Yamaha YAS-101 Soundbar Page 2
One of the first discs I usually spin is the Blu-ray of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which my trusty Sony PlayStation 3 outputs as DTS 5.1 core audio at 48 kilohertz/1.5 Mbps. Such digital audio is number-crunched by the YAS-101's onboard Dolby Digital and DTS-ES decoding, and from there it applies proprietary Air Surround Xtreme processing. (With a name like that, does it come with a snowboard, dude?) Air Surround Xtreme takes the incoming Dolby Digital or DTS signal and uses new technologies and algorithms to transform it not only into a modified soundtrack of sorts that can purportedly mimic 7.1 channels, but does it in such a way that it can be delivered over just two speakers.
Indeed, my home theater was filled with the spacious, Oscar-winning sounds of the H.M.S. Surprise under attack by enemy cannon. Almost immediately, I settled upon the soundbar's greatest strength, one confirmed throughout my tests: It extended well beyond its tight confines to render its sound in seemingly multiple directions. And if the sound didn’t reach completely around the listener and give him a hug, then at least it put a comforting hand on his shoulders. Up to a point, I could believe the directional whizzing of the cannonballs, and at other times, I was convinced that there really was some manner of activity all around the room as the crew shuffled and shouted busily above and below deck. However, this is a soundtrack that benefits from precise, powerful, low-end reproduction, and that was unfortunately missing here. The woofers certainly served to add power and volume but not suprisingly given their 3-inch size and the limited power provided them, they lacked genuine kick.
Ditto The Patriot, with its nasty explosions of giant lead that can blow a man to pieces. There's a pleasing sharpness to the firing of the muskets as well as the high notes of the whooshes and ricochets, with the illusion of voices coming from everywhere and clear, distinct bullet hits. Again, the tiny woofers brought fullness when turned up high, but there was little palpable oomph, only a modest rumble underneath the action. To be fair, the scene in which the rebels blow up a British supply ship in spectacular fashion displayed some boom.
Hectic multichannel action scenes suffer a bit during off-axis listening, both when you go from sitting to a standing position and shifting from left to right. The soundtrack audibly changes, particularly in its perceived handling of incidental effects. Much as leaning this way or that during a 3D movie can reveal the magical visual effect, a drastic move by the listener can sound a bit odd. Full volume is plenty loud, bordering on painful, and it can also introduce a shrill distortion to the audio, so while the YAS-101 beats listening to blockbusters over the teeny TV speakers, it's no substitute for a true multichannel rig.
For stereo signals like music, the YAS-101 can apply Dolby Pro Logic II processing first, then turn this enhanced audio into even more expansive Air Surround Xtreme. By design, this effect is less dramatic here than what we experience with Dolby Digital or DTS content, as Yamaha feels too much mucking-about might compromise the purity of music. Spinning Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, I found that the audio was actually a bit flattened with Surround engaged and fuller and more enjoyable in its native Stereo mode. I'd hoped to discover a richer soundstage in the complex mash-ups of The Beatles' Love, but it wasn't until I switched from CD to the Dolby Digital 5.1 Disc Two that instruments and occasional voices were apparently originating behind me. And on a standard-quality MP3 of 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged, Natalie Merchant's vocals shone on "Like the Weather" with pleasing guitar trebles and crisp notes of percussion, but the crowd's audible appreciation at the end failed to envelop me.
In truth, I noticed only minimal difference between the Surround on and off for stereo content, but there is another interesting tweak available. If a particular singer is your favorite, Clear Voice instantly "remixes" songs to make the vocals subtly but undeniably more prominent. Remarkably, Clear Voice was not necessary in any of my movie demos, as dialogue was always quite intelligible despite the lack of a dedicated center speaker.
UniVolume is Yamaha's flavor of volume-leveling technology, to smooth out the unpleasant shifts when we change channels, or during commercial breaks. Honestly, I never find these shifts to be nearly as jarring as in the exaggerated demonstrations that audio manufacturers have given me, so while I was glad to have it, it wasn't my favorite feature. More useful was the Audio Delay, which came in handy as my Blu-ray image seemed to lag behind the audio in my tests, a problem definitively solved with just a few taps. Several of these advanced functions require a lot of secret handshakes and such with the supplied remote and a familiarity with what the different blinking of the color-coded lights means, but it's all spelled out in the fairly concise, easy-to-read manual.
There's also a way to program the unit to respond to the TV remote control, so you can ditch the more comprehensive Yamaha remote when you just want to power on/off or nudge volume up/down. My Dish remote is set to operate my TV as well, so I used that, and sure enough, I was able to successfully set it up to control the volume, a six-step process that thankfully didn't require any codes. But the Power command wouldn't take; my many attempts to teach the soundbar by repeatedly pushing the TV Power button (per the instructions) only turned the television on and off. Yamaha eventually provided us with a workaround for issues like this sometimes encountered when programming the unit to respond to DirecTV and Dish remotes (found at this link), but our YAS-101 had already left my premises so I was unable to confirm if it worked. Either way, not the most elegant or well executed solution.
The Yamaha YAS-101 Front Surround System is an affordable, versatile audio enhancement that pairs well with a big flat-screen TV, both esthetically and sonically. It will surely open up your television audio in ways that your television never could on its own, and any glitches in setup or limitations in day-to-day use will likely be outweighed by the host of clever capabilities lurking inside. The sound quality nor surround effects won’t outperform a good budget receiver and speakers, but at $300, this Yamaha is a respectable replacement for your TV’s built-in speakers.
Editor's note: Due to the YAS-101's lack of a conventional analog input, Home Theater was unable to perform its usual speaker/soundbar measurements.