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Though the V540 is perfectly attractive, it's not as classy-looking as the other Yamaha model we tested, the RX-V740. The V540's knobs are plastic; they have clean lines but feel less substantial than their upmarket counterparts. The preprogrammed remote isn't all that special, but using it was easy enough.
The setup routines weren't as intuitive as we would have liked, and the designers omitted an onscreen display. The user manual wasn't a big help, so we poked our way through the process.
Beyond the front-panel bass and treble controls, the V540 gives you a little something extra: a five-band equalizer for the center-channel speaker. The EQ can help the main and center speakers blend more seamlessly. Each of the six channels has a power rating of 80 watts. The receiver provides the usual surround formats: Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS-ES Discrete 6.1, and DTS Neo:6.
The V540's connectivity complement should be adequate for most buyers, but it's not as complete as that of Pioneer's VSX-D912K. Don't get us wrong; the Yamaha's backside gets most of the basics right. It has component-video switching, a 5.1 SACD/DVD-Audio input, four digital inputs (three optical, one coaxial), one optical output, and A/B speaker connections. It's just that Yamaha was a bit stingy with A/V inputs; the V540 has just three. The ones on the front panel are limited to composite video and stereo audio, forsaking S-Video and digital-audio facilities. On the bright side, the V540 can convert composite video to S-Video, and vice versa, so you don't need to switch inputs on your TV as often.
Yamaha's two-year warranty is twice as long as the usual offering.
The V540's neutrality allowed us to really hear the sound on DVDs and music discs. Goldmember was as clean as a whistle. The scene in which Austin Powers goes back to 1975 in his pimpmobile is accompanied by heavy disco bass and knock-you-back-in-your-chair dynamics, and the V540 proved itself up to the task. Nicolas Cage's deadpan opening monologue on the Adaptation DVD sprawled across all five speaker channels, so it seemed like we were inside his head--a very cool surround effect.
Next up was Janis Joplin's classic, Cheap Thrills, now expertly remastered on SACD. It sounded real, plopping us down in the best seat in the Fillmore West. The band rocked and rolled with uninhibited psychedelic flair, and the atmosphere of the legendary rock theater was palpable. On "Summertime," Joplin virtually materialized before us. We just wish all surround mixes were this good.
We used the Police's Every Breath You Take CD to investigate the V540's simulated-surround programs. We're not usually fans of synthesized-surround modes, but we had to admit Yamaha's processing added deeper and more-obvious reverberation than Dolby Pro Logic II. Jazz Club, Rock Concert, and Hall are a few of the 24 choices available to suit different tastes and types of music. The V540 even lets you fine-tune the processing and delay levels.
We compared the V540 with its bigger sibling, the $599 V740, and they were pretty much the same at low to moderate sound levels. Upping the volume showed that the V740's minor power advantage (it delivers 90 rather than 80 watts per channel) actually makes a big difference. If your room is large, or if you like to crank the volume, spend the extra dough and get a box with greater power. The upmarket V740 also offers more-generous connectivity and an onscreen menu to simplify setup.