Sony STR-DA5400ES A/V Receiver Page 2

A crater molded into the remote’s bottom acts as a handy fulcrum when you want to slide your hand to the top of the long remote to access the inputs, or even to change the video output’s resolution. This is a small example of the great deal of thought that Sony put into the ergonomic design of this receiver and the other models in the ES line.

Setup and Use
Sony’s user manual is small, either to cut costs or demonstrate a commitment to going green. With a page size of approximately 5 by 8 inches, the graphics are small, and the copy, which is spread over 158 pages, requires a great deal of page turning. On the plus side, it includes both a glossary and an index. However, I wish AVR manuals would open with a few introductory pages to help you choose a setup strategy. This would also provide a comforting path for what’s to follow, which is endless jargon coupled with acronym and setup option overload. No wonder one A/V company’s phone system voice directory offers, along with a list of names and extensions, “If you’re having trouble setting up receiver X, push 7.”

Consider an average Joe who buys a new Blu-ray player along with his Sony STR-DA5400ES but doesn’t have a monitor with HDMI connectivity. Do you think he’ll figure out that in order to hear uncompressed audio, he’ll need to use an HDMI cable to connect his Blu-ray player to one of the six HDMI inputs but set the video output to Component Video? I don’t think so. He’ll probably figure that he doesn’t have an HDMI-equipped TV. Then he’ll use the BD input with component video and coaxial or optical audio and get little sonic benefit from the Blu-ray player. Why should consumers have to play “video games” instead of being given a clear strategy and a road map for their particular situation? There’s no excuse for the confusing, incomplete manuals that accompany well-engineered products. Sony’s is better than some, but it’s still not good enough. [Frustrating as today’s technology can be, it does provide lots of work for competent reviewers!—Ed.]

Like the Audyssey system that Denon and other manufacturers use in their receivers, Sony’s proprietary Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (DCAC) system uses a supplied microphone to automatically assess and adjust for speaker size, placement, distances, angle, output level, and frequency characteristics. DCAC is easy to use and proved to be extremely accurate. In my room, it made all the right calculations in terms of speaker sizes and distances from the listening position.

I found Sony’s Xross Media Bar GUI system to be anything but intuitive to use. It takes some getting used to at first. Perhaps that’s just me. However, I’ve set up a hundred or so receivers, and to me, intuitive means I can use it effortlessly without consulting the manual. I had trouble with this one, particularly when I set up the AM/FM tuner’s presets. But once you understand the system, particularly the Options button’s relationship to the cursor system, all becomes clear.

It’s All About the Sound
Ultimately, your satisfaction with an A/V receiver purchase hinges on three factors: setup ease, the elegance of the human/machine interface, and of course performance. A few minor complaints aside, the STR-DA5400ES passes the first two tests rather easily (in spite of the user manual), especially in terms of how pleasant it is to use once it’s set up. The designers avoid nested functions and ambiguous buttons. It’s easy to navigate through the system to get to where you want to go. For instance, the button that selects the multichannel analog input for use with a non-HDMI-equipped SACD player has equal status to the buttons for the other inputs. At no time during the review period was I left with no sound, the wrong sound, or stuck in a menu nest and unable to find a way out. You can leave town on a business trip and not expect a panicked call from your significant other complaining, “There’s no sound!”

Unless you have large, inefficient, power-hungry speakers, you won’t complain about the sound, either. While Sony specifies the output as 120 watts per channel (20 hertz to 20 kilohertz), that’s for two-channel operation. Sony doesn’t specify the power output for all channels driven, so I suspect it’s somewhat lower. (See HT Labs Measures.) When I completed the DCAC speaker configuration process, I watched some talk TV to assess the efficacy of the DCAC’s equalization as well as the receiver’s overall clarity. Forget about explosions and sound effects. There’s nothing more revealing than the sound of the human voice—especially a familiar one. When watching movies, there’s nothing more important than the intelligibility of the dialogue and its natural reproduction.

If a receiver’s sound suffers from a metallic aftertaste, an upper-midrange glaze, stuffy, uncontrolled midbass, or if it imparts an annoying nasal quality—it will show up in voices. If a receiver makes voices sound muffled or “trapped in the box,” leading you to crank up the volume to liberate them, you won’t likely be happy with that receiver (assuming the speakers aren’t the problem).

From the first familiar voice I heard from the STR-DA5400ES, I knew this was a great-sounding receiver. The clarity, delicacy, and timbral believability of talking heads were as good as I’ve heard from any receiver—and better than most. There wasn’t a hint of either the metallic or the muffled, and the voices seemed to float free of the speakers.

While it’s difficult to separate the contributions of the DCAC from those of the amplifiers, I don’t think that matters. The combination produced an open, refined, graceful sound, and intelligibility and timbral verisimilitude remained consistent at both low and high SPLs. The amp’s ability to reveal small, low-level dynamic changes was about the finest I’ve heard from an A/V receiver. Cue the musicians and explosions, and you can pretty much take for granted that they’ll sound equally pleasing and dynamic.

In multichannel direct mode, a Delos SACD recording of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony (Delos SACD 3259) attained a level of transparency, musicality, and dimensionality that I usually hear from my far more expensive two-channel system. This was particularly true of the massed strings, which didn’t harden or congeal. When you crank up the DTS 96/24 track on the Blu-ray Disc Queen Rock Montreal & Live Aid, you’ll hear that the Sony can play loud without losing its timbral or dynamic composure. Even the moving-magnet phono input sounded good.

The receiver’s sonics served movie soundtracks equally well. The DTS-HD Master Audio track of U-571 produced pinpoint images in a precise three-dimensional soundfield. As dynamic and unrestrained as the explosions were, it was the clarity, precision, naturalness, and detail of the dialogue track that impressed me the most, even at very low levels.

Overall, the STR-DA5400ES’s sonic performance on both music and soundtracks was among the most impressive—if not the most impressive—of all the A/V receivers I’ve yet reviewed. It might not be the most powerful, but it sounded more authoritative than the supplied numbers might lead you to believe. (I think 100 watts per channel RMS is the minimum acceptable power rating for a home theater.) Unless you’re driving large, relatively inefficient speakers in a big room, this Sony should have plenty of power.

I’ll leave the video performance details to the magazine’s resident expert. If it passes muster (it did subjectively), it’s safe to say that while the STR-DA5400ES is far from the most expensive or full-featured A/V receiver you can buy, it offers an attractive combination of easy setup, pleasing ergonomics, and superb sound. Of course, there are less expensive receivers, but to my way of thinking, it’s worth paying a little bit extra to get a lot more sound.