Sony STR-DA5200ES AV Receiver

Ah, technology. Too bad automobiles can't keep up with home theater electronics, or we'd all be driving around in Hummers that get 200 miles to the gallon, emit pure oxygen and absorb all that heat coming off Al Gore. Sony's new receiver is the latest example of more for less. The STR-DA5200ES is feature packed, though perhaps not to the gills. And since we've segued from cars to fish, you should know now that, for the price, this receiver is better than a fair catch.

No Baloney
After a recent price drop, the Sony STR-DA5200ES sells for $200 less than the $1,500 Pioneer Elite VSX-84TXSi receiver I reviewed a few months ago. Sony's "ES" designation is roughly comparable to Pioneer's "Elite" moniker, and the two sit at the top of each company's line. While you can get many of the same basic features in a less expensive receiver, the 5200ES is a flagship product whose quality and extra content is commensurate with its stature.

The Sony offers seven channels at 120W each into 8 ohms with two-channels driven full range (see Specifications for more details). There is video switching for three HDMI (1.2a) and three component sources. Digital doesn't get shorted either, with four optical and three coaxial inputs – and that's above and behind the digital audio signals available via the three HDMI inputs.

When it comes to the newer audio codecs available on HD DVD and Blu-ray, everyone wants to be certain that their receiver can handle them. And the Sony can. In spite of the fact that the Sony receiver will not accept and decode a Dolby TrueHD bitstream directly (Onkyo's latest receivers are among the first of those that will), that doesn't mean you can't enjoy these soundtracks today with the Sony. Most (but not all) current Blu-ray and HD DVD players have the ability to transcode Dolby TrueHD (but not DTS HD Master Audio) to multichannel PCM, which can then be sent to the Sony over HDMI. Alternately, such players can decode TrueHD and send it to the Sony as 5.1-channel analog via the receiver's 7.1-channel analog input.

Besides the obligatory AM and FM tuners, Sony takes XM radio seriously. Pony up the $13 monthly XM subscription, pick up a XM mini-tuner on your own dime, and the 5200ES offers an interface and 32 programmable presets to hurry you on your way to poorly compressed audio, with a heart. I have DirecTV and get XM as part of my premium package, so I didn't try this. Besides, at low levels XM may be fun, but quality-wise, it's not even close to my iPod, much less a CD.

One great feature from my perspective is Sony's inclusion of a good, quiet phono stage and an analog direct mode to take advantage of it. Sure, it won't put Audio Research or Conrad Johnson out of business, but the fact that it is there could be the deciding factor in many audiophile-gone-wild decisions.

If you're into multi-room setups, the 5200ES can separately source and output to three zones. Sony even includes a second remote for zones two and three. Interestingly, this second remote cannot even control the volume in the primary zone, so forget about digging it out if the main remote goes missing. The back panel features separate 12VDC triggers for each of the three zones as well. Zone 2 offers a single composite video and stereo analog audio, while Zone 3 skips the video.

If you're only going to use five of the seven amplifier channels in your main listening room, you can use the "Amplification Relocation" feature to program the surround back channels as speaker outputs for zone two. Or, if you zone out when people start talking about zones, you can use those two extra channels to bi-amplify your front channel main speakers instead. Bet that woke you up!

What's missing? For one thing, the on-screen menu, or Graphical User Interface (GUI), is inconsistent depending on the source and the output. It works perfectly (if turned on) while watching a component source upconverted to HDMI. Changes in volume and surround settings are shown on the screen when you attempt any change. The screen goes to about one quarter brightness while making the change, with a dimmed image of the source behind the OSD.

But the OSD doesn't appear at all when component sources are viewed via the Sony's component output. In fact, if you change the volume, the screen goes black for several seconds (well, mine did, on the plasma) but I still had sound.

Finally, with an HDMI source (the type of source most of you will want to use in your home theater), the GUI will appear, but when it does it completely mutes the video and audio from the source. You can still change the volume and see the volume bar graphic, but you can't hear the program while it's happening. Also, with HDMI sources, you must reengage the GUI every time you want to use it, but this is not a problem, because you won't want to.

