Sony STR-DA7100ES AV Receiver TJN Comments

TJN Comments:

Since the STR-DA7100ES was in the neighborhood following its test bench measurements, and (more importantly) I had given a glowing review to its big brother, the STR-DA9000ES, back in December 2004 {LINK}—which uses a similar digital amplifier topology—I thought I should give it a listen on my own system.

Before I describe my listening impressions, I have to agree that the ergonomics of this receiver are frustrating. I had a similar negative impression of the (nearly identical) ergonomics of the STR-DA9000ES. After two days with its younger sibling, I'm still having trouble navigating around the setup menu. But over the long term with the STR-DA9000ES, I didn't find its actual day-to-day operation all that difficult—as long as I didn't want to use the non-intuitive setup controls. I suspect the STR-DA7100ES will be the same over time—apart from the quirky remote with its hard to read menu screen.

But the sound? For whatever reason, my impressions couldn't have been more different than Larry's. I did find that, compared to sweeter, warmer-sounding receivers like the Denon AVR-5805 (review soon), the Sony can sound a little cold and matter-of-fact. It also didn't conceal problems in the program material. Yes, dare I say it, some listeners may find it "digital" sounding, though I'd argue that it does no more and no less than pass along all the other digital things going on in any home theater system, from the program material to the soundfield processing. Devotees of tube sound, however, or of forgiving solid-state gear—might want to look elsewhere. Larry didn't say anything about brightness in his review; I suspect that it was less evident through his speakers than mine.

My setup and system does differ from Larry's in several important ways. I currently use Revel speakers (Performa F32, C32, M22, and B15 subwoofer). I nearly always drive them with the subwoofer engaged and all the other speakers rolled off below 80Hz, even the floor-standing F32s. Larry uses no subwoofer and drives his big front left and right B&W 801s full range. My room is larger, which allows my front speakers to be moved further out from the wall behind them, giving the system a head start in creating a wide, deep soundfield. Such a setup may even enhance that soundfield to the point where it is more likely to survive compromises elsewhere in the system.

In any event, I found the Sony receiver to be nearly a sonic dead ringer for the STR-DA9000ES—or as much as I could tell without a direct comparison (the big Sony receiver has long since returned to its maker). In my system it produced a big soundstage, with fine imaging and depth on both soundtracks and 2-channel stereo music. Nor did I have any problems with its dynamic range—at least as used with a subwoofer. And its bass was very tight in my room with that subwoofer engaged—even tighter than from that Denon receiver. This may be at least partially due to its highly detailed, open top end. (Odd as it sounds, the tightness of the bass is heavily dependent on transients much higher up in frequency—if you've even listened to a subwoofer with the rest of the speakers disconnected you know what I'm talking about). Unlike Larry, I found the tight bass a plus in my room, and it was likely that I was able to provide some of the bass qualities Larry missed by balancing it out with a separate subwoofer.

The Sony can sound bright on top with program material that is mixed hot. Almost any average pop recording is guilty of this, and more than a few soundtracks. I'm not a fan of overly polite sound, particularly on soundtracks, and the Sony, with the right speakers, could never be described as polite. But most of the program material I played—from well recorded music, both pop and classical, to soundtracks—never sounded unnaturally aggressive, merely sparkling and open.

Any piece of electronics is captive to the system you put it in, and the program material you play on it. The fact that Larry had issues with the Sony receiver suggests that it may not be your cup of tea either. But (ergonomics aside) I did like it, and you might, too. Our mixed results, however, do suggest that an unrushed, pre-purchase audition, using material you are very familiar with, would be time well spent.