Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought when it comes to designing electronics. On the one side, you focus on creating a simple, easy-to-use interface that a toddler could navigate; on the other, you create a more sophisticated interface that favors functionality over usability. I'm not saying there aren't products that mix the best of both, but let's ignore those as the outliers they are.
Nor am I taking a stance that one design philosophy is better than the other, mind you. When it comes to mobile phones, I'm firmly in the iPhone camp. Give me simplicity or give me a raging headache that I can't be bothered with. And yes, I realize that the iPhone tends to lag behind other models in features, but they're features I can easily live without. On the other hand, when it comes to computers, well, the fact that I bought Windows 10 for my Macbook Pro should tell you where I stand. I find OS X to be far too "user-friendly" for my own good. You really can't make a computer that's complicated enough for my tastes.
The point of all this? It should come as no surprise to anyone that Sony's new STR-ZA5000ES 9.2-channel AV receiver is definitely a product of the Apple school of design (I mean, except for the fact that it doesn't support AirPlay). Whether you see that as a good thing or bad thing (or a completely neutral thing), of course, depends entirely upon what you're looking for in an AV receiver.
Granted, the same could be said about all of Sony's AV receivers as of late, from the entry level on up. What sets the $2,799.99 STR-ZA5000ES apart is that it applies the same philosophy of simplicity, slickness, and intuitiveness to a flagship product that isn't designed for your typical home theater novice.
In addition to supporting the latest and greatest in terms of HDMI connectivity (six inputs with HDCP 2.2 compliance and full HDR UHD capabilities, including upscaling), dual component video inputs (with upscaling via the receiver's dual HDMI outputs), and really impressive Dolby Atmos and DTS:X capabilities (including nine amplified channels with support for 11.1-channel processing, if you want to add your own stereo amp), the STR-ZA5000ES packs in some nifty features that you don't normally see on a mass-market receiver. For instance, there's an eight-port Ethernet switch with two PoE ports and super-intuitive dual-zone capabilities, including the ability to distribute 4K video and audio to the second zone via HDMI.
In terms of power output, the ZA5000ES is as peculiar a beast as any Sony receiver. The company rates its output as 130 watts times nine channels, but that 130-watt figure was arrived at with only two channels driven into eight ohms, measured at 1 kHz, not 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Total Harmonic Distortion is listed as 0.09 percent. If you're not familiar with what all of that means, my article How to Pick the Right Amp for Your Speakers (or Vice Versa) should give you a grasp of the basics. But the long and short of it is that this receiver isn't going to deliver anywhere near 130 watts from all of its channels when fed a full-bandwidth multichannel audio signal. That's fine, really. You probably don't need anywhere near that amount of power.
Take a gander at the ZA5000ES's densely packed back panel, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the process of setting up this receiver might be a little daunting. In practice, though, it's far from that. For one thing, the back panel is beautifully laid out, with all of the main speaker binding posts (aside from the assignable Height 2 connections) arrayed horizontally in a way that makes them easy to reach, easy to keep track of, and easy to connect to--whether you're using a bare-wire connection or banana clips. For another thing, the ZA5000ES relies on the same gorgeous, intuitive graphical interface that Sony receivers have featured for the past few years.
As is becoming more common for me these days, I actually went through the setup process for the ZA5000ES multiple times from scratch: once in the home theater to test its 4K pass-through and upscaling capabilities (a test it passed with flying colors--it even includes a simple 4K test pattern that will alert you if your monitor isn't capable of displaying the signal); once in the bedroom with my Aperion Audio Intimus 5B Harmony SD 5.1 speaker system at ear level, with four GoldenEar Technology SuperSat 3s temporarily hung from the ceiling to serve as overhead speakers; and once stripped down to just the Aperion speaker package in 5.1-channel configuration so that I could evaluate the receiver's audio performance without the distraction of all those extra speakers.
In all cases, the ZA5000ES's UI made setup a snap. The funky-looking stereo microphone that ships with the receiver, for use with its Digital Cinema Auto Calibration EX (DCAC EX), has a screw hole on the bottom that was a perfect match for my camera tripod. I point that out because, although I always recommend using a tripod when taking room correction measurements, that advice is doubly important when it comes to this receiver's setup. The dual upward-facing microphones (which are labeled L and R to avoid any confusion) have mere seconds to measure the quick, melodic test tones cranked out by the ZA5000ES, so even the slightest wiggle could throw off your measurements.
