Sony has been in the receiver game for decades, and if there’s one word I can use to describe their receivers, be it of the higher-end ES (Elevated Standard) ilk or their standard line, it’s bulletproof. I’ve owned three different Sony receivers and despite driving them to their absolute limits, I never had any type of problem with any of them. Flash forward to 2010 and for a reasonable $1,100, you can treat yourself to Sony’s STR-DA3600ES 7.1 Channel Receiver; which features multi-zone output, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio playback, four HDMI 1.4 inputs, 3D pass-through and networking capability just to name a few key features. Basically, with Sony’s new ES line of receivers it would be easier to list what the STR-DA3600ES can’t do then go cross-eyed over the list of what it can, but since this is a review I’ll have to do the latter.
Sony recently announced that their ES line will only be available through specialty audio/video retailers and custom installers. This is a decision that has baffled some, but to Sony’s credit, they’ve embraced this segment of the market by working closely with home automation companies such as Crestron, Control4, Savant and others. They’ve also included home automation-friendly features such as IP, IR and RS-232 control. While the jury is out on the decision to remove their ES line from mainstream retail outlets, I think it makes sense to attack different segments of the market with specifically tailored products. If this was the right decision, the end result will be a higher percentage of specialty installers recommending Sony ES gear, due to the performance, the exclusivity and the fact that it’s pro installer friendly.
The STR-DA3600ES weighs in at 28 pounds and measures 17 inches wide by six and a quarter inches tall and just over 15 inches deep. It has seven channels rated at 100 Watts per channel and it’s truly bleeding edge in terms of its feature set. It’s DLNA compliant, which will allow you to access your videos, photos and music from a compatible computer or other DLNA device. It has an Ethernet port, allowing access to music services such as Rhapsody and SHOUTcast. Of course networking capability also means access to firmware updates, which are becoming increasingly important in the home theater realm. If you’re considering 3D, which I recently experimented with and came away impressed, this Sony is your huckleberry as it’s fully 3D compatible. Another notable feature is a four port Ethernet switch, which allows you to connect your various network capable devices (television, video game system, Blu-ray player, etc.) to your home network through the receiver. For those of you with a great deal of distance between your gear rack and your router, this is a game-changing feature; it’s also a boon to custom installers looking to avoid long cable runs. For you Apple fanatics out there (count me among your ranks), Sony has created a dedicated iPhone app to control the STR-DA3600ES – how cool is that? The Sony also features an Audio Return Channel or ARC, which sends audio signals from your television (useful for network capable TV’s) back to the receiver. For Blu-ray owners, full lossless audio in the form of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio is supported.
I found the Sony to be packaged well, with everything laid out intuitively in the box. It’s also conveniently packaged with a second, smaller remote offering basic functionality – a nice touch. I used HDMI cables to connect the Sony to my DirecTV HD DVR, Sony PS3, Oppo DV-980H (for SACD playback) and Optoma projector. Using Oasis 6 speaker cables from WireWorld, I connected my reference Bowers &Wilkins 600 Series speakers. I’m happy to announce that the STR-DA3600ES is a true plug and play receiver, as everything fired right up with no tweaking necessary. Although, as I’ll explain in more detail later, to get your money’s worth you’ll want to fire up Sony’s Auto Calibration and get a taste of their well designed GUI (Graphical User Interface) as well. It’s also worth mentioning that connecting the Sony to my home network via a powerline Ethernet adapter was a breeze. Some products are finicky about these adapters, which connect to your home network via a power outlet. Not so with the Sony.
The selection of inputs should be more than enough for the average, and maybe even the above average user. In addition to the four HDMI inputs I mentioned earlier, there are also three component inputs, three optical inputs, three coaxial digital inputs and a multi-channel output. With the resurgence of analog, I’m also happy to see that Sony has included a Phono input as well. As is typical with Sony products, the manual is well laid out and provides solid information for both novices, as well as those with experience setting up home theaters.
The Sony sounded just fine out of the gate, possessing more than adequate power and finesse. Generally speaking, I prefer to calibrate a receiver or processor myself with a tape measure and sound level meter, although in the case of the Sony, their Auto Calibration produced notable sonic improvements. It’s also worth noting that my experience in running their Auto Calibration was by far the smoothest, fastest and also one of the more accurate (in terms of gauging speaker distance) I’ve ever had with a receiver. Their GUI is also very well designed, it’s just plain pretty actually and it’s really easy to navigate. You don’t necessarily need home theater setup experience to work your way through their on-screen menu. I know people who have probably lost a month or two on their life span due to poorly designed on screen menus; kudos to Sony for getting it right where so many others have gotten it so, so wrong.
Sure, this is a state-of-the-art home theater receiver, but
inevitably you’re going to end up pumping some good ol’ two-channel
music through it, so that’s where my listening session began. I cued up
Eminem’s “25 to Life” from his most recent album Recovery (Aftermath
Records). The bass was booming, without being boomy. Eminem’s vocals
were highly intelligible and biting, exactly what you want with this
type of track. The vocals in the chorus, provided by Liz Rodrigues,
were pleasing to the ear and also highly articulate.
Sticking with two-channel music, I cued up The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”
from their newly remastered Revolver album (EMI). The signature violin
play was visceral and as good as I’ve heard The Beatles sound. The Sony
exhibited strong coherence and solid detail. I ended up spending quite
a bit of time listening to other remastered Beatle’s albums and came
away impressed. The last thing you want when listening to music of this
sort is a receiver that brings unwanted sonic artifacts to the party,
but I didn’t notice that with the Sony.
