When it comes to the pinnacle of home theater performance, few enthusiasts would offer up AV receivers as being shining examples of the end-all be-all, a title that is generally held by separate, specialized components. AV receivers, on the other hand, typically are an exercise in compromise, possessing many of the most up-to-date features while coming up short in terms of outright sonic superiority. However, there is a definite place for AV receivers, as they are unquestionably more popular among real-world enthusiasts, thanks to their do-it-all designs and attractive price points. But what if there was an AV receiver that managed to be every bit as good sonically as its higher-end counterparts, while still managing to pack virtually every feature known to man within a single chassis that was both well-built and backed by one of the most storied names in the business? If such an AV receiver existed, would it change the way we look at AV receivers? Would it progress AV receivers from being “suitable for the masses” to legitimate high-end contenders? That’s what Sony is hoping to do with its new flagship STR-DA5800ES (5800ES) 9.2 channel 4K AV receiver. Whether or not the company succeeded is what I had to find out.
Retailing for $2,099.99 and sold either direct via the Sony website or though select ES dealers, the 5800ES is the most advanced AV receiver Sony has offered to date. While it may be a giant leap forward for Sony, the visual styling is, well, a bit stale, as it looks like every other Sony receiver available today, or even in years past. The 5800ES is a large, semi-gloss and matte black slab of industrial design that measures 17 inches wide by seven-and-a-half inches tall and almost 17 inches deep. While it may weigh only 40 pounds, it feels much, much heavier in hand. The front fascia isn’t sexy, but it is functional, possessing many (if not all) of the requisite manual controls for everyday operation as well as a few not so everyday controls. The most notable manual controls across the face of the 5800ES are the four large knobs that run along its center: one each for tone, tuning, input selection and of course volume. There is a brightly lit display that runs along the top of the 5800ES that, while narrow, is clearly legible from several feet away and possesses all the necessary info needed to determine just what the receiver is doing at any given time. There is even a narrow light that rests near dead center of the 5800ES that illuminates when the 5800ES is decoding multi-channel material, just in case you needed a visual prompt to tell you that your surround or rear channels were playing.
Around back, things get a little more intense, as the back panel is awash with more input/output options, as well as control ports, than I believe anything I’ve ever seen – and I’m an Integra/Onkyo fan. Moving from left to right, the first inputs I came across were the 5800ES’ digital inputs, which consist of three optical and three coaxial. Next to the digital inputs, running in a vertical alignment, rest the 5800ES’ control ports, starting with RS-232C, IR remote ports (one in and four out) followed by three 12-volt trigger outs. Continuing on, I noticed AM and FM antenna ports (people still use these), as well as a Zone 2 video out, which took the form of an Ethernet port. Almost directly across from the Zone 2 video out rest four – count ’em, four – Ethernet ports that tackle everything from control and updates to media streaming. Below the four Ethernet ports are a bevy of analog audio and video inputs, as well as a full complement (9.2) of unbalanced preamp outputs. Above the four Ethernet ports, you’ll find 11 HDMI ports, eight in and three out, with the third HDMI out being reserved for Zone 2 duties. There is actually a ninth HDMI input located on the front panel and, like the rear port labeled 4K, the front port is 4K enabled as well. Below the myriad of HDMI input/output options are four component input/outputs, two in and two out, with the second being for a second zone. There are a few straggling analog inputs below the four components: two for MD/Tape (one in, one out) and an analog TV input (audio). Resting near the far right side are the 5800ES’ binding posts, all nine channels, though there are technically 11 total. Toss in two two-prong AC outlets and a removable power cord, and you have the 5800ES’ back panel all sewn up.
