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I am winding through the Westlake Highlands to preview some of 2023’s hottest audio-video hardware … and we are all about to die.
OK, that may be a little hyperbolic. It may be a lot hyperbolic, sorry. Our hosts are wholly conscientious of our safety, and our driver is taking the utmost care, but it doesn’t mean it’s not where my head is. It’s a perplexingly frigid early February day in Texas Hill Country, the ground slick with a thin layer of ice and the air thick with nervous energy. I’m part of a small group of tech reporters huddled in a party bus inching along Austin’s Toro Canyon, weaving around skidding cars and buckling tree branches. We finally arrive at our destination: a mansion on a panoramic perch, the downtown we left what feels like a lifetime ago far in the distance. It’s an auspicious setting for auspicious events. The city is experiencing its worst icing in 15 years, and Sony is revealing its first A/V receivers in five years.
It was 2018 when Sony last released an AVR (one of those, the STR-DH590, is still one of our recommended receivers under $500). I have no idea what the weather was like the day of that announcement, but the company has more than made up for the subsequent drought with its five new models: the more consumer-oriented STR-AN1000 ($899.99) and the custom installation (CI)-focused Elevated Standard (ES) lineup of the STR-AZ1000ES ($1,099.99), STR-AZ3000ES ($1,699.99), STR-AZ5000ES ($2,099.99), and STR-AZ7000ES ($3,299.99).
After some introductory words and a promise that everything possible will be done to avoid a Hunger Games-like scenario if the ongoing freak storm takes out the power, we’re introduced to the guests of honor in all their newly framed glory. Like specs? We got flagship specs: 7.2-channel, 100 watts/channel (2 channels driven @ 6 ohms); 7.2-channel, 100 watts/channel (2 channels driven at 8 ohms); 7.2-channel, 120 watts/channel (2 channels driven at 8 ohms); 9.2-channel, 130 watts/channel (2 channels driven at 8 ohms); 13.2-channel, 150 watts/channel (2 channels driven at 8 ohms).
The top two models, the AZ5000ES and AZ7000ES, have complete preamp outputs if you prefer dedicated external amplifiers. For PlayStation 5 fans, all models support 4K/120Hz and 8K/60Hz video, as well as HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision, IMAX Enhanced, variable refresh rate (VRR), and auto low latency mode (ALLM)—all thanks to HDMI 2.1 eARC ports (I/O proportions increase alongside the price).
Like first impressions? We’ll get to the impressions soon, I promise. These AVRs now feature Sony’s Dolby Atmos competitor, 360 Reality Audio (ported from Sony’s award-winning soundbars, active noise cancellation headphones, and earbuds). Streaming services—including TIDAL, Amazon Music Unlimited, and nugs.net—can be optimized for this object-based experience. An additional algorithm, 360 Spatial Sound Mapping, uses psychoacoustics to make stereo and multi-channel content (whether Dolby or DTS) even more immersive.
A multi-axis microphone. Sound engineering shared between San Diego and Tokyo. The new line offers an updated approach to auto-calibration and digital signal processing to map “virtual speakers” in the gaps between physical transducers. Not sure what to feed the beasts? Along with any and all hardware you can imagine that can be patched through HDMI, optical, coaxial, RCA, etc., the AVRs feature Google Chromecast, Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay 2, Bluetooth 5.2, and Roon endpoint compatibility. In addition, all the amps are certified Works With Sonos. A Sonos Port external streamer (sold separately) can wake the AVR and designate it as a zone in the Sonos app, allowing you to play high-resolution audio across your wireless network without changing rooms or settings. ES hardware has always had audiophile cred, and the combination of a 32-bit DAC, DSEE Ultimate DSP, exclusive pre-amp integrated circuits, large-capacitor power transformer, updated heat sinks, and robust resonance-damping chassis, among other features, ensures that reputation’s not going away anytime soon.
Cycling through the Airbnb-turned-showroom, we hear CI rep after CI rep praising the depth of the ES line’s remote management features (and the hidden, embedded dashboards). Control4, OrC, Savant, Crestron … every integrator celebrates the RS232 ports and IP controls and their ability to monitor, configure, and support Sony’s AVRs without rolling out a truck. Settings can be backed up, restored, and/or locked down in case someone decides to experiment with the levels (particularly useful if, say, you own a mansion you rent out for high-end parties and corporate events like product rollouts). We’re shown how easy it is to work these home automation-friendly hubs into a whole-home control system like Savant’s, programming scenes where, for example, Wi-Fi-enabled GE CYNC smart LED bulbs change color based on the content source (Netflix red, Disney+ blue, etc.).
It was when the lights went down, however, that the ES AVR really shows off what it could do. Sony spent four weeks building out a custom theater in what was once an unused garage, partnering with KEF Audio, makers of some of our favorite powered speakers, among others. Rack-mounting a STR-AZ7000ES with a Sony UBP-X800M2 4K Blu-ray player and power management/control components, the team build an easily accessed and easily secured patch bay with AudioQuest interconnects. Inside the ES Cinema, a Sony VPL-XW7000ES 4K HDR laser projector and 13 KEF architectural speakers were demoed with a 150-inch screen and 9.6.4 configuration. Yes, six subwoofers. No, I don’t think anyone soiled themselves, but I didn’t take a formal poll.
