Yamaha has enjoyed quite a bit of success with the introduction of its premium Aventage line of AV receivers and separates. While the Aventage line has been available for a while, it remains quite competitive in its performance, features, and connectivity; a recent firmware update added Dolby Atmos and Dolby Surround modes. I'll point you to this refresher on all things Dolby Atmos if you need it.
Sitting at the top of the Aventage receiver lineup is the RX-A3040, priced at $2,199. It is billed as a 9.2-channel receiver, as it provides both control and amplification for nine channels and up to two subwoofers in a variety of configurations. However, it is capable of providing control for two additional channels, as long as you have an external amplifier to power them. The receiver includes two of ESS Technology's high-performance DACs: the 32-bit ESS9016 processes the seven main channels, while the 24-bit ESS9006 processes the front and rear presence (or overhead) speakers and two subwoofer channels.
Features abound with the RX-A3040. This networkable receiver has built-in apps for Internet radio and streaming services such as Rhapsody, Spotify, SiriusXM, Pandora, and others. Built-in WiFi capability allows for a wireless connection to your router, and you can connect to Apple devices via AirPlay or an HTC phone via the HTC Connect app. The Yamaha can decode most music formats, including WAV and FLAC (both up to 24-bit/192-kHz), Apple's ALAC, and others. USB and MHL ports allow for the connection of a wide gamut of devices. Advanced HDMI zone switching allows you to output any source to a second zone through HDMI (analog audio is also available in a third zone). The RX-A3040 can pass through and upscale to 4K/60 Ultra HD; however, it's not HDCP 2.2-compliant, and Yamaha does not plan to offer an upgrade path, so you will need a workaround if you plan to embrace Ultra HD Blu-ray in the near fuure. There is even a phono input (MM cartridges) for connecting a turntable, so there's no need to give up your vinyl.
The RX-A3040 chassis weighs just shy of a hefty 40 pounds and carries a slew of connectivity features, including eight HDMI inputs and two outputs--plenty for all your sources. (Visit Yamaha's website for a full rundown of connection options.) I used the first two HDMI inputs for my AT&T U-Verse box for TV and my Oppo BDP-105 for all spinning-disc sources. With the Yamaha set to handle all video processing and switching, I sent HDMI output to my BenQ W7000 projector, displaying to my Elite Screens Spectrum 128-inch screen. I ran speaker wire to my usual 5.1 speaker configuration with the pair of Salk Soundscape 12 speakers serving as front left and right channels, a Salk Soundscape 7C as center, and the B&W CM6 S2 in the surround role. I connected my SVS PC-13 Ultra subwoofer to one of the two subwoofer outs on the Yamaha.
For the Atmos channels, Atlantic Technology was kind enough to provide two pairs of the 44-DA Atmos-enabled speaker modules (review coming soon) to complete a 5.1.4 Atmos configuration. Since Atmos capability was not enabled out of the box, I downloaded the new firmware to get it. Next, I set up my speakers using Yamaha's proprietary YPAO. The version of YPAO included with the RX-A3040 uniquely includes 3D and Angle measurement, which is not an advancement to be taken lightly. Our Yamaha rep describes these options like this: "The Angle measurement is used to correct for speaker placement that deviates from the commonly used ITU-r placement. Furniture, windows and room layout can prevent many people from placing speakers in the proper location. By knowing where all speakers are placed in relation to the prime listening spot, the DSP processing can image the signal to more closely match ITU suggestions. Meanwhile, the Height Angle measurement is used, among other things, to give the Atmos decoder more accurate data on how to map the individual sound objects within the listening room. If the receiver knows that the front right overhead speaker is 45 degrees to the front instead of 60 degrees, the decoder can more accurately place the sound of a mosquito, for instance, in the three-dimensional confines of the room."
For an Atmos setup, I needed to make a few tweaks before running YPAO. First, I enabled 3D and Angle and multipoint (this makes for a longer setup time, but allows YPAO to take measurements at multiple points and create a smoother soundfield across multiple seating positions, such as an entire couch). Then I set the front height and rear presence speakers to the setting for Atmos-enabled speakers. Running through YPAO took about 20 minutes or so, and YPAO got most things correct. It correctly detected the presence of all speakers, and its distances and levels were accurate. My surround and rear presence speakers were both set to large, however, and crossover points were set a little too low given the speaker sets. I can't really fault YPAO for this, as I happened to place my surrounds in the back corners of the room with the rear Atmos modules on top, and corners are known to reinforce bass. I made a couple of manual adjustments for this, and I was on on my way...although I must note that YPAO did not allow me to set the exact crossover point of 150 Hz that Atlantic Tech recommends for the Atmos modules, but forced me to choose between 120 Hz and 160 Hz. I chose 160 Hz to be closer to the recommended setting.
