Sony STR-DA7100ES Receiver 
Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Sunday, 01 January 2006

When you think of consumer electronics, one of the first names that comes to mind is Sony, and rightfully so, as Sony remains a formidable leader in CE technology. Under the Sony moniker, there are several offshoots, such as their new flagship Qualia line of products, as well as Bravia LCDs and the long-established “ES” lineup. Sony ES, which stands for Elevated Standards, is Sony’s brand name for their higher-end consumer electronics. The ES line of products includes several SACD and DVD players, as well as audio/video receivers. One of their latest product offerings, the STRDA 7100ES receiver, features a number of today’s modern connections, as well as a new digital amplification section.

Out of the box, the STRDA 7100ES is rather striking in its sleek aluminum skin. It actually feels more like a product from the likes of Krell than a mass-market giant. The 7100ES is substantially smaller than some of the receivers that have graced my theater recently. At 17 inches wide by six-and-three-eighths inches high and a little over 15 inches deep, the 7100ES is a lot more manageable than, say, the Harman Kardon AVR 7300. However, at 52 pounds, it’s not anywhere close to lightweight. The 7100ES retails for $1,999.99 and can be found at select ES retailers, including several online.

The front panel features a slight protrusion just below the LCD display that lists the various inputs by name, as well as by small LED lights. There are four small buttons that control audio settings like stereo, multi-channel audio and surround sound effects. Smack dab in the middle of the 7100ES is a relatively large LED light to show you and everyone in your room whether or not the receiver is decoding a multi-channel signal or not. It glows a cool blue for multi-channel signals and amber when you utilize some of Sony’s own surround sound decoding software. Not to be outdone in the “my volume knob is bigger than yours” category, the 7100 features two such dials, one for master volume, the other for input selection. Like most receivers, the 7100ES hides the majority of its manual controls behind a small trapdoor located at the center of the receiver’s faceplate. A simple push on the lower right corner drops the door down to reveal several push buttons and control dials, as well as a few audio/video inputs. While giving you full manual control over the 7100ES’s numerous functions, I’m guessing most users will opt for the remote. Without getting into the minutia of what every button does, it is important to point out that there is a full set of composite audio/video inputs, an optical audio input and a headphone jack for those late-night listening sessions.

Turning my attention to the rear of the 7100ES, I found the usual suspects of audio/video connections. Most of us try to set up our gear to facilitate the cleanest wiring possible and most receivers tend to lay out their connections with that in mind. For instance, it’s not uncommon to place your DVD player and/or other source components above the receiver with separate amplifiers and speaker cables resting below. Well, the 7100ES seemingly follows this logic, but it throws quite a few oddities into the mix that can make connecting your gear a little tedious. Starting from the top of the 7100ES’s back panel, you’ll find a series of 12-volt trigger and IR remote inputs, as well as your options for FM and AM radio antennas. Directly below rest the three component inputs, two of which are assignable by the user and one that serves as a monitor out. Next to the component inputs are the seven composite and S-Video inputs. Technically, there are only six standard inputs, since one pair serves as an additional monitor out. Below the video inputs rest the 7.1-channel pre-outs, flanked by the 7100ES’s multi-channel inputs. The 7100ES also has 14 standard RCA connections resting off to the right of the receiver’s back panel. I was pleased to see that Sony managed to work a phono stage into the 7100ES, but its placement among the various inputs might make for a difficult connection. Running below the audio inputs are nine five-way binding posts that will accept either bare wire or banana plugs. Now, here’s where the otherwise standard layout becomes a bit unique. Below the binding posts are the 7100ES’s HDMI and iLink inputs. The 7100ES features full video switching and conversion through its HDMI output, provided the originating signal is 480i, which the 7100ES will then output it as 480p. However, if you are passing, say, a 720p or 1080i HD signal from your cable box’s component outputs, then you’ll have to use the 7100ES’s component monitor out. So the dream of a single cable to your video source may remain just that. Staying with the digital theme, the 7100ES also features thee coaxial inputs and five optical inputs located flush against the far left edge of the back panel. The 7100ES has a detachable power cord, as well as two AC outlets for your other gear. Lastly, the 7100ES has an impedance selector switch that can toggle the amp’s load into either eight or four ohms.

