Not too long ago, the AV world was quite simple. Audio was dominated by two-channel stereo listening. While many music lovers enjoyed quality audio on their high-end stereo systems, there wasn't a lot of focus on the integration of audio and video - namely, the audio part of the video experience. Most people used the speakers built into their TVs. For those people who did connect their TVs to the same stereo system they used for music, the audio quality was still pretty poor. After all, there was a limit as to how nice VHS audio could sound.
As technology evolved, aided by the advent of DVD and multi-channel surround sound encoding, consumer demand rose to the next level. The concept of home theater - the idea that you could re-create something close to the cinema experience in the privacy of your own residence - was born. Products ranged from entry-level home-theater-in-a-box varieties, usually involving a modestly priced receiver/disc player and smaller satellite speakers, to very elaborate customized setups with dedicated high-end multi-channel preamps, amplifiers, speakers, and high-performance subwoofers. Product proliferation allowed consumers' tastes to diverge. Today, there are numerous products to suit the needs of people from all walks of life and for all budgets. Some people may choose expanded complexity by enabling a 9.2-channel (or more) setup using an advanced receiver like the Sony STR-DA5800ES to power dual subwoofers and height/width front channels. Others may choose to find comfort in the solitude of putting on a great pair of headphones or earbuds, powered by an equally sophisticated headphone amp like the Bryston BHA-1.
With the increasing number of options all vying for the same resources (the dollars in our wallets) comes the increasingly difficult challenge of comparing and evaluating those options. What is best? When things were simpler, it was far easier to say that a certain two-channel receiver was better than another. After all, they all did pretty much the same thing: take a source input at one end and power a pair of speakers at another. So in the end, the only real evaluation was, did one sound as nice as the other?
One class of products that has gained popularity in recent years is the soundbar. Soundbars are filed as a subcategory within the Loudspeakers category here at HomeTheaterReview.com, but most soundbars offer a much different value proposition than traditional speakers. I think two questions - what is the product's purpose and who is the target audience - play just as important a role in a soundbar's evaluation as general performance. It's not as simple as, is this one better than that one? Rather, the question is: better for what and for whom?
Enter the new Yamaha YSP-1400, which at a retail price of $449.95 is the lowest-priced entry in the company's YSP line of active soundbars. Higher-priced models in the lineup feature outboard subwoofers, more powerful amplification, HDMI video switching, 7.1-channel surround sound, and additional sound format decoding, among a host of other features. The YSP-1400, meanwhile, is designed to provide much of the basic audio functions necessary for a great home theater experience: 5.1-channel surround sound, basic Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, speakers, and amplification all in one chassis. But basic, by Yamaha definition, is far from ordinary. The "SP" designation stands for Digital "Sound Projector," which refers to the method by which the unit creates surround sound. Other soundbars often use digital signal processing "effects" to simulate surround sound, but you are not actually hearing sound from multiple directions.
The YSP-1400 has eight 1.13-inch drivers aligned in a horizontal array; these "beam drivers" actually beam sound waves at the sides of your room. The idea is that the sound, bouncing off reflection points, will converge on your listening position from the sides and rear, so that you are hearing actual sound coming from surrounding positions around the room. There are pluses and minuses to this approach, which I will get into in a moment. The beam drivers handle everything from 500 Hz up, while two 3.25-inch subwoofers, inconspicuously built into the feet of the unit, handle all of the frequencies below that down to 45 Hz, which is the stated lower limit for the YSP-1400.
The hookup was incredibly easy, which is consistent with the whole raison d'etre for the soundbar category in general. The YSP-1400 offers two digital audio inputs (one coaxial, one optical), as well as stereo analog and a mini-jack auxiliary input. The unit also has built-in Bluetooth to wirelessly stream audio from Bluetooth-capable sources. I connected my AT&T U-Verse cable box directly to the soundbar using the optical cable that came included with YSP-1400; I did the same for my Oppo BDP-105 for Blu-rays and music. Another connection option is to feed your sources directly into your TV and then run digital audio output from your TV to the soundbar; however, since I don't actually have a TV (I use a BenQ W7000 projector for video), I could not test this method.
