Ayear ago I reviewed Sony's flagship STR-DA9000ES Digital Drive A/V receiver for The Perfect Vision (issue 57), and it would be an understatement to say that it left a favorable impression. The big DA9000ES was built like a Rolex, offered substantial power output and a broad set of I/O options, and produced delightfully transparent sound. The only two significant drawbacks were a remote control so complicated only a computer scientist could love it, and a justifiable but still wallet-crushing $4500 price. But what if I told you Sony now builds a DA9000ES-influenced AVR that offers the same great build quality, nearly as much power, fewer but better I/O options, a greatly improved remote control, and sound quality at least equal to the original— for less than half the price? A pipedream? Not at all: Allow me to introduce Sony's new $2000, STRDA7100ES A/V receiver.
The 7.1-channel DA7100ES features "Digital Drive" amplifiers that put out an honest 170Wpc, and it supports the essential Dolby- and DTS-family surround-sound modes, plus 15 preprogrammed Sony DSP "sound field" modes. Like the DA9000ES, the new DA7100ES can handle every speaker setup from basic stereo to 9.1-channel configurations, and it offers almost as many I/O options, including a phono input, a 7.1-channel analog input for high-resolution DVD-A and SACD sources, and dual HDMI and i.LINK inputs (the DA9000ES offered lesscapable dual DVI-D interfaces and a single i.LINK port). The HDMI inputs are significant because HDMI is now emerging as the digital A/V interface of choice (because it passes both audio and video data through one cable). What is more, the Sony follows an intelligent HDMI protocol that repeats commands back to source components to seek the best signals from each, then upconverts incoming ana-
log video signals (composite, S-video, or component) to HDMI, using a 12- bit, 216MHz video DAC. i.LINK inputs are significant because they enable the DA7100ES to decode direct DSD bitstream data from select players such as Sony's current SCDXA9000ES SACD player or the upcoming DVP-NS9100ES DVD/SACD player (potentially revealing the sonic benefits of SACD as never before). By any standard, the DA7100ES is a flexible, audiophile-oriented receiver, and one of the first on the market to support HDMI.
Sound quality is what matters most, though, and—as with the DA9000ES—the new receiver's dominant characteristics are its top-to-bottom transparency and lively, authoritative dynamics. Beyond these core qualities, however, the DA7100ES does not have just one "signature sound." Instead, a menu-driven DC PHASE LINEARIZER control gives the receiver six subtle, finely graduated, audiophile-grade voicing settings. Sony explains that analog amplifiers all have some degree of audible lowfrequency phase shift, while digital amplifiers do not, observing that most speakers are designed for use with analog amplifiers and do "not match the [low-frequency] characteristics of digital amplifiers." To compensate, Sony's DC PHASE LINEARIZER applies digital-signal processing to enable the receiver to match the phase characteristics of various types of analog amplifier and to deliver more analog-like sound. Purists may cringe at the idea, but Sony's DC PHASE LINEARIZER works beautifully, giving the receiver six precisely repeatable voicing options that range from transistor-like definition, snap, and sheen to almost tube-like warmth and bass richness—all without sacrificing any of the Sony's bedrock transparency. Apart from the DA9000ES, no other receiver I know of offers anything like this level of voicing flexibility.
On films, the DA7100ES' dynamic clout and transparency work synergistically to unlock soundtracks that deserve to be reproduced on a grand scale. A perfect example is the terrifying Omaha Beach sequence from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan [Dreamworks/Paramount], whose swirling explosions, crackling gunfire, and chaotic battle noises push most AVRs beyond their limits. The stouthearted Sony handled the sequence's huge dynamic swings without apparent distress, including a too-near explosion that drives Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) into temporary shell shock. Surround-sound steering is superb, too; I felt like diving for cover when I heard projectiles sizzling just over my head, or thudding into the sand beside me. Yet beyond its flare for the spectacular, the Sony also offers finesse, as you can hear in the eerie Piaf sequence from the Private Ryan. You hear soldiers preparing their weapons for battle and their lowered voices swapping stories, while the almost otherworldly sound of an Edith Piaf recording is playing on a Victrola in the background. The Sony handles this scene with a light, sure delicacy, weaving together many small details to create an unnerving "calmbefore- the-storm" mood.
Sony's SCD-XA9000ES. i.LINK dramatically improved the sound of SACDs by providing a lift in overall clarity, definition, and smoothness (where I found the DA7100ES to outperform the DA9000ES), and by bringing greater focus and precision in surround- sound imaging. The effects were not unlike the imaging and soundstaging qualities of a first-rate stereo wrapped in a circle that surrounded your listening chair. Even with good multichannel SACD recordings that you think you've heard at their best, the i.LINK-driven Sony almost always reveals new textures and spatial details. On Gary Burton's Like Minds [Concord Jazz, SACD]—a recording I have heard many times on many systems—the Sony floored me, making the stage presence of the musicians so vivid I felt like walking over to ask for their autographs. After hearing good SACD material through the Sony's i.LINK input, a stunned audiophile guest looked up and said, "This thing takes the idea of 'soundstaging' to a whole new level." I couldn't agree more.
Finally, let me praise Sony for the terrific new backlit remote provided with the DA7100ES. This one is as simple and straightforward to use as the DA9000ES' remote was mysterious and confusing, yet it gives up little in the way of system control or advanced macro capabilities.
Indeed, I found only a few drawbacks with this receiver. First, though extremely transparent as AVRs go, the Sony falls somewhat short of the clarity of top-tier stereo components or the best multichannel controllers on the market. But nothing I've heard in the Sony's price range can beat it, either in power or clarity. Second, I would like Sony to offer an expanded set of bassmanagement options for its 7.1-channel analog and i.LINK digital audio inputs, so that it would be possible to set separate subwoofer crossover points on a channel-by-channel basis. Third, this receiver really should offer automated speaker set-up and room EQ capabilities—something Sony plainly has the DSP know-how to provide. But apart from these minor quibbles, I found this a terrific receiver— one that even demanding users will not easily outgrow. In short, the STR-DA7100ES gives you almost everything the big DA9000ES does in terms of power and flexibility, and matches its sound quality—at a more than fair price. If you love the idea of a $2000 AVR that can, in every important way, run with the $4000+ big dogs, then Sony's DA7100ES is the bargain you've been waiting for
On multichannel DVD-A and SACD material, through the Sony's 7.1-channel analog inputs, the receiver again demonstrates the twin virtues of power and finesse, displaying enough transparency to reveal subtle differences between source components. The Sony also does well on two-channel material, offering the option of traditional surround-decoding modes such as Dolby PLII Music or DTS Neo:6 Music, or any of Sony's own DSP-driven surround modes. For general listening, I thought the Dolby PLII Music mode gave the most tonally uncolored and spatially coherent results, though Sony's DSP modes could be effective, too. The key lies in taking the time to match modes with the acoustic requirements of the recordings. When you find a good match, the results can sound three-dimensional and perfectly appropriate, but mismatches—for example, trying to listen to chamber music in the "STADIUM" mode—can sound garish and downright bizarre. Used with discretion, though, Sony's DSP modes can create a convincing sense of place.
To hear the DA7100ES at its very best, you should hear it on direct DSD bitstream data from an i.LINK-enabled multichannel SACD player such as