Yamaha MusicCAST Wi-Fi Multiroom Audio System Page 3

HIGH POINTS

Complex yet user-friendly. Excellent sound quality. Futuristic.

LOW POINT
Relatively small hard-drive capacity.

For my test, I connected the server's S-video output to my TV and its optical digital audio output to my A/V receiver. I also connected its analog output to the receiver so I could check the server's digital-to-analog (D/A) converters. Connecting the client was extremely simple. I simply hooked its speaker outputs to a pair of MCX-SP10s.

The process of configuring the wireless connection was akin to setting up an Internet radio. I used the auto configuration routine running on the server and client that searches for like-minded wireless buddies. The server and client quickly found one another. Overall, if you stick to the auto configuration, you should have no problems.

My system came with three owner's manuals totaling 236 pages, but I didn't need to study them much. Ripping files couldn't have been easier. I popped a CD of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony into the tray, hit the CD Auto Store button, and the 76-minute recording was copied to the hard drive in about 5 minutes. I could also select and store individual songs using a simple recording menu. The server makes a PCM copy of the selected music, converts it to MP3 (it took about 20 minutes to encode the CD), and then saves both copies on the hard drive (you can program it to automatically erase the PCM file after the conversion is done). While the MP3 file was being encoded, I could play other music stored in the server. I also ripped some music from a MiniDisc player using the external inputs. Finally, I burned a few mix CDs without a hitch. The server is a first-class music archive.

But what about sound quality - especially using the wireless scheme? I evaluated MusicCAST's fidelity in several ways, including 1) direct CD playback on the MCX-1000 server, 2) PCM playback from the server's hard drive, 3) MP3 playback from the server, 4) PCM playback from the MCX-A10 client via a wireless connection, and 5) wireless MP3 playback from the client. For the first three trials, I played the signal through an A/V receiver using the player/server's D/A converters and listened on my indoor stereo speakers. For the last two trials, I listened through both the MCX-SP10 speakers and a pair of higher-quality bookshelf speakers. Santana's Shaman was my test disc.

Direct CD playback from the server provided excellent sound quality. The shimmering cymbals in the instrumental track "Victory Is Won" sounded ethereal, and the high-hat and snare drum were crisp. The lead guitar was absolutely smooth, and its delayed reverberation decayed cleanly into silence. Absolutely no sonic problems here. Moreover, I couldn't hear any differences between the original CD, its hard-drive copy, and its CD-R copy. That's not surprising because I verified that the PCM copies were all bit-accurate.

MP3 playback from the server varied from just okay to excellent - it was entirely a function of the recorded bit rate. At the lowest rate, 160 kbps, the high end was rolled off, and the cymbals and high-hat were slightly edgy sounding. The 256-kbps rate provided near transparency, but the treble was still slightly rolled off. At 320 kbps, however, I couldn't detect any difference between the CD and the MP3 copy.

Of course, the big question is the quality of sound broadcast wirelessly to the client. In short, it was very good. When I streamed the PCM version of "Adouma" from the server, the sound quality was excellent and subjectively identical to the PCM output of the server when I played it though an external A/V receiver. The song features some very punchy Latin percussion, punctuated by horns, and a smoking lead guitar. They all sounded topnotch.

The $119 MCX-SP10 speakers provided sound quality that was fine for casual listening out on my patio but not as good as a pair of $400 bookshelf speakers. Serious listeners will probably want better speakers, even if they don't look as good.

The final question, especially critical for any wireless link, is the reliability of the communications channel. I was very impressed by the operation of the MusicCAST system's Wi-Fi link. Throughout my testing period, it wasn't bothered by interference from cellphones or household appliances. Of course, variables such as component placement, operating distance, house construction, and local interference from other devices operating in the 2.4-GHz band make it impossible to generalize, but in my house it worked flawlessly.

Flawless or not, I have a couple of suggestions. If the MusicCAST can stream stereo MP3 at 320 kbps and stereo PCM at 1.4 Mbps, why not 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio at 384 kbps? If the server had a DVD drive instead of a CD drive, this would seem do-able. I will also cheer mightily when Yamaha offers its software for sale so I can use my desktop PC and laptop as a MusicCAST server or client.

Even if those enhancements don't appear in the future, I am genuinely thrilled by this inaugural technology. It's been several years since I've asked friends and colleagues to drop by for a beer and a demo, but that's exactly what I did with Yamaha's MusicCAST system. And they were just as impressed as I was. MusicCAST is an exciting product. Its innovative blending of old technology (CD and hard-disk drive) and new technology (Wi-Fi) creates a synergy that will shake up both the audio and computer worlds. Tune in.

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