Editors' note: The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace. The review has not otherwise been modified.
Yamaha basically created the sound bar category and continues to sell its best-in-class Digital Sound Projector line, but it can be hard to recommend the company's sound bars when they generally cost in excess of $1,000. The YAS-101 ($250 street price) is Yamaha's entry into the increasingly crowded budget sound bar field, and it's one of the few that manages to stand out.
That's largely due to Yamaha's decision to eschew a separate subwoofer, instead using a built-in subwoofer, which gives the speaker system a more streamlined look. The YAS-101 also has a very helpful "IR flasher" on the back, so it will pass remote signals through to your TV if the sound bar is blocking the TV's remote sensor. Sound quality is surprisingly strong for TV and movies, although don't expect miracles with two-channel music. Our major criticism is that the YAS-101's connectivity options are bare-bones, but that's not as much of an issue if you use your TV to switch between devices.
With its reasonable price, simple design with built-in subwoofer, and innovative remote-control workaround, the Yamaha YAS-101 is one of the top budget sound bars available.
Design: Not your average budget sound bar
Two design choices set the YAS-101 apart from most budget sound bars: its built-in subwoofer and IR repeater.
Most sub-$300 sound bars include a wireless subwoofer, but as mentioned above, the YAS-101 opts instead for a built-in, dual-driver 3-inch subwoofer. A wireless subwoofer isn't a huge imposition on a living room (heck, it's wireless), but a built-in subwoofer may appeal to minimalists who are hesitant even to add a sound bar to their decor.
We thought the down-firing subs might incite rattles and buzzes in our cabinet, but we didn't heard any noises during our listening sessions. (Less sturdy stands may fare worse.) Alternatively, you can hook up an external subwoofer, which would reduce the amount of bass coming from the YAS-101's subs.
The YAS-101's built-in IR repeater is its real standout feature. Sound bars designed to sit on your TV cabinet have the nasty habit of blocking the TV's remote control sensor, making it tough (or impossible) to switch inputs or turn your TV on and off. The Yamaha cleverly gets around this with the IR repeater, which accepts remote signals from any device and fires them out the back, along a strip of IR blasters. It's an excellent solution to a problem other sound bars just ignore.
Features: Surprisingly sparse
Inputs are located on the back panel, and it's a weakness of the system. There are three digital inputs (two optical, one coaxial), which is pretty good, but we were surprised that there isn't an analog audio input. That's bad news for Nintendo Wii owners (the console only supports analog audio), although you can likely work around the shortcoming by connecting the Wii to your HDTV and using its digital audio output.
The YAS-101 also lacks built-in Bluetooth or AirPlay, so there's no way to wirelessly stream music directly to the sound bar. Wireless music streaming is a nice feature that's showing up on a lot of competing sound bars, but the fact that it's missing on the YAS-101 isn't a deal breaker. You can always add something like an Apple TV if you want that functionality later.
Yamaha includes a remote with the YAS-101, which isn't always guaranteed with a sound bar system. This particular remote is a mixed bag: button layout could be a lot better, but Yamaha does include virtually all the buttons you'd want, including direct input buttons and a subwoofer volume control.
There's no display on the front of the YAS-101, so when you make volume adjustments (subwoofer or overall) with the remote the only visual feedback you get is from the tiny LED on the front of the speaker. It's green when the volume is low, orange at standard level, and red at higher volume settings. A numerical display (like the one on the Zvox Z-Base 555) is more useful, but this approach is better than nothing.
Performance: Solid sound bar sonics
We were immediately impressed with the YAS-101's full tonal balance. Few sound bars in the YAS-101's price class sound this rich, so we never missed not having a separate sub. It's not that the YAS-101 made room-shaking bass--it did not--but the bass that was there was fully adequate.
We started listening with Peter Gabriel's recently recorded concert Blu-ray disc "New Blood Live in London," and the drums and basses on "Biko" had good dynamic punch. Gabriel's vocals and the orchestra's strings sounded natural, and there was no thinness or hardness of the sort we've heard from some low- to midprice sound bars. The YAS-101 is a stereo device, but we heard the sound field spread a little more widely across the front wall of the CNET listening room when we used Yamaha's Air Surround Xtreme mode. There's no actual surround, but the stereo soundstage was big and broad.
Over a wide variety of movies the YAS-101 sounded relaxed and competent, so we progressed to our reference "torture" discs, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and "Black Hawk Down." Even there we were impressed with the little speaker's poise during all but the loudest, most dynamic scenes, in which the gunfire and explosions lacked the impact of the sort we heard from larger systems, like the Harman Kardon SB 16. The YAS-101 sounded fine up to moderate listening levels; turned up louder we heard some hardness creep into the sound. The CNET listening room is fairly large, however. In smaller rooms, played at moderately loud volume, the YAS-101 should be adequate. The Clear Voice feature is supposed to enhance dialogue intelligibility, but it only made a small difference. (If you're specifically looking for a sound bar that enhances dialogue, check out Zvox's competing sound bars, which have an excellent "Dialogue Emphasis" feature.) The UniVolume setting was slightly more effective, reducing abrupt soft-to-loud volume shifts somewhat.
The YAS-101 was less bassy than the Energy Power Bar speaker system we compared it with, but the Energy has a separate subwoofer. Even so, it didn't make that much more bass. In fact, we preferred the quality of the YAS-101's bass and overall sound for movies, but rock music on CD was just acceptable. The YAS-101's small size was more apparent on two-channel music than movies, which is what we've found with most sound bar speakers. The Energy Power Bar was better than average in that regard.
The fact that two-channel music sounds no more than passable on the YAS-101 isn't a huge knock, since it's a shortcoming of sound bars in general. When used in its intended environment (small to midsize rooms) and at moderate volume levels, the YAS-101 delivers excellent sound quality for movies in a compact and affordable package. Add in the nifty remote feature and the no-hassle built-in subwoofer, and you're looking at one of the best all-around sound bars you can get for $250.