Sony STR-DA4300ES A/V Receiver and BDP-S500 Blu-ray Player Page 2

On the audio side, the player’s HDMI jack outputs the bitstreams for all the Dolby-family formats including TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and Dolby Digital. It also does so for uncompressed PCM soundtracks. On the DTS side, things are more complicated. The HDMI jack does pass the bitstream for lossy DTS-HD High Resolution Audio but not for the higher-end lossless DTS-HD Master Audio—that’s pared down to the core DTS signal. If you were worried about lack of CD compatibility in some early Blu-ray players, rest assured this one plays CDs like a trouper.

All Blu-ray, Of Course
For movie auditions, I went to Blockbuster and rented three titles, each with a different kind of soundtrack. All were Blu-ray, of course. But the soundtracks included Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and uncompressed PCM. The Dolby and DTS options were the new lossless codecs. Left out in the cold were the new and improved lossy codecs, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. My loudspeakers were a quintet of Paradigm’s Reference Studio/20s. I ran them full range, requiring the receiver to produce bass effects through five 7-inch woofers.

The Reaping surprised me by not displaying a disc menu (except for the extras, which didn’t interest me). The only way to select Dolby TrueHD was to repeatedly punch the remote’s Audio button and watch the receiver’s front panel. TrueHD was the second of four choices. The movie’s busy gumbo of supernatural noises seamlessly integrated effects with music—obviously the work of someone with a good ear and lots of ideas. It was richer during moments of quiet menace than during full-on assaults, like the cattle-attack-van scene. Blu-ray lavished Hilary Swank and the rural Louisiana setting with richly saturated color, including the river of blood, and shadow.

Eragon delivered the royal purr of Jeremy Irons, the hooves of horses, and the noise of battle in DTS-HD Master Audio—which the player passed as DTS core. Aside from one directionally rich scene with voices reverberating in a cave, and an overall sense of clarity, there wasn’t much that made me feel I was having a Master Audio moment—but then, this was a downconverted lossy version. This story of a boy and his dragon hinged on visuals from Weta Digital, best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Slovakian countryside. A great combination, as it turns out.

Annapolis, with soundtrack in uncompressed PCM, was a hybrid military and boxing drama. The boxing matches featured several hundred impacts and were, sonically, the most convincing I’ve ever heard in a fiction film. A whole lot of pumpkins must have given up their lives to baseball bats wielded by crazed Foley artists. The Sony receiver pumped the blows through the five Paradigm woofers, keeping the sound tight. Heroic music, reverberating drum rolls, and the occasional thunderstorm enriched the soundtrack and punctuated the story, giving the system a chance to display the size of its soundfield.

In all three movies, the receiver seemed to be unfazed by scenes with lots of fast, complex, and bass-heavy action. Vocals were commendably clear—the Sony receiver may be better than average in that respect. Loading it with lossless and uncompressed digits no doubt helped.

My one complaint about lossless audio—and I’ve had this problem with high-resolution hardware and software in general—was that I could really hear what the sound designer was doing, and sometimes the perfect reproduction of texture, panning, and spatial character pulled me out of the story. When the mixer inserted a sound, and I heard the ambience in which it was recorded perfectly reproduced, that could be distracting. Sometimes, I ended up hearing a collection of mixing stages and processing decisions instead of a unified scene. Granted, the Blu-ray-player-owning, lossless-surround audience is graduating into a better class of problem, and the potential of lossless surround seems limitless.

Live, Live, Live
A long holiday recess gave me a chance to listen to the Sony receiver in depth and put plenty of mileage on the Blu-ray player, albeit mostly with DVDs and CDs. The STR-DA4300ES consistently delivered a well-outlined soundfield with adequate depth and strong vocals. There was a touch of austerity in the midrange. Voluptuous or forgiving it was not. Crisp and clear it was.

It was a perfect time to kick back with the DVD version of The Beatles Anthology and its 5.1-channel DTS soundtrack. Even in the murkiest historical recordings, the system separated familiar voices that I know almost as well as those of my immediate family. Some of the studio outtakes, remixed in 5.1, were brilliantly bold—wow, John Lennon is in my right surround channel! The live-in-the-studio telecasts of “Hey Jude” and “All You Need Is Love,” the first-ever world satellite broadcast, crackled with live-in-the-studio excitement.

Nascent: Bach Preludes on the Steel String Guitar by Bert Lams gave the receiver a chance to show off its zippy top end and well-disciplined midrange. The pick-on-steel attack was tight and succinct, accompanied by the decay of each note in the wooden body. Every Bach aficionado should own this CD by Lams, a member of the California Guitar Trio.

I put on Dave Frishberg’s Do You Miss New York?: Live at Jazz at Lincoln Center with the intention of getting some work done. It was impossible, even with my back to the system, and I gravitated to the sofa to enjoy the close-miked wonders of Frishberg’s nasal voice, his effervescent wit, and his deliciously mercurial piano playing. The system made this excellent live recording sparkle. I felt as if I were sitting close to the singer, with my head nearly in the piano. Even without a sub, I could feel the low notes in my toes. It was a lovely feeling.

The Sony STR-DA4300ES receiver and BDP-S500 Blu-ray player taught me a few things I hadn’t known—especially how convenient it can be to interconnect components with HDMI and have them communicate with one another. That’s how home theater systems should work. The receiver was a solid performer, even working in tandem with full-range speakers. The Blu-ray player delivered gorgeous high-def pictures and did standard-def DVD business efficiently. Together, they were a great little system.