While sound bars have been around since the end of the 20th century, it took a long time for them to kill off the horror that is the home theater in a box (HTIB). They require fewer wires, less hassle, and make a much smaller impact on your living space, so it's not a surprise that they're overwhelmingly more popular today.
The Yamaha YAS-203 sits right in the sweet spot between value and sonic prowess. This $350 (street) sound bar, available for £394 in the UK and AU$499 in Australia, expertly combines useful features with thoughtful design and, best of all, killer sound quality. It's an instant home cinema upgrade, and a cinch to set up.
Unlike the more expensive Yamaha sound bars and bases, the YAS-203 uses pseudo-surround to project a room-filling image, but it's a testament to the company's know-how that the YAS-203 is more convincing at creating surround effects than anything near at its price level.
Compared with last year's Editors' Choice Award-winning sound bar, the Pioneer SP-SB23W , the Yamaha has a better feature set, better movie sound, and is almost as good at playing music. If you're looking at buying a sound bar -- and not a sound base to put your TV on top of -- then the Yamaha YAS-203 now rules the roost.
The YAS-203 is basically the YAS-103 with a subwoofer thrown in, though the main unit features a subtly different design and looks more like a pill with its rounded end grilles. It's constructed of black plastic and can be wall-mounted or made to straddle your TV stand with the addition of rubber feet. If you don't want it to block your screen, then make sure you have at least 3.125 inches to accommodate the Yamaha's height.
One welcome inclusion is the dedicated input LEDs, one for each of the four inputs. Some competitors' products rely on different combinations of colors mean to convey this information, which can be confusing.
The bundled subwoofer is a solid box roughly 12 inches (about 30.5 cm) square, and actually feels more substantial than the one that ships with the more costly YSP-2500. It's a wireless model and comes ported with a 6.5-inch driver.
If there's a universal constant among budget sound bars, it's that the remote controls are on a par with chintzy garage door remotes. Thankfully Yamaha has put some thought into the clicker that comes with the YAS-203, with helpful pictograms and a logical arrangement of buttons.
For a budget sound bar, the Yamaha YAS-203 offers an unexpected number of features and in this manner thoroughly shames the equivalently priced Pioneer SP-SB23W. The first difference is that the YAS-203 supports both Dolby Digital and DTS, which automatically makes it better suited to movie playback over the Dolby-only Pioneer.
Being a 2014 sound bar, the Yamaha supports Bluetooth with aptX for better quality wireless connections. As far as wired connections the '203 includes a coaxial digital and an optical connection plus a pair of stereo RCA jacks.
The sound bar comes with a number of different sound-processing features including Air Surround Xtreme pseudo-surround processing, Clear Voice to boost dialogue, and a night mode called UniVolume.
If you somehow have a TV that is shorter than 3 inches and its IR port is blocked, the sound bar includes a feature we'd love to see in all sound bars -- a rear-mounted IR repeater. Genius.
The Yamaha YAS-203 proved itself to be an outstanding performer. Where most sound bars and 'bases struggle to produce some facsimile of a home theater surround experience, the YAS-203's soundstage was huge, with excellent depth.
It even projected sound forward into the CNET listening room when we played the "Gravity" Blu-ray. True, we had to be sitting centered inline with the sound bar to hear that wide staging; if we moved over to the left or right by more than 3 or 4 feet, the soundstage dimensions narrowed, just like with most sound bars. Ah, but when you're centered, the YAS-203's soundstaging abilities are better than most, including the Yamaha SRT-1000 sound base, which is awfully good in that regard.
We credit the YAS-203's onboard Dolby and DTS processing for some of its soundstaging superiority. Most similarly priced bars and bases make do with just Dolby, and a lot of movies are DTS-encoded. So rather than switch back and forth between PCM and bitstream when changing discs, it makes more sense to stay with PCM audio with most sound bars.
The YAS-203 allowed us to stick with bitstream for all of our listening tests, so it had an advantage over most bars. We're making a big deal about this because bitstream soundtracks tend to sound better than PCM. Some of our favorite bars, like the Pioneer SP-SB23W, only have Dolby, so the "Gravity" Blu-ray sounded smaller and more confined. Even when we used a Blu-ray player that can re-encode DTS into Dolby -- in this case the Editors' Choice award-winning Samsung BD-H6500 -- the sense of scale was still greater on the Yamaha.
Yamaha's Clear Voice feature, which promises to improve dialogue intelligibility, didn't make much of a difference. Its UniVolume feature did work well for nighttime listening, however, reducing soft to loud volume shifts. Both features can be turned on and off.
When we cranked up ZZ Top's "Live From Texas" concert Blu-ray to a satisfyingly loud level over the YAS-203, the sound was big and dynamic. For comparison's sake we popped on JBL's Cinema SB350 sound bar, and the sound was much brighter and harsher, making the JBL more fatiguing to listen to. Both sound bars can play loudly, but the YAS-203 handled high volume with greater ease.
Convinced about the YAS-203's home theater skills, we played a few CDs next. Two-channel music is a cruel test for sound bars; even some that sound good on movies turn harsh and undernourished with CDs. Not this time; the YAS-203 sailed through Annie Lennox's new "Nostalgia" album, her orchestral string accompaniment sounded sweet and natural. The Cinema SB350's more aggressive treble added an unpleasant hardness to the music.
Next, we exercised the YAS-203's subwoofer with jazz-rappers' Us3's debut album, "Hand on the Torch." The CD's supple bass plumbed the depths without sacrificing definition. Yamaha's SRT-1000's bass wasn't too shabby, but it reined in the soundstage dimensions, compared with the wide-open YAS-203. The Cinema SB350's potent sub also strutted its stuff on the Us3 album, but we still gave the nod to the YAS-203 for bass prowess.
Alas, the YAS-203 is still a sound bar, so don't expect it to fill a room as completely or sound as dynamically alive or natural as a 5.1- or 7.1-channel home theater system. But in a contest of affordable sound bars, the Yamaha YAS-203 sits at the top of the heap.
Unless you have a phone that supports aptX, you'll probably find that normal Bluetooth music sounds too raspy via the Yamaha. This is because the exact thing that gives the YAS-203 its intimate, breathy sound is the same one that exposes all of the problems with Bluetooth: namely upper-midrange distortion.
With some nifty features, attractive design and class-leading cinema sound, the Yamaha is an excellent value at its price point. If you want better music replay, go with the Pioneer SP-SB23W , or if you prefer a sound base, we recommend the Pioneer SP-SB03 . The Yamaha YAS-203 is enthusiastically awarded the CNET Editors' Choice Award.