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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...