Last fall, I was on a flight with my friend (and publisher of this magazine), Terry Carroll, and I told him that an integrated receiver and DVD player would be a great product. Combining such a device with one of the many under $1,000 5.1 speaker packages available from companies such as Energy, Athena, Celestion, and Definitive Technology would result in a relatively low-cost, easy to use system.
It turns out Sony was thinking along these same lines, because they have come out with just such a product, the AVD-S5OES which retails for $800. Sony actually threw a few more goodies into the bargain, like the ability to play multi-channel SACDs, a progressive scan player, up-to-date digital signal processing (including Dolby Pro Logic II), an AM/FM tuner, digital audio out to hook up to an external system, both coax and Toslink digital audio ouputs, S-video/composite/analog inputs, and a digital 5-channel amplifier. Those wanting a 5-disc changer and a little more power can step up to the AVD-70ES for about $200 more. What really intrigued me about this all-in-one, Swiss-army knife of a product was that Sony positioned it in its up-market ES line, holding out the promise that it might actually sound good.
Unique Features - The AVD-S5OES (Sony, can we try easier, perhaps more elegant, names?) is a cleanly elegant looking product with a silver finish, white letter LED display, and volume knob. Although it is the height of a DVD player, it looks quite a bit more serious with a 18.5" depth. Looking at the back makes the picture even brighter, with five 3-way speaker binding posts instead of spring clips, several auxiliary video/audio inputs, interlaced/progressive switch, and a subwoofer output.
Things get a bit dimmer when the included remote is examined. Designed to control a Sony television as well as the '50ES, it is just chock-a-block with buttons that look alike. I could live with that, but whoever designed the navigation/cursor key should be re-assigned immediately. It is probably the single most awfully designed ergonomic gaff I have seen on a remote control. The buttons are so small and difficult to operate even with my relatively slim fingers, that I would often activate a function I did not want to. The remote did make up a few points with its ability to be programmed to control a TV and cable/satellite receiver.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use - I proceeded to hook up the '50ES to a Marantz P5020D plasma with BetterCables component and S-video cables, and to my B&W Nautilus 804/805/HTM2 speaker system with AudioQuest Gibraltar speaker cables. The setup menu is very straightforward. The hardest part is using the aforementioned navigation key to move through the menus, so it took a few tries to get it right.
Final Take - I began by watching DVDs with the '50ES. The picture quality in progressive scan was fairly good. This is not altogether surprising, as I would expect to find some of the same innards as in Sony's standalone players. The de-interlacing is acceptable, but since it is not one of the class-leading Faroudja or Silicon Image chipsets, poorly flagged material will have some artifacts. Unfortunately, the Sony has the chroma bug. That said, on most major film releases, the picture was fairly artifact-free, but did have more grain and was softer than my reference Krell DVD Standard (which should come as no surprise).
Those without high-definition TVs will find it a more than acceptable interlaced video output.
Read more on Page 2
One of the exceptional surprises with this unit is how good it
sounds. There are several decoding choices; those emulating some of the
Sony Pictures' cinema production studios, but since I find such
novelties to be a distraction to good sound, I mainly left it on the
"Normal Surround" setting. This defaults to DD or DTS when a 5.1 source
is present, while using Pro Logic II for 2-channel sources. Overall the
decoding was quite good, and the Sony was able to create a fairly
convincing soundfield. I was rather shocked by how well it was able to
drive the difficult loads of my Nautilus speaker system, Granted, it was
not quite up to my Classé amp and Krell processor, but it sounded
significantly better than it had any right to for $800. These speakers
present quite a load to the '50ES, so real loud movie watching was not a
possibility, but it is quite likely that the average buyer of this unit
would probably mate it with more efficient speakers, The sound quality
revealed a slightly forward midrange, good extended, clean bass, and a
top end that although not uncomfortably bright, displayed some grain.
This is not unexpected as the Sony specs show a 0.7% THD, and some lack
of smoothness is not uncommon with digital amps, but the tradeoff is in
being able to design smaller, cool running units like the '50ES. This
level of grain did not significantly detract from the rest of the good,
solid sound quality. In fact, the Nautilus speakers are notorious at
revealing any top-end flaws in equipment and, with a speaker package a
bit more forgiving, even this would not be an issue.
Playing 2-channel CDs did not make the '50ES blink at all. It
continued to sound very good, and still better than I expected. In fact,
the Lady Jacqueline's eyes grew slightly wide in surprise when she
walked into the room and found out what was powering the speakers. The
little Sony unit had no problem cleanly powering the 804s in Stereo mode
to moderate, comfortable sound levels. The added ability to play
multi-channel SACDs is not something I would expect in a device such as
this. I think it is an excellent extra, as any effort to increase access
to this wonderful sounding audio format is indeed welcome. The '50ES
was easily able to display the increased bandwidth and resolution of
music in this format, and SACDs just simply sounded good.
I did not spend significant time with the AM/FM tuner, but having it for music listening is also an excellent plus.
Combining the '50ES with one of the aforementioned speaker packages
would create an absolutely killer system for about $1,500 retail, less
at street prices. A little extra needs to be tossed in for some speaker
cable, but I cannot express how much better this approach is in
comparison to many home theater-in-a-box systems I have heard. Although
there is some added complexity with having to set the speaker package up
without a big color-coded instruction sheet, the overall simplicity of
use of the '50ES makes it a candidate for even my parents.
I personally think that the '50ES is absolutely brilliant not only in
what it attempts to achieve at its price point, but also in its
performance. If only the same team that made it sound so good had also
designed the remote, and if only Sony would just switch MPEG decoders to
get rid of the chroma bug, this product might have been
in the running for a perfect rating. That said, the overall package is
still more than good enough for me to heartily recommend it for someone
starting out in the world of home theater who wants good performance, or
for someone setting up a bedroom or secondary system.
105-15/16"W x 3-7/8"H x 18-1/2"D
Plays DVD-Video, CDs, SACDs,
audio CD-Rs and CD-RWs, MP3 CDs
100 watts x 5 into 6 ohms (20-20,000 Hz)
at 0.7% THD
3 AN S-video/RCA audio inputs
Optical digital output
Preamp-level subwoofer output
Component and S-video outputs
Selectable interlaced/progressive video output
DVD Parental Control