Sony STR-ZA3000ES A/V Receiver Review Page 2

Besides your main home theater, the STR-ZA3000ES will support two additional zones, and it provides IR repeater inputs so you can control the AVR from the other zones. You can use the second of the HDMI outputs to watch a different program in the second zone (though the onscreen menu or volume changes don’t appear on the second HDMI output). If you don’t have surround back speakers, you can use those amplifier channels to drive speakers in the second zone, a common practice with 7.1-channel AVRs. The third zone is strictly there to carry line-level two-channel audio to another room.

Two for T
I was a little concerned that the STR-ZA3000ES wouldn’t be able to handle my demanding Revel Salon2 and Voice2 speakers, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well things worked out. CDs sounded great played back in either one of two direct modes. The first of those is Sony’s two-channel Analog Direct, which functions only with analog sources and turns off all processing, including the subwoofer output. Pure Direct utilizes all inputs and leaves the subwoofer on while defeating most other processing. Depending on the material, room, and speakers, one or the other will give you stellar results.

I cranked up a new purchase on CD, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man movie soundtrack from 1972. The original don’t-mess-with-Mister-T reference! The content has been digitally remastered, and it sounds phenomenal, reminding me at times of the complexity that Stevie Wonder put into his mid-1970s masterpieces, such as Innervisions. The Sony was nimble responding to transient peaks, and it kept the instruments separate in what is sometimes a very densely mixed soundtrack. In addition, there was a smidgen of the “jump factor,” if not the overall tonal finesse, that I’ve found usually only in the finest of separate amplifiers. Volume capability was never an issue in my room, even though the Sony isn’t claiming the same numbers wattage-wise as some other manufacturers’ price-competitive receivers. See our measurement results in the Test Bench box below.

Robert Ellis’ current album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, finds him moving from the Americana-tinged country music of his first album to straight-out Americana. Universal Audio, manufacturer of professional audio interfaces and audio-processing plug-in software, tracked the song “Good Intentions” live and put a video on their Website. I was an instant fan, and the album sounds amazing as much for the stellar musicians on it as for the simplicity and bare-naked truth of a song like “Bottle of Wine.” Even at low volumes, that track—with a simple barroom upright piano and a more closely miked Ellis vocal—is replete with little audio cues, like the creaking of the piano bench and Ellis’ quick inhales between phrases. The Sony delivered all the detail.

I’m at a Lossless for Words
As I mentioned, it’s not always visually obvious when the Sony is decoding Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. When you switch to a high-definition soundtrack, the receiver will scroll the name of the signal type it’s decoding across the front panel, just once, and then declare itself in A.F.D. mode. That stands for Auto Format Direct, which the onscreen GUI describes as “exactly producing [the sound] as it was recorded/encoded, without any added surround effects.” There are no indicator lamps on the front panel, so if you need to double-check, just pause your movie; when you resume play, you’ll see the audio mode name scroll across the front panel again. Once.

In terms of other audio decoding/processing, the STR-ZA3000ES provides DTS Neo:6 Cinema, Dolby Pro Logic II Movie mode (IIx if you’ve enabled the surround back channels), and multichannel stereo. There’s even a proprietary surround mode called HD-D.C.S. (HD-Digital Cinema Sound), which, depending on the material, would be my first choice. There are actually three flavors of it—Studio, Theater, and Dynamic—but only the first of those served my room well. As far as I could tell, the others just added increasing levels of bass and were a little over the top (or should that be under the bottom?) for my tastes.

The movie Crazy Heart serves up Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out country singer who knocks out some rousing music. The audio is spectacular here, by design. In the first take of “Fallin’ and Flyin’,” set in an intimate bar and featuring Bridges taking a low picking guitar solo, the Sony authentically captured the growl of his 1959 Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar and Fender Tremolux amp. Switching from A.F.D. (decoding a DTS-HD Master Audio bitstream) to HD-D.C.S. in Studio mode produced some very subtle differences—so subtle, I would never be able to tell them apart in a blind test. I’d be more inclined to use HD-D.C.S. when listening to less-than-ideal sources, rather than mess with the raw soundtrack of a Blu-ray Disc.

A second version of “Fallin’ and Flyin’ ” takes place in a 12,000-seat outdoor venue, with that big, open stadium sound and the appropriate amount of reverb. You can almost feel the cool night breeze and smell the spilled beers. We get to hear the whole song, this time with Colin Farrell’s character joining in. Surprises abound in this movie, not the least of which is how good the Sony sounded delivering it. The receiver had no problem driving my Revels as loudly as I cared to hear them in my room, a testament to Sony putting their money into audio quality—where, in the end, it counts the most.

The STR-ZA3000ES faces stiff competition in a price range where AVR manufacturers tend to go acronym- and badge-crazy. But Sony isn’t having any of that. This new receiver is just a solid, incredibly easy to use, and enjoyable piece of kit that, with its five-year warranty, could keep you happy (if not technologically up to date) for at least that long.

