Yamaha was one of the first manufacturers to introduce a sound projector designed to recreate surround sound from a single high-density array of drivers. Since the introduction of the YSP-1, the design has undergone two major revisions, leading up to the YSP-4000. In that time, the general idea behind the device has caught on, and several companies have followed in-step with their own versions of the sound projector. So, what has Yamaha learned from its head-start, and how does the YSP-4000 deliver compared to traditional 5.1 surround setups? Read on to find out all the angles to this interesting, and rarely reviewed, technology.
Features and Design
As gadget-minded aesthetes, we love our plasmas and LCD TVs for their clean design and simplicity. While some enjoy the macho, raw power of gigantic floor-standing speakers that could blow grandma’s dentures clean out of her mouth, others want sound to just flow smoothly from the walls. After dropping a pretty penny on a flatscreen TV, how do you get the sound you need to really make those DVDs, HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs spring to life without running wires throughout the entire living room? Enter the Yamaha digital sound projector.
The concept is simple and brilliant: Mount an array of small speakers in one central location and aim them such that they reflect sound off the walls. By doing this just right, the effect can fool the listener into thinking there are speakers positioned around them at all angles. If you’re a tech geek scorned by previous interesting=sounding speaker technology that never delivered, you’re probably skeptical – a perfectly healthy reaction. Therefore we’re happy to put the Yamaha YSP-4000, the flagship model by the company that invented the genre, through the same scrutiny as a full-fledged 5.1 speaker system, and compare the sound quality and localization to a number of speaker configurations.
Note that the YSP-4000 features two larger midrange drivers separated by 40 small, but powerful, motorized drivers. Power is rated at 2W x 40 and 20W x 2, and a total of 120W. If you’re familiar with speaker power numbers, you’re probably already scratching your head. Well, hang on, because nearly everything about this sound projector is unique. And if you’re already inclined to stop reading, here’s a little spoiler: Somehow it all works out in the end.
Image Courtesy of Yamaha
For testing purposes, we mounted the YSP-4000 in a 15’x20’ room with only a partial back wall, opening into a kitchen. Each side of the back wall has approximately 3-4 ‘of surface before opening into the next room. The left wall is standard drywall, the wall holding the sound projector is cement (fireplace), and the right wall is mostly glass. Audition distance from the speaker was approximately 15’.
The YSP-4000 was part of a permanent setup focused on aesthetics, and was mounted at a less-than-optimal 7.5’ from the floor, above a plasma, which was mounted above a fireplace. Bear in mind that the on-screen setup allows for mounting within 45 degrees of listeners’ heads, which was not the final setup. For review purposes, we rather rested the sound projector on the fireplace mantle, within the recommended listening angle. It should be noted that mounting the sound projector outside the recommended range results in losing the ability to automatically calibrate the system (more on this later). Also worth keeping in mind: The floor of the room we tested in was hardwood on concrete, with a few pieces of furniture and a floor rug to absorb sound within it.
We mention the room in detail simply because the system relies on sound reflection, which is different for different materials, such as glass and drywall.
Physical Setup and Connections
The original setup that was to include the YSP-4000 called for an HDMI switching, upconverting receiver to handle all inputs (Yamaha RX-V2600/2700) and output a single HDMI cable to the sound projector, and have from the sound projector another HDMI cable passing video to the screen. The promise of the one cable to-rule-them-all existence was within our grasp. Sadly, and of important note, this setup is not feasible. Even though the sound projector does feature HDMI “passthrough,” that passthrough is a feature of the internal HDMI switch, and placing two HDMI switching setups in a row causes havoc with many devices. Were tried the all-HDMI setup initially, and found that neither our Comcast HD DVR or Denon upconverting DVD player were recognized.
So, for purposes of this review, we set the sound projector up as it was intended to be used – as a combined speaker and receiver. Our sources were plugged into the two HDMI ports, and the HDMI out port sent the video signal to the TV.
As far as other available connections, the YSP-4000 does a good job for its size, though features nowhere near the number of options that a more tricked-out receiver can handle. On the input side, connections include 2 HDMI, 2 component, 3 composite video, 2 composite audio, 2 optical audio, 2 digital coaxial audio, an XM radio port, iPod Dock, IR extender, RS-232C and a built-in FM radio. On the output side, there is 1 HDMI, 1 component, 1 composite video and subwoofer, along with Yamaha’s System Control port. That should be enough for your typical setup of cable box/STB, DVD player and a couple video game consoles, but anything more adventurous will require a video switch box or receiver. Remember that you won’t be powering the sound projector from the receiver, so high receiver wattage will be a wasted feature.
