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Yamaha YAS-108 review: Superior features and sweet sound from a budget bar

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Yamaha has been responsible for some excellent sound bars in recent years, and we were big fans of the $200 YAS-106. In 2016 it was one of our favorite sound bars for the money. A lot has happened in the two years since it was released, but the most important thing at the budget sound bar level can be boiled down to one word: Vizio.

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Yamaha YAS-108

The Good

The Yamaha YAS-108 offers clean, intelligible sound from a compact sound bar. Unlike competing models from Vizio, the speaker includes HDMI connectivity with support for 4K HDR video and DTS Virtual:X. The nonproprietary subwoofer out means you can add your own sub for more bass.

The Bad

Vizio's cheaper bars sound better. The lack of a separate sub means it doesn't perform as well with action movies or rock or dance music.

The Bottom Line

Although some cheaper competitors sound better for less, the Yamaha YAS-108 still offers excellent design, features and sound quality for a budget sound bar.

The performance of models like the Vizio SB3621N-E8 and SB362An-F6 is as good or better than the Yamaha for even more affordable prices. The new Yamaha YAS-108 has a lot more competition than earlier models.

The YAS-108 has a lot to offer -- sweet design, useful features like HDMI and dual Bluetooth connectivity, and excellent sound quality. It's a slicker package than either Vizio sound bar and is sure to attract its own fair share of fans. The Vizios are cheaper and sound better, however.

Of course, if you're in Australia or the UK the Vizio's aren't available there, so Yamaha's budget products like the YAS-108 represent the best of their kind. While pricing and availability for these regions aren't available yet, you can expect the price to be around the same as the YAS-107 it replaces -- AU$349 and £230, respectively.

Design

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Sarah Tew/CNET

With its low, flattened design, the Yamaha YAS-108 looks like a giant's tongue depressor. The 2-inch high sound bar is engineered to either sit flat on a TV stand or attach to the wall using the integrated keyhole ports. The speaker has an onboard gyroscope that optimizes the sound depending on whether it's positioned flat or vertically.

The YAS-108 includes twin 3-inch "subwoofers" plus two sets of dome tweeters and woofers with bass ports at each end of the bar.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

As an entry-level sound bar, there is no on-screen display, just a series of LEDs corresponding to the input selection and volume. It's less confusing than the Vizio's displays, but it still only makes sense at arms-length where you can read the legends. To the side of the readout are capacitive touch controls for source selection, volume/mute and power.

The remote control is a step up from almost every other budget sound bar out there, with actual physical buttons and a sensible layout.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Features

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Unlike Vizio's budget 'bars, the YAS-108 has HDMI in and outputs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Yamaha's features advantage over Vizio begins with HDMI in and out plus ARC, compared to basic optical-only on the cheaper Vizio bars. HDMI connectivity offers more flexibility than a simple optical connection because it adds the ability to switch between the TV's onboard sound (via ARC) and the direct connection from another device, like a Blu-ray player. HDMI CEC also enables you to turn the sound bar on and off with the TV remote.

The YAS-108's HDMI ports also promise compatibility with 4K HDR in its many-splendored forms, which should provide a small degree of future-proofing. In addition, the sound bar offers optical and analog inputs. 

Interestingly, the Yamaha can connect to two Bluetooth devices at once, though you can only play back from one device at a time. You need to stop one phone, for example, to play from the other, but the advantage is that you don't need to reconnect the second device each time.

Sound modes are something that Yamaha has prided itself on in the past, and the YAS-108 brings with it two standout modes: Clear Voice and DTS Virtual:X. Like Polk's Voice Assist, Yamaha Clear Voice is designed to give the bar an extra boost over tinny-sounding TV speakers. Meanwhile Virtual:X is designed to simulate surround from a small, single box. The Yamaha will decode both Dolby and DTS sound formats.

One handy addition to the YAS-108 is a subwoofer out. Unlike some other sound bars with proprietary subwoofers, the Yamaha's analog output allows you to add any sub you like.  

Performance

It was clear from the get-go that the Yamaha YAS-108 was a slam-dunk winner, but after so many incredibly good sound bars in the past we expected nothing less from Yamaha. The YAS 108 didn't disappoint -- its low price, great sound, swell looks and strong feature set sealed the deal.

The first thing you'll notice about the sound of the YAS-108 is the size of its sound stage; with movies the sound filled the entire front wall of the CNET listening room. The two movie sound options, "Surround" and "3D Surround" worked well, and 3D was the more room-filling option. Or you can opt out of surround and listen in stereo for greater clarity, the YAS-108 is, after all, a two-channel sound bar. "Clear Voice" processing boosted intelligibility somewhat, and "Bass Extension" added a little extra kick to the deep bass.

Still, if you watch a lot of special effects movies and want to make your room shake and quake, the YAS-108's built-in subwoofers might come up short. A pair of 3-inch drivers can only do so much, so stepping up to the YAS 108's bigger brother, the YAS-207 sound bar that comes with a separate wireless subwoofer, would be a worthwhile upgrade over the YAS-108.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

We certainly noted the lack of bass punch in the Master and Commander Blu-ray's naval battle scenes, the YAS-108 lacked the necessary muscle to convey the sounds of cannonballs blasting through the wooden ships sides. Otherwise the YAS-108 did a yeoman's job with the film, dialogue was clear, as were the sounds of rough seas, and as we noted before, this sound bar can project a huge soundstage.

With a quieter film like Ex Machina, the YAS-108 all but disappeared as we became immersed in the story of a tech CEO with a creepy fascination for humanoid robots. Subtle details like the claustrophobic atmosphere and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's score kept the tension up. The YAS-108 succeeded by not calling attention to itself, which is what we want from a sound bar.  

For comparison's sake we brought out a Polk Signa Solo sound bar, which we like a lot for the money, but it sounds like a sound bar. Which is to say, smaller, less powerful, less capable of delivering high energy home theater hijinx. The YAS-108 is in a different league.

Satisfied with the YAS-108's movie sound skills we turned to music, with jazz pianist Marcus Roberts' Alone With Three Giants CD. Reproducing the sound of solo piano is a real challenge for most sound bars, but the YAS-108 passed the test with flying colors. The piano's tone was spot on, Roberts playing dynamics were intact, and the bass weight of the lower octaves was respectable. Still, rocking out wasn't in the cards for the YAS-108; it's not a party animal.

We next compared the Yamaha against its most rabid competitor, the $100 SB362An-F6, and found that the Vizio was the more likeable on Mr. Tillman by Father John Misty, with better bass punch and a greater separation of instruments. The Yamaha performed well, but the Vizio offered better insight into the recording. 

Should you buy it?

For anyone looking for a budget sound bar without a separate subwoofer, the YAS-108 should be a top contender. The company's biggest "problem", in the US at least, is that the excellent Vizio sound bars are 50 to 100 bucks cheaper and the more "expensive" one includes a subwoofer. What Yamaha has going for it is slick design, excellent usability and the convenience of HDMI connectivity.

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Yamaha YAS-108

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Sound 7Value 9