Behind the scenes – or should I say sheet metal – the 5800ES boasts an amplifier section claiming 130 watts of total power across all of its channels into eight ohms. The 5800ES is a 4K-capable device that offers both 4K upscaling and 4K pass-through. However, not all of its HDMI inputs are equal in this regard. For 4K upscaling, you can use all of the 5800ES’ nine HDMI inputs, but if pass-through of a 4K signal is what you’re after, then only HDMI inputs one, two and nine are available. It should be noted that if you currently own an HD display (who doesn’t) sending a 4K upscaled image to it via the Sony or other 4K upscaling device will not work and will result in an error message or blank screen. In other words, the 5800ES’ 4K functionality, at present, is more of a future proof feature versus one you’re likely to use day to day for the foreseeable future -unless you’ve got an spare $25,000 lying around for either the Sony VPL-VW1000ES projector or their UltraHD display.
Another key feature unique to the 5800ES is its Control 4 integration, though before you get too excited (as I did) and go thinking that the 5800ES somehow enables you Control 4, uh-uh. It doesn’t control out of the box. The 5800ES merely has the ability to encompass a broader whole-home control system when unlocked by a Control 4 or Sony ES dealer – plus additional hardware, of course. When I spoke with a Control 4 installer re the added feature, he thought the Control 4 integration was an added benefit, as the additional hardware needed to make the 5800ES fully functional was minimal compared to building a whole setup from scratch. In other words, the 5800ES puts you ahead of the curve if home automation is your end goal. I wasn’t able to unlock the full Control 4 functionality as I am not a Control 4 customer, nor did I request to become one for this review. Suffice to say that I’ve spoken with others whom I trust who have the 5800ES as well as Control 4 setups in their homes and have been told the two products, Sony and Control 4, do work well together.
Other notable features include Faroudja video processing, 3D pass-through, multi-zone or room HD video distribution, DNLA network compliance, Internet streaming capability (Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, etc.), App-based control, support for all surround sound codecs, custom HD surround sound codecs, auto speaker calibration and EQ, and much, much more. For a complete breakdown of all the 5800ES’ features, please visit Sony’s website and the 5800ES product page.
This brings me to the remote. Well, there are three ways to control the 5800ES, at least in Sony’s eyes. One way is via the included remote, which is a long, slender affair that is a bit finicky and frankly cluttered in its layout. It’s got range on its side, though it is very directional. The partial backlighting helps when trying to operate it in the dark, though either it, or the 5800ES itself, seem slow to respond at times. You could always employ a Control 4 remote (as I understand) or download the ES Remote app for your Android or iOS device. I was particularly excited about the app as I control all my components via free remote apps supplied by the manufacturers. I downloaded the app to my Nexus 7 tablet (Android) and wouldn’t you know it – it didn’t work, at least not at first. You see the app defaults to a demo mode, which unless you surf through some fine print, appears permanent -note I said appears. However, going into the “App Settings” section and pairing it (the app) with the 5800ES on my network did the trick and resulted in wireless, App-based control. While not wholly intuitive, the app does work and is very cool -not to mention free.
At first blush, integrating the 5800ES into my system seemed easy enough, for I’ve installed more than my fair share of AV receivers in the past. However, I treated the 5800ES as I do every AV receiver, which as I quickly learned wasn’t going to produce accurate results. For starters, I connected my Oppo BDP-103 to the HDMI 1 input and my Dune-HD Max to the HDMI 2 input. Next, I ran a 50-foot high-speed HDMI cable with Redmere from Monoprice between my SIM2 Nero and the 5800ES. The speakers I used during my evaluation of the 5800ES included Tekton Design’s Pendragon and Wharfedale Jade 1 bookshelf speakers, with the latter serving as surround channels, as I’m awaiting the arrival of my new Bowers & Wilkins’ CT800 series loudspeakers. All speakers were connected via runs of 14-gauge in-wall speaker cable, courtesy of Binary Cables, which is distributed by SnapAV. For my subwoofer, I employed a single JL Audio Fathom f110, which was EQ’ed for my room prior to the 5800ES’ arrival using Room EQ Wizard and the Behringer Feedback Destroyer or BFD. The BFD remained in the signal chain via its connection to the 5800ES’ subwoofer output.
