As a full-range stereo amplifier, the big Sony proved eminently able. A demanding hi-rez FLAC recording like an album of solo guitar music of 20th-century Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (from a 96/24 HDtracks.com download) delivered all the detail, transparency, and jet-black-silent “backgrounds,” as well as the lovely spatial depth to notes, that I expected. Punchier stuff such as “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” from the Yoichi Murata Orchestra’s Standards (another HDtracks.com 96/24 download), fared just as well, showing a gratifying degree of percussive smack without harshness or blare — and this is music I played loud.
Sony’s onboard DSP for music listening includes a number of settings to exploit front-presence (“height”) speakers, and the 5800ES is also equipped with Dolby PLIIz. These lent an impressive sense of space to concert-hall recordings, especially when auditioned via the receiver’s three concert-hall settings. I sampled a few snippets via Berlin Philharmonic Hall: The chilly sonorities of Stravinsky’s cantata Roi d’Etoiles sounded wholly ravishing through this very solid DSP-ambience setting. (The DSP-surround programs all incorporate a welcome set of user-adjustable parameters.)
While the Sony provides a wide array of streaming options, I discovered that, incredibly, if you pause a streaming program to go to the receiver’s Home screen for any reason, your program resets to its parent menu, meaning you have to start over — even if you paused the program before hitting “Home.” Not good. Really not good.
Sony’s latest is, unsurprisingly, among the shrinking population of receivers/processors that can decode Sony’s DSD bitstream format directly, so I had to try a few examples of my favorite music source, multichannel SACDs. After some initial setup frustrations (requiring a hard reboot of the receiver), I got it to work as expected and was rewarded with pristine, startlingly dynamic sound.
The new Sony adds up to a powerhouse of audio and video processing power for movie viewing. A picture like Pixar’s Brave makes an outstanding test, and on “straight” Dolby TrueHD, the 5800ES navigated the biggest action scenes without incident, easily delivering reference-level playback via my moderate-sensitivity speaker array. The Sony’s HD Digital Cinema Sound DSP-enhanced theater settings can indeed make your home theater sound “bigger” and even more impactful: A scene like the bear chase through the castle halls displayed the front height channels to excellent effect, with a more towering sensation altogether — as did Dolby PLIIz. But all three Cinema DSP sub-options (Dynamic, Theater, and Studio) also gave dialogue a slightly “processed,” reverb-y (or even flange-y) inflection (Studio just barely). I subsequently stuck with “straight” unprocessed sound for all my movies, and was never disappointed by the 5800ES’s core audio and video abilities.
Speaking of , I saw extremely solid results on the usual test-disc trials when upscaling 480i-format video to 1080p over HDMI. And note that the Sony can upscale signals sent to its Zone 2 video output (either HDMI or component), a very rare ability.
There are lots of nice ergonomic touches in this newest Sony. My favorite is HDMI Preview, which streams up to 3 little PIP boxes for HDMI inputs 1-4 and lets you swap main and sub-frame sources with a single key press.
Another is the HDMI second-zone output already mentioned. Alternatively, the 5800ES includes an RJ-45 output, which can send component video-plus-stereo audio along easily strung Cat-5 cable; you need only buy Sony’s corresponding CAV-CVB1 balun (about $100) for the destination end.
Sony’s new graphical onscreen setup system, while handsome, is still on the slow side. In my initial, all-HDMI setup, the main Home screen required a minimum of 3 seconds to appear on my 52-inch Samsung and about the same to disappear when I switched from my Sony Blu-ray player, and far longer when I switched HDMI from my Comcast — er, Xfinity/Motorola — cable box. In both cases audio was interrupted as well. Switching was slightly faster when I called up Home from a 1080i component-video in/out connection, but even here a couple of seconds each way seems awfully long. Too long, because the Sony requires you to go through the Home screen and then the subsidiary Sound Effects and Soundfield screens (each of which requires an additional second or two) every time you want to switch between a default surround program and a different setting. The whole process takes at least 10 seconds — crazy.
Fortunately, there is a direct-access option using the remote’s “SoundField +/-” keys. Unfortunately, you must first remember to press the controller’s “Shift” key and then step through as many as 9 possible selections to reach the desired goal. And the only visual confirmation is the front panel’s quite small display. I was not pleased by how difficult the Sony makes it to select a given surround mode, or even to know for certain what mode you’re hearing.
There are no pop-up subsidiary onscreen displays, such as for volume, current signal formats, or the like. But at least the 5800ES includes an “Amp Menu” remote key that lets you step through, view, and adjust all the important parameter groups, even if only via the same small display.
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