Under the hood, the 7100ES features a seven-channel Direct Drive Digital Amplifier pumping out an impressive 170 watts across all seven channels into four or eight ohms. The 7100ES can decode the most current surround sound formats, such as Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital ES, DTS, DTS ES, DTS Neo6 and Dolby Pro Logic II.

The remote is a departure in style from the 7100ES’s otherwise good looks. It’s rather compact and fits nicely in hand, featuring a large LCD screen that glows pale amber in low light settings. The remaining controls are pretty standard, as far as remotes go, and spaciously laid out, but not intuitively so. The 7100ES’s remote doesn’t have backlighting for any of its controls, opting instead for a glow in the dark approach which, sadly, is more dark then glow.

The 7100ES replaced my Denon AVR 4806 receiver for the time being as the big dog on my rack. I connected my Denon 3910 universal player via its HDMI and component outputs. I experimented quite a bit with connecting the audio portion of the 3910 to the Sony 7100ES and ultimately ended up using a more traditional coaxial connection due to the sheer day-to-day ease of use. I ran my JVC D-VHS deck through the Sony’s component and optical inputs, with my satellite cable box following suit. I chose to connect my Panasonic HD projector to the 7100ES via its HDMI and Component monitor outputs. My trusty Definitive Technology ProCinema 80 system filled my speaker needs for both music and movies, with all cabling, both audio and video, coming from Monster.

Firing up my projector, it was time for the set-up menus. Wow – I’ve been playing with home theater gear for a while now and rarely consult the manuals when setting up new components. However, the 7100ES is one of those components that will make you want to have the manual handy and maybe also your dealer’s cell phone or tech support number. First off, I was never able to smoothly navigate my way through the onscreen displays with the remote and, after almost an hour trying, I opted to use the controls located on the 7100ES’s front panel instead. Getting through the set-up menus wasn’t an impossible feat, but there was an awful lot of trial and error before I felt I had things right. I did like the 7100ES’s speaker set-up interface, which made things easier and also a bit educational in terms of where to place your speakers in your room. After four hours of experimentation and setting things up, I was satisfied enough to begin my audition.

Music and Movies
I began my listening evaluation with a grunge rock classic from Pearl Jam. Their breakout album Ten (Sony) features some of the band’s most notable singles to date and helped to propel them beyond the fate of many of their early ‘90s rock counterparts. During the track “Alive,” the 7100ES’s high frequencies were a bit over-pronounced and quickly became harsh and very digital-sounding at even moderate listening levels. The 7100ES’s somewhat harsh upper frequencies weren’t helped by Eddie Vedder’s overly raspy vocals that never seemed to fill out in the midrange. In fact, the 7100ES seemed to display a rather large frequency void when it came to the midrange, opting instead to focus on the higher frequencies and bass. When it came to the bass, the 7100ES could go plenty deep. However, it lacked a bit of focus compared to some of the other receivers that have graced my listening room. Another thing that became immediately apparent was the 7100ES’s trouble with presenting a cohesive musical experience, since the two frequency extremes were never properly balanced in the mid-band, which made for a sound that seemed to shout more than harmonize. The soundstage was good, a little more vague than most, but not bad. The 7100ES brought a much larger sense of depth to the soundstage than width, and at times was a welcome attribute. Dynamically, the 7100ES really seemed to compress things a bit, never fully allowing the rawness of the music to unleash itself upon my listening space. Switching to the track “Black,” the 7100ES’s musical performance became a bit more palpable. Vedder’s opening vocals had great presence, with the appropriate amount of air and weight. It’s important to point out that it was during this track that the 7100ES presented one of the strongest center images I’ve heard in a receiver to date. However, once the song gets going, the 7100ES’s presentation began to falter slightly. The highs once again became a bit harsh and unnatural-sounding while the bass lacked definition and pitch. Overall, I found the 7100ES to be a bit lifeless dynamically, while cooking up a musical experience that sounded hollow and a little too digital for its own good.