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brenro's picture

I'm not ready for Atmos or DTS:X but I would certainly want to future proof my next pretty hefty home theater expense.

Rob Sabin's picture an AVR costing $1,700 and geared for a high-performance customer; hence the somewhat deflated 3.5 stars (good-to-excellent) for Features. But this was a late 2014 AVR release that was one of the few future-proofed with HDCP 2.2 copyright management, and it has quite excellent audio quality. If you know you'll never be bothering with Atmos/ceiling speakers or you're a custom installer specifying this for a 5.1 or 7.1 project, it remains a great choice. We've yet to see Sony embrace Atmos on any 2014 or 2015 AVR model, but it would seem to me they'd have no choice but to include it in new ES models as they arrive now, or I suspect they'll start losing some sales among integrators who do want to sell the extra ceiling speakers associated with Atmos installs. Those new ES models have traditionally been announced at CEDIA (mid-October, this year).
twm1988's picture

Hi Fred, very nice review. I'm just wondering about the audio performance of this Sony... I remember you reviewed the Anthem MRX 700 and NAD T757 receivers a few years ago and used them with your Revel speakers as well.

Are you saying this Sony is equivalent in sound quality and power output to those other two receivers? Your review of the Anthem said it made your home theatre come to life, and with the NAD you stated it went into protection mode and sounded a little strained driving your speakers at higher volumes.

Now this Sony seems to have no trouble driving the Revel Ultima Salon's. I've never really thought of Sony as more than an entry level audio brand, does it really compare to those Anthem and NAD receivers??

bigreddog's picture

I went from owning a much older NAD T743 receiver with an Adcom GFA-555 external amp. When my NAD died, I swore that I would never buy anything but NAD so I did, and I bought a basic NAD T748 but it arrived with problems. It kept turning off, and on at weird times all on it's own. The replacement I was sent blasted bass into my speakers and subwoofers immediately and would not let me shut it off until it displayed "Overload Protection" mode on the screen. I sent that one back as well. Even with the NAD that turned on and off on it's own was working, along side with my Adcom amp, it didn't have that good NAD sound that my old NAD had. No sweet spot and rather harsh and compressed sounding at higher volumes.

So, I auditioned many receivers including Anthem but the Anthem's store units had bad flickering displays on both of them. That and I own a MacBook Pro and their dumb calibration mode only works on a PC. Why they didn't design it to work through the HDMI to your TV screen is beyond me. Stupid design. So, Anthem was immediately out of the question. I narrowed it down between the Marantz SR7008 and the Sony ES STR-ZA3000ES. I liked the looks of the ES especially compared to the Marantz with the hidden display and a tiny 1" circle display. I went against everyone's advice and got the Sony ES. I love it but it's not perfect. It has no way to set your crossover for a subwoofer. You simply pick the cutoff crossover on your main fronts to 80Hz for example, and the bass picks up from there. But if you select LARGE as your speakers, the subwoofer plays at "I have no idea" frequency. So, my full range speakers are set to SMALL and cutoff at 80Hz. That bugged me to the point that I finally bought into the peer pressure and bought a Marantz SR7008. What a piece of JUNK in comparison to the Sony ES. The flap door was broken right out of the box but I decided to see if I liked it before returning it so I would know if I wanted an exchange or just my money back. The Marantz with Audessey XT32 had worse graphics on the GUI by far which was a big surprise. The overrated Audessey XT32 didn't do near as well as the Sony's mic calibration system. But in the end, it was the 2 channel music using just my main front speakers and my subwoofers for 2 channel music. The Sony ES just sounded so much better. It's just like it can breathe better than the Marantz if that description helps.

Yes the Marantz SR7008 has many more options, but they are laid out cheap and most are useless. The Sony DOES support DTS HD MASTER AUDIO but it doesn't display it on the screen. Sony ES has a funny way of displaying what it is decoding. I myself agree with the review here and I enjoy HD DCS (Studio) over all of the other formats. Even though I drive my speakers with an external amp, I did try to drive my Klipsch RF-7 II's which require a lot of power and the Sony ES, even without bi-amping, powered my speakers wonderfully without cutting out or sounding maxed out like the NAD receiver did. The remote control seems cheap for a $1700 receiver but once you get used to it, it is laid out perfect and it's well designed and easy to use unlike the Marantz remote.

I am a picky person and hard to please. Picky enough to buy the Marantz after buying the Sony ES, just to see and hear the difference. Also, the Marantz isn't 4K compliant. I got my STR-ZA3000ES for $775 online brand new in a sealed box with a confirmed and registered 5 year warranty from Sony. But after having it for as long as I have now and comparing it to Marantz and NAD, I'll take the Sony ES any day. It's well worth the $1700 price tag considering the 4K compliancy unlike most, the build quality which is better than I've ever seen, and the sound just makes it worth even more!