Yamaha's YSP Digital Sound Projector single-speaker surround systems have been popular for good reason: they produce room-filling sound from a single speaker. The catch is that they're expensive: list prices start around $700 (the YSP-900) and go up to $1,600 (for the excellent YSP-4000), and--because the higher-end models include video connections as well--they can be a little complicated to set up. The new YAS-70 "Air Surround" system is significantly more affordable, easier to install, and best of all, comes with something even the priciest YSP lacked: a subwoofer. The sub adds palpable bass to the "1.1" system, but the speaker's limitations were obvious when pushed to the limits with action-packed DVDs. Those whose home theater choices are limited to less demanding sonic fare may well find the Yamaha YAS-70 Air Surround to be worth its $500 street price, if only for its clutter-reducing design and ability to replace a baseline AV receiver. But if you want a single-speaker system with more oomph and better definition, you'll want to save up and invest in a more expensive model, such as the ZVOX 425--or those aforementioned Yamaha step-up products.
Thanks to the subwoofer handling the bass duties, the main speaker section of the Yamaha YAS-70 is a lot sleeker and thinner than any YSP speaker ever offered by Yamaha. The form factor will complement flat-screen displays, and--since the YAS-70 is just 4 inches high, 4.1 inches deep, and 36 inches wide--it can squeeze into places larger systems cannot. Satin black cloth grilles flank the central control panel, which offers an LCD readout and controls for input selection, volume, and power standby. The speaker can be placed on a shelf over or under a TV, or wall-mounted with the keyhole slots on its rear panel. It weighs a little under 10 pounds.
The subwoofer is certainly the biggest we've seen packaged with a virtual surround speaker: it's 11.1 inches wide, 19.5 high, and 13.4 deep, and weighs a little over 33 pounds. The Sony stylists didn't work their magic on this one--it's a plain, unadorned box, finished in black vinyl, and the front baffle is covered with a black cloth grille. A total of three cables run between the sub and speaker: there's one control cable and a pair of flat speaker cables that bundle the six speaker channels (three channels each). The three cables are each 13 feet long. By comparison, the Boston Acoustics TVee Model Two has a wireless subwoofer (just a power cable is required), but that's an avowed stereo model that makes no claim to virtual surround.
The remote offers direct control over different types of surround processing: Movie, Music, Sports, and Games. It also lets you adjust the relative volume of the Center, Subwoofer, and Surround channels.
The YAS-70 lacks auto setup and calibration, but even so, we found setup chores to be more straightforward than any of the YSP speakers we've tested here at CNET. The tweaking possibilities are simple enough to implement. For example, with the remote you can experiment with the projected angle of the sound "beams" that bounce/reflect off your room's sidewalls to create a enveloping surround effect. The factory default setting is "40 degrees" and that sounded pretty good, but when we bumped it up to 60 degrees the surround field shrank down into the width of the speaker itself. We next tried 30 degrees and preferred that because it projected the sound farther out into the room. It's a painless tweaking operation, and we had the whole thing dialed in less than two minutes. Just be aware that the technology works by reflecting sound off walls, so bare walls work best, and objects in the room such as chairs, drapes, or furniture may have an adverse effect on the quality of the surround sound. Also, we had the YAS-70 speaker centered on the short wall of the rectangular room, and room symmetry is required to produce the best surround effect. Corner placement would be a worst-case scenario for the YAS-70 or any virtual surround system.
The Yamaha YAS-70 is designed to completely replace a 5.1-channel speaker system. The subwoofer houses the amplifiers and the bulk of the connectivity options, keeping the main speaker as thin and cable-free as possible.
In the sub you'll find five 30-watt amplifiers to drive the main speaker's five 2-inch speakers, and a 50-watt amp drives the 6.5-inch subwoofer. The jack pack offers one set of stereo analog inputs; two digital inputs (one optical, one coaxial); an FM antenna connector; and a dock terminal for the optional Yamaha YDS-10 iPod dock. Built-in surround processing modes include Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS and Yamaha's proprietary Cinema DSP technology.
Technically, the Yamaha YAS-70 can take the place of an AV receiver--it can switch among three external audio sources (plus the iPod dock), and has its own built-in amplifiers and FM radio. But there are a few trade-offs. Unlike the high-end Yamaha Digital Sound Projectors, the YAS-70 lacks any sort of video-switching capabilities. That means the video outputs of your DVD player, game console, and cable/satellite box will need to be connected directly to the TV, while their audio outputs are plugged into the Yamaha. Likewise, you'll need to manually switch the audio source (on the Yamaha) and the video source (on the TV) simultaneously--or invest in a decent universal remote that can handle the job. If that's too much of a chore--or if you have more than three AV sources--you'll want to opt for a full-on AV receiver, and use the Yamaha strictly as a speaker.
The first thing we noted was that the YAS-70's subwoofer sounded huge. It "moved a lot of air," all right, but bass definition wasn't part of the deal. There was too much bass for our tastes, so we brought the sub's volume way down (-7), and that helped improve the apparent definition somewhat. Bass quantity is one of those things that some buyers can't get enough of, so the "flat" setting might actually be fine for you. Or who knows--you might even want to push it up +7 or even 10.
The Live Free or Die Hard DVD put the YAS-70 through the wringer. John McClane's (Bruce Willis') voice sounded a tad hollow, and indeed we frequently felt the dialog sounded oddly processed and somewhat sibilant. Even so, it was never at a loss for intelligibility. The big subwoofer didn't do much to help us feel the high-powered explosions sprinkled throughout the film. Yes, the YAS-70 could play fairly loudly, but it reigned over home theater fun more than Yamaha's far more expensive YSP-4000. Surround effects were projected forward into the room, but again, they were much less enveloping than the YSP-4000. Even the subwooferless Zvox 425 beat out the YAS-70 in terms of dynamic impact and room-filling surround performance. The Zvox seemed to produce less distortion, so it sounded cleaner and much better on music.
Less demanding DVDs like The Ring brought out the best in the YAS-70's sound. This creepy thriller uses subtle music and sound effects to create tension, and the Yamaha sounded quite nice. The sub's thundering weight added just the right amount of heft to the proceedings.
CD sound was only mediocre. The soundtrack to the Bob Dylan biopic film I'm Not There features a wide range of artists performing Dylan's music. All of it--from The Black Keys' hard blues rock to the folk-tinged tunes from Mason Jennings and Jeff Tweedy--came out sounding like an undernourished table radio. Yes, the YAS-70 will sound acceptable providing background music, but if you play a lot of tunes the Zvox 425 would be a better-sounding alternative.