  I next opted for The Killers’ debut album, Hot Fuss (Island). During the track “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” the first thing I noticed was that the 7100ES’s bass performance became a bit more defined, which helped quench a few of my earlier reservations. The highs, especially crashing cymbals, never sounded natural or resonated with any sense of air and dimension that I’ve come to expect out of receivers in the 7100ES’s price range. I observed the same midrange hole that I found when listening to Pearl Jam. The Killers’ album is grounded more in the higher frequencies, which did not fare well with the 7100ES’s natural tendencies. During the track “Somebody Told Me,” I was treated to an exceptional, almost surround sound experience, with the synthesizers floating about the soundstage and propelling themselves well into my room. It was a bit of a shock and out of character for the 7100ES, but I welcomed the change, for it brought a sense of much-needed life to the music.

Moving on to multi-channel fare, I listened to the DVD-Audio disc of Three Doors Down’s second album, Away From the Sun (Universal/MonsterMusic). Catapulting onto the scene in the late ‘90s with their hit “Superman,” Three Doors Down have been a mainstay of the college rock scene for years. During the track “Running Out of Days,” I noticed the 7100ES’s tendency to pull the vocals away from the rest of the band. Normally, I tend to like this sort of presentation, but the 7100ES seemed to place the band too far into the background and shrouded them from becoming completely clear, despite the format’s increased resolution. This trait also hampered the 7100ES’s ability to present more true to life dynamic contrasts. More so than with standard two-channel music, the increased resolution of DVD-Audio ended up making the high frequencies overpowering when it came to mixing with the rest of the musical elements. The high frequencies gained a little in terms of naturalness over standard Redbook CDs, but they never broke free of their digital constraints. The bass was tighter and more defined, but it didn’t quite extend into my room. In terms of soundstage, the 7100ES was more of the same, presenting a more linear presentation from front to back, never quite filling in the spaces between the speakers. One thing to point out, however, was the 7100ES’s ability to blend the rear speakers into the multi-channel mix much more smoothly than some other receivers that I have encountered, which gave me hope for the 7100ES’s movie soundtrack capabilities. Overall, with both standard CDs and multi-channel fare, the 7100ES seemed to be the very thing between the music and me, which made for a musical experience that ultimately longed for an emotional connection.

Not wanting to throw in the towel, I turned my attention to movies, starting with the Pixar classic “Finding Nemo” (Disney). Right off the bat, the 7100ES’s ability portray a proper surround sound experience that was well-balanced and true in size was more than evident. The characters’ voices were all very well-defined and stood out against the various aquatic elements. However, there was still a slight emphasis on the higher frequencies. I noticed that the 7100ES did a wonderful job with the orchestral beats in the film, balancing them fairly well with some of the more dialogue-heavy scenes, such as Nemo’s first day at school. The bass seemed to gain a bit of impact with movies, which I enjoyed, that it didn’t quite have with music. There was still a lack of midrange energy, resulting in a thinner sound that, combined with the 7100ES’s slight lack of dynamics during certain scenes, had me turning up the volume to compensate. Shifting gears to the video side of things, the 7100ES possessed wonderful color saturation and black levels, which were no doubt enhanced by some of the 7100ES’s internal picture adjustments. Through my DVD player’s HDMI output, which was set to 1080i, I could detect no signs of added break-up or pixilation in the image. Likewise, the 7100ES also kept the film’s already stellar edge fidelity intact. The image through the 7100ES’s HDMI out was always rich and inviting, if not just a little enhanced, which through my system was a nice bonus.

