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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Home Cinema Review!
Sony's ES Dynamic Duo:
STR-DA5600ES 7.1 Receiver,
BDP-S1700ES 3D/Wi-Fi BD Player




Brevis...
Price: $1,999/$499 retail;
Likes: clean power, connectiions (STR-DA5600ES),
3D, pristine 1080P quality, Wi-Fi (BDP-S1700ES);
Dislikes: No analog multichannel in BDP
More info: Sony ES


by John Gatski

Sony ES audio and video components used to exemplify a top-end approach for the mass-consumer electronics company. Products such as the TAE-9000ES preamp/processor, DVP-999ES DVD player, SCD-5400ES SACD players, CDP-XA7ES CD player, or even the BDP-S2000ES BD players from a couple of years ago proved that Sony could be a force on the high-end — without being totally high-end price. They were built like exotic pieces of audiophile gear with stiff steel chassis (and innovative features such as a fixed laser/moving transport optical disc mechanism) with exemplary audio and video performance.
Times have changed. As with other A/V product lines from various manufacturers, recent Sony ES products are now produced in less costly packages. But although they don’t have the massive build and cosmetic impressiveness of the ES products of yore, they are still good performers that are a better value these days. The Sony $2,000 STR-DA5600ES receiver and the $499 BDP-S1700ES are prime examples of the new ES line, which are sold through custom installers.

Features
The STR-DA5600ES is a full featured 7.1 channel receiver with 130 watt-per-channel amplifiers and is capable of decoding all the major high-res home cinema audio formats, including DTS Master and Dolby TruHD. Its feature set includes Audio Network capability, decoding of SACD (DSD) data stream, dual- Faroudja DCDI video upsampling circuit, multiple HD video distribution, Deep Color support, and 3D pass though. Other STR-DA5600ES audio highlights include Sony’s proprietary DLL PCM audio upsampling to 192 kHz, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, and access to Rhapsody and Shoutcast Music services.
The ES receiver is nicely built, though not to the solid feel of the old ES components. Still, it is solid enough and what it lacks in ultimate audiophile/videophile construction it makes up in connectivity, performance and onboard niceties.

The STR-DA5600ES receiver is a first rate A/V multichannel receiver. Audio playback via the high-quality, multichannel lossless formats impressed my ears and its DSD conversion from SACDs gave it some high-res stereo listening flair.

The exposed front panel has a fresh, uncluttered layout with plenty of buttons and knobs to show you its versatility, but not so many that it becomes intimidating. The panel includes volume, bass and treble control, AM/FM tuner knob, input selector, speaker selector, headphone jack (yay), HDMI input, HDMI in/out selectors, mini-jack connectors for calibration mic, video and stereo audio inputs (video camera), standby switch, multi-display select buttons and the GUI information screen and its numerous function lights.
The back panel has a generous amount of connections including speaker jacks, 7.1 multi-channel inputs, preamp outputs, six HDMI inputs (two HDMI outputs), seven digital inputs (with one TOSlink output). There are also a host of zone connectivity jacks, composite and component video I/Os, five LAN jacks, an RS232 port and SIRIUS satellite radio input.
The amplifier section is pure analog with Class A/B bipolar outputs with an ample toroidal power supply and neatly laid out circuit design. We did not measure the STR-DA5600ES output, but Sony claims 130 watts per channel for all channels, thought it is likely to be about an honest 100 watts with all channels driven.
The receiver is easy to set up. I never needed the manual — except to perhaps identify a function. The on-screen menus were self-explanatory and the setup a piece of cake. The STR-DA5600ES comes with a calibration mic that makes auto or manual level, delay and EQ setting for the neophyte a snap. I used the manual setup mode with a real-time analyzer to make my level settings.

BDP-S1700ES BD Player
The BDP-S1700ES player is the furthest departure from the classic ES player products of yesteryear. No massive metal cabinet or hefty weight of, say, the classic SCAD-XA7ES. The outer cabinet is metal, but it looks like a mid-priced player at best. Its video performance is first rate, and it offers 3D (HDM 1.4) and wireless streaming video for various services, such as Netflix.

The ‘1700ES loaded up fast and its setup menus were a breeze to use. The 1080P picture is typical of Sony’s recent generations of BD players. They are among some of the most detailed sharpest players I have auditioned.

