STR-ZA1100ES 7.2 Channel 4K AV Receiver Review
An incredible value that brings Dolby Atmos and DTS:X to your home theater.
THE HIGH NOTES
- Object-Based Surround w/ cool network features
- Built for Great Sound
- 5-Year Warranty
Company & Product Overview
The ES moniker in the Sony lineup stands for “Elevated Standard”. The ES series has always represented Sony’s dedication to producing the very best in a category.
The model we are testing today is the STR-ZA1100ES. It sells for just shy of $1,000 and is the second model in the ES receiver lineup. In going over the ES receivers, the 1100 appears to be the best value for someone looking for the brain of a home theater.
Design & Build Quality
The design of the STR-ZA1100ES is classic Sony. It features a clean design, with a black, brushed metal front and a full-width display. The front lower portion of the receiver features a magnetic plate that can be removed to reveal all of the controls. With the plate on, the only visible controls are the power button and a large volume knob.
Sony’s ES home audio products over the years have always been built like tanks. The tradition continues with this year’s lineup of ES receivers.
It is not uncommon for a 40-year old Sony unit to come into our store repair department for clean up, still running well! We think this is one of the main reasons Sony backs up all of their ES receivers with a full 5-year warranty, the longest receiver warranty in the business!
If you open up the receiver (yes, we always do this!), you will see the chassis is rigidly put together on five sides. Many receivers save cost by leaving the sides open, but this can cause the chassis to flex.
Features & Technology
The 1100ES is packed with goodies that show off Sony’s audio heritage. The large power transformer and heatsink, for example, doesn’t look like anything you’d expect to find in a unit that costs under $1,000.
As the leader in 4K technology, Sony did not scrimp in this area either. Any non-4K signal can be upconverted to simulate 4K. The new Sony receivers also all pass full 4K HDR and can handle HDMI 2.2. If you have a 4K video display that does not do a great job of upconverting, you can use the receiver to improve the video quality of your streaming content.
If you are not comfortable behind the wheel of an SPL meter, the Sony has a pretty slick auto setup feature. The on-screen display and included stereo microphone will walk you through a quick configuration process to adjust speaker distances and levels. While automatic setup features like this are nice, they’re not perfect. We find it gets the levels pretty close to what you might get with an SPL meter, but we do not see consistent distance measurement from any brand, do yourself a favor and spend an extra 5 minutes to measure things with a tape measure and adjust the distances.
You will also save a ton of time during setup if you use Sony’s web interface. If you simply connect the 1100ES to your network, you can plug in it’s IP address and get to a pretty simple setup screen that allows you to make adjustments far quicker than using the on-screen menus and remote. This will work from a smartphone, tablet, or computer.
The big technology though in the 1100ES is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it is pretty old fashioned and we love it -- a real amplifier section! Years ago all home audio receivers were built this way. As time passed and cost cutting became more important than the best sound, lot’s of home theater receivers backed off on using what would give the best sound. We were super impressed to see large output transistors, powered with a massive power supply. The outputs are mounted to a very large heat sink to assure that even when you are cranking up a very dynamic and demanding soundtrack, the 1100ES will not give up.
Inputs and Outputs
We find the “jack pack” (an industry term for all the inputs and outputs) to be pretty impressive in this price category. Let’s first have a look at the input side. You’ll find 5 HDMI jacks. All 5 HDR compatible, which is extremely rare. Also included are 4 analog inputs, an FM tuner antenna connection, two Toslink digital and one coaxial digital input. There are even two component video and two composite video inputs.
The output section is also very well thought out. You have as many ways to use the 7 built-in 100 watt powered channels as we could think off. The most obvious, and what will probably give you your best outcome, is using left, center, right, a pair of surrounds, and a pair of height object-based surround channels.
However, if you can not put speakers in your ceiling, you can change the config from the height pair to a rear pair. If that were not enough and you wanted to just use it in 5-channel mode with left, center, right and a pair of surrounds, the spare two channels can drive a pair of speakers in another room via the zone 2 feature.
Finally, if you are more into two-channel listening and have a pair of speakers that would benefit from bi-amping (this is having an amp for the treble section and another for the bass section of your speakers) you can even configure the 1100ES this way. WOW!
You will also find not one, but two subwoofer outs. And speaking of additional zones, the 1100ES has both Zone 2 and Zone 3 preamp outs so you can connect up a power amp for those two zones to extend sound around your home. You will even find a second HDMI output that will let you feed video to Zone 2.
If a couple of your other components are going to be hidden, the 1100ES also allows you to use its front panel infra red receiver to pick up the signal from your remotes, then send it out the back panel via 2 IR ports. You could connect an IR emitter to each of these, allowing you to hide some of your gear. Or, if you are hiding everything, the 1100ES has an IR input and RS232 port for control.
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X
The new Sony receivers all come ready to decode the latest in object-based surround -- Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Object-based surround is far and away the best surround sound technology we have ever seen. It gives the producers a way to precisely place sound effects all over your room. Properly set up, the experience is deep and immersive.
