Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
The new $2,000 STR-DA5400ES is one of Sony's latest and most feature-laden receivers. Those of you who are new to home theater should know that the audio/video receiver acts as the command center for your home theater. In the case of the STR-DA5400ES, it can even provide audio and video to a second zone and audio only to a third zone. Those of you familiar with Sony's product structure recognize the ES in the model designation as identifying the receiver as coming from Sony's "Elevated Standard" series of products. My experience with Sony's ES products in the past indicates that the ES designation is normally well deserved. Does the STR-DA5400ES measure up to the elevated standard? Read on.
The STR-DA5400ES is positioned one place below the top of the line STR-DA6400ES. The differences between the two are that the 6400 has Sony's high-quality digital Audio Transmission System (H.A.T.S.) and Ethernet connectivity for streaming and updates. The HATS system only comes into play if you have a HATS system-capable SACD player.
The STR-DA5400ES is still loaded with features, even without the HATS system and Ethernet connectivity. The 5400 can decode all of the new high-bit-rate audio codecs from your Blu-ray player, including Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. The Sony's HDMI inputs can also accept a DSD signal stream from any HDMI 1.2 (or above) SACD player.
The STR-DA5400ES is loaded with features such as Sony's own room correction and speaker set-up system, called Digital Cinema Auto Calibration, which, like Audyssey, can automatically determine and set speaker size, distance, polarity, angle, height and recommended equalization. The Sony also includes Sirius and XM radio capabilities to supplement your local AM/FM stations, two video processing chips by Faroudja (one each for zones one and two), zone one and two graphic user interfaces that are based upon the cross bar design popularized by the PS3, Digital Legato Linear audio processing to improve compressed audio, multiple headphone processing modes and a seven-channel 120-watts-per-channel amplifier. The Sony's HDMI ports will handle 1080p 60/24, Deep Color and x.v.color signals in zone one. The second zone has an independent scaler and can handle up to 1080i analog signals. There is no provision for digital video in zone two. I've probably left out quite a few additional features, but trust me, this receiver is pretty well loaded.
All of these features are incorporated into an attractive chassis. The STR-DA5400ES is in keeping with Sony's current industrial design. Approximately one quarter of the way down from the top, the aluminum front panel has an angled step out. The top portion of the panel is dominated by an easy to read display. Many displays are hard to read; I found this one to provide me with all the necessary information at a quick glance. The larger bottom portion of the front panel has a large master volume knob on the right. On the left, there are tone control and tuning knobs. Also of note on the front panel are an A/V input with composite video, accompanied by analog and toslink audio, a headphone jack and a discrete row of buttons to control some commonly used functions. Lastly, the Sony comes with two remotes, one for the main zone and one for the second zone.
The Sony has six HDMI inputs to accommodate your sources, three component video and six composite video sources. Notably absent are any S-video connections (some will say, "Thank God"). For audio inputs, the Sony has three digital coaxial inputs, six toslink inputs, seven analog stereo inputs, a 7.1-channel input and even a phono input. Unique to Sony receivers are two Digital Media Port inputs, which I'll discuss later. Finishing up the back panel are RS-232 ports, 12-volt trigger ports, IR ports, antenna connections, 7.1 pre-amp outputs and two HDMI outputs, as well as outputs for zones two and three.
I connected a Sony PS3 and a Halcro EC-800 DVD player to the STR-DA5400ES. I used HDMI for the PS3. For the Halcro, I tried HDMI, component/digital coaxial and 5.1 via analog. I used my Marantz VP-11S2 projector, which was connected via HDMI unless noted. I used a few different speaker systems with the Sony, including a MartinLogan Summit system, Acoustic Zen Adagio and Dynaudio Contour system. All cables were from Kimber, with the exception of the 5.1 cables. The HDMI cables were Kimber's HD19s; the speaker cables were Kimber's 8TCs. The 5.1 cables consisted of three pairs of Ultralink's Platinum series interconnects. The line level connections were easily made. The build quality of the Sony was solid, with no looseness on any of the jacks. The binding posts were above average for a receiver, but were crowded with nine pairs of binding posts. Of note, the surround back speaker connections can be used to bi-amplify the front speakers if you are not using them for either a 7.1 set-up or a second zone.
