Sony's SCD-XA9000ES. i.LINK dramatically improved the sound of SACDs by providing a lift in overall clarity, definition, and smoothness (where I found the DA7100ES to outperform the DA9000ES), and by bringing greater focus and precision in surround- sound imaging. The effects were not unlike the imaging and soundstaging qualities of a first-rate stereo wrapped in a circle that surrounded your listening chair. Even with good multichannel SACD recordings that you think you've heard at their best, the i.LINK-driven Sony almost always reveals new textures and spatial details. On Gary Burton's Like Minds [Concord Jazz, SACD]—a recording I have heard many times on many systems—the Sony floored me, making the stage presence of the musicians so vivid I felt like walking over to ask for their autographs. After hearing good SACD material through the Sony's i.LINK input, a stunned audiophile guest looked up and said, "This thing takes the idea of 'soundstaging' to a whole new level." I couldn't agree more.
Finally, let me praise Sony for the terrific new backlit remote provided with the DA7100ES. This one is as simple and straightforward to use as the DA9000ES' remote was mysterious and confusing, yet it gives up little in the way of system control or advanced macro capabilities.
Indeed, I found only a few drawbacks with this receiver. First, though extremely transparent as AVRs go, the Sony falls somewhat short of the clarity of top-tier stereo components or the best multichannel controllers on the market. But nothing I've heard in the Sony's price range can beat it, either in power or clarity. Second, I would like Sony to offer an expanded set of bassmanagement options for its 7.1-channel analog and i.LINK digital audio inputs, so that it would be possible to set separate subwoofer crossover points on a channel-by-channel basis. Third, this receiver really should offer automated speaker set-up and room EQ capabilities—something Sony plainly has the DSP know-how to provide. But apart from these minor quibbles, I found this a terrific receiver— one that even demanding users will not easily outgrow. In short, the STR-DA7100ES gives you almost everything the big DA9000ES does in terms of power and flexibility, and matches its sound quality—at a more than fair price. If you love the idea of a $2000 AVR that can, in every important way, run with the $4000+ big dogs, then Sony's DA7100ES is the bargain you've been waiting for
On multichannel DVD-A and SACD material, through the Sony's 7.1-channel analog inputs, the receiver again demonstrates the twin virtues of power and finesse, displaying enough transparency to reveal subtle differences between source components. The Sony also does well on two-channel material, offering the option of traditional surround-decoding modes such as Dolby PLII Music or DTS Neo:6 Music, or any of Sony's own DSP-driven surround modes. For general listening, I thought the Dolby PLII Music mode gave the most tonally uncolored and spatially coherent results, though Sony's DSP modes could be effective, too. The key lies in taking the time to match modes with the acoustic requirements of the recordings. When you find a good match, the results can sound three-dimensional and perfectly appropriate, but mismatches—for example, trying to listen to chamber music in the "STADIUM" mode—can sound garish and downright bizarre. Used with discretion, though, Sony's DSP modes can create a convincing sense of place.
To hear the DA7100ES at its very best, you should hear it on direct DSD bitstream data from an i.LINK-enabled multichannel SACD player such as