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.
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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.
After all the setup, I spent some time exploring features of the receiver. In both the Watch and Listen menus you can find several pre-loaded streaming services include Amazon, Netflix, Pandora, Slacker, Youtube, Hulu Plus and Vudu. Netflix even has its own button on the remote. Some of the streaming services require you to go to a Sony registration web site to sign up. In fact, you can’t even enter an existing Pandora password directly though the receiver (Onkyo receivers allow this). Before you use Pandora you need to go through the Sony registration process. This seems like an unnecessary irritation, but it only adds a few minutes to your setup time.
If you want to listen to music or watch videos from you iPod/iPhone/iPad there’s a USB connection in the front of the receiver. Strangely, the first time I tried hooking up my iPlayers the receiver would not recognize anything including both an iPhone 4 and 4S. The Sony simply showed a “Please Wait” message, but never connected. The next day I tried again and the Sony recognized both phones immediately and let me play music. I suspect the phones may have been on their batteries last legs the first time and didn’t have enough power in them to handshake with the receiver. Anyway, I only experienced that problem once. Unfortunately the unit offers no AirPlay or Bluetooth option for connecting an iPhone, so wired is your only option.
DLNA worked much better for me. The Sony instantly recognized my WD TV Live Hub and showed folders for all my Live Hub content. I know DLNA sometimes gets a bum rap from some users, but I personally like it. From my one network-connected hard drive I can send music to several DLNA-compatible devices around the house.
I’m kind of an impatient person, so I hate it when receivers make me wait. I had no problem with this Sony when switching inputs. Press the BD source button, and it jumps to attention. Then press the Sat/Cable button and you’re instantly back in cable TV land. HDMI handshake issues never presented themselves.
So how’s it sound? I configured the receiver as a 5.1 system, though you can use it at 7.1, 7.2 or stick to 5.1 and use the extra two channels as a separate audio zone for the back yard or another room.
I started with some music, Florence and The Machine’s Dog Days are Over. Over the my Canton speakers, the music was rich and powerful. I then switched to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s album The Letting Go. The sound optimizer feature seemed to boost the lower frequencies by a few dB and give the music bit more depth, but maybe hides some detail. I liked it in some instances and not in others. In Bonnie’s No Bad News the extra bass overwhelmed the subtlety of the music. Without the feature, the Sony delivered clear and well-balanced music and a pleasant soundstage. I’d probably use this on a case-by-case basis. The same goes for Sony’s sound field options, the best of which was DTS Neo:X, though your ears may be different.
In movies, the Sony receiver delivered all the power and dynamics I expected from a device of this caliber. Dialog was always clear, and effects precise or diffuse when they were called to be precise or diffuse. The 130 watt per channel amplifier could easily fill all but the biggest home theaters.
Overall, the Sony worked well, but the lack of AirPlay make it seem a bit lacking compared to some of the other similarly priced systems on the market (you can fill that hole with a $99 Apple TV). The abundance of built-in online streaming services means you can use this receiver as amplifier, processor and source without connecting anything else to it.
Sony STR-DA5700ES Home Theater Receiver
• 7.2 channel A/V receiver (130w/ch, 8 Ohm 20-20kHz 0.09%THD)
• Internet streaming: Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and more
• Activity-based on screen interface for easy navigation
• Easy setup wizard saves time
• DCAC EX Speaker Auto-Calibration with Speaker Relocation and Automatic Phase Matching
• 3D pass-through over HDMI
• Integrated 4-port Ethernet switch
• iPhone/iPod touch/Android remote control app (I could not try the Android app)
• 8 HD inputs (6 HDMI, 2 component), 2 HDMI outputs
• iPhone/iPo® via front USB
• Integrates with control systems via Control over IP, RS232 or IR
• High-quality digital Audio Transmission System (H.A.T.S.)
• Multi-channel uncompressed direct stream digital output
• DTS-Neo:x supports 11 speakers plus a sub
• Second-zone Cat5
• 31-band Graphic Equalizer
• Programmable triggers