The YSP-1400 comes with an IR remote that allows you to easily switch sources and sound modes, as well as make various level adjustments. The remote includes a Learn function through which you can teach your TV remote the necessary commands to control power, volume, and mute. There's also a repeater function to help control your TV when its IR sensor is blocked by the soundbar. Yamaha also offers a free iOS/Android control app called HT Controller that includes a Custom Setup screen that provides more ability to dial in the room and listening-position settings than you get from the basic remote.
Click over to Page 2 for the Performance, The Downside, The Competition and the Conclusion of the of the Yamaha YSP-1400 Soundbar review . . .
I know that the main use for a soundbar is TV and movies, but I decided to start my listening session with some music anyway. I played a couple of my favorite songs from Daft Punk's Random Access Memories (Columbia) on CD. With vocal-heavy tracks like "Giorgio," the male voice sounded quite natural and pleasing. The electric guitars on "Lose Yourself to Dance" presented surprisingly accurate timbre, but lacked a little of the polish on details when compared with more traditional speakers or higher-end soundbars. The YSP-1400's Stereo mode, which matches the original source format, sounded the most natural, while the Music mode gave it a very tinny, artificial sound, reminiscent of the old "Music Hall" effects in early receivers, where you hear a good deal of echo designed to make you feel like you are in a larger venue. The drawback of Stereo mode is that, without the DSP engine translating the two-channel music into a multi-channel presentation via Dolby Pro Logic II processing, the sound was thinner and lacked the heft you get from traditional speakers, even compared with modestly-priced monitors like the Polk TSx110B speakers I recently reviewed.
With more complex, orchestral sounds like the various tracks on Disc 1 of The Music of John Williams The Definitive Collection (Silva Screen), featuring songs from the Star Wars movie soundtracks, the YSP-1400 did a great job separating all the various elements. Dynamics seemed a little collapsed, though, especially with songs showcasing a lot of horns and brass instruments like "Throne Room." The soundbar just couldn't reproduce the full symphonic experience from a two-channel source the way a decent pair of bookshelves or floor-standing speakers can. Upper bass on some of the moodier, darker tracks from the Revenge of the Sith movie sounded fine, but didn't quite have the energy and extension with the lower registers that I've heard from soundbars that include an outboard subwoofer.
One of the nice features of the YSP-1400 is the inclusion of a subwoofer output; if you use this output to connect a subwoofer, the crossovers are set so that the outboard subwoofer handles everything below 150 Hz, while the built-in subwoofers would then act more like midrange drivers, handling everything between 150 Hz and 500 Hz.
Next, I tested the YSP-1400 with TV audio. The TV Program mode, which utilizes the native Dolby Digital or DTS signal without adding any DSP effects, was the most natural-sounding. I did play with the other modes on various programs, but I found them at times to sound a little artificial. Call me a purist, but plain vanilla Dolby Digital from the source worked fine for me. I queued up an episode of the new breakout hit The Blacklist (NBC) on my AT&T U-Verse cable box.
Gray-market dealer Raymond Reddington's (James Spader) baritone voice was able to project gravitas and commanding presence as intended, while Agent Elizabeth Keen's (Megan Boone) voice came through with a smoothness that I didn't expect. I also didn't expect the YSP-1400 to project such a wide and evenly distributed front soundstage. In fact, I would say that it far surpasses what you would get from similarly-priced home-theater-in-a-box setups where smaller, cheaply-designed satellite speakers present the often annoying fact that you are hearing three distinctly localized speakers across the front. Action sequences with gunfire, explosions, and car chases sounded realistic enough that I found myself just enjoying the experience.
