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.
Unlocking the Control4 function on the receiver costs an additional $300. To get me set up, a representative from local CE Pro HouseLogix came over (see my VoicePod review for more on what HouseLogix did during their visit) and spent a little time programming the Control4 side of the receiver. You need to use the included Zigbee USB dongle, because that’s how it talks to the lights and any other Control4 products in the house. HouseLogix set up some Zigbee dimmers and programmed in three lighting scenes for different activities. I was also given Control4’s SR-250 remote and the Control4 app on my Samsung Android tablet.
First off, I need to say that the Control4 function made operating my entire system several times easier than it ever had been with the various universal remotes I’ve used. The interface is set up to be intuitive, so I could hand the tablet or remote to my wife and without any instructions, she could watch a movie with two or three button presses. The Control4 remote (backlit, thank God) includes an on-screen display and no more buttons than necessary for all the most common functions. The remote also communicated with the receiver over Control4’s Zigbee RF network, so you don’t have to point it at anything. I preferred, however, to use the tablet in most cases, because I didn’t have to put my glasses on to find the skip button.
However, what makes it all even more impressive is that the Control4 layer basically makes the receiver disappear. Control4’s GUI replaces everything, so that you’re no longer operating a receiver and a Blu-ray player; you’re just watching a movie. If during the movie I wanted to turn the lights on, it was simple: press the Lights buttons and pick a lighting scene or adjust the level manually. To resume the movie, I’d press Play and the lights would go down again to the appropriate scene level. This is the kind coordination that turns a home theater room from a bunch of electronics all plugged into each other to a system that acts like a focused school of fish, all moving in the same direction at once.
Sonically, the receiver performed very well. It was able to fill my 300 square-foot room with invigorating sound for both movies and music. The amps had no problem pushing my Canton speakers; dialog was clear, action was vibrant and music was, well, musical. Essentially, it sounds like a $1,000 receiver should sound. The easy setup, coupled with the automation features, make this one of the most interesting home theater receivers on the market. While the out-of-the-box control feature is impressive, upgrading to the Contol4 system will make your entertainment space even more enjoyable by taking away the frustration of operation and simply leaving you with your movies or music.
• 7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with 100W per ch. (8 Ohm 20-20kHz 0.09%THD)
• Activated with full Control4 Automation
• 10 HD inputs (8 HDMI, 2 component)
• 4K pass-through and up-scaling
• Stream the widest variety of movies and music from the Internet
• Work with a Control4 integrator to automate nearly anything in your home
• Compatible with Control4 remote controls and award winning onscreen user interface
• 3-HDMI output (2 HDMI main theater, 1 2nd zone w/4K pass-through)
• Control with optional Control4 MyHome iOS and Android mobile applications
• Sony ES 5-Year Limited Warranty