With a receiver as technologically well endowed as this one, you need a well-written user manual; instead, you get a muddled mess. We had to scrutinize the logic of Sony's digital and video assignments to get them to work. Even basic operations, such as adjusting speaker levels, were more of a hassle than on just about any receiver we can recall. Home-theater novices shouldn't even think about attempting the setup; they'll need professional help to get the most out of their Sony STR-DA7100ES. On the upside, we noted that the receiver's onscreen menus appeared over its HDMI-monitor output.
Sony provides two remotes: a surprisingly compact unit with a large, illuminated LCD window, and a second, more conventional remote for use in multiroom installations. The efficiently compact main unit gets by with a small number of buttons, and you can customize the controls to simplify them even further.
If you don't need the DA7100ES's HDMI connectivity, we recommend Sony's half-price alternative, the nearly identical STR-DA3100ES. The Sony STR-DA7100ES's S-Master Pro digital amplifier delivers 170 watts of power to seven channels, making it one of the most powerful receivers we've tested. Surround processing includes all the typical 7.1-channel Dolby and DTS schemes plus a smattering of proprietary Sony modes.
The DA7100ES's connectivity suite includes five A/V composite and S-Video inputs plus two component and two HDMI inputs. We're pleased with the two HDMI inputs, but come on, Sony, $2,000 receivers should have at least three or four component ins. Things improve on the digital-audio side: you get four optical digital inputs, one optical output, three coaxial inputs, a 7.1-channel analog SACD/DVD-Audio input, and a digital iLink single-cable connection for compatible DVD-Audio/SACD players. Oh, there's also a phono (turntable) input for the audiophile set.
As mentioned above, the receiver can convert composite-, component-, and S-Video sources, such as your VCR or DVD player, to HDMI. Rather than running different cables for each video format, those with HDMI-equipped HDTVs can use just one HDMI cable to connect the TV and the DA7100ES. One caveat, though: the receiver converts 480i signals only. It passes other resolutions--namely 480p, 720p, and 1080i--to the component monitor output without modification.
You can have the DA7100ES convert 480i signals to 480p for output via component or HDMI. Other than that, don't expect HDMI conversion to significantly improve the image quality of standard-definition sources; its main benefit is to simplify connections and video switching. A few competing units with HDMI upconversion include Denon's AVR-4806 and AVR-3806, as well as JVC's less expensive RX-D702B.
Multiroom capabilities include second-zone A/V and third-zone audio-only outputs, three 12V triggers, an infrared input, two infrared outputs, and an RS-232 control port for use with computer home-automation systems.
The owner's manual refers to the possibility of configuring a 9.1-channel speaker system, which temporarily threw us because the DA7100ES is, in fact, a 7-channel receiver. Yes, you can hook up a total of nine speakers, but the number of discrete channels remains the same: 7. If you plan on sticking with standard 5.1 surround in your main system, you can take advantage of the receiver's A/B switching to assign the front channels to speakers in one room and the surround-back channels to speakers in another. An equalizer function with five memory settings provides separate bass, midrange, and treble settings for the front, center, and surround speakers. The DA71000ES is a remarkably flexible receiver.
An adjustable A/V lip-sync control provides up to a 200-millisecond delay, which might come in handy if your TV's pictures lag behind your audio. The best DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD discs demonstrated just how good the Sony STR-DA7100ES can sound. Norah Jones's Come Away with Me SACD, with its unhyped vocals and richly portrayed instrumental presence, revealed ample detail without a trace of harshness or exaggeration. Rocking out with Dire Straits' classic Brothers in Arms, remastered on Dual Disc, showcased the DA7100ES's surround sound. The new 5.1 mix melted away the walls of our home theater as the dimensions of the soundstage took on holographic proportions.
A stack of CDs ranging from Radiohead's Kid A to John Coltrane's Giant Steps came across with unfailing realism. Drums had impressive impact and a visceral quality we rarely hear from receivers, and with 170 watts per channel at our beck and call, the DA7100ES can easily fill even fairly large home theaters with sound.
The receiver effortlessly decoded the dense range of sounds coursing through The Interpreter DVD. The failed assassination sequence at the United Nations sounded especially chilling, with its heart-pounding score and occasional, but scarily realistic, gunfire. We compared the Sony receiver with Yamaha's new RX-V4600 and determined that the Yamaha sounded slightly clearer and more detailed; the Sony's balance was softer and more laid back. The DA71000ES's sound quality approached that of high-end separates selling for many times the cost.
We hooked the DA71000ES to a variety of gear to test its HDMI upconversion, and for the most part, it worked as advertised. The video quality of standard-def sources did not improve appreciably, and HDTV sources did not seem to suffer at all from the pass-through. The HDMI handshake worked properly on the high-def sets we connected, including a Philips 42PF9630A, a Vizio P50HDM, and Sony's own KD-34XBR960. A couple of times we had to establish a connection by switching away from the TV's HDMI input and back, but your experience with issues such as this will vary depending on which TV you connect.