The 5400ES includes plenty of features designed to help you get the best possible performance from a variety of sources. When playing SACDs with my Oppo universal player, Sony's HATS (High-quality digital Audio Transmission System) was able to process digital audio coming over the HDMI connection using the receiver's master clock. Sony claims that this all but eliminates digital jitter, and when I spun Miles Davis's Kind of Blue on SACD, there was a small but clear uptick in clarity and low-level resolution with the HATS circuit engaged. Punchier music, such as the remix of the Beatles' "Drive My Car" and "The Word" on the Love DVD-Audio disc, showed off the Sony's ability to get a powerful grip on the speakers, with Giles Martin's 5.1 mix swirling around the room in a convincing manner.
Moving on to cinematic material, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Night at the Museum Blu-ray will give any system a good workout, especially when the Tyrannosaurus rex chases Larry (Ben Stiller). Even amidst this sonic mayhem, the 5400ES managed to create a stable, enveloping sound field, along with impressive dimensionality and spaciousness on the soundtrack's orchestral score. The bass was solid and well defined, if perhaps missing that final smidgen of grunt and punch I've heard with a few (admittedly much more expensive and powerful) amps I've used.
Analog video signals were processed by the excellent Faroudja DCDi chip, with everything from composite video arriving by way of a VCR to 1080i-format signals on a component-video connection upscaled to 1080p. This is one of the best video processors around, so it's no surprise that pictures looked uniformly excellent - a notable improvement over my Samsung 1080p LCD TV's built-in processing.
To make compressed digital-audio files like MP3 tracks sound better, the 5400ES has what Sony calls a Digital Legato Linear (DLL) audio scaler. I found that this could reduce the warbly, underwater-like effect you often hear with highly compressed signals - a few of XM Radio's talk channels, for example. With XM's music channels, or the better-sounding MP3s on my iPod, the enhancement was less pronounced but still noticeable, with high-frequency sounds such as cymbals losing some of that papery quality you sometimes hear with MP3s.
With its many rows of similar-looking rectangular buttons, Sony's programmable remote is not the easiest to navigate, although the critical input-selection and volume controls are easily accessed. Sony packs two nearly identical remotes, with the second unit intended for use in a second zone.
If you don't thumb through the receiver's manual, you're likely to miss a few well-hidden features in its Xross Media Bar graphical user interface (GUI), like the multiband speaker equalizer. One problem I ran into is that operating audio-only functions such as radio tuning can be confusing unless you also turn on the video display. But this became much easier once I assigned all of my regular FM, AM, and XM stations to presets. While we're discussing tuners, one feature this Sony regrettably lacks is HD Radio, a service I've really grown to appreciate.
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