The look, feel and build of the Sony STR-DA5300ES is everything I have come to expect from Sony, with nicely-weighted controls and two solid remote handsets.
The overall exterior design of this receiver hasn't changed a great deal from last year, although you do now get a '2CH Direct' switch on the fascia as well as the remote, and the rear panel now offers a Sony DMPORT and a class-leading six v1.3-spec HDMI inputs (even Yamaha's £5K DSP-Z11 only has five).
An audiophile's paradise
Uniquely, input number six is marked as a dedicated 'audiophile' connection, offering the absolute shortest signal path and greatest shielding from other components.
The STR-DA5300ES can handle a DSD signal (Super Audio CD) over HDMI and the 2CH analogue direct has been further improved, giving this receiver serious musical credentials.
On the downside there's only one HDMI output, which is beginning to irritate a bit here at HCC - as it will anyone looking to run both an HDTV and a projector.
There are also no generic networking connections (USB, Ethernet, etc) and none of the audio or video connections are gold-plated. Call me the bling-meister, but I think any AV kit with a four-figure price tag should get the gold connection treatment.
Inside Sony's latest receiver
Beneath the lid there are some far more serious additions to this Sony's predecessor, including all the new-fangled Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio formats and a new horizontally-braced chassis construction.
A hefty beam runs from one side to the other, supporting the transformer to better physically isolate it from other sensitive components. The power output stages for each channel have been beefed up and made a full wide-bandwidth design, running pretty much flat out to over 150kHz.
This attention to fine engineering detail is about as obsessive as it gets - right down to the use of a new type of lead-free solder that Sony spent three years developing to perfect its sound quality!
One of the most powerful EQ Systems ever
Most exciting for me, though, is a new 32bit EQ system running from its own dedicated DSP chipset. It offers 32-band EQ with precise 1/3 octave adjustment for every channel.
In my opinion, this is one of the most powerful dedicated EQ systems to ever grace a consumer AV product; it also provides multi-seat balancing to stop 'hot seat syndrome, and is supported by a full auto setup system, used in conjunction with a supplied stereo microphone.
And, in great news for dog owners, the Sony's auto-set up routine uses mostly musical tones rather than the usual pops, howls and white noise that are guaranteed to send your canine pal apoplectic.
Straightforward user interface
The tuner is an FM/AM only affair - no DAB, although I'm getting used to this from Japanese brands - and there is multiroom functionality for those who are into that sort of thing.
The Graphic User Interface (GUI) is well up to snuff artistically, but is not as intuitive as its peers, so having the manual to hand is essential through the first week or two of use. The photo-real room graphics are rather nice and once you get the hang of the menu logic the 5300ES runs smoothly.
The video side is based on top-spec Faroudja and Silicon image chipsets, with neat features including picture-in-picture with multiple inputs.
There isn't the in-depth video tweakery of some of the other upscaling receivers around, and the Sony's EQ system is similarly light on fine manual controls, but this does make for great fire-and-forget home cinema fun.
A high-adrenaline experience
I ran the auto-set-up system a couple of times because the results have a distinct THX-like feel; the sub comes in a good +5dB hot and the EQ system creates a very open, clean and sparkling top end.
The result is seriously gung-ho excitement and a high-octane, high-adrenaline fast-paced thrill-a-minute ride - and that was just watching The Magic Roundabout DVD.
Think Reservoir Dogs with Zebedee as Samuel L. Jackson, Ermintrude as the vivacious love interest and Dougal leaping off the roundabout unloading two Colt 45s in slow motion...
Create a huge soundstage
A swift taming of the EQ and sub levels is easy enough, and I achieved a clean and up-front sound with excellent effects detailing.
For example, the Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack on Shrek the Third (HD DVD) is immaculately polished - even the most subtle facets of the mix were extracted and projected into the room. This gives the soundstage huge width and height. The scene of the lofty school hall filled with children sounded fantastically realistic.
Effects like rain are particularly impressive when Sony's own rear-back channel processing is engaged, making the 5.1 DD+ soundtrack into very effective 7.1.
Even with the Sony's EQ system disengaged the 5300ES' balance is very open and natural with clean and pronounced highs. I can see this stance sitting better with warmer-sounding loudspeakers, rather than those with a forward or bright balance, because you can definitely have too much of a good thing.
Using a speaker package with a virulent metal dome tweeter, the dialogue gets a bit more edge and bite than is ideal and natural sibilance is highlighted.
Switch your sound to turbo
The same light balance is true of the 5300ES' two-channel music reproduction - until you hit the 2CH Direct button. Blimey, talk about a turbo switch!
The sound immediately gains bags of warmth and fullness that counterpoints the natural top end perfectly, and the soundstage grows by 50 per cent in every direction. Bass is deep, tuneful and comes at you like a sharpened hammer.
The stance is still natural and crisp rather than warm and safe, but in terms of hi-fi sound and musical resolution the Sony is way out in front of its AV receiver competitors.
Home Cinema like no other
Switching back to movies, the sound is relatively more congested and harder, but kick back in the EQ system and it shines. The bass boost brings huge LFE scale to any movies and the space and detail is an exercise in special effects placement.
There is more background hiss in the rear channels than I would like and the tonal balance does not favour really high-volume listening. Give the volume control a large clockwise handful and as the power amps run out of puff the sounds gets quite glassy and bright.
Again this will be somewhat speaker-dependent but hit the right combo and the 5300ES absolutely shines.
Sony's wild-card receiver
With a fine features set, high-tech engineering, spacious movie surround sound and a penchant to be a two-channel hi-fi system in its spare time, the STR-DA5300ES is a contender.
The sound, which majors on detail resolution and clarity, is a real grower that seems to get better with every listen; the operation becomes very slick with familiarity; and the fit, finishand build is a joy to own.
But, while many of these features lead the class, in the £1,000+ AVR market (where the bar has been raised with space-shuttle-sized rocket boosters this year) this Sony doesn't pull-off the all-round appeal of its Denon or Yamaha rivals.
It's not, therefore, an obvious must-have product but well worth keeping on the audition list. The Sony STR-DA5300ES might just be the wild-card receiver choice that ticks all the right boxes in your system