With the 1100ES, you’ll be able to set up your left, center, right, surround speaker pair, and a pair of height speakers, plus one or two subwoofers. For most rooms, this will give you an incredible surround sound experience. One key to being able to give you that great experience is the processing power of the unit doing the Atmos or DTS:X decoding. We found the Sony to be very precise in its ability to present that full illusion of sound all around you from both the sides and above. They chose a very fast, high-speed chip set for the decoding and the extra expense for this definitely pays off.
Sony Speaker Correction Circuitry
The STR-DA1100ES utilizes three technologies that you can use to improve the performance of your audio.
The first is a room correction feature. A special stereo microphone is included with the unit. During setup, this will measure your room for acoustic issues. The 1100ES will be listening for any big peaks or dips in frequency response caused by your room. While it is physically impossible to fully correct for a dip, it is not that hard to reduce a peak. Once the processors inside the 1100ES take over, it will calculate the best way to make corrections and use its 31 band parametric EQ for the adjustments.
The second feature will not be used by everyone, but if it fits your use case, it is just fantastic. In some rooms, it is necessary to have the front three (left, center, right) speakers in the ceiling due to aesthetic considerations. While some of the better in-ceiling speakers have a way to angle the sound down and towards the listening area, not all of them do and even then, the sound does emanate from the ceiling. Sony has a special “in-ceiling speaker” mode that tricks our ears into thinking the sound is coming from in front of you than on top of you. It is a simple matter to turn this on, and we feel in most rooms you will get a sonic benefit from this unique idea.
Finally, let’s say you decided wisely to use the 1100ES in the Dolby Atmos mode where you have a pair of surrounds and a pair of Atmos height speakers instead of surrounds and rear speakers. The 1100ES has a “phantom rear” speaker mode that will use phase technology to make it seem like some of the sounds coming from your side surrounds are coming from behind you instead. We found the placement of your side surrounds and the makeup of the rear wall will have an impact on how well this works, but we recommend you give it a whirl in your room and see what you think.
Being the audio geeks that we are, we always like to test receiver in two-channel stereo mode first. If a unit doesn’t sound good in stereo, we don’t typically take the test any further. After letting the 1100ES burn-in for a day, we decided to have a little fun. We placed the Sony up against one of our favorite two-channel integrated amps -- one that, on its own, costs almost as much as the Sony, which is a full multi-channel receiver. This amp is known for great sound and has a very solid amplifier section.
For speakers, we used a fairly hard-to-drive $4,000 pair of floor standing speakers. We used the exact same speaker wire and connecting cables for the high-end CD player when we compared them. We then used an SPL meter to get the volume matched within 1/10 of a dB between the two units. Our evaluation team did our listening, then invited in a few “victims”. Now, most of our staff might scoff at the fact that we were even comparing an all-in-one 7-channel receiver to a two-channel integrated amp. But, they all will admit when they are wrong, and every single person walked out of that comparison shaking their head wondering how in the world the Sony receiver performed so well!
Yes, the 1100ES sounds great. We do need to point out that if you are listening in two-channel, you will want to make sure it is in DIRECT mode and not stereo. We found it sounded far better from an audio standpoint in that mode.
As we stated in the Atmos section, the 1100ES does a great job of decoding the object-based surround formats. When you think about its competition that can do this, have great sound, and give you seven powered channels, you are talking about products that 2-3x the price!
Something else to note is that almost every surround sound receiver we have ever tested comes defaulted with all the inputs set to playback your sound in all-channel stereo. Sony probably does this because people who don’t know how to set the thing up might think something is wrong with the receiver if the sound doesn’t come out of all of the speakers at once.
While this may mean less disgruntled customers, it also means that a large percentage of folks are likely listening to what they think is surround sound, but in reality is just stereo come out of every channel!
True surround sound means that different sounds will be coming out of each speaker at different levels and at different times. While most receivers bury the “surround sound mode” deep in a menu somewhere, the new Sony ES receivers have a button right on the front panel. Even if you lose power, the receiver will remember the surround sound mode for each input. For example, for your surround inputs, just push surround. For your turntable, just push two-channel direct and you are done! No more wondering why the voices that should be in the center channel are coming out of the rear speakers!
If you are looking to get into the latest in Dolby Atmos and have a budget under $2,000, you can probably stop looking and just buy the STR-ZA1100ES. It is that good for the money! You’ll have a complete control center that can grow with you, whether that means going from a 5.1 surround sound to a Dolby Atmos system, or adding additional zones around your home.
Its robust 7-channel amp can drive most speakers without breaking a sweat, and we find its sound to be far better than you would expect out of a sub $1,000 receiver.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Object-Based Surround Sound w/ cool network features
Take your home theater experience to a new level with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X full immersive surround sound encoding.
Built for Great Sound
There are no chip-based amps in this guy. Using output circuitry based on a topology of the classic receivers of old, the ES receivers have real output transistors.
Sony has so much confidence in the build-quality of their ES receivers, they have a full 5-year warranty! Far longer than any competing brand.