I finished my evaluation of the 7100ES with the D-VHS version of “The Peacemaker” (DreamWorks). I had to view the film through the 7100ES’s component video outputs since it was incapable of sending the image through its HDMI outputs due to the true HD resolution. Because of this, I was able to turn off the 7100ES’s internal video enhancements, which made for an eye-opening comparison. Out of the gate, the black levels during the opening sequence weren’t as dark or as sharply defined as they were with DVDs, but they felt truer to the actual film. White levels too became a bit muted. Skin tones took on a much more realistic appearance, maintaining a film-like balance between color and saturation. During the helicopter sequence, when George Clooney and company are chasing down a convoy of military trucks, I was unable to detect any sort of motion artifacts in the trees or in the rotor blades of the choppers themselves. The explosions were richly detailed and felt very three-dimensional onscreen due to the viewer being able to see through the various layers of fire and smoke. Lastly, the 7100ES’s didn’t rob the city of New York of all of its fine architectural detail, keeping the image free of “jaggies” and pixilation during the film’s climatic chase through the streets. For the sound portion of the film, I found the 7100ES to be more of the same. Through its optical input (which is the only option I have for D-VHS), the treble was again a bit over-pronounced, while the bass remained tight yet lacking in weight. The surround sound presentation seemed a little hollow, but was still nicely balanced between all five of my speakers. Voices were well-produced and clearly intelligible against the film’s many action sequences. When played back at slightly louder levels, the 7100ES was capable of an engaging movie-going experience.

The Downside
First off, I think the 7100ES’s claim of HDMI conversion is a bit misleading, since their HDMI output cannot pass through an HD component signal, which means you’ll still be required to run two sets of cables to your video monitor. Also, with regard to the 7100ES’s HDMI inputs, I found their placement to be awkward at best, seeming to be more of an afterthought than a conscious decision. Additionally, I found the lack of component and HDMI inputs to be less than acceptable. Given that most home theater enthusiasts will have several (clearly, more than two) component/HDMI-ready pieces, the 7100ES’s lack of inputs says switcher box all over it. Overall, I found the entire layout of the 7100ES’s numerous inputs to be a bit counterintuitive and cramped for a receiver in this price range.

I was really disappointed with the 7100ES’s various set-up menus, finding them to be more of an exercise in sheer patience than a helpful guide to get the most out of the receiver. If you are thinking about adding the 7100ES to your home theater, I would strongly recommend that you have your dealer install and configure it for you.

The multi-channel decoding light was a bit of overkill for me. I don’t require a light to tell me that my receiver is doing its job; I just assume it is. More often than not, I found the light to be a nuisance for it is rather bright and, in my “darkness is king” theater, I don’t require a night light.

Lastly, there’s the remote. Out of all the remotes I’ve come across, the 7100ES’s is by far the worst. It just doesn’t cut it in today’s marketplace. Sure, a few years ago, it would have impressed your friends, but from a sheer usability standpoint, it just falls short. Like my old graphing calculator, the LCD screen can be difficult to read, even in well-lit rooms. As for its lack of backlighting, well, that’s simply unacceptable. I strongly recommend investing in a good third-party universal remote, like Logitech’s new Harmony remote.

The Sony STRDA7100ES has, at its core, all the right moves: seven channels of raw power, all of the latest surround sound decoding options and HDMI capability wrapped in a shiny silver casing worthy of boutique style electronics. Add to that equation its sub-two-thousand-dollar price tag and you’ve got a receiver with a lot going for it. But in all the areas it succeeds, it falters where others have shone. Its sound with both music and movies comes off a little lifeless and unsure of itself and its own up-conversion claims come with a barrage of fine print. Top it all off with a user interface that is anything but user-friendly and a remote that simply isn’t worth the plastic it’s made of and you’ve got a receiver that comes up short. I am confident that the architecture of this receiver is a solid foundation for success and would consider reviewing a future revision of this product as the art of digital amps gets more advanced and HDMI switching becomes more developed.
Manufacturer Sony
Model STR-DA7100ES Receiver
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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