When I fired up the system, I was presented with an onscreen interface (one that will look familiar to PS3 owners) asking me to either perform the Easy Setup or skip. Naturally, I skipped it, as easy setup procedures are often not where the true measure of a product lies. This was my mistake. Because the 5800ES is so jam-packed with features, controls and goodies, it’s not a bad thing to let it hold your hand for those first few steps, for going it alone is quite tedious and not all that intuitive. Also, the 5800ES’s menus, while brilliantly rendered, are very, very cumbersome and slow to react; in many instances, they require load time equivalent to that of most Blu-rays. My initial attempt at manual setup didn’t go very well and resulted in me cursing the 5800ES. Resetting the unit to its factory default setting (i.e., out of the box) and going through the four-step Easy Setup proved much more fruitful.
The easy setup procedure is, well, easy. You start by telling the 5800ES what inputs you’re using (it turns off those not in use). Then you tell it which components you have and, if you’re lucky or an all-Sony household, your associated equipment’s remote codes are going to be readily available, so you’ll be able to control them straightaway using the 5800ES’ remote and included IR blasters. I was not so fortunate, as neither my Oppo player nor my Dune were in the Sony’s pre-configured menus. All attempts to get the 5800ES to later learn my components’ codes proved unsuccessful. I skipped this step and continued onward to the 5800ES’ network setup, which went off without a hitch. Before I knew it, I was prompted with a firmware update. I ran it, which undid all my previous settings, though they were easy enough to redo since I knew ahead of time to skip the step regarding the remote codes.
Lastly, I ran the 5800ES’ auto speaker setup and EQ, which consisted of me having to plug in the included calibrated microphone and sitting through a series of quick and unique sweeps. I performed the procedure three times just to see how consistent it was in its findings. Each time, I got almost the exact same results, which is more than I can say for Audyssey. Moreover, the accompanying visuals during the calibration were not only beautiful but almost real time in their readouts. With the easy setup procedure complete, I was then free to tweak certain controls manually, including choosing curves within the EQ itself, which is very cool. Overall, the easy setup procedure really does put you in a position to enjoy the show and not in a half-assed sort of way.
In all honesty, had I simply gone with the easy setup out of the box, I more than likely would’ve been viewing HD content in under a half an hour, but because of some quirky mix-ups, a detour down manual setup land and some head-scratching on my behalf over a few GUI choices/delays, I was up and running in around two hours. Needless to say, the 5800ES is about as full-featured an AV receiver as I’ve ever seen and, even after living with it for three weeks, there is still more I know I have yet to uncover. It is a receiver that can be as simple or as complicated as you want and/or make it out to be, which is both a good and a bad thing. Sony would have you believe that, because the 5800ES is an ES branded product, it is going to be installed by ES qualified dealers/installers, but I don’t believe that notion to be a reality, for the 5800ES is literally available for purchase everywhere, including online, which means the one who’s really going to be doing the install is you. If you’re a novice, the easy setup is definitely for you, but even if you fancy yourself an expert, I still recommend starting there, for it makes small manual adjustments later much more manageable.
I began my evaluation of the 5800ES with an old favorite, Hans Zimmer’s “Seville” off the Mission: Impossible II soundtrack (Hollywood Records). Right off the bat, the 5800ES impressed me with its clean, precise sound. The entire frequency range was smooth and effortless, with wonderful and natural detail and texture throughout. The tonality was very neutral, which surprised me, as I find too often that AV receivers tilt one way or another in an attempt to compensate for being, well, receivers. Not the case with the 5800ES. Even at louder volumes, the 5800ES was the very picture of composure. Bass was fast, taut and not at all bloated. I’ve heard deeper from my JL sub, but I felt the blend with my Pendragons was that much more seamless via the 5800ES’ auto speaker setup than in my previous setups with competing components. The soundstage was clearly defined, though with this particular track, I didn’t experience as much lateral or front to back depth as I’ve grown accustomed to, but its lack of space wasn’t distracting. I did notice, however, that the entire performance felt more fleshed out and naturally dynamic the more I turned the volume up, as there was definitely a point at which the music sprang to life.