Despite my best efforts, though, Sony's DCAC EX program still didn't nail all of its measurements in my system any of the multiple times I ran it. The distances to each speaker were perfect, as were the levels of all the satellite speakers, every time I ran room correction. However, the subwoofer was set between three and five decibels too loud every time. Sometimes the receiver registered all of my satellite speakers as Large; other times, it registered just the fronts as Large with the center and surrounds as Small. Mind you, this is with the microphone sitting on the same tripod in the same position, with me working the controls from outside the room. Again, though, digging through the menus to set all of my speakers to Small was very easy, and setting my crossover points to 80 Hz was also a snap.
Sony deserves major kudos for crafting the most straightforward and informative "additional speakers" setup screens I've yet come across. On the Speaker Pattern screen (under Speaker Setup), users are met with a complete three-dimensional map and three different levels of speakers from which to select. At the Listener-Level Speakers tab, you can select anything between 2.0- and 7.1-channel, with some pretty whacky permutations in between, thanks to the receiver's DTS speaker-remapping capabilities, like a 5.0 setup with stereo front speakers, no center, stereo surrounds, and a single rear speaker behind the listener.
From there, you slide over to a tab to select Height Speakers, if any, and the graphic does a perfect job of illustrating the fact that these are wall-mounted, not overhead speakers. You can pick from front height, rear height, or both. Then comes the Overhead Speaker configuration tab, which walks you through the choice of two or four speakers, either Top Middle, Top Front + Top Middle, Top Front + Top Rear, Top Middle + Top Rear, Dolby Atmos enabled speakers atop your front speakers, atop your rear speakers, or in both positions.
All of those speakers are a lot to keep track of. With other Atmos/DTS:X receivers, even I've found myself getting a little lost at times, but the ZA5000ES does such a great job of representing it all visually that I can't imagine anyone getting confused. Once you have your speaker pattern selected, the UI then takes you to a screen that (again, graphically) lets you select how they're connected to the receiver itself. If you're doing a straightforward 5.1.4 setup, it's easy enough just to highlight the binding posts on this page. If you're adding your own amp and expanding to, say, 7.1.4, it couldn't be simpler to highlight which speakers you're powering via the ZA5000ES's preamp outputs. In short, it completely baffles me why every other receiver manufacturer isn't stealing Sony's approach to graphical user interfaces, at least in terms of speaker setup.
In order to fully test the STR-ZA5000ES's capabilities, I also disconnected the Cisco enterprise-grade eight-port Ethernet switch in the bedroom and connected all of my networked devices in the bedroom to the receiver's built-in eight-port switch, including my Dish Network Joey DVR client (controlled via IP), my Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, my Channel Vision 6564 IP Dome Camera and iRoom iDock (both powered via PoE), and my Control4 EA-1 controller, the latter of which controlled the STR-ZA5000ES for the bulk of my review via beta drivers provided by Sony.
There really isn't a lot to say about the STR-ZA5000ES's network performance, so I'll go ahead and address that aspect of the receiver now. It performed flawlessly as an Ethernet switch, with no impact on download or upload speeds and no hiccups in service, despite the load placed on it.
In terms of audio performance, there's a lot more to say. I started off my evaluation slowly, with a Netflix stream of the Julian Fellowes-penned historical fantasy film From Time to Time (Freestyle Digital Media). It isn't a film I would recommend for any but the most hardcore Downton Abbey devotees suffering from withdrawal, and it isn't even a particularly active film, sonically speaking. In fact, its audio is two-channel. However, it made a good audio warm-up for a couple of reasons: first of all, much of the dialogue (from numerous Downton alums) is dense and thickly accented, with an old-fashioned cadence and peculiar (to modern ears) turns of speech. That means any significant amount of jitter or any peculiarities in the tonal balance of the receiver's output (especially in the midrange) could have easily rendered the dialogue all but unintelligible.
In that regard, the STR-ZA5000ES absolutely excelled, rendering the dialogue flawlessly and even rising to the occasion in the film's handful of harrowing action sequences with good punch and wonderful dynamic range.
Truth be told, though, that demo scene didn't tell me much about the receiver's DCAC EX room correction, aside from the fact that none of its three settings (Full Flat, Front Reference, and Engineer, the latter of which relies on Sony's own in-house target EQ curve) negatively affected the timbre, soundstage, or overall sense of space in the soundtrack. That's a good thing. While the differences between DCAC EX settings are subtle (as they should be), they do shape the sound to a degree that isn't egregious...at least in my room.