The BDP-S1700ES does not have multichannel decoding with analog output. In keeping with the A/V cost reduction trend (as well as eliminating potential high-quality copying connection points on A/V products) this player and numerous other BD players are now multichannel output-less. So using it with legacy analog input products is out of the question — unless you use a third party HDMI audio extractor. But since the point of the review is to mate it with the STR-DA5600ES receiver, its HDMI connection worked as intended and without a hitch.
The BD player is typically-sized of the players made today. It is light weight at 5 pounds and has very few controls on the front panel — except for small buttons for play, stop and pause, as well as the disc tray open/close button. There also is a front panel USB jack and indicators for HD video and WLAN. The excellent, but small-buttoned remote control gives you the control and feature operability that you need to fully control and set up the player.



The rear panel features a single HDMI output jack, a pair of stereo audio output jacks, composite and component RCA video output jacks, LAN Ethernet connection, a second USB jack and two digital audio output jacks.
Audio-wise, the player bitstreams high resolution lossless formats Dolby TruHD, DTS Master HD and LPCM; it also plays stereo SACDs through its internal decoder, as well as bitstreams stereo or multichannel DSD to compatible receivers or processor with DSD decoders, such as the STR-DA5600ES. More on the DSD feature later.

The setup
I placed the Sony ES tandem into my home cinema rig, which includes a Sony XBR4 52-inch LCD and high-end audio multichannel playback system. The system includes an AudioControl Maestro 3 preamp/processor, Carver amplifiers, Sony BDP-550 BD player from 2009, Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD player and an Oppo BDP-83SE BD player.
The speakers included Westlake LC8.1(L-C), Westlake LC2.65 (C), and NHT Ones for the rear channels; the Paradigm Reference Sub 15 handled the ultra-low end LFE duties. MIT speaker cable was used all around the room; WireWorld solid conductor HDMI cables connected the Blu-ray player and LCD to the ES receiver. Alpha-Core interconnects were used for the BD player’s analog stereo output to the receiver. All components were plugged into a Essential Sound Products Essence power strip

The ES duo’s playback was impressive on the BD, especially the receiver’s audio finesse. The ability to deliver prodigious amount of volume, yet stay focused and smooth, was quite welcome. I am not normally a receiver guy, especially for the medium-to-low price classes of products, but for its $2,000 class, the STR-DA5600ES delivers the goods.

To satisfy my audiophile curiosity I connected the BDP-S1700ES to a couple of extra widget boxes. I wanted to see if could pass high-resolution stereo audio via its HDMI or digital SPDIF output jacks, without the copy-protect handshake, so you could play bitstream DVD-Video or BD discrete high-res stereo audio tracks, as well as an SACD’s DSD-to-PCM tracks to an external audiophile DAC.
To test its audio output capability, I plugged the HDMI output into an Altona HDMI-to-SPDIF converter and connected the Altona coaxial output into an ATI ADAC, witch has digital audio word-length and sample rate indicators. These indicators would show me whether the player passes a BD or DVD-V’s native digital audio output or downsamples the sample rate and/or truncates the word length.

The audition
I did not have a 3D TV in at the time of the review. So, unfortunately, I could not evaluate the test system’s 3D quality. After my initial set up and calibration, I inserted The Incredibles blu-ray, a sonic tour de force in terms of sound track expansiveness, and deep bass. And it is a great animated movie to boot.
The ES duo’s playback was impressive on the BD, especially the receiver’s audio finesse. The ability to deliver prodigious amount of volume, yet stay focused and smooth, was quite welcome. I am not normally a receiver guy, especially for the medium-to-low price classes of products, but for its $2,000 class, the STR-DA5600ES delivers the goods.


On BD after BD, the audio was impressive. It is a tick or two behind my AudioControl Maestro 3 and Carver amp separates audio expansiveness, but of course that set up was five times the price. The STR-DA5600ES shows how good today’s converters and amp sections are in the better receivers.
I also had the STR-DA5600ES for a few days as I was reviewing the much-heralded Marantz SR-7005 receiver, which costs a few hundred bucks less. Both receivers are very close in performance (and the choice may come down to price).
If you use the receiver to process the video, The STR-DA5600ES’ video upconversion is exquisite for DVD conversion to 1080P, and its networking and zone features make it quite versatile. The onboard display was okay to use as reference when in point-blank visual range of the receiver, but from the viewing position, the on-screen info is the only way to know what modes you are in.