I started off with some two-channel music: Wynton Marsalis' album Marsalis Standard Time Vol. 1 (SACD, Columbia). Initial testing showed that my power-hungry Salk L/R speakers were a little too much for the Yamaha to handle. The RX-A3040 boasts a power rating of 150 watts per channel with two channels driven, which is the minimum power amplification recommended for my speakers. So, while the Yamaha stretched admirably to drive the Salks, it couldn't stretch quite far enough get the best performance out of them. Swapping out my Salks for my B&W CM6 S2 bookshelf speakers made for a rich, beautiful sound. Bass lines were tight and well-defined, piano notes were rich and had the heft I expected, and Marsalis' trumpet sang with all its squeaky nuances in place.
I re-engaged the use of my Crown amps to power my Salk speakers, effectively using the Yamaha as just a preamp. Compared with my Parasound JC2-BP preamp, I could tell that the Yamaha lacked the last bit of detail. The midrange, especially on vocals, was a little more open and transparent with the Parasound than the Yamaha. But once I switched from the RX-A3040's Direct mode to its Straight mode and engaged the YPAO room correction, imaging was pinpoint accurate. The soundstage was massive, deep, and wide, and I felt like I could easily point to the positions of all the instruments, especially in orchestral pieces. High frequencies, which often sounds harsh in my room due to some room reflections, sounded textured and natural with YPAO engaged, especially on sharper instruments like trumpets, bright steel stringed guitars, and some female vocals--including some Adele songs I played. In past experience, I usually prefer room correction for multichannel sources like movies but prefer to listen to music with room correction off. In general, I find that room correction sometimes sucks the life out of music, giving it a very flat sound. Not so with YPAO. This is probably one of the few room correction algorithms where I think that, even with two-channel music, it's better to use it than not use it.
Next, I loaded Step Up: All In (Blu-ray, Lionsgate), the latest in the popular dance genre series. Video processing was great; I didn't notice anything out of line. I did feel that the Marvell QDEO technology on my Oppo, which I normally use for video processing and switching, made for a slightly more detailed picture, while the Yamaha was a little more natural and filmlike. On the audio side, this is where the Yamaha gained my respect as a controller. Imagine the complexity of my setup: my front three speakers, my surrounds, and my Atmos modules are from three different manufacturers, each set with different speaker loads and sensitivities. I drove my mains with professional touring amplifiers and my center and surrounds with smaller studio amps, while hooking the Atmos modules directly to the Yamaha. The RX-A3040 handled all of this like a champion, taking all of these disparate parts and creating an even, seamless soundfield. In essence, this is what a great receiver can do: take whatever you plug into it and make it all work in harmony to seem like it came out of the same box.
Being a dance movie, Step Up: All In was quite music- and bass-heavy. Bass management on the Yamaha is superb. I only have one subwoofer, so it's not easy to make bass even across my room (which is why many experts recommend using two subs). If handled correctly, though, a great sub like my SVS PC-13 Ultra can be better than two lesser ones...and the Yamaha was able to blend the bass between my SVS sub and the 12-inch woofers on my two Salk speakers so evenly that I felt my room had one even field of bass. In fact, I dare say this may be among the best bass-management systems on a receiver I've heard.
With Step Up, I had a chance to test out the Dolby Surround mode, which up-mixes any two- or multichannel material into an Atmos-like 3D sound format, utilizing available height or Atmos-enabled modules. On the one hand, the height imaging of sounds coming from above was much better. For instance, in the final dance battle scenes, all the dance crews face off in a large cylindrical amphitheater with tall cathedral ceilings. With Dolby Surround on, I clearly got a sense of the height of the amphitheater and the placement of the speakers you see bolted on various floors of the amphitheater. Then again, the music quality sounded richer and more natural in Straight mode, without the Dolby Surround up-mixing.
With native Atmos material, the Yamaha really shined. I set my Oppo to output in bitstream so that the Yamaha would do the decoding of the Atmos format. I loaded in the Dolby Atmos demo disc, which contains a variety of short demo clips. Per the instructions, I set the Yamaha to the Dolby Surround format, as there is no dedicated Dolby Atmos setting available. The indicator lights for the four height speakers lit up on the front-panel display, but this only indicated that those four Atlantic Technology speakers were firing and generating sound. It did not indicate whether playback was native Dolby Atmos or standard up-mixed Dolby Surround. With the "Rain" sequence on the Dolby Atmos demo disc, thunder and rain sounds were natural and realistic. The feeling of immersion, of being surrounded in a forest during a dense episode of rain coming from above, was astonishing. I could hear the distinct placement of individual droplets, just like in a real rainstorm. The clarity of this imaging was never present in any of the non-native Atmos material I tried to play using Dolby Surround, so I knew it was the real Atmos kicking in. I just wish they could have made the words Dolby Atmos flash on the front-panel display, to make it more obvious. [Editor's note: According to Yamaha, you can press the "Info" button on the remote or front panel and cycle through the display to see that Atmos is playing.]
