Since the STR-DA5300ES emerged like a bit of a damp squib in 2007, Sony has made some serious upgrades and enhancements to create a bigger, bolder and much more dynamic-sounding STR-DA5400ES.
See those socks over there? They were blown off.
The crashing mechanical chaos of Transformers (Blu-ray) explodes into the room with searing speed, and the percussive impact goes deep, deep down and keeps digging.
Using full-range floorstanding speakers all-round, leaving the sub purely for LFE duties, the DA5400ES's control throughout the frequency range is as thrilling as it is addictive. It's so tight and focused it hurts; action movies are a full-throttle adrenaline ride from start to finish.
Dialogue is crisp and clean and, unlike some of its peers, it manages to avoid making all male actors sound like they are auditioning for Carlsberg adverts. The top-end is refined and polished, keeping high-frequency effects on the glassy edge without falling into sibilance. Brilliant.
So, great sound, fantastically featured, great value and easy to use? Well, not exactly. Out of the box, plugged into my speakers in their usual places and using the auto-setup system, the sound was fair but not spectacular.
The open-air scenes in Transformers didn't elicit the mass of spatial detailing one would like, and the whole movie seemed rather trapped into the confines of the room. It was all a bit thick in the middle and lacklustre – just how I recall the predecessor, in fact.
There is little manual adjustment of the DCAC EQ set-up and the initial run damn near tuned my sub out of existence.
Then there is the features count. at around £1,500, the sony is battling with some very hot competition including Denon's AVR-4308A, Pioneer's SC-LX81 and Onkyo's TX-NR906.
All three are Ethernet-networked machines, which the Sony isn't, with web-radio tuners and USB ports for audio files. All three claim more power than the Sony, the Denon adds DAB radio, the Pioneer hash AIR Studios tuning and THX Ultra2 specification, and the Oinker brings ISF video calibration. It would be all too easy to take the STR-DA5400ES at face value and put it into an 'also-ran' category.
But that would be doing it a huge disservice. While Sony has forgone Ethernet connectivity in favour of proprietary DM Port implementation – and other features – the company has clearly spent a lot of R&D wonga where it counts: in component quality and digital technology.
Beneath the surface
Compared to its predecessor, the DA5300, there are significant changes beneath the lid. The amplifier block has been revised to reduce resonance in the heat sink, important as that whole area tends to be microphonic.
The previous AVR used lead-type transistors – that's to say, transistors with legs. With the 5400, these have been replaced with surface mount transistors. This, says Sony's design team, has done two things: audio quality has been improved and vibration has been minimised.
According to lead designer Masaki Sato, the amplifier's bandwidth has been boosted by up to seven per cent. 'For the user,' explains Sato, 'this means that the sound-staging, the feeling of atmosphere created by the receiver, is better. When you listen to a movie soundtrack, it's much more immersive than it was before.'
Elsewhere, a completely new high-tech DSP block is married to 32bit DSD (SACD-speed) DA converters and a host of clever jitter-reducing circuitry. A bunch of features, including Digital Legato Linear, are aimed at improving the sound of formats like good old Dolby Digital and standard DTS, and the latest DCAC calibration and set-up system comes supplied with a stereo mic.
And good news for PJ owners: there are two simultaneous HDMI outputs alongside the six inputs.
Audio grunt is supplied by Sony's Wideband Power Amp version 3. And therein lays the enigma of the STR-DA5400ES's sound.
The power amplifiers have an effective bandwidth that stretches way, way out to the western spiral arm of the sound spectrum in the region of 160kHz. While even bats would have trouble hearing frequencies that high, the effect down in the audio-band is to reduce the onset of phase rotation to over 16kHZ, where the human lughole is least sensitive to it.
The result is a sound that is incredibly linear over the main audio-band, which I have found makes where you put your speakers and what angles they are at absolutely vital. Think of it as a family saloon versus a race car. The average suspension and compromise set-up of a road car means you can drive fairly sloppy and still get from A to B, whereas get the precise suspension geometry of a race car wrong and its 'hello ambulance' pretty swiftly. The Sony demands serious care and attention in speaker set up, and gets better and better with every speaker upgrade.
Okay, so it took me a good few nights of toeing speakers in, toeing speakers out, moving them back and forth, adjusting the tilt and generally faffing about until the early hours to get the Sony singing, but it's worth it. Using my full-range speakers the dynamic scale and drive completely belies Sony's modest power rating and the wickedly fast top-end keeps you firmly in touch with every minute detail.
Put on just about any HD-audio enabled Blu-ray disc and the depth and solidity of the Sony's sound fights well above its weight – but it does so love action movies.
A high-volume romp through Indy IV is a wonderful TrueHD experience that will leave your Dolby and DTS DVDs sounding flatter than a VHS video. The detailed ambience of the hanger in the opening sequence makes the room feel huge around you and the percussive gun cracks ring out with tangible impact.
Yet no matter how much action is going on the Sony stays firmly in control, ensuring dialogue is perfectly placed in the context of the scene but rendered fully intelligible. The film simply races from start to finish and the Sony keeps up the pace to the very end. Sad as it is to admit, the very next evening I sat down, watched it again and smiled all the way through.
Switch tempo and the DA5400ES does not flinch. WALL-E (Blu-ray) might not offer a Mr Motivator-level audio workout for your AV system but the lack of dialogue means that the directors have had to create the ambience and tell the story through a rich tapestry of audio effects. From the simple beeps of WALL-E's own language to the hum of EVE's movement (complete with Doppler effect as she flies past), each sound seems hand-crafted and placed precisely in the room.
The upshot is superb sound steering and a real 'surround' feel – despite the DTS HD master Audio soundtrack being only 5.1 and not 7.1. Of course, the Sony will spin out some faux rear-back information if desired, derived from the surround channels, but with the immersive and enveloping sound in standard 5.1 it really isn't necessary.
Movies like WALL-E highlight this AVR's other great strength – dynamic impact. While our hero gently peeks at EVE from behind a boulder the scene is fairly quiet, punctuated by EVE's scanning effect and WALL-E knocking over some rubbish. Yet when EVE spins and shoots at the boulder it creates a ferociously large explosion that damn near takes you off the sofa.
With the system set-up as 'large' speakers all round, the bass explosion powers through all channels and the subwoofer with a stunning percussive impact that you can't achieve with small speakers and a subwoofer alone. Clearly the Sony has plenty of dynamic pep to back up its RMS Watts and it's not afraid to use it when required. If I was a set of speakers and saw my owner bringing in an STR-DA5400ES I would be afraid. Very afraid.
During the review I had the pleasure of borrowing Sony's matching SCD-XA5400ES SACD player and the BDP-S500ES Blu-ray deck, creating quite a family of serial over-achievers. Multichannel SACD over the HATS (High quality Audio Transmission System)-enabled HDMI connection adds a new level of clarity to multichannel music SACDs and the Blu-ray player will leave your eyes begging for more.
The Sony STR-DA5400ES is not a receiver for the faint-hearted, as it's far too demanding of accurate setup and top-notch ancillary equipment.
But, give it time, respect and some elbow grease to move your speakers around, and it is more than capable of seeing off the competition. Unless, of course, you want an AVR with Ethernet connectivity...