The Wi-Fi streaming worked well and it was easy to enable, unlike some other BD Wi-Fi players I have used. The BDP-S1700ES wireless Internet worked flawlessly — without any glitching or long connection times. The wireless also made it a breeze to do software updates.


The receiver will fit into most any setup situation with its connectivity, especially in the digital audio input and zone section. For you headphone listeners, it even has a good-sounding headphone amp, a feature that is becoming a rarity these days in receivers and processors. It also has a phono preamp for those vinyl diehards who have a turntable in the home cinema room.
The BDP-S1700ES is a perfectly fine Blu-ray player — in that its 1080P video is excellent, it offers 3D and streaming of various online video and audio services. But I think as an ES product, it should have analog audio multichannel outputs to maintain connectivity with legacy analog components. Currently, Sony manufactures no Blu-ray player with analog output.
The ‘1700ES loaded up fast and its setup menus were a breeze to use. The 1080P picture is typical of Sony’s recent generations of BD players. They are among some of the most detailed sharpest players I have auditioned. I currently own the BDP-550 from 2009, and the video performance of the ‘1700ES is on par with that machine.
Audio-only playback was very good via the stereo analog outputs, and the SACD playback of my jazz and classical music was more than satisfactory. About on the level of a $500 SACD player. Its sound was present with just a pit of extra energy in the treble. Good stereo separation.
Like most BD players that adhere to industry standard copy protection protocols, the ‘1700ES will not transmit full bit/sample rate digital audio via the SPDIF jacks. And these players will only transmit high-res audio via the HDMI jacks — if there is a digital “handshake” with a compatible receiver or processor like the STR-DA5600ES. If you connect the player to an external DAC via the SPDIF jack or use an HDMI-to-SPDIF converter box, you will get bit and/or sample rate reduced audio.
I tested the BDP-S1700ES high-resolution audio capability through the digital SPDIF and HDMI outputs by plugging the HDMI output into the Altona HDMI-to-SPDIF converter and then plugging the Altona SPDIF output into the ATI ADAC — with it visual word-length and sample-rate indicators. Using LPCM 24/96 audio tracks that I had burned to DVD-V and from AIX Records high-res audio DVD-Vs (the Sony does not play DVD-As), I found that the player would only pass 16-bit/96 kHz audio — not 24/96. And the SPDIF port spit out only 16/48; the copy-protect scheme at work again.


On a 2L music Blu-ray, the player’s digital PCM output from the HDMI muted altogether when I selected the 24/96 LPCM stereo soundtrack. It needs a “handshake” with a compatible receiver or processor to allow transmission of the audio from Blu-ray. And the BDP-S1700ES does not convert DSD to PCM without a “handshake” either.
Like the receiver, the BDP-S1700ES’ onboard display is for up close reference only, you move back a few feet and you need the on-screen display. The Wi-Fi streaming worked well and it was easy to enable, unlike some other BD Wi-Fi players I have used. The BDP-S1700ES wireless Internet worked flawlessly — without any glitching or long connection times. The wireless also made it a breeze to do software updates.

The verdict
All in all, the Sony BDP-S1700ES 3D/Wi-Fi BD player and the STR-DA5600ES receivers are really good A/V products that match well together — or as separates. The ‘1700ES is a very good player with enough features to satisfy most home cinema and semi-serious audio fans, but do not expect that big ES build that Sony customers have gotten used to over the last 20 years. It is a good companion to the STR-DA5600ES, especially if you want to watch 3D movies and wirelessly access streaming services.
The STR-DA5600ES receiver is a first rate A/V multichannel receiver. Audio playback via the high-quality, multichannel lossless formats impressed my ears and its DSD conversion from SACDs gave it some high-res stereo listening flair. The video engine is as good as many high-end BD players. Combine the A/V performance, plethora of connections, and extensive home networking capability, and the Sony STR-DA5600ES proves it is a serious contender in the upper class of mainstream home theater receivers.
Since the STR-DA5600ES handles most of the audio duties, the BDP-S1700ES is a logical choice as a companion Blu-ray player. I am giving the tandem an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award, but the receiver receives a few extra points for its extra performance and functions.

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