Sony STR-DA3100ES Receiver 
Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers
Written by Matthew Evert   
Thursday, 01 September 2005

Sony is widely recognized as a true technology leader in the world of home electronics. In today’s marketplace, Sony boasts some of the most forward-thinking products available at any price, including Qualia SRXD video displays, Blu-ray discs and far beyond. While Sony has launched new lines in Qualia (ultra-high-end gear) and Bravia (LCD TVs), they are also out to breathe new life into their Elevated Standards (ES) line for an entirely new generation of buyers. This starts with a new 7.1-channel A/V receiver called the STR-DA3100ES. Seven channels are supported by 120 watts of crisp power, countless features and numerous input/outputs for a list price of $999.99.

The front of the STR-DA3100ES is an attractive sight. The brushed aluminum face and the aluminum-colored chassis are pleasant changes from the traditional jet-black finishes that are synonymous with A/V components. The two-line dot matrix display is recessed from the front of the unit where the input and volume dials are located. The display shows the current volume level in dB, the type of input selection, the DSP being used and the current speaker configuration. The power button and some of the common DSP modes are placed on the transition between the display and the front of the unit, adding to the trick look of this receiver. An ultra-cool blue LED lights up when you have a multi-channel output selected and there is an orange icon that lights up when a Digital Cinema Sound DSP is selected.

The size of the unit is not especially large for a seven-channel receiver at six-and-seven-eighths inches tall, 17 inches wide and 18-and-a-half inches deep. I might suggest that you wear some sturdy shoes and enlist a friend to assist you in placing this baby. 46 pounds may not sound like much, but it is all located on the left side of the unit due to a huge transformer, adding to the awkwardness of handling this unit.

Most of the DA3100ES’s controls, headphone jacks and front A/V inputs for gaming consoles and camcorders, including a composite and S-video video input, an optical digital audio input and a pair of analog audio RCAs, are hidden beneath the flip-down door on the front part of the unit. Controls like the tuner navigation, bass/treble knobs, A/B speaker switching and the menu navigation knobs are all tucked away in the hidden panel. The front part of the unit has a large volume control knob that takes a little wrist strength to crank up or down. The resistive feel provides a solid, quality feel. A smaller aluminum knob allows the user to peruse the various inputs that the DA3100ES is capable of handling.

Glancing at the back of connector-laden panel can make you dizzy. Fear not, although there are an enormous amount of connectors on the back of this unit, the layout is well thought-out and designed for simplicity. All the speaker connections are to the right of the unit, all the analog inputs/outputs (I/O) are in the center of the unit and the digital I/O is located to the left. I really like how Sony put all the analog video and audio inputs close together, since those cables are frequently fastened together and would otherwise become a rat’s nest behind the unit.

The Sony DA3100ES has four A/V inputs with composite and S-video, four optical and two coaxial digital inputs, two composite video inputs, a phono input and two recording loops for a DAT and cassette tape recorder. Automation features include 24V trigger outputs for an external amplifier, IR inputs for using remotes in another room, an S-link, and an RS232 port for connection to a Creston-type control system or firmware updates to the DA3100ES. The Sony DA3100ES also provides another necessity: a set of 7.1-channel analog audio inputs for connecting SACD and DVD-Audio players, as well as two switched AC outlets and a detachable AC power cord.

For outputs, the DA3100ES provides an optical digital output, monitor video outputs for all the types of inputs list above, 7.1-channel preamp outputs for use with external amplifiers and, of course, the speaker outputs. There are seven pairs of outputs for all seven discrete channels. Multi-zone set-ups are available by using the surround back channels for output to speakers in another room. The speaker terminals are not my favorite. I like that they are color-coded for easy identification. I don’t care for the flimsy plastic screw-down binding posts that only have a small entrance for a bare wire. I use spade connectors on my speaker cables and they will not work on this style of post. If you have banana plug terminations or bare wire ends, then this will not be a problem for you.

The amplifier of the DA3100ES has the expected 120 watts (minimum) of continuous RMS power to each of the seven channels at eight ohms, from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, with no more than 0.05 percent THD. Besides having big power output, this receiver is nicely designed for a tailored fit into any room or speaker configuration. An equalizer function can adjust the treble, bass and midrange (center only) frequencies for all the speakers. You can also adjust the amount of speakers that you currently have hooked up to allow you to build your home theater in stages. A subwoofer crossover option offers 13 points of adjustment to suit your needs. Lastly, an extensive analog bass management system is also available for SACD and DVD-Audio playback.