With another of my favorite shows, Elementary (CBS), the YSP-1400 handled the complex mix of dialogue, action sequences, and the background musical score superbly. When watching TV shows late at night, my wife (who is always the good neighbor) would constantly tell me to lower the volume. Jonny Lee Miller, who stars as Sherlock Holmes in this modernized envisioning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic tales, has a uniquely dynamic voice. At times, he can mutter quietly to a point where, combined with his British accent, dialogue becomes almost unintelligible (at least to audiences on this side of the "Pond"). At other times, in a burst of excitement, usually when he makes a breakthrough in a case, he can go on quite a loud rant. Standard dynamic volume control, called UniVolume on the YSP-1400, does help with late-night viewing, but I usually find that compressed dynamics make for a less than appealing experience. One function on the Yamaha, called "Clear Voice," solved the problem. Enabling the Clear Voice function, I could lower the volume to the point where the loudest volumes are manageably respectful of my neighbors, while dialogue gets a special boost so that I can hear everything that is going on. At this price point, effects functions such as this can sometimes sound very contrived, but I can say that the Clear Voice function on the YSP-1400 kept the dialogue very authentic.
Blu-rays were equally impressive. With Marvel's The Avengers (Marvel/Disney), all of the action sounds were just gripping. In the last few scenes during the Battle of New York, as the heroic team takes the fight to the streets of Manhattan and defends against alien forces, I certainly felt more of a theater experience than I expected. The expansiveness of the front soundstage made those scenes especially full and dynamic experiences. I kept the subwoofer setting at a moderate level; when it was bumped up to the max, these scenes sounded a little boomy, as if the built-in cabinet space in the Yamaha unit's feet was a little too small for putting out that much bass at those levels. Naturally, the YSP-1400 didn't roar and shake my room with really beefy bass like higher-end soundbars can (for instance, in one of the final scenes where the Hulk sticks out his arm and punches a skyscraper-sized metallic alien monster and sends it crashing to the street), but this didn't take away from the fact that the whole experience was still thoroughly entertaining.
Similarly, Star Trek Into Darkness (Paramount) did not disappoint through the YSP-1400 from beginning to end. In the opening scenes, as Kirk and McCoy wade through a thick patch of red, wheat-like plants on an alien planet to avoid contact with the indigenous people, I could hear the rustling of all the leaves in great detail. Dialogue came through with good clarity (and this is during the day, without using the Clear Voice function). For instance, the low nasal growl of Benedict Cumberbatch's voice as he introduced himself to his Federation crew captors came through perfectly. I did on occasion notice the limitations of the speakers on the many scenes with huge explosions, such as a ship crashing to Earth in a later scene. The final credits music theme, with all the French horns, similarly showed little strain in producing the sound pressure levels to fill my room (this isn't unusual, given the size of the area). All of these limitations were what I would have expected, given the price
Okay, some of you astute readers will probably have noticed that I have left out any discussion about the surround sound, even though this soundbar uses a special surround projection technology designed to tackle that. Because Yamaha's Digital Sound Projector technology achieves surround sound by bouncing sound off walls, it necessarily creates a lot of room interaction, more so than other soundbars and perhaps even a traditional multi-channel speaker setup. This is a double-edged sword, because with it comes the potential for some negative impacts from said interaction. Traditional home theater enthusiasts often go to great lengths to avoid sound reflections from the room because they can often interfere with or change the characteristics of the sound coming from your speakers. When that happens, from a purist's standpoint, the sound you hear is not exactly as it was intended. For this purpose, manufacturers like GIK Acoustics provide a variety of bass traps, broadband absorption, and other products to minimize or manage these reflections. Many traditional preamplifiers or receivers include auto equalization programs to make further corrections for deviations caused by room interaction, including Yamaha's own proprietary YPAO R.S.C. (Reflected Sound Control).
