When I used to review more TVs than I used to now, readers would ask me "Which TV should I get to fit inside my media cabinet?" I was reminded of this question by the tiny Yamaha SR-C20A ($150 at Amazon). If your main criteria for choosing a soundbar is its ability to shoehorn inside a particular space, then this compact speaker could be for you.

7.5

Yamaha SR-C20A

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Like

  • Easy to set up and use
  • Sound great with movies and music
  • Plenty of connection options

Don't Like

  • No ability to add a subwoofer or rears
  • No DTS playback limits DVD watching options
  • Vizio V21 beats it for home theater use

The C20 is the smallest soundbar I've seen from Yamaha at just 23 inches wide. Its sonic chops are still decent, however, and it sounds better than the even-smaller Roku Streambar ($100 at Amazon) ($130) with more prominent bass and a smoother high end. While it lacks the Roku's streaming capability, the Yamaha does offer more connection options.

The problem is that the Yamaha C20 is just too expensive for what you get. If you're not constrained by size then there are plenty of great-sounding options available for the same money, starting with the Vizio V21 ($118 at Walmart). The C20 needs a price drop to become recommendable to a larger group of people.

Small size, solid build

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

As I've found with past Yamaha products, from the spiffy-looking RX-V6 to its mini systems to its soundbars, the build quality of the C20A is solid. The speaker measures just 23.6 inches wide by 2.5 inches high and 3.75 inches deep, and it's covered in an attractive fabric grille in keeping with the range's bigger speakers. 

Yamaha made some usability improvements those larger models don't have. For example the input display is now on the front of the unit facing you rather than facing upwards, making it easier to read. While on the top the controls include an input selector, volume and power.

The C20 offers a pair of 1.8-inch cone drivers, a built-in 3-inch subwoofer: and two passive radiators. While I haven't heard the B20 that speaker offers a larger cabinet with bigger drivers and dedicated tweeters. Plus it offers most of the features of the C20 while adding a subwoofer output. The B20 does lose the 3.5mm input, though.  

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

For such a compact sound bar it's still well specified with an HDMI ARC port, two optical connections, 3.5mm analog and Bluetooth. This will enable you to connect a set-top box and even a turntable via a preamp if you like. When I spoke to Yamaha representatives they suggested you could hook the soundbar up your computer as well, as long as the bar's 3.75 inch depth isn't an issue.

Like all Yamaha audio products since time immemorial the C20 comes with some excellent sound modes including Stereo, Game, Movie and Clear Voice. The C20 supports Dolby Digital but sadly not DTS which is weird as it include DTS Virtual:X surround sound emulation. 

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Meanwhile, the chunky remote is pleasingly tactile and offers a great deal of control over the soundbar's functions. Want to boost the intelligibility of the dialog? Press the Clear Voice button. All of the functions you could need are laid out clearly, without looking like a scientific calculator. 

How does it sound?

The Yamaha may be small but it was able to offer a wide, involving sound which was especially suited to action movies and gaming. Meanwhile its ability to render dialog made it great for just watching the news as well. 

It may lack the physical side-firing speakers of the Roku Streambar but the Yamaha makes up the difference with ingenious software. DTS Virtual:X offers a huge soundstage and I was able to track sounds as they moved around the room and to the sides of my listening position.  

When watching action movies the Yamaha had a clear advantage over the Roku. Both were excellent at pulling dialogue out of the background but the Yamaha bolstered the performance with better bass. The Roku delivers almost no bass (sans the optional sub) but the Yamaha offers just enough that you don't really need one. When Max Rockatansky spins up his Charger's engines at the start of Mad Max Fury Road, for example, it sounded like a real car over the Yamaha, while the Roku's tiny cabinet lacked the oomph to sound believable.

Compared to a bigger speaker like the Vizio V21 the C20 is not going to rock your next party, but at maximum volume the Yamaha was loud enough that my child asked me to turn it down from the next room (not an Elbow fan, obviously). But tunes sounded pleasant when streamed over Bluetooth and experimenting with the sound modes helped even further. For example, rock sounded best in stereo mode while the choral leanings of Dead Can Dance benefitted from the room-wide presentation of Music mode.

When I compared the C20 to the V21 directly, the advantages of the Vizio's larger cabinet and separate subwoofer were immediately apparent. In the default movie mode the Vizio sounded more natural and at ease during the Thanator Chase scene from Avatar. The jungle sounded more alive and less "hyped" than on the C20, and when the elephant-like animals are smashing up trees and trumpeting in disgust, there was simply no contest when it came to bass response. The Yamaha couldn't compete with the Vizio's visceral home theater thump. 

I noticed one Yamaha advantage on this scene, however: when I applied the Vizio's voice mode it made dialog recede as though it were in a tunnel, while the Yamaha's Clear Voice made it as crisp as you would expect.

Should you buy it?

While it's easy to see the attraction in the adorable Roku Streambar - - it's cheap, it offers advanced streaming capabilities and it sounds big - - the more expensive Yamaha is a tougher sell. The C20 performs better than the Roku, with richer bass and a more refined treble, but it's not worth  50 dollars more. Unless you really are dictated to by size constraints, the larger Yamaha B20 or Vizio V21 with its separate subwoofer both make more sense at this price.

7.5

Yamaha SR-C20A

Score Breakdown

Design 8 Features 7 Sound 7 Value 8