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.