Yamaha has a newly-added note to the product page, explain that the YSP-4000 can be paired with the YDS-10 iPod dock, but there are limitations when using the latest generation of iPods (Classic, nano, and Touch). The dock offered previous iPod models the ability to navigate the menu system, whereas newer models can only have playback controlled.
We tested the YSP-4000 with an HD DVR using Comcast HD service and a Denon DVD-1730 DVD player. We did not have an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player on hand, but the HD cable service should be enough to determine any issues that might arise with video quality. For a display, we had a 58” 1080p-capable Panasonic TH-PZ750U plasma TV (review to follow shortly) on-hand. We did not have a subwoofer picked out yet to compliment the system, which Yamaha recommends for optimal sound, so we expected audio output to be lacking on the low end. We’d recommend factoring another $500 for a decent subwoofer on top of the sound projector’s $1499 USD MSRP for the optimal-sounding system.
System Setup and Calibration
The initial setup process was very straightforward. The YSP-4000 comes with a calibration microphone that plugs into the front of the unit and extends to the listening location. The on-screen display is easy to navigate, and the auto-calibration routine is one minute of sci-fi sounding weirdness that sweeps around the room. This was our first taste of the directional abilities of the system, and a giddy grin filled our faces. We knew we were in for a treat as the calibration sounds swept around the room in a dizzying display of audio acrobatics. A whispered “cool” was muttered by everyone in the room.
Setup after that point was more obfuscated. The basic options are easily accessible, allowing the focus of the sound to be adjusted in all three dimensions (near/far, left/right, up/down) along with beam strength and focal distance. However, we highly recommend taking the time to tweak the system after auto setup. The auto setup does about 90% of the work for you, but the remaining 10% is a matter of personal preference and sweet spot adjustment. If, after setup, the sound seems flat, make sure it is in “5 beam” mode. Several options for adjusting the environment are available on the remote for quickly changing the directional characteristics, but over the course of our week-long review, the different settings didn’t offer much beyond the standard setup, and we found ourselves wondering whether they were actually useful. For stereo sources, the sound can be dispersed around the room via several options.
Decoding and DSP Options
There are several decoders built into the YSP-4000. Neural Surround, by Yamaha, discretizes the audio source into 5 channels and aids with expanding stereo sources to cover the entire listening area. As far as supported codecs, there’s Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Digital, DTS-ES (matrix and discrete), DTS Neo:6, and DTS 96/24. Yes, that’s a whole bunch of decoding for such a small package. Notably missing is Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD – the formats used by Blu-ray and HD-DVD. The reasoning behind the lack of support is that the YSP-4000 supports 5 virtual sound beams, while the higher-fidelity codecs support 8 channels. For 99% of the users out there, 5.1 channels should be enough for the recommended room dimensions.
It should be noted that the YSP-4000 supports only HDMI 1.2a. If you are using an HDMI 1.3 setup (source and display), you should run the HDMI out from the source directly to the display, set the source to output bitstream or Dolby Digital, and use an optical or digital coax connection to the sound projector for audio. This setup retains the extended color depth offered by HDMI 1.3 while making the sound compatible with the sound projector. We fully expect the next update to the YSP family to support HDMI 1.3.
Seven DSP environments allow the user to switch between several soundfields. Three Movie, three Music, and one Sports setting disperse audio throughout the room with different audio characteristics.
Beam modes include 3 Beam, 5 Beam, 3 Beam + Stereo, 2 Channel Stereo, 5 Channel Stereo, My Surround and My Beam. There is also a Night Mode which attenuates large spikes in volume. We found that “5 Beam” mode was all we needed for movies. Music sounded the most immersive in “5 Channel Stereo” mode.
Analog video sources can be upscaled to 720p or 1080i over the HDMI interface and the HDMI passthrough feature will preserve 1080p data. Again, avoid placing another HDMI switch in the mix, as the HDCP handshaking will flake out and lock out the output. Also note that there is no audio output, and audio is not sent over the HDMI out connection. This can be an issue if you will be using the YSP-4000 with two or more speaker zones.
There is no place to connect external speakers, for obvious reasons, making the sound projector a single environment device. If you wish to power a second set of speakers, you will need a separate receiver. This means that there is no central volume control, and the added speakers will be entirely controlled by the added receiver, and the YSP speakers will be controlled by the built in receiver.
