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.
The RX-N600 isn't just XM Satellite Radio ready, it's also capable of receiving XM's two new HD Surround-formatted channels. All you need is an XM Mini-Tuner Connect-and-Play Home Kit and a $12.95-per-month XM subscription. Before measuring the home-theater prowess of the Yamaha RX-N600, we tested its various unique digital media functions. We jump-started the networking features by running an Ethernet cable from our broadband router to the receiver's backside. (Using a power-to-Ethernet bridge or wireless bridge should work if there's no cable within reach.) Once connected, the Internet radio feature worked without any problems, and we were easily able to tune in to a diverse selection of stations, from podcasts to classical music. Although we liked that there were tons of Internet radio presets, we would have liked to add more Internet radio streams--in other words, you're stuck with what Yamaha gives you. Accessing music on our PC was just as easy, with the receiver recognizing our computer shortly after we booted Windows Connect 2.0 (Macs aren't supported). We had no problem playing MP3s and WMAs but had some trouble getting WAV files to play. As mentioned, copy-protected (commercially purchased) files won't work.
Turning to the RX-N600's USB port, we had no problem playing MP3s and WMAs in general, but one out of the three flash drives we tried was not recognized at all. Another annoyance: files played from USB can't be paused, only stopped and restarted from the beginning. On a happier note, the Compressed Music Enhancer did what the name implies. We're pretty skeptical about such things, which either don't work or actually make things sound worse. We used the Enhancer while listening to XM Radio, and while the effect varied with the music that was playing at any given moment, the Enhancer seemed to slightly reduce the harshness associated with compressed digital audio. And since the RX-N600's connectivity is directed to address the needs of buyers who listen to compressed music files from their PCs, satellite radio, MP3, or iPod, the Enhancer will offer some sound quality improvement.
The big problem with the digital audio features of the RX-N600 are that they just aren't quite as good as, say, adding a $200 Roku SoundBridge M1001 to any other A/V receiver. In addition to wider file support, the SoundBridge offers an easy way to change Internet radio presets, and includes Wi-Fi connectivity. It would've been nice to see at least some of those features built into the Yamaha.
With the digital audio functionality tested, we kicked off standard home-theater evaluations with the Poseidon DVD. The capsized ocean liner, flooded with water, produced massive deep bass effects, and we felt ourselves surrounded by rushing water, punctuated by huge torrents bursting through the ship's bulkheads. While the Yamaha RX-N600 took the onslaughts in stride and played loudly enough to satisfy our lust for home-theater-rattling special effects, the sound lacked oomph. That's not to say that the Yamaha didn't provide yeoman's service; it was certainly on a par with other $600 A/V receivers we've tested. But there was a restrained quality to the sound. We did briefly compare the RX-N600 with an Onkyo TX-SR674 receiver ($700), which is also rated at 95 watts per channel, and felt the Onkyo had a more substantial tonal balance, with greater spatial depth on DVDs and CDs.
The 5.1-channel surround mix on The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East SACD was more successful. The band's music was impressively dynamic, and the disc transported us to the legendary rock theater's acoustics. Our only quibble was bass definition, which seemed a trifle soft or lacking precision. Meanwhile, Tom Petty's new CD, Highway Companion, was beautifully detailed and clear.
XM satellite radio playback worked fine (once a working XM antenna was attached, of course). Unfortunately, the owner's manual doesn't directly offer much information about how to access the RX-N600's Neural processing mode, which is used to decode XM Surround. We couldn't figure it out on our own, so we checked with one of Yamaha's product engineers. You need to first bring up the Standard Surround menu, then repeatedly hit the remote's Select button to toggle through the options until Neural lights up on the RX-N600's display. Once set, the RX-N600 will automatically bring up Neural processing when you select XM, but the catch is that Neural processing almost completely destroys stereo separation on non-HD Surround-encoded channels, so most of the sound comes from the center speaker. The cure is simple enough: revert back to normal stereo when listening to stereo channels.