Moving on to a multi-channel movie, I fired up the White Stripe’s
concert film Under Great White Northern Lights (WEA/Reprise) in Dolby
Digital 5.1 sound. I was immediately impressed by the way the Sony
captured and conveyed the raw aspect of the music and instrumentation.
Low end A/V receivers tend to have a “processed” sound, for lack of a
better way to put it. As such, you really lose the detail and
transparency that you get with higher end gear. Meg and Jack White
prove that you don’t need a slew of instruments to provide serious,
soul induced rock. Rather, a well played guitar, some drums and a lot
of talent will suffice. On the song “Black Math,” the Sony accurately
reproduced the rasp in Jack’s voice and threw a realistic and
enveloping soundstage. This is a hard-driving track that I’ve listened
to on multi-thousand dollar separates, and I’m pleased to say that
while it wasn’t their equal, the Sony certainly held its own.
The short track “Little Ghost” is bursting with energy and is played
at a frenetic pace. The Sony did an exemplary job of conveying the
energy and pop of Meg’s tambourine and Jack’s assault on a Gibson F-4
mandolin was an absolute sonic treat through the Sony.
Feeling satisfied with both the two-channel and lossy multi-channel
output of the Sony, I decided to try a Blu-ray favorite with Avatar
(20th Century Fox) in DTS-HD Master Audio. I have the original version,
though the studio has just released a three disc extended edition – and
in short order they’ll be releasing the 3D version… talk about milking
the cow. Anyway, I skipped to Chapter 22 “Assault on Home Tree,” a
rather depressing, but highly engaging portion of the film where the
Marines launch an all out attack on the Navi people of Pandora. Despite
the chaos and the fact that all 5.1 speakers were firing hard during
the intense battle, the dialogue remained clear and intelligible. The
low end sounds of the helicopters hovering and blasting away at Home
Tree with missiles really had a nice payoff with the Sony, putting you
right in the middle of the action without sacrificing anything. This is
what the Sony was built for and it delivers. While 100 Watts per
channel might not seem like a lot, the Sony has solid dynamic range and
should suffice in all but the largest of rooms.
Next up was Quantum of Solace (MGM) on Blu-ray in DTS-HD Master
Audio. The opening scene features a memorable car chase with some
pretty substantial gun play. The low-end thump of ammunition passing
through the various weaponry on screen was palpable and intense.
Equally impressive was the song “Another Way to Die” by Jack White and
Alicia Keys, which plays during the opening credits of the film. It has
some nice, snappy bass and the Sony reproduced it with aplomb. I
watched the opening scene and credits a couple of times, once with the
volume pushed through the roof and the Sony held up well, exhibiting
quite a bit of sonic muscle with no fatigue.
Competition and Comparison
To say that there is competition in the sub-$1,200 home theater
receiver market is an understatement. Three major competitors to Sony
in terms of price and performance are Onkyo, Denon and Marantz. Onkyo
recently released their HT-RC270 receiver,
which has a comparable feature set to that of the Sony, while also
offering THX Select2 Plus certification; it retails for $849, which is
a bit less than the Sony. One of Denon’s comparable receivers is the
AVR-3311CI. Like the Sony, it offers 3D and networking capability,
while also bringing a stout 125-Watts per channel to the party. For more information on AV Receivers and/or to read more AV Receiver reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com, please visit the AV Receiver section. For more detailed information on the STR-DA3600ES.
I’m a big fan of the Pandora music service
and happily pony up $36/year to subscribe, which delivers higher
quality audio and no ads. Sadly, Pandora isn’t offered on the
STR-DA3600ES, an omission that I find a bit odd. Why only offer
SHOUTcast and Rhapsody? Maybe it’s contractual. Anyway, I’m an optimist
and hope that Sony will deliver Pandora compatibility at some point in
the future via a firmware upgrade.
I have the luxury of using heavy gauge (and also just plain heavy)
high end Oasis 6 speaker wire, courtesy of WireWorld. While the Sony’s
binding posts did support these speaker wires, the strain on the posts
was visible. I would expect a product from the ES line to come with
more substantial binding posts. Also, as is common with most home
theater receivers these days, the STR-DA3600ES has front inputs,
although the door covering them is made of flimsy plastic and isn’t
attached to the unit, making it easy to displace. At the end of the
day, these are certainly not deal-breakers but it’s something to keep
in mind, for it’s not entirely out of the question for a consumer
needing a custom installer or Sony ES certified dealer to be rocking
high-end gear or at least higher-end cables.
The two most important things to consider when trying to determine
whether or not a receiver is the right fit for your home theater are
its feature set and performance; in that regard the Sony STR-DA3600ES
is solid. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, there’s also the issue
of reliability, which happens to be a staple of Sony products in
general. The last thing you need once your system has been properly
setup and calibrated is to have the hub of your home theater (the
receiver) meltdown on you.
Having recently auditioned high end separates costing literally
eight times what the Sony does, I still came away impressed. While
lacking some of the depth, sheer power and resolution of high end
separates, you get what you pay for and the Sony is a more than capable
performer, even in larger rooms.
Typically, the best way to make a decision on an A/V product is to
audition it in the store, although that might be difficult given Sony’s
new ES distribution plan. Although considering the solid performance of
this receiver, on both movies and music, I’d say it’s worth seeking out
a custom installer to see if they can set up an audition. Since many of
the receivers in this price range have a similar feature set, I think
the point of differentiation with the Sony versus some of the other
receivers I’ve auditioned is the sound quality. It’s natural and
immersive and that can be difficult to find at this price point.