Soundbars and virtualization have transformed movie night. We’re fans of the Sony HT-A7000, and expanding to satellites and a sub is immediately impactful. But the physicality of a properly calibrated speaker array—whether showcasing a high-intensity film scene or a multi-layered song—triggers something primal that’s underserved even in the finest stereo or 5.1. While most audiophile music selections leave me cold, the set-up’s presentation is warm as it steadily swivels—the STR-AZ7000ES’s clean power and the KEF 12th-gen. Uni-Q driver’s smooth off-axis response creates a murmuration of spatial audio rendered with authority but an even temperament. I won’t say the sound is to die for because the roads haven’t thawed, but I’m thoroughly impressed.
Not everyone can dedicate their space and/or funds to reinforce insulation and calculate acoustic treatments to wrangle the rumble, however. Those of us who put our pants on one leg at a time, then binge in a more traditional “home theater” can still access customization options. Sony’s AVRs support select wireless surround speakers (the SA-RS3S and SA-RS5) and subs (the SA-SW3 and SA-SW5). And they feature an Acoustic Center Sync feature, allowing for virtual positioning of the surround sound dialogue channel in combination with a flatscreen’s audio output—but only if that display is a Sony Bravia XR TV. Speaking of … nearly 2,000 miles and multiple weather patterns away, Commerce Reporter Brandt Ranj is escorted into a dimly lit room to get the skinny on Sony’s 2023 TV lineup.
One small step for brightness, one giant leap for TVs of a certain kind
Manhattan’s Madison Avenue on a sunny morning isn’t as harrowing as the Southwest coated in wintry mix, but I still saw beautiful vistas standing before Sony’s latest Bravia XR displays. Most of the demo areas were set up with four screens: This year’s Sony TV, the previous year’s Sony TV, a competitor’s TV, and a multi-thousand-dollar reference monitor used by professional TV and filmmakers for color grading.
The purpose of Sony’s demos was simple: see the year-over-year improvements Sony could make to its TVs, understand how the new sets stacked up to the competition, and compare all of the consumer-grade hardware to the reference monitor. The Sony representatives giving the demo flat out told me that the reference monitor would produce the best results but, otherwise, let me use my own rods and cones to suss out the differences.
One of Sony’s priorities with this year’s slate of TVs is increasing brightness without losing visual fidelity. This was as true for its “Master Series” A95L QD-OLED TV as for its entry-level X77L Direct LED model. Each demo highlighted—pardon the pun—this directive, and I was impressed with the balance Sony struck. My handler was quicker to show off the annual improvements Sony made to its TVs—how much more detail was visible in low-light scenes or how brightly lit ones popped—than to put down the competitor’s set.
And it’s true. My personal reference television—the one I test against new TV hardware I’m reviewing—is Sony’s two-year-old X80J, so I’m familiar with how its OLED screens look. In the room I was in, the new TVs looked as vibrant and accurate as ever, with improvements to color reproduction going hand-in-hand with the brighter screens. I don’t see myself upgrading my current set anytime soon, but anyone considering jumping from a years-old LED TV to a MiniLED or OLED set will be pleased with what they see.
These performance boosts are made possible by improvements in screen technology, but the other side of Sony’s 2023 TV story is its updated Cognitive Processor XR. The new chip has found its way into the X95L, X90L, A95L, and A80L TVs and can optimize the HDR tone mapping and noise reduction of the content you’re watching in real-time. I could see how 1080P content looked upconverted on a 4K TV, and the Clear Image result was satisfying. HD video will never look as good as native 4K content, but it’s nice to know that older shows on streaming services will look their best. Sony could have saved these chips for one type of TV, but it’s nice to see them share the love with MiniLED and OLED TVs alike.
Every tech company has been quick to tout how their latest gear is more environmentally friendly than ever, but Sony’s take on this is refreshingly understandable. The company didn’t focus exclusively on tech specs; instead, it made all its power settings accessible from an Eco menu in the TVs dashboard. The dashboard has a pastoral background, with a tree that blooms as you enable more eco-friendly settings. Seeing the tree grow in real time was fun, though I’m not sure it’s quite impressive enough to make people adjust their TV’s brightness. There’s also a Gaming dashboard to adjust VRR, etc.
The most impressive demo I saw during my brief time with Sony’s TVs was how its A95L’s built-in camera makes on-the-fly adjustments based on the lighting conditions of your room, how many people are watching TV, and where they’re seated. These changes happened seamlessly, and I could watch a cursor representing me move as I walked around. The camera can also be used to make and take Google Meet video calls directly from the A95L, which can be helpful if your team or family uses that platform. You can disable the A95L camera and close a privacy shade if you don’t want to live quite so far in the future. Personally, I’m all in.
Television has been a part of U.S. culture for over half a century. While increases in resolution, reductions in size, and improvements to usability have passed us by, the basic concept of a screen showing a picture has remained. In 2023, Sony has opted not to jump on a fad—please, no more attempts to make at-home 3D or fetch happen—but instead made incremental-yet-noticeable changes across the board. We all know many of the successful features from its highest-end sets will end up in entry-level models within a few years, and in this case, we all have a lot to look forward to.