Sony STR-DA9000ES AV receiver

The STR-DA9000ES is Sony's entry in what has become a new trend in home theater: receivers that seriously challenge separate components. That challenge is extended not only in features and performance, but in size as well. Many of these new behemoths equal the sheer bulk of more than a few preamplifier-processor and amplifier combinations.

While specialist manufacturers can still make a good case that their separates maintain an edge in sound quality, the gap separating them from the best receivers is not nearly as big as it was in the early days of the still-young home theater market. And when you factor in features, the race is even closer. With their vast resources, the big consumer-electronics manufacturers are often the first to incorporate cutting-edge developments—often as much as a year ahead of smaller, specialist companies.

True to form for a modern high-end receiver, Sony has skimped on nothing in the STR-DA9000ES; it not only has all latest the bells and whistles, it throws in the whole percussion section. If there's a criticism to be made about the receiver, it would center on its complexity.

Starting with the ob-vious, the Sony decodes every surround format you'll find—for now—on any commercial recording. The only playback feature missing is Dolby Pro Logic IIx; Sony provides its own modes for creating a soundfield of up to 7.1 channels from 2-channel sources. And if you need more analog and digital inputs than Sony provides here, you need to get out more.

The STR-DA9000ES supports three zones of operation. Zone 2 is limited to any source with composite-video feed and L/R analog audio, Zone 3 to one L/R audio connection only. A separate remote is provided for remote zone operation.

The Sony's seven channels of Direct Drive Digital Amplification (see sidebar, "Sony Does Digital Amps") provide up to 200Wpc into 8ohms, though how many channels can be driven at once at this output level is not clearly specified. Both speaker outputs and line-level preamp outputs for all channels are available, and both can be used simultaneously.

The STR-DA9000ES has three component-video inputs, each with an 80MHz bandwidth for passing high-definition sources without degradation. All analog video sources are upgraded to component form and are available from the component output, allowing for a single analog video connection to your display.

There are audio equalizer controls, though it would be more accurate to call them flexible tone controls. Each channel has independent bass and treble controls in the menu system, each with two selectable "knee" frequencies (250Hz or 500Hz for the bass, 2.2kHz or 4.3kHz for the treble). The center-channel equalizer adds a midrange control with one of five selectable center frequencies: 100Hz, 300Hz, 1kHz, 3kHz, or 10kHz. Most of the equalizer controls are adjustable during setup, and there are memories (Sony calls then Eq Banks) for storing and retrieving five different settings. The front-panel bass and treble controls can be used for adjusting the front speakers on the fly.

There's also an i.Link digital audio interface. (iLink is Sony's implementation of IEEE1394, or FireWire.) If you have a compatible SACD player, you can use the iLink connection for a direct, multichannel audio feed into the STR-DA9000ES. The only such player that's guaranteed to operate with the receiver in this fashion is Sony's own SCD-XA9000ES. For players that do not, there are two sets of 7.1-channel inputs.

Neither the L/R analog inputs nor the multichannel inputs are full analog bypass. The receiver converts all sources connected to these inputs to digital form. Analog inputs are converted to PCM. Internally, the amplifier ultimately converts everything to 1-bit Direct Stream Digital (DSD), the technology Sony developed for SACD, to drive the amplifiers. Native SACD inputs pass directly through to the amplifier stages. However, if any equalizer or special surround effects are selected, the signal is first converted to PCM, processed, then reconverted to DSD. A Direct mode is provided to cancel all of this processing. But if you do not use the equalizer or surround effects, no DSD-to-PCM conversion occurs even if you do not select Direct.

The STR-DA9000ES also includes that rarest feature of all: DVI switching. We expect to see this capability in one or two other new receivers before the end of 2004 (it's already been announced for the new Denon flagship and a lower-priced Outlaw design), but the Sony is the first AV receiver or pre-pro to cross our path that has 2-in/1-out DVI switching as a standard feature.

There's more: audio Lip Sync delay of up to 200ms in 10ms steps, a dynamic-range compressor for night listening (Dolby Digital sources only), adjustments for fine-tuning Pro Logic II's Music mode, crossover options of 40–160Hz in 10Hz increments, the option to create user-specified names (for display on the front panel) for inputs and for radio stations from the receiver's AM/FM tuners, DTS 24/96 decoding, three memories in which to store user presets, a moving-magnet phono stage, and the ability to link with other Sony components using the Control A1II and Control S connections. You can also reassign the digital input jacks to link with input-switch selections different from those defined at the factory.

An advanced setting called the DC Phase Linearizer (DC Phase L) offers six settings (plus Off) that, according to the manual, "let you approximate the low frequency phase characteristics to [sic] a traditional analog amplifier." I tried this control's Off and Std-A modes. Off seemed to produce bass that was a bit more tightly controlled, but the difference was very subtle in my system.

The remote control—dubbed the Interactive Remote Commander—is a full-function, IR learning remote that can be used to operate Sony devices and (with setup) products from other manufacturers. Its battery is rechargeable (charger included). A large, illuminated, touchpanel LCD screen is used to access most of the remote's functions. There are also 10 hard buttons (not illuminated, but easy to locate in the dark) for routine operations such as system volume up/down, muting, TV input and channel, and TV volume. Two other buttons on the top of the unit engage a Sleep mode and switch the receiver to Standby. The remote can operate as a normal one-way device or, in its two-way configuration, receive feedback from compatible Sony products, including the STR-DA9000ES.

The remote operates most of the receiver's important functions from its hard buttons, touchpanel, or by accessing the receiver's onscreen displays. An in-depth description of all the remote's functions would be a review in itself; it comes with its own 40-page instruction manual.

How Many Channels!
The Sony has seven channels of amplification, but there are output terminals for up to 11 speakers (plus a single line-level subwoofer output). One extra pair of speaker terminals are for extra L/R front speakers—perhaps for another room. But the other pair is for a second set of L/R surrounds. Sony suggests that these may be used for a 9.1-channel system. In such a setup, one set of side surrounds would be located about 60° from front and center, the other at 120°. Each of these extra surround speakers is driven in parallel with the standard surround speaker in its respective channel, using the same amp and thus carrying exactly the same information.

There's a well-known problem associated with two spatially displaced speakers carrying the same information in a small room. It's called comb filtering, and it will result in frequency-response irregularities from those speakers that vary with listener position. The bigger the room, the less intrusive the problem, which is why you see banks of surround speakers in movie theaters. It might be worth trying if you have a very large room—and you'll need one to make all those surround speakers less conspicuous.

I limited my setup to 5.1 channels because this review was threatening to become the length and complexity of a doctoral dissertation. If I can round up enough cable (likely) and six surround speakers (possible, though they probably won't be identical), I'll try to report on such an arrangement in a future issue.

Setting Up
Once you've settled on how many channels you plan to use, you can begin the STR-DA9000ES's setup procedure. Most of the setup is performed from the front-panel controls and display (as I did it) or onscreen menus and remote control (actually a little more intuitive and certainly more sofa-spud–friendly, if barely mentioned in the manual). The onscreen displays are available from the composite, S-video, and component monitor outputs. I describe the more complicated front-panel method here.

Most of the front-panel controls are hidden behind a large drop-down flap. Three key controls are used for setup: Main Menu, Menu, and +/-. The Main Menu knob selects major functions, including Test Tone and Level for calibration, Speaker Setup for designating the speaker configuration you want to use, Equalizer Setup, Surround Setup for tweaking a number of details on surround operations, and Customize (more on this in a moment). The Menu control selects subfunctions within these larger categories; the +/- control selects options for selected Menu control.