Sony Electronics’ ES (Elevated Standard) products are the crème de la crème of its line—a showcase for high-quality construction, premium parts, and Sony’s razzle-dazzle features and technologies. Sharing space at the summit of the ES universe is the STR-DA6400ES 7.1-channel A/V receiver and the BDP-S5000ES Blu-ray disc player.
Describing the Sony STR-DA6400ES as a mere 120Wpc audio/video receiver (AVR) doesn’t do it justice. Sure it counts among its A/V highlights dual Faroudja DCDi Cinema chips for upscaling standard-def content to 1080p in the main room and 1080i in the second room. And naturally it reproduces the latest audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. But that’s not all by a long shot. It’s a network receiver with capability more akin to mission control in Houston than the average AVR. The 6400ES is designed to be the system hub, routing and directing the action to and from a labyrinth of electronics, a computer, and its peripherals. For example, you can stream music, photos, and videos stored on a PC over a home network via Ethernet or a wireless router. Likewise you can access your music from an iPod or Walkman, as well as SHOUTcast, the Internet radio directory service, or Rhapsody Music Service. XM/Sirius ready? Are you sirious? And, it’s got the connectivity to spread the entertainment around the house, including high-def to a second room via CAT5e cable or three-zone audio. Sony even tosses in an extra full-function remote control. Also bundled is ES Utility software, which adjusts set-up parameters and enables upgrades via the user’s computer. (It’s Windows XP-or-Vista-compliant only, however. Does Steve Jobs know this?)
The BDP-S5000ES Blu-ray player displays video in full 1080p/24fps resolution and upscales DVDs to 1080p resolution. Unique to the player is a new 14-bit HD video processor that operates in tandem with Sony’s HD Reality Enhancer and Super Bit Mapping technologies. Together these systems analyze each pixel of a disc and automatically adjust the picture quality. The player will also decode surround formats internally, allowing the user to stream multichannel audio through its analog 7.1-channel outputs and making the player compatible with late-model AVRs not equipped with today’s advanced audio formats. With its Ethernet connection and a memory card it’s also BD-Live-capable. The S5000ES continues a tradition of ruggedly built players with a rigid beam chassis and dual-shield construction for increased solidity and isolation from resonances, and uses Sony’s R-Core transformer, a design Sony feels has an inherently lower radiated hum and noise than comparable transformers. Importantly, the audio circuit board is isolated from all video circuitry, but unlike its stereo SACD forbear, the DVP-9000ES, the video circuits cannot be manually turned off.
When it comes to setup, don’t be cowed by the scope of the STR. It’s surprisingly easy to get up and running, from speaker settings to networking. Using Ethernet I was able to log on to the Rhapsody site without a hitch or any reconfiguration. However, you might want to avert your eyes before checking out the crowded back panel stuffed with grandpa’s old component and composite video inputs. With HDMI’s ascendency, it’ll soon be the dustbin for these relics. Fortunately, the STR offers a generous six HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs. The on-screen display is excellent, vivid, and exhaustive, and geared to tap content on a networked PC. There’s auto-calibration for speaker setups, although this rewarded the surround channels with too much output for my tastes.
Purist stereo playback may be of secondary importance to many home-theater fans, but it remains the ultimate shakedown test for system transparency. I experienced the best results by running through the analog inputs and hitting the Audio Direct button—an all-analog circuit that bypasses processing and tone controls. The difference is telling. Except for some minor reservations—softness at the frequency extremes and so-so imaging—I was impressed by the Sony ES tag-team. With my usual playlist of pop, rock, and symphonic at the ready, I immediately felt the full weight of the receiver’s 120Wpc even at cinema levels. The low-frequency material of Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road” had bloom and solid pitch-definition. There was an overall warmth to the system’s audio personality and a smoothness in the treble that ran counter to my experience of many AVRs and DVD-based players, which often have a scratchy, dry treble and a flat presentation. To maximize performance and improve imaging and soundstaging be sure to turn off all digital-component switching (DVR, flat panel) through the receiver’s video section.
But these are secondary considerations to the true mission of the ES receiver and player, which is to transform your system into a high-resolution A/V wonderland. Among the Blu-ray discs I played were titles like Tropic Thunder (Dolby TrueHD), WALL-E, and Pan’s Labyrinth (DTS-HD Master Audio). The one common sonic ingredient is the way these formats bring musicality back to the soundtrack. Whereas the early compressed surround formats sounded relatively edgy and ultimately synthetic, the Sony combination outputs movie audio with complex multi-layered conviction. It’s a more elegant kind of immersion—as if music’s fabric had been changed from burlap to silk. It envelops the room with a dimensionality and image specificity that make the average movie soundtrack sound, well, symphonic. Surround effects are similarly enhanced. During the opening desert ambush sequence in Ironman, the steering precision of the system was tested by a deadly buffet of small arms fire and diagonally cross-panned explosions and ricochets. Each cue was discretely imparted with its own specific timbre. Meanwhile, midway between the front speakers and the surround speakers, helicopters hovered in a specific airspace. My ears could track the movement of these images seemingly within inches—a task earlier surround formats could never accomplish in my room. Note: The one downside is that with higher resolution and dynamics comes the need for speakers that can match full-range demands. Begin with a great pair of front L/Rs and a strong, timbre-matched center channel—something along the lines of Paradigm’s Monitor 9s (Issue 192) and its CC-290 center channel (a fabulous system and a great value).
The Essence of ES
By any standard the Sony STR-6400ES and BDP-S5000ES are impressive. Only you can decide, however, whether you’ll need all the network firepower and connectivity these flagships provide. And there’s a final issue I haven’t touched upon. A large part of the draw for these bespoke ES designs has to do with the Sony’s product line integration. From its VAIO media PC, Walkman personal player, PS3, and flat-panel displays, each element is designed to form a seamless familial whole. Sony’s wagering that this calling card will prove irresistible. After luxuriating with the STR-6400ES and BDP-S5000ES for a few months, you won’t find me betting against it.
SPECS & PRICING
Sony STR-DA6400ES 7.1-channel A/V reciever
Power Output: 120Wpc (8 ohms, 20Hz-20kHz, two channels driven)
Video Inputs: Six HDMI, three component, five composite
Video Outputs: Two HDMI, two component, three composite
Audio Inputs: Five optical, three coaxial, four analog audio, one eight-channel discrete
Audio Outputs: Two optical, one analog audio, one six-channel discrete
Control: RS232C, 12V, IR inputs
Dimensions: 16.9" x 6.75" x 16.9"
Weight: 34.5 lbs.
Sony BDP-S5000ES Blu-ray player
Video outputs: One HDMI, one component, one S-video, and one composite
Audio outputs: One optical, one coaxial, one analog, one eight-channel discrete
Control: RS232C, IR input
Dimensions: 17" x 4.92" x 14.37"
Weight: 22 lbs.
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