Sony is famous for having more digital sound fields than Terrell Owens does sit-ups in his driveway. Four movie modes and seven music modes are at your disposal. More importantly, Sony supports all the common movie DSP modes, such at Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES. Like some of the other current receivers in this price range, a multi-channel analog direct mode is provided to remove any unnecessary signal inference from the digital sections of the receiver when listening to multi-channel inputs from a SACD or DVD-Audio player.

Other cool necessities of the DA3100ES are the video up-conversion capabilities that can take video inputs from inferior cables, such as composite or S-video, and turn them into gold. Gold, in this case, happens to be component video output. This not only improves your video from your old VCR, but also reduces the amount of cables slithering their way into the back of that plasma TV or projector of yours. There is also a very good radio tuner included that can store up to 30 stations.

A learning remote is provided that does pretty much everything that the front panel menu allows. A macro function and preprogrammed component IR codes are also available at your fingertips. There is a game pad-type selector and an input selector switch that can be used to flip through menus. An orange backlit LCD screen allows you to see in the dark, the environment for which most people watch movies. The DVD controls and the volume buttons are glow in the dark for easy access when the lights are off, a very cool feature, and a secondary remote with some simple controls is also provided for the second zone operation.

Connecting the receiver was a breeze with the logical layout of the back panel connections and some easy to read wiring set-up guides that most people can understand. You will probably need to read the manual to configure the receiver properly, as there are many adjustments to be made for optimum listening enjoyment. I was not a big fan of using the front panel knobs to configure the device, so I would stick to using the remote and the onscreen display. As with any large amplifier, you really need to place this baby in a well-ventilated area with a few inches above and below the receiver to avoid self-destruction due to heat.

Music and Movies
Getting beyond the technical specs, let’s dig into the sound of this receiver. I used a Marantz DV9500 DVD player, Paradigm Signature S-8s and Audioquest bi-wired Mont Blanc cables for my accompanying equipment. The Isley Brothers Greatest Hits on CD (Sony) has an old school R&B sound that is constantly sampled and replayed in many familiar rap and R&B songs of today. For 40 years, the Isley Brothers have been bringing the funk. “Fight the Power” is a fiery funk track, with Ernie’s guitar making wah-wah sounds that reminds me of the “Shaft” theme song. This song features an unusually quick pace of bass guitar and bass drums, but the DA3100ES easily keeps up. The tiss-tiss sound of the high hat and the hand claps shows off the high frequencies of the DA3100ES, with both sounds being crisp and uncolored. Listening to “Live It Up” gives a more dynamic test to the DA3100ES with a focus on reproducing Ronald’s amazing vocal range from the deep lows to soprano-like highs. Ronald’s seductive vocals could step a little forward, yet remained lush and clear.

Coles Whalen is one of the next acoustic divas to rise to the public eye. Her Gee-Baby album (Lava Falls Publishing) is a fresh blend of contemporary folk with some jazz influences. Not only does she rock out with some soothing acoustic guitar melodies, but she is not afraid to show her skills on the keyboard as well. Her voice is what truly sets her apart from the rest and this is best brought to light with “Pretty Kids.” The classically trained singer has poured her emotions into this track and she captivated me with her passionate message about the difficulties of growing up. Her nimble fingers strumming on her acoustic guitar can be heard devoid of grain, thanks to the DA3100ES. “Sevens” has almost a country sound featuring some clever slide work by Coles during the beginning of the song. Her careful strumming was crisp and transparent throughout this song. Subtle details like occasional small knocks of her knuckles to the body of the guitar sounded live and spaciously placed.

For movies, I added the Polk LSi-FX surrounds, the Paradigm Signature C-5 center channel speaker and an Energy ES-10 subwoofer to my test equipment. I began with the action thriller “Black Hawk Down” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). This film recreates the American assault of the Somali city of Mogadishu in the fall of 1993, where a simple mission turns into an unexpected 16-hour street fight when two helicopters were downed by rocket-propelled grenades and U.S. soldiers were forced to defend themselves with little air or armored ground support. The amount of gunfire and explosions were as intense as you can imagine. The howl of the wind stirring up while the helicopters hover in position to have U.S. soldiers rappel from the helicopter sent a chill down my spine. There were definite moments of specific highlights to the performance of the DA3100ES, like the whirring sound of the Black Hawk’s mini-gun spewing out hundreds of bullets at an enemy machine gun car. The raining of the spent bullets made a series of bright yet distinctly clear cling-cling-cling noises like an emptying of a slot machine in Vegas. The most impressive parts of critical listening with a movie are when listener forgets about the sounds and becomes one with realism of the scene. This moment could be experienced when several soldiers are trying to talk to Josh Hartnett’s character while hiding behind a wrecked car. Their dialogue is constantly being interrupted by the ricochets of bullets whizzing by them and the dirt and debris showering them from RPG explosions. The bass reproduction and power is much improved over the previous Sony receivers I have evaluated in the past, so someone is definitely taking notes in the Sony engineering department. The sound experience from the DA3100ES was greater than the sum of the noticeable individual highlights of the receiver.