The real question I had, though, was whether the STR-ZA5000ES would correct bass frequencies as well as the STR-DN850 I reviewed this time last year. To get a sense of that, I turned back to the extended edition Blu-ray release of The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies (Warner Home Video) and cued up the scene that impressed me so much in my review of the Onkyo TX-RZ900: Chapter 2, "Bard the Dragon-Slayer."
This sequence immediately shined a spotlight on some problems. For one thing, the deep bass undertones that give weight to the dragon Smaug's voice were sloppy, bloated, and overemphasized. For another thing, this problem was actually worse with DCAC EX turned on, especially in its Engineer setting. The receiver's room correction system seemed to actually exacerbate standing-wave problems in my room.
The problem was just as bad when I threw in the Blu-ray release of The Force Awakens (Walt Disney Studios) and skipped forward to Chapter 5: "Kylo Ren." Assuming the compilation below survives on YouTube, you can see the scene in question starting at around the 53-second mark; if not, you know the clip I'm talking about--it's the one in which Kylo Ren freezes a blaster bolt fired by Poe in mid-air.
There's really just no nice way to put this: the audio for that scene was an outright mess. The droning bass rumble that underscores the scene came out as a big blob of blech that overwhelmed everything else, even with the volume of the sub matched to the rest of my system. With DCAC EX turned off, it was still a bit bloated and messy, but nowhere near that bad. A quick audition of some of my favorite musical test tracks revealed pretty much the same.
So, given that the subwoofer measurements provided by DCAC EX had varied so radically every time I ran them, I figured I would give it one more try. I set up my tripod again, turned off the ceiling fan, stepped out of the room, and waited for the chimes and ray guns and drum-beat test tones to finish their thing. I did everything exactly as I had before, with one exception. The last step of the Auto Calibration setup consists of a screen that reads, "Do you want to activate the Calibration Matching function? By controlling the wavefront output from the multichannel speaker, the soundfield will be richer than when using the measured value."
I don't know about you, but I have no idea what that actually means. A quick check on Sony's website provides this information: "this function works automatically, matching the distance and level of the right and left speakers." Despite the fact that nothing in the literature referenced anything about the subwoofer, I decided to give this one a No this time around, then I commenced to adjusting the crossover settings and subwoofer level manually again. (This time it needed a -5dB adjustment.)
I can't tell you if that's what made a difference because I'm honestly afraid to run DCAC EX again, given how random its subwoofer measurements seem to be. But for whatever reason, this time was the charm. Going back to that scene from The Force Awakens, the bass was much more controlled and focused while still being perfectly powerful. And toggling back and forth between the various DCAC EX settings revealed that the Full Flat setting resulted in much tidier bass than the Off setting. Is its handling of bass frequencies as good as Onkyo's updated AccuEQ? Not quite. And it's not on the level of more advanced systems like Anthem Room Correction and Dirac. But in the end, after much tweaking, a bit of praying, and some pagan rituals that I won't spell out here, Digital Cinema Auto Calibration EX did tame the bass problems in my secondary listening room without mucking up the midrange or treble frequencies.
So, although it was a lot of hassle, the STR-ZA5000ES's DCAC EX gets a passing grade from me in the end. If you'd like to read more about my thoughts on room correction to gauge whether they align with your own, check out my article Automated Room Correction Explained here on Home Theater Review.
With the bottom end finally whipped into shape to my satisfaction, I turned my attention again to a song that sounded pretty rough before that last run of DCAC EX: "Hyperballad," from the CD release of Björk's album Post (Elektra).
As was the case with The Force Awakens, the bass this time around was much better controlled, but what impressed me more was the ZA5000ES's handling of the brushy percussion and Björk's perfectly centered voice. There was a wonderfully surprising depth to the soundstage, not to mention a level of precision that I found wholly satisfying. This track, especially with all of its electronic elements, can sound a little harsh through some audio gear, but the ZA5000ES handled it beautifully and smoothly.
