Yamaha YAS-209 review: Great sound for TVs and music meets the convenience of Alexa
The YAS-209 soundbar is Yamaha's first smart speaker of any kind, and since its release last year it has remained one of my favorite soundbars, period. Yamaha chose Amazon's Alexa for its voice control, and the YAS-209 performs well as a smart speaker and sounds excellent with music, TV and movies.
It's not the cheapest soundbar available -- the Vizio V21 lacks voice control but is half the price -- but in my book the Yamaha's worth the extra money. Shoppers in the YAS-209's price range might well prefer the Sonos Beam for its multiroom chops and choice of Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple AirPlay 2. Neither the Sonos nor the Vizio match the Yamaha's sound quality, however.
The YAS-209 is everything I expect from a midpriced soundbar: ease of use, powerful output levels and an ability to replay both movies and music to a high standard. The fact that you can ask Alexa for a song -- and have it sound better than pretty much any smaller smart speaker -- puts it over the top. In the 12 months since its release I have yet to hear a soundbar that can equal the Yamaha for its mix of sound quality and features, and for this reason it deserves our Editors' Choice award.
The YAS-209 is available from Costco as the ATS-2090 and Yamaha says the two models are identical.
Little boxes on your sideboard
The Yamaha YAS-209 is a soundbar and wireless subwoofer combo incorporating two microphones for use with Amazon Alexa. Unlike such competitors as the Sonos Beam (which lacks a sub) and the Bose Soundbar 700, the Yamaha is not going to get Google Assistant in the future.
The main soundbar is approximately 37 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall, and I found it fit under a number of TVs without blocking the IR port. You can also mount it on a wall in the same horizontal orientation. The subwoofer, on the other hand, is a large box that houses a 6.5-inch bass woofer. It's a little more intrusive than the bar at roughly 16 inches square and 7.5 inches wide.
The speaker offers DTS Virtual:X for simulated surround effects from a single bar, plus a bunch of media-specific presets: Music, TV program, Movie, Sports, Game and Stereo.
Connections include HDMI in and HDMI (ARC) out, optical digital and Bluetooth . You can connect the soundbar to Ethernet and Wi-Fi, for Spotify Connect and Alexa support, though there's no AirPlay 2 or built-in Chromecast.
The soundbar comes with a larger remote than usual and the back of it is pleasingly concave. Given the small nature of the soundbar's LED display readout, the remote is one of the main methods of interacting with the soundbar; its button selection is suitably comprehensive and easy to use.
The soundbar doesn't use the Amazon Alexa app for setup, but rather the Yamaha Sound Bar Controller app for iOS and Android.
Big, spacious sound
There are several smart soundbars available now, but the closest rival to the YAS-209 is the Polk Command Bar. Both bars offer wireless subs, onboard Amazon Alexa and HDMI connectivity, so comparing these two is where I started. It's been a year since I reviewed the Command Bar and Polk's since done some fine-tuning, including adding Alexa multiroom music compatibility, and the Command Bar remains a fine speaker.
The two were well-matched sonically, especially with movies, but the Yamaha pulled ahead of the Polk with its DTS Virtual:X implementation and the improved bass output afforded by its larger sub.
At the start of my testing I loaded the 4K copy of Mad Max: Fury Road into our CNET reference player, the Oppo UDP-205. The opening scene's jarring mix of ghostly voices and gunning motors exploded into the room on the Yamaha. I found it was most impressive with the movie mode engaged, as it made the movie wrap around the listening area. The same scene was still enjoyable using the Command Bar, but the sub didn't slam quite as hard as Max fired up the Charger to escape the War Boys, and the effect of the swirling voices preceding it wasn't as pronounced.
With music there was a better separation of instruments with the Yamaha over the Polk and a broader stereo effect with the YAS-209 (in its Stereo mode). I did experiment with the Yamaha's Music mode but it added even more reverb to John Lennon's vocals during A Day In The Life and offered less separation between instruments. The Yamaha wasn't as bright as the Command Bar with the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1, although it sounded a tiny bit compressed once the chorus came in.
The differences showed up during Part II of the song, with the Yamaha subwoofer demonstrating better articulation when the raucous drum set and squishy bass synth kicked in. The Command Bar's sub sounded a little bloated in comparison.
I also compared it to the Klipsch Bar 40, which was intriguing at the time because it's constructed from medium-density fiberboard instead of plastic. First impressions were good, with the Klipsch offering plenty of insight into recordings. The Yamaha sounded more relaxed and confident with Queen's Don't Stop Me Now, however, and the tiny Klipsch subwoofer just didn't have as much headroom as the Yamaha. Movies sounded suitably dynamic on the Klipsch, though.
When it comes to how well a speaker can hear your commands, Yamaha told me that the secret sauce is better microphones. Even though it doesn't have a large array of mics -- only two total -- I found the Yamaha was able to hear me without my shouting even with the music cranked up. No voice assistant speaker is ever able to hear you 100% of the time, the Yamaha included, but I found it performed better than most speakers I've used.
Should you buy it?
If you have a blockbuster you're itching to see at home -- like the forthcoming Wonder Woman 1984 -- then the Yamaha YAS-209 will suit you well. It's also a toe-tapper when it comes to playing music. Though some may also consider the Sonos Beam, it's Yamaha's subwoofer that helps it pull ahead in terms of sound quality.
If you want to save a little money on an Alexa-powered speaker, though, it's worth considering the Polk Command Bar, especially if you can find it at $250. If there's only the usual $50 between them, I'd pick the Yamaha. It sounds better, it looks better and the microphones work more reliably when things get loud.