Read more about the performance of the Sony 5800ES AV Receiver on Page 2.
Next I went with a pop favorite, Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe” off their album Songs About Jane (J Records). With the volume set at its happy point, the opening lines were wall to wall and the dynamics simply explosive. This is what “Seville” lacked, though I was glad to experience the 5800ES’ bombastic abilities here. The bass was not only fast and taut, but it struck with conviction – it was palpable and I liked it. The soundstage this go-round bordered on three-dimensional. Lead vocals were firmly placed dead center on the stage, just forward of the accompanying musicians and presented in such a way that I got a sense of singer Adam Levine’s physical stature in terms of height and weight. Impressive from an AV receiver. It was in this demo that I got the feeling that the 5800ES really got to the heart and soul (not to mention fun) of the recording and dished out two full scoops for me to enjoy.
I ended my two-channel evaluation with a recent favorite, Ed Sheeran’s “The City” off his album + (that’s not a typo) (Atlantic). Without going over the same accolades again, the thing that stood out the most was how resolved the 5800ES’ low mid-bass was for an AV receiver. The level of nuance I was hearing in the typically muddled section of the frequency range was impressive to say the least, not just because the Sony managed to showcase anything, but because it got it (mostly) right. Again Sheeran’s vocals were spot-on and organic in their presentation, something a lot of AV receivers simply can’t do, which is where one can make a case for separates. Well, if the 5800ES’ two-channel performance is any indication, the argument for AV receivers over separates just got a little stronger.
Moving on to movies, I fired up Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount) on Blu-ray disc. The freeway chase sequence was simply larger than life, though at times, with the volume set to stun, I could sense the 5800ES running out of steam. By this I mean that dynamics sounded a touch rolled off and the 5800ES’ otherwise stellar composure seemed to stumble a little, but only just. Backing down the volume a click or two brought things back to their former glory. Again, the 5800ES’ prowess with sonic details, textures and nuance was in full effect. The 5800ES’ surround performance was exemplary and very cinematic indeed. I won’t comment on the 5800ES’ tonal uniformity, as I was using two vastly different types and brands of loudspeakers, but I will say its spatial separation and movement from front speakers to rears was virtually, if not completely, seamless. High frequencies were pristine and smooth, never fatiguing – instead, they had a natural air and roundness to them that again reminded me of costlier components. Bass was as I had hoped it would be, given my prior two-channel tests: intense but balanced. Dialogue, despite the chaos on screen, was always presented in a natural way, i.e., free from colorations and/or digital sibilance and true to the size and scale of the moment unfolding before me. I was especially pleased with how intelligible it remained, despite knowing there are points in the mix where even the best sound mixers in the world couldn’t put Humpty back together again.
I ended my evaluation of the 5800ES with another Blu-ray disc, this time in the form of the Universal summer blockbuster – I mean dud – Battleship. Jumping ahead to the final battle between the battleship Missouri and the alien spacecraft, the richness of sound was something that I just reveled in. I wrote down in my notebook, “This is a receiver?” It’s true. Within its limits and having gotten past all of its setup quirks, where it matters most – playing movies or music – the 5800ES is phenomenal, arguably the best AV receiver I’ve heard to date. There really isn’t any more for me to say that I haven’t already.
In terms of its video prowess, with its internal scaling set to simply pass the signal along, I could detect no errors or differences in the picture quality with the 5800ES in the signal chain compared to with it out. With its video processing engaged, comparing it to the Oppo’s internal processor via a feed from my Dune, the 5800ES did a comparable job, though I still think I’d give the edge, however slight, to the Oppo. Still, if you don’t own an Oppo player, then the Sony is more than capable if you’re looking to get the most out of your legacy components or source material. There really isn’t much else to say, except that once you get the 5800ES connected, configured and running smoothly, it really is something to experience. Some with more demanding loudspeakers may find its 130-watt claims a bit ambitious, though most will probably make do just fine. I know what I’d love to see: the 5800ES sans internal amps and its binding posts replaced with balanced outputs, turning it into a true AV preamp for those of us who still love the idea of separates. That being said, the 5800ES is an AV receiver that holds its own against comparable AV separates.