Around Sound
The Sony 5200ES economically stacks all its surround modes, and there's a slew of them, on just four buttons on the remote. But the OSD doesn't track surround mode changes, so you have to rely on the front panel of the 5200ES to see what mode is engaged. The first button is used to select either 2 ch mode or, when pressed with the shift key, Analog Direct. In Analog Direct mode, the subwoofer is not engaged.

Another button is used for a number of proprietary music modes. Some are interesting for few seconds, most are harmless, a few are annoying, and some are truly offensive.

The Movie button cycles through a few custom settings mimicking some of the movie dubbing stages at Sony Studios, like the "Cary Grant," whoever he is (okay, so I admit, I'm just trying to make myself appear younger). These proprietary movie modes weren't heavy handed like some of the music modes and you might enjoy playing with then, say, the next time your significant other makes you sit through another Kate Hudson movie.

A button marked A.F.D. (Auto Format Detect) is the fourth of the surround selection controls. In its A.F.D. setting, it automatically detects and decodes digital formats such as Dolby Digital and DTS. But press the button repeatedly and you can cycle through Dolby ProLogic, Dolby ProLogic IIx Movie / Music / Game, DTS Neo: 6 Cinema / Music, Multi-Stereo and Neural Surround if the source signal is analog. All of the A.F.D. modes were appropriate in their own way. One oddity – the ProLogic modes will take advantage of your subwoofer, while the DTS Neo: 6 modes, in Sony's implementation, will not.

And if you connect headphones, the Sony will give you access to standard two-channel and simulated surround. How well Sony's proprietary "Headphone Theater" compares with Dolby Headphone is a subject for another reviewer, but the fact that there's something here for apartment dwellers is a gas.

Def Jam
As I began working on this review, I was using an older Fujitsu plasma TV equipped with a DVI input. One of my sources is my DVR. I ran an HDMI connection from the DVR to the Sony, and an HDMI to DVI adapter cable to the plasma. With this arrangement, the Sony would not reproduce the digital audio carried on HDMI from my DVR. I even requested and received a second sample of the receiver, but to no avail. Because of the various hand-shakes required of both HDCP and the HDMI implementation (in its many versions) it is impossible for me to say what piece of equipment was at fault, but I didn't have this problem with the Denon 4806CI receiver using the same TV.

To get around the problem, I ran a separate optical cable for audio from my DVR to the Sony. Later, when I upgraded my plasma from a 2004 model to a 2005 model, which allowed me to use HDMI from start to finish, audio from the Sony over HDMI was restored.

One caveat to using a separate digital cable: SPDIF coaxial and optical digital outputs from Blu-ray or HD DVD players cannot transmit any of the new high resolution movie soundtracks, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. With an optical or coaxial connection you will hear a standard (and lossy) Dolby Digital signal in its place [at a slightly-higher-than-DVD 640kbps bitrate- Ed.].

Sony's approach to routing digital audio inputs (coaxial and optical) and component video through the receiver is, shall we say, incomplete. You'll have to plan your cabling well, using the nearly indecipherable table on page 96 of the owner's manual as your only guide. Not all the physical inputs can be assigned to any or all of the sources. For instance, digital audio on optical input 2 can only be assigned to the video 2 source, while optical input 4 can be assigned to any of four sources. In short, the programming seems unnecessarily hobbled.

Video Processing
The Sony 5200ES incorporates Faroudja DCDi processing. It can upconvert and transcode 480i analog video (composite, S-Video, and component) to HDMI at 480p, 720p, 1080i, or even 1080p. It will also transcode 480i composite video or S-Video to component video at 480i. But it will only upconvert analog video sources to a component output (to a maximum resolution of 1080i) if they are not copy protected. Copy protected analog sources cannot be upconverted to a component output. High-definition component sources are, however, passed through at full resolution.

The Sony will not scale HDMI digital video sources at all. Such signals merely pass through the receiver. That's apparently still the realm of more expensive receivers like the $4,000 Denon 4806CI, which does everything except churn butter. But HDMI sources like high-definition DVR's and HD DVD and Blu-ray players provide their own scaling, so this missing feature may not be worth what it would add to the receiver's price.

While the receiver includes some of the video processing and switching ability I would want on my wish list, it doesn't offer everything. It will down-convert component video signals to either S-Video or composite (for example to feed your 2nd and 3rd zones or a small monitor), but it won't down-convert digital video signals from HDMI sources to any of the analog domains.