Sony STR-DA9000ES AV receiver Page 2

As you can see from just this basic description, this operation can get complicated, and there are dozens of items that can be controlled—far too many to describe in detail here. It's much easier (though not exactly a walk in the park) to see how these controls work together by using them hands-on rather than reading about it, either here or in the STR-DA9000ES's poorly organized, 66-page owner's manual.

The controls offer the option of two speaker-setup procedures. In the Easy mode, all of the options, as far as I could tell, offered only Large speakers all around, whether or not you designate a subwoofer. When I turned the Easy mode off, setup wasn't really any more complicated, and other choices were provided, such as the Small main speaker setup I prefer (even Large main speakers can be overloaded by the content of many soundtracks), and No Center Speaker.

One menu that deserves special mention is Customize, which provides a variety of advanced settings. Menu Expand opens up advanced parameters for the Speaker Setup, Surround Setup, and Level menus. If you can't access something you want in one of those menus, make sure that Menu Expand is On. There are also options here for decoding the Surround Back information fed to the back surround speakers in 6.1 and 7.1 setups. The High quality digital Audio Transmission System (HATS) offers jitter suppression for SACD bitstreams coming in over the i.Link connection. DSD-SW SWAP diverts the output of the subwoofer channel from the sub output to the surround back terminals. (A few SACD recordings use the 0.1 LFE channel for discrete full-range information—perhaps for a height channel—instead of bass.) Lip Sync and DC Phase L, both discussed earlier, are also in this menu. There are also Hue, Sharpness, and Color adjustments here for images upconverted by the video circuits to a component output.

There are a few other options in the menus as well, but it should be clear by now that the STR-DA9000ES is a sophisticated product whose complexity results directly from its flexibility. And I haven't yet described all of the surround permutations it offers.

The Stereo setting automatically routes full-range sound to the left and right channels and cuts off the subwoofer. There's also a Direct mode, though this does not bypass all digital conversions, for the reason mentioned earlier: the need for a digital feed to the digital amp stages.

Auto Format Direct (AFD) is the mode you'll probably use most often. The Auto setting in this mode plays back the source as recorded—Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Surround (using Pro Logic), etc. If it encounters a 2-channel PCM source, it switches to full-range left and right with the subwoofer off. (To turn on the sub in this mode, you'll have to go into the Surround Setup menu and change the AFD 2CH SW setting from Off to Create—one of the many helpful clues that the manual hides all too well.)

Surrounded: The Sequel
Beyond the conventional operation in both the Stereo and AFD modes, there's a world of surround manipulation to be had in the Movie and Music modes. Movie takes existing surround material—even Dolby Digital and DTS—and uses additional DSP to "re-create" the sound of one of two Sony Pictures dubbing studios, the Sony Pictures Scoring Stage, or a simulation of "five sets of virtual speakers from a single pair of actual surround speakers." Sony calls these options Digital Cinema Sound, or DCS.

Select Music and you're given DSP surround options with the sorts of names that will be familiar to receiver users: Church, Jazz Club, Live Concert, Stadium, and Sports. Music also offers two other choices said to simulate the acoustics of two of the most famous concert halls in the world: Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and Vienna's Musikverein.

Some of these simulations were fun to play with, but as with other such manipulations, I didn't like them as well as straight 2-channel playback for 2-channel music sources, with or without a subwoofer, or unadorned Dolby Digital or DTS reproduction for film soundtracks. The DSP modes homogenized the sound a bit too much. To use a video analogy, they grayed out the black levels and flattened the depth of the audio image. But at the same time, they often enlarged and dramatized the soundstage, which could be a plus with some program material. You might like them more than I did.

What About the Music?
After all the necessary preliminaries, how did the STR-DA9000ES actually perform? I began, as I usually do, by listening to music in Stereo mode, with the subwoofer off. All the equalizer adjustments were set to flat. The source was a direct digital audio link from the Ayre DX-7 DVD player.

In my early listening, I noticed a small difference between the Direct and nondirect modes; oddly, Direct sounded just a little closed-in. I used nondirect for the remainder of my listening evaluations.

When I cued up Leo Kottke's That's What (CD, Private Music 3068-2-P), the first thing I noticed was the airy, sparkling highs. Some credit must go to the rest of the system (including the JMlab Utopia Diva Be speakers with their beryllium-dome tweeters—review in process), but the Sony was certainly keeping up its end of the bargain. The image was solid, the bass just slightly warm.

Crossing over to the sub at 60Hz leaned out the midbass just a bit, but clearly enhanced the deep bass. The sound was now tight and fast, from a crisp bottom end to an open, detailed top. Aggressively played drums, in particular, had virtually no overhang or boom. Below the crossover, of course, the Sony was producing only a line-level signal from its subwoofer output, but I had no complaints about the blending of the sub and the main speakers—a common problem area that drives many audiophiles away from even considering a subwoofer for their systems.

In fact, I had little reason to complain about the 2-channel sound at all. Male vocals were natural and well-balanced. Imaging was as tight and precise as I've heard in my room from far more expensive separates. The soundstage—program material permitting—was deep and 3-dimensional.

If I scratch around in search of a quibble, it might be of a slightly too prominent top end. If you're searching for a tube-like sound, don't look here. But the sound was never bright or edgy, and I suspect that the extra high-end energy I heard was either due to the program material or the room/speaker combination. (Very preliminary in-room measurements of the JMlab Utopia Diva suggest a small rise in the response around 6–8kHz, enough to account for a little extra top-end energy but not enough to sound irritating or aggressive.)

As noted earlier, the STR-DA9000ES plays back SACD through a direct digital iLink (IEEE1394) connection from players equipped to provide such a signal. While compatibility is assured only with certain Sony players, I was anxious to find out if it would work with one of the few other models equipped with an IEEE1394 interface.

