Yamaha makes all sorts of sound bars that do fancy things, like shooting “beams” of sound at your walls for more convincing virtual surround sound. But perhaps the company’s greatest feat in the genre is creating a simple, powerful, and affordable bar that sounds pretty damned good. That’s exactly what Yamaha has done with the YAS-203, a $400 budget beater that should be on the shortlist for anyone looking to upgrade their TV sound at a bargain.
Hands on video
Out of the box
We won’t go so far as to say the YAS-203 is cute, but the way its glossy front panel yields to fabric speaker grilles is reminiscent of Wall-E – kind of like a smiling face.
The system’s cube-shaped wireless subwoofer is equally petite and charming, presenting a no-nonsense design with little affectation, save a silver Yamaha logo at the front. The system’s finish doesn’t scream luxury, but it doesn’t feel dirt-cheap, ether. Accessories in the package include an intuitive owner’s manual, a stubby remote with batteries, and an Optical digital cable.
Features and design
At just under 35-inches across, the 203 isn’t built to square up with the stature of today’s swelling TV screens. Placed in front of a 65-inch Samsung H7150, the sound bar looks downright skimpy. It doesn’t sound that way, though, and its lack of width did little to hamper stereo effects.
The bar is stocked with two 2 ⅛-inch drivers, paired with a 6 ½-inch driver in the sub, and backed by a claimed 200 watts of total system power. The only physical features breaking up the otherwise blacked-out box that serves as the foundation of the low end are a porthole on the right side of the cabinet, and a green LED around back.
The sound bar’s IR flasher ensures you’ll never have to worry about blocking your TV remote’s signal.
A small recess on the back of the sound bar hosts a digital Optical input, a digital Coaxial input, and an analog RCA input. As you’d expect, a fourth way to play is offered via wireless Bluetooth connection for your mobile device. And while we wouldn’t have minded an HDMI input (for better sound quality and ARC functionality), at this level, it’s not really necessary — especially since the 203 can be easily programmed to accept volume, mute, and power commands from your TV remote.
At 3 ⅛-inches high, the 203 will block the IR sensor for many TVs, but Yamaha has cleverly solved that conundrum with an IR repeater built into the back of the unit, which can be activated by holding down a corresponding key on the remote for 3 seconds. This inclusion gives the bar a real edge over most competitors at this price point.
The rest of the remote’s controls are self-explanatory, including volume, mute, and subwoofer control, source selection, and surround/stereo modes for playback. Also included are keys to activate familiar Yamaha DSP features like Audio Delay to remedy any digital delay issues, Uni Volume, which prevents wild swings in volume (aka dynamics – a good feature for quieting loud commercials, bad for movie excitement), Clear Voice to enhance dialog, and Bass Extension. We found a nice balance with Bass Extension off, and Clear Voice engaged. We kept Uni Volume off as well, and didn’t wind up needing the delay feature.
While it’s not much, the sound bar’s digital display is fairly easy to follow once you get it down, offering an array of LEDs that indicate source, surround sound, and info like Dolby or DTS coding from your source device, both of which the unit can decode. The lights indicate other data as well, such as general volume and subwoofer level, and flash at the center to indicate whether DSP functions are engaged or disengaged.
For the best movie sound, we recommend connecting your Blu-ray or DVD player’s Optical or Coaxial input directly to the sound bar, as running it through your TV can often compromise sound quality. However, if you want to soup up the sound for everything you watch, you can simply connect everything to your TV, and run a single digital audio cable (probably optical) to your sound bar. In a perfect world, your disc player has a coaxial digital output and you can get the best of both worlds.
While the YAS-203 will certainly add a much-needed punch of potency to your TV audio thanks to its very capable subwoofer, the system really excels in its impressive approach to tactile sonic details. Offering a particularly brilliant upper register and midrange, the 203 presents a clean and precise touch to dialog and musical instrumentation, as well as complex sound effects like footfall on gravel and the sprinkle of broken glass.
The system’s light and silvery touch presents itself almost as the Yin to the Yang of one of our other favorite bars in this price range, the Pioneer SP-SB23W. While the Yamaha lacks the Pioneer’s creamy midrange, it has a sharper cut to the upper register that offers a tinge more precision, separating the two like fire and ice. Both bars are great performers, and deciding which is right for you will depend on personal preference.
That said, while we did wish for a bit more gumption in the mids, the 203 does a fine job handling heavy effects. The system presents gunshots and explosions with a thick burst up front and some welcome follow-through, and engines from the likes of motorcycles and sports cars resonate with a pleasant buzz of authority. The roar of that beastly inline 6-cylinder under the hood of Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 in Skyfall, for instance, is thick enough to jolt you awake if you were to somehow able to nod off in the first place.
You can thank that cute-looking subwoofer, which isn’t quite as musical or precise as we’d like, but offers plenty of fortitude, even rattling the blinds in our listening room during some of the more powerful explosions in Guardians of the Galaxy. And although a bit goes missing in the lower midrange as the top end of the sub merges with the low point of the sound bar, it’s nothing of consequence — especially at this price.The only other issues we had with the 203 included a lack of any real surround sound spacing (not surprising given the size) and an occasional tendency for the sound to break-up in the upper midrange slightly, giving a bit less clarity and resolution to upper brass instruments than we would’ve liked.
Still, when we spent time listening to our music catalog via Bluetooth, our complaints were few and far between. Moving from Peter Gabriel to Prince, the YAS-203 showed exemplary balance, precision, and clarity. The system’s deft hand at musical reproduction is something we just don’t expect in systems at this price point.
Yamaha’s YAS-203 has just the right mix of features, performance, and quality design to make it a top choice in its class. There are few competing solutions at this price point that can keep pace, making the 203 a prime choice for those seeking an affordable sonic upgrade for TV, movies, and music playback alike.
- Excellent detail in subtler nuances and dialog
- Clear and smooth treble
- Powerful, balanced bass
- Equally talented for music or movies
- Solid feature set includes IR repeater
- Brass/cymbals can break up in the treble
- Would prefer second optical input to coaxial