At the time of this writing, there are only four Blu-ray movies available with native Atmos encoding (more are coming), and I thought I would go crazy if I had to watch Transformers: Age of Extinction one more time. So I selected Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Blu-ray, Paramount) just to mix it up a little. Here, I got a taste of how much the Atmos height dimension actually adds to films, especially action-heavy films with lots of battle scenes. In one scene, where the Ninja Turtles are speeding down a snowy mountain slope in a military vehicle with enemy vehicles in hot pursuit behind them, I could clearly hear the height disparity between the two warring factions. In one part of the scene where the military vehicle is flipped overhead in slow motion, I got to hear the rise and fall of the vehicle panning in the shape of a parabolic arc over my head. Here I have to give credit to Dolby for coming up with the idea to adapt upward-firing driver modules for the height channels., which makes easy to add the Atmos capability to an existing speaker setup. The added height dimension truly adds so much more to the movie experience, and the use of upward-firing speaker modules like the Atlantic Technology DA-44 proved to be very effective in my room.
The Yamaha, like most receivers, is limited by the amount of power it provides. It will never be able to compete with separate, dedicated amplification, where the sky is the limit on power. For two-channel music, the performance couldn't quite match that of a dedicated two-channel preamp like my Parasound Halo JC2-BP, but that is beyond what I expected the Yamaha to do--as I would be remiss not to point out that there aren't many AV receivers that could pull that off, and none that I've heard at this price.
To be honest, sonically, I do not believe there are many ills to speak of with the Yamaha: it just sounds great with everything it does. Ergonomically, I do feel that more can be done to make Dolby Atmos and YPAO setup more intuitive and user-friendly. I would prefer a more obvious separation of the Dolby Atmos and Dolby Surround modes, for one. Also, because the RX-A3040 was released in mid 2014, it doesn't support the new HDCP 2.2 copy protection, for those who plan to embrace 4K sources.
Comparison and Competition
Onkyo's top-of-the-line Atmos-capable receiver, the TX-NR3030, is one of the RX-A3040's natural competitors. The Onkyo has lower power output, rated at 135 watts per channel, and it uses Onkyo's own proprietary automated EQ software, AccuEQ, which does not correct for all channels (no front left/right or subwoofer EQ). At $2,399, The Onkyo will cost you $200 more than the Yamaha.
Like the Yamaha, the Denon AVR-X5200W and Marantz SR7009 receivers are both Atmos-capable and feature nine channels of amplification, with preamp outputs assignable for two extra channels. The Denon and Marantz units have now adopted an option to upgrade to Auro-3D capability, but this upgrade is not free ($199 for the software to enable this functionality); so, at $1,999 for the units themselves, this brings us back to the same price as the Yamaha. Yamaha's new 3D algorithm for the version of YPAO featured in the RX-A3040 may give it some advantages for more even control over reflected sound, especially when height/Atmos channels are involved.
If 3D sound formats are not important to you, moving to the Anthem MRX-710 should give you even better two-channel music performance and more power, especially across a multichannel application. However, it offers processing for significantly fewer channels, will not include the latest surround formats like Dolby Atmos or Dolby Surround, nor feature as robust a set of connectivity options.
For most reasonably easy-to-drive speakers, the Yamaha RX-A3040 is a fabulous choice for a receiver, offering plenty of power and all the latest features and connectivity options, with overall sound quality among the finest. I'd like to reiterate again that I am now a huge fan of YPAO--it is one of the most natural-sounding executions of automated room correction I've heard. If, after all the speaker placements and room treatments, you still find your room resonances hard to tame, Yamaha's YPAO may be just what the doctor ordered for you. If your speakers are exceptionally hard to drive--needing a lot of power or stability into low-impedance loads--you may be better off going with separates. But even if you should decide to go with a dedicated preamp, it will not be easy for you to find one that offers the clean, evenly balanced sound quality equal to that of the Yamaha RX-A3040's preamp section. At least not without spending significantly more. You may decide that using the Yamaha as just a preamp and discarding the unused internal amplification section is well worth the buy.
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