Sony's latest top-of-the-line A/V receiver, the STR-DA5200ES, might more fairly be labeled a V/A receiver, being one of the most video-intensive encountered so far. Among its boasts is the slickest onscreen display we've seen in a receiver (its style derives from PSP/PS3 game designs), the most powerful video scaler, and a host of video capabilities, including in-receiver PIP processing. Of course, there's a long list of audio goodies too, among them precise auto-calibration and a range of surround and two-channel options, including one mode optimized for portables such as an iPod or, this being a Sony, a MiniDisc player. (I'm sure you've got one of those in the closet.) The receiver is also XM-ready, including decoding for XM Neural 5.1-channel broadcasts.
On first glance the Sony STR-DA5200ES A/V receiver looks like any other, but with an exceptionally clean front-panel layout, thanks to most functions being accessible strictly from the system remote - a conventional-looking, button-based affair. The back panel is dense, of course, packed with the three HDMI digital A/V inputs of the well-dressed receiver and all the component, S-video, and digital-audio ports you could want.
After hookup, my first move was to run Sony's auto-setup routine. The supplied stereo calibration mike, shaped like a sawed-off "T," yielded impressive spatial precision, calculating my speaker distances to the inch - I checked with a tape measure! (Triangulation is the secret, of course.) It set all my speakers to "large," but since they're all quite able down to 60 Hz or lower, I 've got no major beef - I rechecked with tiny sats, and the receiver dutifully reset to "small." Levels were all within a dB or so of my handheld SPL meter (which may be less accurate than the Sony), except for the subwoofer, which was auto-balanced about 6 dB strong to both my ear and my meter - easily set right on the manual-adjustment page.
Which brings us to the 5200ES's graphic user interface, or GUI: These translucent onscreen displays are, by a wide margin, the most elegant and detailed I've seen from any receiver, and they should do a great job walking the less familiar through the admittedly complex task of setting up an A/V system. The little textual "help" messages along the bottom of many pages, and the full-color, hi-rez look (especially for the speaker and surround setup menus), are undeniably cool.
ERGONOMICS In a very real sense, once you've learned to bring up the GUI and use the remote's cursor/Enter cluster, you've learned all you need. Virtually everything is accessible through the menus, and the response is quite crisp (though the Sony 1080p LCD I used to check out the 5200ES could take a few seconds to re-sync, depending on the receiver's video settings).
One problem with this kind of menu-based control system, however, is that some functions you want readily accessible may be deep in the menus. For example, if you want to adjust center-channel level up a few dB on the fly for the current movie (something I call the Robert Altman maneuver), you will need to make, by my count, no fewer than 16 keypresses from the GUI's home menu just to reach the required page. This holds true for several other potentially oft-desired features, though Sony was wise enough to provide dedicated remote-control keys to most critical commands such as source input, surround modes and radio tuning, plus a few extras via a "Shift" key - including the picture-in-picture feature and the output resolution of the built-in scaler.
The good news is that reaching any command in the GUI is always easy, via the same On Screen and cursor remote keys. Teach your fingers where to find those, and you'll never need to peer at the remote. Sony also designed the system so that the onscreen display "remembers" its place: You can just toggle it on and off to jump back to, say, the page for adjusting channel levels or whatever other screen you last used.
The remote itself is reasonably well laid out and easy to use but with a good bit of hard-to-read small lettering. There's no illumination - a bit surprising at this price - but it does boast powerful glow-in-the-dark primary keys.