I did not use the Digital Media Ports. These ports allow for the connection of various adapters, such as those for iPods and network music streaming, both of which can be controlled through the Sony. Another connection that was unique to the Sony was a zone two component video output over Cat-5 (Ethernet) cable. That's right, you no longer need a long and expensive component video cable to send high-quality video to a second zone. With the use of an inexpensive Sony adapter on the other end, a simple Cat-5 cable can send a component video signal at up to 1080i with virtually no loss in video quality.
Setting the STR-DA5400ES up was pretty easy. The manual is pretty thorough and the hobbyist will find it easy to follow, but I think those new to home theater might find it intimidating. Thankfully, the graphic user interface and automatic speaker set-up are easy to follow. I used the Sony's automatic speaker set-up and equalization and, in a few minutes, the receiver was ready to go.
This is a home theater receiver, so after letting the Sony break in for a couple days, I dove right in, playing a few movies. I watched Heat (Warner Home Video) and the Sony did a good job with separation and detail when it came to the hectic gun battle, as well as doing great with dialogue intelligibility, even when the characters were whispering. The Sony did however struggle a bit with dynamics when driving my Summit speakers, which I note can be a more difficult load than normal to drive. To Sony's credit, there is a four-ohm setting on the unit. I ended up with my Dynaudio Contour 1.4s as the speakers I used for most of my listening. I tried the Acoustic Zen Adagios and found them slightly on the bright side with the Sony, although others may enjoy this "up close and personal" presentation. After rerunning the Sony's DCAC calibration system, I continued watching Heat, including viewing the gun battle scene again. This time, the Sony was right on and the dynamics were big without sacrificing the micro-dynamic details that provide the realistic sensation of being in the middle of things.
Read more about the performance of the STR-DA5400ES on Page 2.
Watching Office Space (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment),
there was less emphasis on big dynamic effects and more emphasis on
dialogue. The STR-DA5400ES did a great job with voices. Not only was
the dialogue clear and easy to understand, the voices sounded natural.
I used both the HDMI and component video outputs of the Halcro DVD
player to feed the STR-DA5400ES. Both feeds were 480i. The Sony scaled
the component feed to 1080p, but passed the HDMI feed straight through
to be scaled by the projector. The Sony did a very good job of scaling
the component signal, with only the occasional minor artifact. While
most of my viewing done during my time with the Sony was done with
HDMI-equipped sources, which the Sony does not scale, on those
occasions I watched component video sources, the Sony did a fine job
with them. Even more importantly, the HDMI connections worked. I didn't
have a single HDMI connection problem with the Sony.
I had some friends over who wanted to see my home theater system, so
I played Iron Man (Paramount Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) as it makes a
much more impressive demonstration piece than Office Space. I had the
Dynaudios hooked up and watched Iron Man again later with the Cadence
sound bar system I had in for review. My comments below are from
listening to the Sony through the Dynaudios. The Sony was clearly able
to take advantage of the new high-bit-rate audio codecs available on
Blu-ray. The increased audio resolution was apparent. There was a
greater sense of presence and realism on Iron Man and the other
Blu-rays I watched compared to DVD. The Sony still did a good job with
the basics, directing sounds in a way that created a credible sense of
development. Coupled with the higher-resolution audio, this provided a
heightened sense of realism. Dynamics were impressive, again done
without sacrifice to detail.
While most people will likely use the STR-DA5400ES primarily for
home theater, music performance remains important and is a good
indicator of overall audio performance.
Jeff Buckley's Live at Sin-e is extremely well-recorded. The track
"Hallelujah" can provide a spooky sense of realism and presence when
played through a properly set-up system. Buckley's voice can be very
palpable and solidly placed within the soundstage. I listened to the
Sony through the analog direct mode, preferring the DACs in the Halcro.
The Sony did a fairly good job of establishing Buckley's voice within
the soundstage, but compared to my dedicated two-channel system, the
soundstage was missing a sense of defined space. The vocals and guitar
through the Sony were very good tonally and much better than many
receivers, but there was a slight thinness in the upper midrange that
was only perceptible in an A-B comparison against my two-channel
system; I doubt many people would notice it. The