I wasn't expecting much when I hooked up a Pioneer DV-59AVi, but after what seemed an interminable wait (actually, about 10 seconds), the Sony's display indicated a lock and, after it had actually spelled out DV-59AVi in the window (what do you know, plug-and-play!), SACD sound came through the speakers.

And SACD sounded excellent through the direct digital link (the HATS mode in the Customize menu was On for iLink playback). No more concerns about bass management. No more fiddling with six separate analog leads (though you will, unfortunately, need such leads to play DVD-Audio recordings through the Sony).

This is the first time I haven't had to use that clumsy, multicable analog link for high-resolution audio playback, and I've never heard SACD sound better. Gaudeamus' Sacred Feast (DMP SACD-09) is choral music recorded in a large, reverberant church. The Sony preserved that spacious, wide-open feeling of being immersed in the original acoustic environment that many of us find the most appealing characteristic of multichannel music. The only flaw I heard was a slight hardness in the low treble when the chorus sang out in full voice—something I didn't hear from any other material I auditioned. I suspect this was either a recording flaw or simply a characteristic of the church's stone walls.

Opus 3 makes some of the most natural recordings around, and Eric Bibb & Needed Time (Opus 3 CD 19623) is one of their best. The sound was delicate, pure, and detailed. This multichannel recording omits the center channel (not unusual, particularly among audiophile labels) and uses the surrounds only for ambience. The imaging was precise from the sweet spot, with the vocalist clearly centered. I found nothing to fault here, in either the recording or the way the Sony handled it.

So it went. Organ recordings sounded dynamic and full-bodied. Vocals were fully fleshed-out and 3-dimensional. Percussion was tight through the bass, precise through the midrange, silky-smooth on top.

If I could choose a single word to describe the Sony's sound on SACD through its iLink connection, it would be relaxed. Not relaxed in the sense that everything sounded homogenized and bland, but relaxed in that I could just kick back and enjoy the music without the electronics getting in the way.

You can also play CDs via iLink if the player has an IEEE1394 output, but I found that CDs sounded better—less bright, more sweet—through a standard coaxial connection. I have no idea why this might be so; good SACDs definitely did not sound bright through the iLink.

Lights, Camera, Movies
It was no surprise that movies sounded just the way they should through the Sony. If you're into simple, dialog-driven films, it will comply. If you're into action, you won't be disappointed. The opening scene of Hellboy—rain pouring down all around, the opening of the portal, the eruption of the firefight—just about covers all of the sound-effect bases. With the Sony, I got all of that, not to mention active surrounds, wide dynamics, and all the deep, detailed bass that Hellboy demands.

The same went for the DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy. But while they sound surprisingly good, if you really want great sound from your Star Wars, you'll have to move down a notch in overall film quality and into a new-millennium release, Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. From the flyover of the transport ship that opens the film to the launch of the battle cruisers that ends this installment, the Sony got it all. More important to me, the Sony kept the dialog intelligible and conveyed the grandeur of John Williams' score. The same was true of the score from Hidalgo, a film that offers only a few dynamic sound effects, but has one of the better—and better-recorded—scores I've heard this year.

While the STR-DA9000ES is not a THX receiver, and thus does not offer cinema EQ, its treble and midrange equalization controls offer enough flexibility to compensate for overly bright soundtracks. I never felt the need to use those controls, but depending on your speakers, room, and tolerance for poorer soundtracks, you might.

Video Switching
I tried the Sony's video upconversion feature using the composite output from my Pioneer CLD-99 laserdisc player. It worked, but a straight feed from the player to the projector looked sharper, with less video noise. One other problem I experienced when using the component output for both LD and DVD was that when I switched to DVD, the receiver continued to display the LD video. To get it to break lock and show the DVD, I had to turn off the LD player.

The Sony also passed high-definition video through its video switching circuits, via either component or DVI, without visible degradation.

The unit reviewed here was actually our second sample of the STR-DA9000ES. After several weeks of use, the first sample displayed an error message (it told me to contact my Sony dealer) and shut down. I could not restore its operation. The second sample worked flawlessly, with one exception: It shut down once during a high-level playback of one of the spaceship flybys in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. This time, after I'd shut it off for a minute or so, it came back on and continued to operate as before. The error message displayed at this latter shutdown simply said that the unit had overheated. It felt barely warm, suggesting conservative protection circuits.

The Sony does have an 8ohms/4ohms impedance switch. The manual states that if your speakers have a nominal impedance of less than 8ohms, you should set the impedance switch to 4ohms. This will also apply if you use multiple speakers attached to the same amplifier channel, as would be the case with the side surrounds in a 9.1-channel setup. I used the 8ohms setting for the JMlab Utopia Divas, which are rated at 8ohms nominal, but less than 4ohms minimum.

At $4500, the Sony STR-DA-9000ES is one of the priciest receivers on the market. You can spend a lot more on separates, but will you get better sound? Possibly. The best separates offer a little more sonic refinement. But it's a very close call on that score, particularly with film playback. $4500 will buy you only midpriced separates, but these will still provide the flexibility that only separates can give, including placement flexibility and the option to upgrade the pre-pro or amp separately as your needs—or advancing technology—require.

But comparably priced separates won't offer more features than the Sony. Take DVI switching, for example. It's barely begun to show up in the highest priced separates, much less midrange products.

Not all of you will need or want the features offered in the STR-DA9000ES. In fact, these features result in a level of complexity that, in the case of the more technically challenged buyer, may work against the receiver—it takes work to get the best out of it. But viewed as strong competition for some very good separates rather than as an expensive and complicated receiver, the Sony's combination of features and outstanding sound merits a strong recommendation.