So far, this review might seem like a bit of a mixed bag: do I love the 5800ES or not? Obviously, I do love the 5800ES’ ultimate performance, though there are some quirks one must endure in order to get to the 5800ES’ creamy nougat center.
For starters, the onscreen GUI, while brilliantly rendered, is simply too cumbersome. I don’t know if it is an internal memory or processor issue, but the fact that a GUI needs to load is absurd. While the 5800ES GUI’s visuals are beyond reproach, I’d take a stripped-down dot matrix option that was instant and functional over the flashy one provided if it meant getting on with the show that much faster. Just like test patterns, you don’t watch menus, and in this instance, Sony’s eagerness to flaunt the 5800ES’ various features and controls à la its menus definitely gets in the way.
Speaking of speed, despite Sony’s claims of fast-switching HDMI capabilities, the 5800ES is a bit slow to complete the handshake between it and other HDMI connected devices. Also, I observed a quick two-second dropout on my Oppo player when another device, my Dune player, went into standby while connected to another HDMI input.
I appreciated the folks at Sony including very nice IR blasters as standard with the 5800ES. However, they never seemed to function as advertised, for the Sony’s “preloaded” remote codes were limited, unless of course you own nothing but Sony components, in which case the whole setup works brilliantly.
Lastly, despite Sony’s 130-watts-per-channel claims, I just don’t think or feel the 5800ES has 130 watts to give. My Tekton Designs Pendragon speakers are 98dB efficient, meaning I could drive them with an AAA battery, and yet, when hitting peaks around 100dB, I got the feeling that the Sony was running a little low on juice. Is 100dB loud? Yes, it is, but it’s not uncommon, for with peaks at 100dB, the majority of a film rests somewhere in the mid-70s, which is quite comfortable for big-screen viewing. Those with large rooms or a propensity for listening loud should definitely take note and perhaps consider adding an outboard amplifier to the mix.
Competition and Comparison
While there is no shortage of AV receivers in the marketplace, there aren’t as many boasting the same or similar specs as the 5800ES. A few notable competitors that come to mind that are comparable in both price and performance include Onkyo’s TX-NR3010 ($2,299), Denon’s AVR-4520CI ($2,499.99) and Yamaha’s RX-A3020 ($2,199.95). For more on these fine receivers, as well as others, please visit Home Theater Review’s AV Receiver page.
How best to wrap up my thoughts surrounding the 5800ES from Sony? No AV receiver has caused me as much grief during setup, yet I don’t think I’ve encountered one that sounded as good, either. The truth is, unless you’re a reviewer, you’re only going to suffer through the 5800ES’ setup procedure and final configuration once or twice, and once you have, its quirks really aren’t going to be of great consequence. Did Sony swing for the fences on certain features and come up short? Yeah, but they didn’t completely strike out, either. While there may be more inside the 5800ES than any user will most likely ever employ, its feature set does carry with it some relief that your $2,000 investment in a receiver such as the 5800ES isn’t going to be outdated any time soon.
But all of this is really just window dressing, for where it matters most, the 5800ES’s audio and video performance, it definitely hits a home run. While I still maintain that those with larger rooms may find the 5800ES a bit low on power, for the majority of users, the 5800ES is everything you’ve ever wanted and more. It even manages to sound as good as, and in some instances better than, separate components hovering around the same price and a bit above. Sony’s auto-speaker setup and EQ is simply brilliant and its resulting affect on the sound is one that can be appreciated and enjoyed, rather than shunned. There’s a lot to like about the 5800ES and even more to love, once you get past the awkward introductions.