I’ve written in articles before that it seems like today’s home theater receivers, once considered audio components, are now more about content, networking and control than audio. This is especially true with Sony’s latest ES line of receivers, which not only offer very respectable AV and integration features, but a true built-in central control system that will grow with your room or home needs.
The Sony STA-DA2800ES in this review (and its big brother, the STA-DA5800ES) is more than your run-of-the-mill surround sound receiver. It’s a Trojan horse. Hidden within its metal belly is a full-fledged Control4 home automation processor. (Control4 people tell me it’s somewhere in between the HC250 and HC800 in terms of features and power.) This means that when you buy the receiver, you have in your hands not only an amplifier and signal processor, but also the means to move from a messy basket of remotes to a fully-integrated control system. Let me assure you, that’s no small thing.
First, of course, the STA-DA2800ES is a home theater receiver, will all of the gadgetry you’d expect from a modern system, plus some extras you don’t expect. The STA-DA2800ES supports 7.2 audio channels, so you can run it like that in one room, or configure your theater area for 5.1 and use the other two channels for a second audio zone. Offering nine speaker outputs so you could have 7.1 in the theater and still two extras for an audio zone would have been nice, but this is a $999 system. Those two extra channels would certainly push the price up. Each of those channels gets 100 watts of power (@8 ohms, 20-20kHz, 0.09% THD) making this a good system for medium-sized rooms (the 5800ES models kicks it up to nine channels with 130 watts per).
On the video side, the receiver offers eight HDMI inputs and three HDMI outs—one of those is for a second video zone. The outputs support both 4K pass-through and scaling via an internal video processor. There are two high-definition components inputs and the usual minefield of other analog inputs for whatever gear you’ve got. An unusual inclusion is the four-port Ethernet switch. The back USB port is for a Zigbee RF dongle, while the front USB can be used to connect your smartphone or a USB hard drive.
Being a networked receiver, the STA-DA2800ES is packed with streaming media content from services like Pandora, Hulu, Slacker, and more.
Like the prior year’s ES receivers, Sony included an automatic setup process. This is important, as receivers and our entertainment systems get more complex. The initial audio setup (called Digital Cinema Auto Calibration), walks the user through the speaker setup and does the usual test-tone beaming with an included microphone. When I ran it, the system correctly identified all of my speakers and made its automatic adjustments. That was nothing unusual for good receivers these days, but the next step was more intriguing.
While every (well, most) receivers include universal remotes and menu systems that allow you to configure inputs, assign names and set up macros to control your other gear, I can pretty safely say they’re all terrible (at that, at least). That’s why there are third-party universal remotes and control systems. This Sony receiver wants to be better. A system called Easy Automation walks the user through some pretty basic steps to identify and integrate the other components in the system. It even comes with infrared blasters to turn your Blu-ray player, TV, etc., on and off. Even more, it can control wireless lights via lamp adapters or Zigbee dimmers (none of which are included, of course). You can also set up scenes and fairly easily make all of your gear operate like a happy family. The downside is that the remote is a headache-inducing torture device—small buttons, no backlight.
That’s where plan B comes in. Plan B is Control4. With the built-in C4 processor, you can turn this fairly smart receiver into a merit scholarship winner that can sail through any test you put to it. Having an installer activate the Contol4 side not only makes your gear all work together more reliably, it also allows you to bring in more systems—such as HVAC, powered shades and other features, and eventually expand control into other rooms. It can do almost anything other Control4 products can, except for video surveillance cameras.
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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. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.