared to first-generation players, that’s not so bad. Resuming a stopped DVD immediately following power-up takes another 25 seconds. When you’re already up and running, that drops to a second or so. I was able to power up the whole system by hitting Play on the DVD remote, thanks to what Sony calls BRAVIA Sync HDMI active intelligence. The generic term is CEC, for consumer electronics control.