Still in somewhat of a poppy mood, I slid in RAC's Strangers (Cherrytree) and cranked the volume on track one: "Let Go," which features lead vocals by Kelechukwu "Kele" Okereke of Bloc Party fame and a chorus by MNDR. I know this is the most cliched audio-reviewer trope of all time, but with my hand on the Jedi Handbook, I swear to you that I had to stand up and walk over to the surround speakers to make sure that what I was hearing was mere stereo. The depth of the soundstage was simply stupefying, and the tonal balance of the track was right on the money.
Recently a reader asked me to focus a little more on classical music and less on movies and pop, so I dug out my DVD-Audio copy of Beethoven's Symphonie No. 9 (Deutsche Grammophon), performed by Berliner Philharmoniker and conducted by Abbado, and I skipped to Movement 2 (the stereo version, just to be fair). The detail that stood out to me with the Björk track was very much in evidence here, too, but what impressed me most with this piece of music was the ZA5000ES's capacity for dynamics--and especially how rich and lovely it sounded even during the quietest passages.
If you're skipping straight to this section just to read some grumping, please do back up and read the Performance section in its entirety. I won't recap it entirely here, but the TL;DR version is this: the STR-ZA5000ES's auto setup and room correction system gives wildly different results from run to run, especially as it pertains to bass correction and subwoofer levels. Whether that's a concern for you, of course, depends on whether you plan on relying on Sony's DCAC EX for setup or making the measurements yourself and forgoing room correction.
Perhaps more of a concern (for some) is the fact that the ZA5000ES lacks Bluetooth, AirPlay, and even the Internet radio feature that's pretty much ubiquitous on AV receivers these days. Also, even with the HDMI Fast View feature turned on, it takes roughly three to four seconds to switch between video sources. I have no idea why you would turn this feature off (it is off by default), but without Fast View switching inputs takes more like five to six seconds.
A bigger concern for me is that, for all of the receiver's super-easy-to-configure settings (and there are a lot of them), it's missing one setting in particular that I consider to be pretty much essential, although you're free to disagree. The ZA5000ES does allow you to set your default sound mode independently per input, but that default mode applies no matter what source is incoming. In other words, with most receivers and AV processors, I like to set my satellite input to decode any incoming two-channel signal as Dolby Pro Logic II, whereas on my Blu-ray player input my preferences for default formats are highly dependent on the incoming audio type. I found the one-size-fits-all approach on the Sony receiver limiting, and as such I had to rely on its included remote control to switch modes more than I would like.
Comparison and Competition
If you're in the market for a 9.2-channel Dolby Atmos- and DTS:X-capable receiver with 11.1 channels of processing, you have a few other options in the same price range as the STR-ZA5000ES.
The $2,500 Pioneer Elite SC-99 9.2-channel Class D3 AV receiver comes immediately to mind. Like the STR-ZA5000ES, it supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and it is capable of processing up to 7.2.4 channels of audio if you want to add your own stereo amp to the mix. It also features IP-control capabilities and the latest in HDMI connectivity with HDCP 2.2 support. Unlike the Sony, it sports built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, along with AirPlay.
Relying on the same measurement parameters that Sony uses to rate its receivers' output, Yamaha's $2,200 RX-A3050 AVENTAGE AV receiver cranks out 165 watts of power (vs. 130) and also boasts the same nine channels of amplification and 11.2 channels of processing. It also supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, as well as Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Yamaha's own MusicCast multi-room audio streaming app.
While Denon's $2,999 AVR-X7200WA is a bit pricier, it supports 9.2 channels out of the box and 11.2 with the addition of a stereo amp, and it adds Bluetooth, AirPlay, and DLNA streaming. In terms of room correction, it features Audyssey MultEQ XT32 and is Audyssey Pro-ready, but perhaps most interestingly it's also Auro-3D ready, for an additional $199.
As I alluded to in the intro, no single product is right for every user. The issues I had with Sony STR-ZA5000ES AV receiver's room setup system are likely of little interest to you if you don't rely on automated setup and would sooner set yourself on fire than use digital room correction. And the lack of AirPlay or Bluetooth? You have every right not to care.
The simple fact of the matter is that, in most respects, the STR-ZA5000ES is a great-sounding receiver with Atmos and DTS:X capabilities, not to mention a built-in eight-port Ethernet switch, which would surely cut down on the clutter in most home entertainment systems. But perhaps most importantly, this receiver is in a class of its own in terms of ease of setup, ease of operation, and the overall presentation of its onscreen menus, as compared with other Atmos- and DTS:X-capable receivers I've reviewed.
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