Yes, you can get a sound bar for much less money, but the Yamaha's benefits are obvious as soon as you turn it on. It has big sound with great bass response, all of the connectivity you could need, and streaming features from here to Hawaii.
While the Yamaha MusicCast Bar 400 offers all of the performance you'd expect from the storied Japanese brand, I did have a couple of usability quibbles. They're minor, however, and hardly spoil an otherwise excellent sound bar. The MusicCast Bar 400, also known as the YAS-408, is available now for $500, £600 or AU$800.
The MusicCast Bar 400 consists of the bar itself and wireless subwoofer. The relatively stylish bar is almost a meter wide (39 inches) and is designed to sit flat on a TV unit or on a wall. The back of the speaker has keyhole mounts for wall-mounting, but since it's deeper than it is tall it will poke out into the room somewhat.
About those usability issues: the power lights and controls are on top of the unit and if you've used the Dimmer control they will turn off after a few seconds. Depending on where you place the unit -- say on a wall -- it can be difficult to tell if it's on (with mute) off. In addition, video will play via the HDMI port to your TV when the bar is set to any input -- even analog -- and when the unit is powered down. Without any visual power indicator I wondered on several occasions why the volume wasn't working even though I could see a picture, until I discovered the bar was turned off. It was a confusing user experience.
The subwoofer is not the plastic box found on budget 'bars, and it looks very similar to the company's standalone models. It's quite large at 7.125 inches by 16.375 inches by 16 inches, so you'll need to have a dedicated space saved for it to sit.
The remote control stands a minor cut above most credit card style remotes by featuring pleasantly squishy buttons and a well-spaced layout.
The extras missing from cheap sound bars are connectivity, format support and multiroom audio, and the Bar 400 checks all three boxes. Physical connection options include a 4K HDR-passing HDMI input and HDMI output (ARC), in addition to digital optical for older TVs and an analog input.
The Bar 400 offers Yamaha's MusicCast multiroom system over either Wi-Fi and Ethernet, plus Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth. To maximize compatibility, the sound bar will decode both Dolby Digital and DTS, plus it offers DTS Virtual:X for simulated surround sound. While some other (more expensive) sound bars include Dolby Atmos, the Yamaha doesn't.
This is the company's first sound bar that enables users to add MusicCast 20 or MusicCast 50 speakers as wireless surrounds (a feature that debuted on its receivers). All of the setup is done via the MusicCast app, including triggering test tones and assigning distances. The unit also offers Alexa control of MusicCast -- if you have an Echo speaker, you can choose favorites, control playback or assign rooms.
Right out of the box nothing about the sound needed adjustment or fine-tuning, as soon as we started watching the Rampage Blu-ray, the Bar 400 sounded right. The speaker wasn't fazed when George, a giant albino gorilla, got really agitated and started busting up the transport plane's insides. A full barrage of gunfire didn't slow down the ape, he just became more enraged -- which caused the system to literally shake the CNET listening room.
This sound bar can certainly play loud, but we heard some strain at full tilt volume, so we were happier to turn it down to more moderate levels. The subwoofer-sound bar blend was good, which is expected for this type of matched system.
Dialogue remained intelligible as the mayhem escalated, even before we turned on the Yamaha's Clear Voice feature. Activating Clear Voice made some difference for the better, but it wasn't a drastic improvement.
Unfortunately the Bar 400 lacks discrete bass and treble controls, but you can tweak the bass balance with the subwoofer volume controls, and by turning the "Bass Extension" feature on or off. Soundstage size is adjustable by toggling between Stereo, Surround, and 3D Surround; the image expands from narrow, to wide, to extra wide with those modes. We mostly opted for Surround, but 3D Surround allows the bar to disappear more as a sound source. There's no clear winner among them, and we recommend fiddling with the surround modes to see which one works best for the particular movie you're watching.
For comparison's sake we brought out the higher-end Sony HT-NT5 sound bar and subwoofer system we reviewed in 2016, and it's still a mighty impressive performer. There was an ease to the Sony's sound that's all too rare from sound bars. During the scenes in The Revenant Blu-ray where fur traders make their way across thundering rapids and waterfalls, the HT-HT5 felt more potent than the Yamaha. This kind of intensely visceral action makes huge demands on any speaker system, and while the Bar 400 was certainly credible, it wasn't up to the heavyweight standards set by the HT-NR5. In its favor however the Yamaha presented a clearer and more transparent sound than the Sony HT-NR5. We'd call it a tie.
That level of clarity came to the fore with Bruce Springsteen's Live in Dublin DVD. This all-acoustic concert of folk, Dixieland jazz, rockabilly and western swing demonstrated the Bar 400's musical muscle. The Boss' vocals leaped out of the speaker, and the big band's high energy fiddles accompaniment sounded sweet. The live feel of the concert shone bright over the Yamaha.
Lastly we tried adding a pair of MusicCast 20s as surround to the Bar. Whether it was because they'd been set up previously as surrounds or not, the process wasn't as seamless as we found with the RX-V485 receiver (we experienced some weirdness like the center channel not playing, for example). Once we got it working properly, the sound wasn't as well integrated as we experienced with the receiver -- with a little disjointedness between the rear and the fronts. Perhaps with some further software updates the system will be better integrated as a whole.
Setup of the sound bar relies heavily on Yamaha's MusicCast app, which didn't always work seamlessly for me, and the lack of an always-on power indicator display can impact your user experience. Nevertheless, the Yamaha gets a lot right. It's a lively performer, with clear sound, good dialogue intelligibility, agile deep bass and a broad soundstage. True, a lot more affordable sound bars come close, like Yamaha's own YAS-207, but for those who crave the best possible sound from a 'bar for around $500, the Bar 400 is a strong contender.