Yamaha has very specific recommended conditions for enjoying the fullness of the surround sound experience with the YSP-1400. My room, however, did not fit the bill perfectly. First of all, my living room is 23.5 feet deep, which is slightly over the maximum recommended depth stated in the owner's manual. The left side of my room is lined with many windows, and glass is absolutely the worst for sound reproduction, as it is a hard, reflective surface that tends to bounce back a lot of the high frequencies, giving off very shrill echoes. I temper this effect by adding strategically placed broadband absorption panels in my normal listening. What this and the furniture I have in the room did was to put a damper on the beam drivers' ability to work their full magic. Gaps in the wall behind my listening position also made it difficult for the Yamaha to reflect sound behind me to give off that fully immersive surround impact. I wanted to leave this caveat until the end of the review precisely because a lot of pundits would dismiss the YSP-1400 immediately as a poor performer if I spoke about this up front. The truth is, I had a blast with the Yamaha YSP-1400. It was not bad sound by any definition I would use. The expansive front soundstage and detail I heard were testaments to the unit's potential if it were placed in a more hospitable environment than mine. In fact, for the price, I think it is probably one of the best solutions to getting surround sound without having actual speakers in surround positions.
Music is certainly not the YSP-1400's strongest suit. With music reproduction from two-channel sources, I found that you had to pick between a fuller sound that was a little less natural and more processed, and a sound that was more detailed and natural but lacked the depth and fullness you normally expect from traditional speaker sources.
As I just mentioned, you need to figure out if your room will be right for getting the most out of the unique Digital Sound Projector technology. Not every room will be a good fit. Many soundbars in this general price range include a wireless subwoofer. The YSP-1400 does not, but you can connect a subwoofer using the subwoofer output.
Comparison and Competition
Yamaha's Digital Sound Projector technology is unique in that it provides surround sound without having actual speakers in surround positions. That's the key to the whole approach within the YSP line. Higher models in the YSP line (starting at $999) offer a feature called IntelliBeam, which is a proprietary auto-correction program based on analyzing response measures by a microphone that adjusts the beam angles to give as even a response across the frequency range as possible, similar to what an automated EQ program does for traditional speakers. If you are fine with effects-based surround sound, Yamaha's YAS line of soundbars uses a processed "Air Surround" technology, with prices starting at $299.95. We recently reviewed the Vizio S4251W-B4, which delivers true surround sound from a purist's standpoint by having two wireless surround speakers and an outboard subwoofer for $329. While I haven't heard the Vizio unit, I would venture to say that, on an absolute sound quality scale, it should be better than the Yamaha. After all, sound reflections off the wall will never be as precise as having real speakers, and an outboard subwoofer with a bigger driver will more fully fill a room with better, deeper, more impactful bass. As I alluded to earlier, though, the term "better" depends heavily on what you are looking for. The idea behind the YSP-1400 is to have everything in one handy, unobtrusive box that you can place right under your TV, and the Vizio system has multiple boxes that you will need to find space for across your room.
Outside of other soundbar systems, you can do a traditional setup with a modestly priced receiver and a moderately priced multichannel speaker setup. The advantage would be better, more accurate sound. But to piece together this setup will cost you multiples of what the YSP-1400 does. Even if you already have a receiver and just need to buy the speakers, any setup that delivers a reasonable jump in sound quality over the YSP-1400 will cost more. And again, any traditional 5.1-channel setup will require placement of six additional, potentially bulky objects to place in your room. At the under-$500 price point, you are really only looking at HTIB setups using low-grade satellite speakers and receivers that weren't designed with the same attention to quality that the Yamaha YSP-1400 was. So now you have a few more pieces to juggle, and your sound quality improvement would be marginal at best.
Do I recommend the Yamaha YSP-1400? Well, it really depends on what you are looking for. If you are a more traditional AV enthusiast, whose pursuit of audio quality takes top priority (especially if this needs to double as your music system), then I think you would be happier with a more traditional speaker setup. Also, if your room is very asymmetrically shaped and has significant gaps/openings, especially on the side or back walls, or has a lot of hard, reflective surfaces or any other acoustic anomalies that may nullify the effect of the reflected sound, then you may want to avoid a model with the Digital Sound Projector technology, especially this basic model that lacks the automated correction to compensate. All that said, the Yamaha YSP-1400 delivers an extraordinary value to a lot of people who are just looking for something that is easy to connect, minimally obtrusive in a multi-purpose environment, doesn't break the bank, and is a clear upgrade over the built-in TV speakers. If this describes your needs, then I highly recommend you put the Yamaha YSP-1400 on your short list of products to consider.