On a more mellow note, Judas Priest’s “British Steel” (Eagle Rock Entertainment) DVD is a documentary about one the most famous heavy metal albums of all time. Judas Priest can easily be credited for much of today’s heavy metal and hardcore genres of music. The commanding vocal power of Rob Halford is accentuated in “Metal Gods.” Halford holds a long scream after the line “Dragging iron feet” that is distinctly Halford’s style of sound. Despite the large frequency range of Halford’s voice, the DA3100ES easily kept up. I did not notice any graininess in his voice or obvious coloration. The dueling guitar sound of Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing has been frequently copied, but never amounts to the impact of these two masters of the axe. The chun-chun-chun power cords by this guitar duo resonate in your head long after you have finished listening to the song. “The Rage” is an experimental song from Judas Priest that is metal mixed with reggae. A mellow reggae guitar solo begins the song and suddenly transforms to an explosion of metal grinding riffs from Tipton and Downing. This track exhibited great detail with the DA3100ES supplying the power; the better news is that it sounded musical as well.

If comedy is what you are looking for, then you owe it to yourself to check out “Dave Chappelle’s Show.” “Chappelle’s Show” Season 2 (Paramount Home Entertainment) made me laugh ‘til I cried and nearly soiled my britches. The “Red Balls” skit that talks about the new crack-based energy drink was a riot. The dubbing in of the “Six Million Dollar Man” bionic sound effects when the crackhead lifts a bus to pick up a quarter was hilarious. Besides the skits, there are numerous musical performances, most notably the Mos Def episode. Mos Def raps while riding shotgun to Chappelle in some kind of minivan touring the Manhattan streets. A thumping urban bass line is hardly a challenge for the DA3100ES, which was able to add some bass to my medium-sized listening area. If rap or R&B genres of music are your forte, the 120 watts of power that this receiver churns out is always a welcome sound.

The Downside
The remote was often troubling, with its funky input selector many times requiring too much work to operate. I think Sony was trying to enable one-handed usage with this contraption; instead, it was not easy to operate. This and the game-pad control were hard to the touch and I felt like I was going to get blisters after five minutes of fumbling around.

The LCD window is cool, but really is not helpful, the Harmon Kardon AVR635 remote had a two-line display and had a sound pressure meter built-in that made programming a snap. The AVR635 also had a Dolby Headphone DSP to emulate five-speaker surround through regular stereo headphones, which the DA3100ES does not.

The plastic spring-loaded speaker posts were a bit disappointing. Spades are one of the more popular speaker termination types and this receiver did not provide a way to accommodate this. Those with bare wire terminations are in luck, but the rest of us will be less than happy.

The biggest flaw is the lack of HDMI inputs and switching. With the popularity of HD-DVRs and the pending Blu-ray (or HD-DVD) formats rumored to be coming this winter, the need to manage such inputs is not addressed with this receiver leaving the HD-savvy consumer needing an after market switcher from the likes of Dtrovision, Ultralink or Geffen. At $1,000, this should have been included (Sony's Elevated Standards series only offers HDMI capabilities with the 7100 Receiver for an additional $500).

As far as receivers in this price range go, the Sony DA3100ES has a lot to offer. For starters, this is one of the more powerful receivers in its class that is also packed with tons of features and configurability. Delivering 120 watts per channel is enough to feed most floor-standing speakers out there and answers all of my questions about the reliability of Sony ES amps that have been lingering in my head from reported problems from years gone by. Sonically, I have no problems with this receiver whatsoever.

The set-up was a bit quirky, but a good dealer, or an hour or two of you geeking with the receiver, will make it jump through hoops. But what bugs me most is the lack of HDMI switching. In an HDTV-driven market, a market where Sony is about to start pushing Blu-ray with a lot of Silicon Valley and Hollywood support, the lack of HDMI switching in a mid-to-upper-priced receiver isn’t high enough standards to be elevated for my tastes.

Manufacturer Sony
Model STR-DA3100ES Receiver
Reviewer Matthew Evert

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