When it comes to the pinnacle of home theater performance, few enthusiasts would offer up AV receivers as being shining examples of the end-all be-all, a title that is generally held by separate, specialized components. AV receivers, on the other hand, typically are an exercise in compromise, possessing many of the most up-to-date features while coming up short in terms of outright sonic superiority. However, there is a definite place for AV receivers, as they are unquestionably more popular among real-world enthusiasts, thanks to their do-it-all designs and attractive price points. But what if there was an AV receiver that managed to be every bit as good sonically as its higher-end counterparts, while still managing to pack virtually every feature known to man within a single chassis that was both well-built and backed by one of the most storied names in the business? If such an AV receiver existed, would it change the way we look at AV receivers? Would it progress AV receivers from being "suitable for the masses" to legitimate high-end contenders? That's what Sony is hoping to do with its new flagship STR-DA5800ES (5800ES) 9.2 channel 4K AV receiver. Whether or not the company succeeded is what I had to find out.
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Retailing for $2,099.99 and sold either direct via the Sony website or though select ES dealers, the 5800ES is the most advanced AV receiver Sony has offered to date. While it may be a giant leap forward for Sony, the visual styling is, well, a bit stale, as it looks like every other Sony receiver available today, or even in years past. The 5800ES is a large, semi-gloss and matte black slab of industrial design that measures 17 inches wide by seven-and-a-half inches tall and almost 17 inches deep. While it may weigh only 40 pounds, it feels much, much heavier in hand. The front fascia isn't sexy, but it is functional, possessing many (if not all) of the requisite manual controls for everyday operation as well as a few not so everyday controls. The most notable manual controls across the face of the 5800ES are the four large knobs that run along its center: one each for tone, tuning, input selection and of course volume. There is a brightly lit display that runs along the top of the 5800ES that, while narrow, is clearly legible from several feet away and possesses all the necessary info needed to determine just what the receiver is doing at any given time. There is even a narrow light that rests near dead center of the 5800ES that illuminates when the 5800ES is decoding multi-channel material, just in case you needed a visual prompt to tell you that your surround or rear channels were playing.
Around back, things get a little more intense, as the back panel is awash with more input/output options, as well as control ports, than I believe anything I've ever seen - and I'm an Integra/Onkyo fan. Moving from left to right, the first inputs I came across were the 5800ES' digital inputs, which consist of three optical and three coaxial. Next to the digital inputs, running in a vertical alignment, rest the 5800ES' control ports, starting with RS-232C, IR remote ports (one in and four out) followed by three 12-volt trigger outs. Continuing on, I noticed AM and FM antenna ports (people still use these), as well as a Zone 2 video out, which took the form of an Ethernet port. Almost directly across from the Zone 2 video out rest four - count 'em, four - Ethernet ports that tackle everything from control and updates to media streaming. Below the four Ethernet ports are a bevy of analog audio and video inputs, as well as a full complement (9.2) of unbalanced preamp outputs. Above the four Ethernet ports, you'll find 11 HDMI ports, eight in and three out, with the third HDMI out being reserved for Zone 2 duties. There is actually a ninth HDMI input located on the front panel and, like the rear port labeled 4K, the front port is 4K enabled as well. Below the myriad of HDMI input/output options are four component input/outputs, two in and two out, with the second being for a second zone. There are a few straggling analog inputs below the four components: two for MD/Tape (one in, one out) and an analog TV input (audio). Resting near the far right side are the 5800ES' binding posts, all nine channels, though there are technically 11 total. Toss in two two-prong AC outlets and a removable power cord, and you have the 5800ES' back panel all sewn up.
