Sony STR-DA4300ES A/V Receiver Setup & Tests
Some like to proclaim the negatives of the HDMI connection, but it makes changing out equipment a relatively quick endeavor for those of us who need to do so every month or so. Unfortunately, I have four HDMI sources in my system, but the 4300ES offers only three HDMI inputs. I don't watch that many DVDs anymore, so I decided to leave my Oppo 970HD player disconnected until I needed to run some tests. For everyday use, my HDMI source components included a TiVo Series 3, a Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD player, and a Sony PS3. My Xbox 360 was connected to one of the component inputs, and the AVR transcoded its video to a 1080p output via HDMI.
The HDMI output does not provide enough power for my PureLink HDMI cable, requiring me to use its external power supply. This is the second AVR with this problem that I've used in the last six months, the other being the Yamaha RX-V3800. Granted, my cable is longer than usual, and PureLink includes an external power supply with the cable for just such a circumstance. Sony insists it has conformed to the HDMI spec, but other AVRs and source devices in my experience have not needed the extra power supply. In any event, I doubt it will be a problem with a good HDMI cable under 10 meters in length.
The layout of the AVR's rear panel is well-organized, with the exception of the speaker connectors, which could use a bit of extra room. I use banana-plug connectors, so installing them was easy enough, but for those who prefer bare wires, you'd better have some small fingers.
I didn't test the remote-zone capabilities of this AVR, but it can send speaker-level stereo audio to a second zone from two of the internal amplifiers or line-level to an outboard amplifier. Video to the second zone is limited to composite signals, so those who want to send HD video to a second zone will have to step up to the more expensive STR-DA5300ES for this capability.
For my initial audio setup, I used a RadioShack SPL meter and manually set the speaker levels using audio test tones from the HD DVD of Digital Video Essentials. After living with these settings for a couple of days, I tried the DCAC auto setup.
It takes DCAC less than a minute to run the basic test tones for a single listening position, but it takes at least a few minutes to complete the process, especially if you check the settings. The Enhanced Setup triples the time required because it takes measurements at three seating positions.
After DCAC does its thing, you have four options to choose from: Full Flat, Engineer, Front Reference, and Off. Full Flat attempts to make the measurements from each speaker flat. Engineer sets the frequency response to match the Sony listening-room standard. Front Reference adjusts the characteristics of the center and surround speakers to match the characteristics of the front speakers. And Off, as you might imagine, disables the auto-calibrated EQ.
The results obtained by DCAC were a mixed bag with my 4Ω M&K speakers. (Of course, I set the AVR for a 4Ω load before starting.) It did quite well with my speaker distances, but it was inconsistent in setting the crossover frequencies. It wanted to run my front monitors as full-range speakers with a 40Hz crossover instead of the THX-recommended 80Hz, and it set my four surround speakers at 100Hz. After some listening tests, I preferred to turn the EQ off and use the speaker distances and volume levels from my manual calibration.
Since all HDMI signals are passed untouched by the Faroudja chipset, testing the video capabilities of the 4300ES was limited to component video only. First, I tested the receiver's 480i-to-1080p upconversion using a Sony DVP-S7700 DVD player. On the HQV Benchmark DVD, the jaggies performance was the best I have seen from an AVR. In fact, it was the best I've seen from any non-HQV product! Moving on to real-world material, chapter 12 of Gladiator and chapter 1 of Star Trek: Insurrection were both jaggie-free, which illustrates the stellar deinterlacing performance of this AVR.
Next, I sent 1080i from the Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD player to the 4300ES, whose output was sent to 1080p. In chapter 8 of Mission Impossible: III, the staircase sequence looked nearly perfect, with only the slightest flicker of moiré. This was, by far, the best performance I have seen from an AVR on this difficult sequence. Moving on to the TLV-200 pattern from the Avia test DVD, I specifically focused on the 6.75MHz circle in the lower-right corner. The stripes were of a consistent size and pattern, which indicates that the AVR was not clipping any of the highest frequencies when converting analog signals to 1080p.
Overall, the 4300ES's processing was phenomenal, but I stumbled upon a problem when converting analog signals to 1080p over HDMI. When sending 1080i or 720p signals via component to the AVR, the black levels didn't look right. To confirm my suspicions, I inserted the HD DVD of Digital Video Essentials and brought up the PLUGE pattern. Sure enough, something was amiss. With the projector's brightness control turned up above its proper setting, there should be three black bars visible, but there were none on the screen! I switched to the HDMI input and they reappeared.
I contacted Sony about this problem, and I was asked to send the unit back for testing. When I received a replacement, I retested it and found that it did not exhibit this problem. However, it still wouldn't show the below-black stripe. Next, I checked for above-white, which wasn't visible, either. So the video output was accurate from 16-235, but the full range of 0-255 was not viewable, which makes setting the contrast and brightness on a display a bit harder, but not impossible.
One omission from the 4300ES is a lack of picture adjustments for analog video sources that are converted to HDMI. With only one HDMI cable going to the display, this allows each input to be adjusted for differences in the source devices. Other AVRs I've auditioned had controls to change the brightness, contrast, hue, and saturation of analog signals that are converted to HDMI, but those products were more expensive than the 4300ES.