At last! By now you’re asking, “But how does it SOUND?!?!” In a word: excellent. An interesting side-effect of the sound reflection technique is that audio can actually, depending on the source material’s encoding, sound more immersive than a traditional 5.1 setup. There’s no worrying about matching speakers or placement, since you are literally bathed in a spread of directed sound. Consequently, transfer of motion across the sound field is downright seamless. The SRS TruBass technology, which uses harmonics of higher pitches (the fare of smaller speakers) to deepen the bass, gave surprisingly deep sound, though a subwoofer is definitely recommended to really feel visceral and booming bass.
On the downside, moving outside the sweet spot quickly flattens the sound stage against the projection and opposing walls. This was in part due to the less-than-optimal room setup, and even then the sweet spot was surprisingly large. Even at the proper height, the lack of a back wall meant no true rear-channel experience, no matter how much we tweaked. We experienced more of a forward-thrust 5.1 setup, where the rear channels were separate from the front, but dispersed to the sides rather than behind the listener. This is the same experience we have had in the past with systems in which the listening position was against the back wall. This was slightly disappointing, but not unexpected.
Sound quality was excellent overall, especially for movies. We tested several thrillers, including Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 2, and found the DSP “Spectacular” setting best suited to the fast action. For sporting events broadcast in surround, the sense of immersion proved on-par with our separate 5.1 setup, but gave the sense of watching from the back seats, due to the lack of crowd noises behind us. The Sports setting did an excellent job of filling up the room, but detracted from the commentator dialogue. We also tried several genres of music (2 channel analog from an iPod Classic) and overall the quality was very good, though slightly higher-energy and higher-pitched than we are used to. Tuning down the treble helped, and switching to the 2 Channel Stereo + 3 Beam setting was best for filling the room without losing the vocal qualities for acoustic music. The YSP-4000 shined when auditioning techno and speedier-paced music, due to the quick and punchy nature of the microspeakers. Keep in mind that this unit features built-in compressed audio enhancer technology for smoothing out MP3s and other compressed formats.
While the performance with music was good, the real strength of the unit is in cinematic audio. If you are looking for a great jack-of-all-trades, a dedicated surround setup is still probably the way to go. But, if you intend to use the YSP-4000 primarily for movies and occasionally music, you will be very pleased with the purchase. For such a small unit there is plenty of power and little distortion even at the highest comfortable settings. Walking through the room while listening to the sound projector can be somewhat strange. You could swear that there should be a speaker poking through the windows two feet from your face, but that’s just the YSP working its voodoo magic on you. One way to compensate for the less-than-stellar music performance is to watch live performances on DVD. We caught The Manhattan Transfer on an HD channel, and while we wanted strangely to claw our ears out and take a nap at the same time, the surround encoding of the performance translated into a much better experience compared to two channel audio. Perhaps if the RIAA had focused on pushing DVD-Audio and SACD instead of suing children, deaf-mutes, and family pets, there would be more quality surround source material.
The rating given to the YSP-4000 represents a happy medium between performance compared to a traditional 5.1 setup and the convenience and aesthetics of soundbar-style setup. Performance compared to well-matched, similarly-priced 5.1 setups would earn the sound bar an 8/10. The technology and conveniences are a solid 9/10. Finally, considering the features both included and that could have been integrated earned an 8/10 – very good, but a little more imagination from such an established player in the field would have been nice. Finally, overall quality and execution shines through with a 9/10.
One thing we learned from reviewing Yamaha’s YSP-4000 Digital Sound Projector is that this isn’t a gimmick. It really works, and in the right rooms the setup works really well (prior to purchase, we also auditioned a properly-configured unit in an enclosed room). There’s plenty of power for the recommended room size (25’x25’), the audio quality is very good, and surround sound performance is on-par with similarly-priced 5.1 setups. One of the biggest benefits for the design-conscious consumer is the ability to have a surround system without running wires all over the room: Yes, you can actually have a sleek plasma or LCD mounted to a wall AND have impressive sound to go along with it. Approximately 75% of flatscreen owners use the built-in speakers, but with quality sound projectors like the YSP-4000 hitting the shelves, we expect that number to drop significantly as people start to discover the punch this little device packs.
• Excellent sound quality
• Surprisingly powerful surround effect
• Easy setup
• Auto calibration
• HDMI passthrough
• Subwoofer strongly recommended
• Confusing remote