Rather than simply evolving its previous AV receivers, the big S has gone all-out with a completely new design for its latest ES class trio.
The STR-DA5200ES tested here is top of that crop, and boasts 1080p upscaling, HDMI upconversion from every video input, a unique auto calibration system, dual core processing, a sexy new GUI and most significantly a move back to analogue amplification.
The tech-spec is certainly up there with other receivers at this price, offering a full complement of standard Dolby and DTS formats, a very healthy 115W into seven channels, and bi-ampable main speakers if you opt for 5.1 configuration.
HDMI connectivity is three-in, one-out and all 1080p-compatible - to make the most of the DA5200ES's Genesis Microship's Cortez Advanced video controller and the latest Faroudja DCDi scaling engine. This will give true 1080p output from any source - even 420-line NTSC composite video! Even if you don't have a 1080p display right now, that is a great deal of future-proofing.
Unique in the range to the 5000ES is a USB input for MP3 etc, multi-zone output with a rather useful three output zones and a secondary remote control to suit.
Sony is most proud of the new setup and calibration system, Digital Cinema Auto Calibration. It's claimed to be one of the most accurate and fastest of any receiver on the market. It uses a stereo setup mic, and hitting the start button elicits a quick series of tunes followed by the usual white-noise pulses - and that's it. Job done in 30 seconds. Cool.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the basics of sound - and I mean a great deal. The design brief was to create an open and refined sound, and demanded creating richer, tighter bass than previous models. The technical document accompanying the review sample describes this as 'darker bass'. Even the type of plastic chosen for insulation on the speaker terminals was selected by extensive auditioning! I bet that was a fun evening in Shinagawa.
The STR-DA52000ES's overall build quality and feel are nicely solid, and I even like the bold and slightly intimidating look.
Try as I might to trip this Sony up, the setup takes under 30 seconds every time. The speaker distance estimation proves correct to within about 10mm and you get three versions of the EQ map - 'Full Flat' across all channels, 'Front Reference' to balance just the front three speakers and 'Engineer' mode to replicate Sony's development studio in Japan. Of course, you can also turn all the EQ off.
From the outset the 5200ES impresses. Scaling to 1080i, and hooked up to an LCD TV capable of displaying this resolution natively, gives a sublime picture performance with smooth scrolling, great depth and excellent colour rendition. Strangely, I thought the DA5200ES's output looked even better scaled to 1080p on the same TV, gaining solidity and depth. The only gripe about the entire video system is a little hiccup in sound when the GUI is pulled up onscreen or dismissed.
Sonically this receiver is a revelation. It has a totally different character to all of Sony's previous digital outings; my party trick of being able to ascertain the make of an AV amplifier blindfold (sad, I know) would have certainly fallen flat.
The bass response is simply huge. The sound is bigger, heftier and more enveloping than any Sony ES amp that has gone before, removing the sometimes stark and over-analytical facets in favour of a leaping, gun-toting, trail-blazing festival of high-octane entertainment.
The EQ works a treat. In my room, it added pace and sparkle without turning the treble into a lemon-sucking experience and tightened the occasionally OTT bass without reducing its prodigious volume and depth. The 'Full Flat' mode beats the 'Front Reference' by a smidgeon and the 'Engineer' mode will be well worth investigating if you have a very large room.
The moody and stark parts of the M:I:3 soundtrack are rendered with oodles of atmosphere and sheer gravitas, while the gunshots have a deep percussive thump that starts somewhere below the earth's crust and finishes in the middle of your stomach. There isn't perhaps the inky black silence or ultra-clean edge of the very best processors, nor the vice-like bass grip of a big power multichannel power amp, but the Sony offers a convincing and involving all-round sound with just about any movie.
Two-channel music is every bit as rich and inviting. There is a minor propensity for excessive bass if you use both the onboard PCM processing and the subwoofer, but in analogue mode with the Analogue Direct function engaged it is a real music star; rich and full-bodied with excellent articulation.
I defy anyone not to warm to this Sony's rich, weighty and energetic sound; any action movie fan will be hard-pressed to better it at the price. Add in multiroom output, 1080p upscaling and a gorgeous GUI, and you've got one of the best sub-£1,000 receivers available.