Behind the scenes - or should I say sheet metal - the 5800ES boasts an amplifier section claiming 130 watts of total power across all of its channels into eight ohms. The 5800ES is a 4K-capable device that offers both 4K upscaling and 4K pass-through. However, not all of its HDMI inputs are equal in this regard. For 4K upscaling, you can use all of the 5800ES' nine HDMI inputs, but if pass-through of a 4K signal is what you're after, then only HDMI inputs one, two and nine are available. It should be noted that if you currently own an HD display (who doesn't) sending a 4K upscaled image to it via the Sony or other 4K upscaling device will not work and will result in an error message or blank screen. In other words, the 5800ES' 4K functionality, at present, is more of a future proof feature versus one you're likely to use day to day for the foreseeable future -unless you've got an spare $25,000 lying around for either the Sony VPL-VW1000ES projector or their UltraHD display.
Another key feature unique to the 5800ES is its Control 4 integration, though before you get too excited (as I did) and go thinking that the 5800ES somehow enables you Control 4, uh-uh. It doesn't control out of the box. The 5800ES merely has the ability to encompass a broader whole-home control system when unlocked by a Control 4 or Sony ES dealer - plus additional hardware, of course. When I spoke with a Control 4 installer re the added feature, he thought the Control 4 integration was an added benefit, as the additional hardware needed to make the 5800ES fully functional was minimal compared to building a whole setup from scratch. In other words, the 5800ES puts you ahead of the curve if home automation is your end goal. I wasn't able to unlock the full Control 4 functionality as I am not a Control 4 customer, nor did I request to become one for this review. Suffice to say that I've spoken with others whom I trust who have the 5800ES as well as Control 4 setups in their homes and have been told the two products, Sony and Control 4, do work well together.
Other notable features include Faroudja video processing, 3D pass-through, multi-zone or room HD video distribution, DNLA network compliance, Internet streaming capability (Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, etc.), App-based control, support for all surround sound codecs, custom HD surround sound codecs, auto speaker calibration and EQ, and much, much more. For a complete breakdown of all the 5800ES' features, please visit Sony's website and the 5800ES product page.
This brings me to the remote. Well, there are three ways to control the 5800ES, at least in Sony's eyes. One way is via the included remote, which is a long, slender affair that is a bit finicky and frankly cluttered in its layout. It's got range on its side, though it is very directional. The partial backlighting helps when trying to operate it in the dark, though either it, or the 5800ES itself, seem slow to respond at times. You could always employ a Control 4 remote (as I understand) or download the ES Remote app for your Android or iOS device. I was particularly excited about the app as I control all my components via free remote apps supplied by the manufacturers. I downloaded the app to my Nexus 7 tablet (Android) and wouldn't you know it - it didn't work, at least not at first. You see the app defaults to a demo mode, which unless you surf through some fine print, appears permanent -note I said appears. However, going into the "App Settings" section and pairing it (the app) with the 5800ES on my network did the trick and resulted in wireless, App-based control. While not wholly intuitive, the app does work and is very cool -not to mention free.
At first blush, integrating the 5800ES into my system seemed easy enough, for I've installed more than my fair share of AV receivers in the past. However, I treated the 5800ES as I do every AV receiver, which as I quickly learned wasn't going to produce accurate results. For starters, I connected my Oppo BDP-103 to the HDMI 1 input and my Dune-HD Max to the HDMI 2 input. Next, I ran a 50-foot high-speed HDMI cable with Redmere from Monoprice between my SIM2 Nero and the 5800ES. The speakers I used during my evaluation of the 5800ES included Tekton Design's Pendragon and Wharfedale Jade 1 bookshelf speakers, with the latter serving as surround channels, as I'm awaiting the arrival of my new Bowers & Wilkins' CT800 series loudspeakers. All speakers were connected via runs of 14-gauge in-wall speaker cable, courtesy of Binary Cables, which is distributed by SnapAV. For my subwoofer, I employed a single JL Audio Fathom f110, which was EQ'ed for my room prior to the 5800ES' arrival using Room EQ Wizard and the Behringer Feedback Destroyer or BFD. The BFD remained in the signal chain via its connection to the 5800ES' subwoofer output.
