Over the last past few years, the A/V receiver's role as a home-theater control center has expanded with the times. So while most buyers will hook up only their DVD player, cable box, and possibly a game console, an ever-increasing number of consumers would also like to use the receiver to play music from their ever-increasing digital audio collection--be it in the form of a satellite radio subscription, Internet radio, an MP3 collection on their PC hard drive, portable music player, or--of course--the iPod. That makes a lot of sense to us, since a home theater probably has higher-quality speakers than a computer's, and an A/V receiver's electronics are better and more powerful than a computer's sound card. With the RX-N600 receiver ($600), Yamaha covered those new connectivity requirements and didn't neglect sound quality. There are just two problems. First, serious digital music fans will lament some of the restrictions on the product's MP3-streaming capabilities. Secondly, the otherwise amply endowed Yamaha lacks HDMI switching, a feature that's growing increasingly critical for anyone who's serious about home theater. The front panel of the Yamaha RX-N600 is clearly organized, and the large orange front-panel LED display is easy on the eyes. The receiver measures 17.1 wide by 15.5 inches deep and weighs 25.8 pounds, and it's available only in a black finish.
Unlike most Yamaha receivers we've tested over the past few years, the RX-N600 doesn't offer the company's YPAO (Yamaha Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer) auto-setup program, but the manual setup and onscreen menu are easy enough to use. The receiver offers an unusually wide range of subwoofer-to-satellite crossover settings--40, 60, 80, 90, 100, 110, 120, 160, and 200 Hertz--which helps ensure that no matter how small or large, your sub and sats will produce seamless bass. You can use the Center Graphic Equalizer feature to adjust the tonal balance of your center speaker to more closely match the sound of your main left and right front speakers. We found the EQ adjustment easy to set, and it created a more seamless balance of our front three speakers.
The remote control has a side-mounted slide switch that toggles between Amp, Source, and TV, which makes it easy to control different components. Layout is fairly intuitive as compared to other receiver remotes, but--as always--you'll be better off if you invest in a good universal remote control. We were a little surprised to note that the Yamaha RX-N600 is a 6.1-channel receiver, rather than the 7.1 configuration found on many $300 and up models. That said, we doubt the lack of one surround channel will make a difference in perceived sound quality or the envelopment of the surround effects on movies or multichannel music. This six times 95-watt receiver comes with a better than average assortment of surround processing modes--Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES Discrete 6.1, DTS Neo:6, and DTS 96/24--and like most Yamaha receivers, it offers a vast assortment of user-customizable Cinema DSP surround modes, such as Movie Theater/Sci-fi, Game, and TV Sports.
This receiver's advanced connectivity options are what separates it from the competition. The RX-N600 has built-in networking functionality (wired only, via an Ethernet port on the rear panel), giving it the ability to access Internet radio stations and PC-based music files. (The N600 can also stream music from the Yamaha MusicCast audio server family of products.) Note that the RX-N600 supports only unprotected MP3 and WMA files, so you won't be able to listen to files purchased from places such as Rhapsody and Napster. Likewise, you're out of luck if you've ripped files to Apple's default AAC format or purchased them online.
On the front panel is a USB port, where you can plug in a USB mass storage device such as an MP3 player or a flash drive and play back MP3 and WMA files. That port won't work with iPods, but that's OK--the RX-N600 is compatible with the optional Yamaha YDS-10 iPod dock. Just put your fourth-generation or newer iPod in the cradle, and you can browse through your music collection with the onscreen display and the remote. The only caveat is that the display will not work if you want to browse videos or pictures; you'll need to use the iPod's controls to do that. It's inconvenient, but no worse than every other iPod-compatible receiver we've tested. One big positive note: the YDS-10 dock's single cable hookup is a breeze compared to Onkyo's and Denon's docks, which have as many as five wires.
Back to the standard connectivity offerings: the RX-N600 offers four A/V inputs, including the composite-only one on the front panel. The three rear-panel inputs can be assigned to composite, S-Video, or component ins, and all of the incoming video is converted to component out, so you need to run only a single set of cables to your TV. Unless, that is, you need HDMI connectivity, which is completely absent on the RX-N600. That's not entirely surprising on a receiver that lists for $600, but some models--such as the JVC RX-D412--do deliver HDMI connectivity with some impressive features (analog-to-digital conversion, deinterlacing) for less than $500.
On the audio front, you get four digital inputs (three opticals, one coaxial), and one optical output. Stereo analog connections run to one input and one in/out recorder loop suitable for tape decks, CD recorders, and the like. The 5.1-channel analog SACD/DVD-Audio inputs can also accommodate Blu-ray and HD-DVD players. (Vinyl heads take note: There's no dedicated phono input, so if your turntable doesn't deliver a line-level output, you'll need an outboard phono preamp.) If you want to keep your multiroom audio options simple, use the B stereo speaker outputs. Or go ahead and use the 12-volt trigger and/or stereo analog outputs to drive an amplifier for Zone 2 operation.