While companies like Denon, Integra, Marantz and Pioneer Elite may come to mind first when thinking of mid-high home theater receivers, Sony’s ES line of gear holds its own among those brands. Strangely, the products are a little hard to find.
You can’t find the ES products on Sony’s main web site, which is mostly just an e-commerce site (ES products are only sold through authorized brick and mortar dealers). ES stands for Elevated Standard, which in other words also means more expensive—Sony’s non-ES receivers range from about $200-$400, while the ES models exceed $1K, and they’re not the kind of systems that go on sale due to Sony’s strict minimum advertised price policy. The upshot is that you won’t need to worry too much that one dealer is gouging you because they all sell them for about the same price. The downside is you can’t price shop online. With high-end gear you’ll want to go to a knowledgeable dealer anyway who can explain the system and also install and set up is you need that.
The STR-DA5700ES is the top model of the 2012 ES line, and as such it’s got all the standard receiver goodies like high power output (7.2 channels, 130 watts per channel), 3D pass-through, high resolution audio processing (Dolby TrueHD, DTS Master Audio, DSD) and multiroom/multisource capability. Because the receiver is no longer just a box for connecting your source components and speakers into, this model also comes with a number of streaming services built in for music and video. One of the less usual features the model includes is the addition of four Ethernet ports that serve as a switching hub.
Drivers, Start Your Engines.
With any receiver, before plugging in and jumping out of the gate, you need to go through a standard setup routine to balance the speakers and make sure all the parts of the system are talking correctly to each other. This is one area where the Sony excels probably better than any receiver I’ve used recently. A very friendly Easy Setup wizard will walk the user through all the in/out and network decisions, and then a simple speaker calibration wizard will make the level adjustments. To setup the speakers you plug in a supplied microphone and place the mic in the user’s listening position, then the receivers sends out a series of test tones to the speakers which are picked up by the mic, and adjustments are made automatically.
After that process was done I tested the levels with my own sound meter, and the results were good—it did poke the subwoofer a bit higher than normal, but I tend to like it that way (though my family doesn’t) anyway.
The power of a receiver (aside from its actual, you know, power) is its ability to integrate all your sources and devices into one accessible device and interface. At this the Sony mostly succeeds very well. The key is the Home button. Press the home button and you’re taken to a screen that offers you a number of options, such as Watch, Listen, Favorites, etc. Use the remote to highlight one of those options, and you’re taken to more options. Selecting Listen will offer you a menu of all the audio devices you have connected. You can then further select internet services for things like Pandora and Slacker. Color icons are used to make the menu friendlier to navigate. A similar list of options is provided in the Watch menu. To make matters easier, there are Listen and Watch buttons directly on the remote, so you really never need go to the Home screen unless you want to get to something like settings.
Another nice feature is called Easy Automation. Easy Automation is a feature that works kind of like an activity-based macro. You can assign a group of commands to one button and have it labeled Movie, Music, Party or Night. Then when you select that option, all those commands will be executed at once. Included in the commands you can add is the ability to select your preferred soundfield mode or sound optimizer.
Hard buttons for Easy Automation are on the remote, or you can get to the selections through the Home button.
Speaking of buttons, the remote has a lot of them, and unfortunately, they’re not all easy to get at. For an ES-level receiver, I’m shocked that the remote isn’t backlit. If you’re watching TV at night, you’ll definitely need some light in the room to operate this remote. Like most receiver remotes, the source buttons are small and all shaped the same. I’d like to see a company that made at least two of the source buttons extra large: Cable and Blu-ray. Those are the only two most people really need, so make them prominent. Also the important Watch and Listen buttons are equally small and buried. The biggest offence though is the placement of the volume control. Its way down at the bottom of the remote, so when you hold the remote normally in your palm, you have to dislocate your thumb to adjust the volume.
While the remote my not be stellar, ES line can be controlled through an ES app. Theoretically you can use either an Apple or Android device for this, but I could locate no ES remote app in Google’s app store on my Samsung Galaxy tablet. There was another Sony remote app, but that was for Blu-ray players, and not anything from the ES line. Luckily I did find the ES app for my iPhone 4S. Once I downloaded and launched the app, I scanned for devices and was connected to the receiver in about five seconds. From there operation was pretty self-explanatory. I had access to the all-important volume and input controls, which makes an app an ideal secondary remote—especially for using in the dark. As usual for these things, the app didn’t have access to everything the receiver does. The major omission was that I couldn’t select any streaming music services from the app remote—only with the physical remote.
To be fair to the ES line, probably most users won’t stick with the supplied remote anyway. The receiver can be integrated with control systems via IR, RS-232 or IP. If I owned this system I’d put the receiver on a good universal remote or universal app right away, and so would any integrator.
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.