When I fired up the system, I was presented with an onscreen interface (one that will look familiar to PS3 owners) asking me to either perform the Easy Setup or skip. Naturally, I skipped it, as easy setup procedures are often not where the true measure of a product lies. This was my mistake. Because the 5800ES is so jam-packed with features, controls and goodies, it's not a bad thing to let it hold your hand for those first few steps, for going it alone is quite tedious and not all that intuitive. Also, the 5800ES's menus, while brilliantly rendered, are very, very cumbersome and slow to react; in many instances, they require load time equivalent to that of most Blu-rays. My initial attempt at manual setup didn't go very well and resulted in me cursing the 5800ES. Resetting the unit to its factory default setting (i.e., out of the box) and going through the four-step Easy Setup proved much more fruitful.
The easy setup procedure is, well, easy. You start by telling the 5800ES what inputs you're using (it turns off those not in use). Then you tell it which components you have and, if you're lucky or an all-Sony household, your associated equipment's remote codes are going to be readily available, so you'll be able to control them straightaway using the 5800ES' remote and included IR blasters. I was not so fortunate, as neither my Oppo player nor my Dune were in the Sony's pre-configured menus. All attempts to get the 5800ES to later learn my components' codes proved unsuccessful. I skipped this step and continued onward to the 5800ES' network setup, which went off without a hitch. Before I knew it, I was prompted with a firmware update. I ran it, which undid all my previous settings, though they were easy enough to redo since I knew ahead of time to skip the step regarding the remote codes.
Lastly, I ran the 5800ES' auto speaker setup and EQ, which consisted of me having to plug in the included calibrated microphone and sitting through a series of quick and unique sweeps. I performed the procedure three times just to see how consistent it was in its findings. Each time, I got almost the exact same results, which is more than I can say for Audyssey. Moreover, the accompanying visuals during the calibration were not only beautiful but almost real time in their readouts. With the easy setup procedure complete, I was then free to tweak certain controls manually, including choosing curves within the EQ itself, which is very cool. Overall, the easy setup procedure really does put you in a position to enjoy the show and not in a half-assed sort of way.
In all honesty, had I simply gone with the easy setup out of the box, I more than likely would've been viewing HD content in under a half an hour, but because of some quirky mix-ups, a detour down manual setup land and some head-scratching on my behalf over a few GUI choices/delays, I was up and running in around two hours. Needless to say, the 5800ES is about as full-featured an AV receiver as I've ever seen and, even after living with it for three weeks, there is still more I know I have yet to uncover. It is a receiver that can be as simple or as complicated as you want and/or make it out to be, which is both a good and a bad thing. Sony would have you believe that, because the 5800ES is an ES branded product, it is going to be installed by ES qualified dealers/installers, but I don't believe that notion to be a reality, for the 5800ES is literally available for purchase everywhere, including online, which means the one who's really going to be doing the install is you. If you're a novice, the easy setup is definitely for you, but even if you fancy yourself an expert, I still recommend starting there, for it makes small manual adjustments later much more manageable.
I began my evaluation of the 5800ES with an old favorite, Hans Zimmer's "Seville" off the Mission: Impossible II soundtrack (Hollywood Records). Right off the bat, the 5800ES impressed me with its clean, precise sound. The entire frequency range was smooth and effortless, with wonderful and natural detail and texture throughout. The tonality was very neutral, which surprised me, as I find too often that AV receivers tilt one way or another in an attempt to compensate for being, well, receivers. Not the case with the 5800ES. Even at louder volumes, the 5800ES was the very picture of composure. Bass was fast, taut and not at all bloated. I've heard deeper from my JL sub, but I felt the blend with my Pendragons was that much more seamless via the 5800ES' auto speaker setup than in my previous setups with competing components. The soundstage was clearly defined, though with this particular track, I didn't experience as much lateral or front to back depth as I've grown accustomed to, but its lack of space wasn't distracting. I did notice, however, that the entire performance felt more fleshed out and naturally dynamic the more I turned the volume up, as there was definitely a point at which the music sprang to life.
Read more about the performance of the Sony 5800ES AV Receiver on Page 2.