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Yamaha YSP-1400 review: Virtual surround sound on a budget -- with a catch

Lots of sound bars promise to create "virtual" surround sound from a single speaker enclosure, but Yamaha's Digital Sound Projector line have historically been the only models that can actually do it well. It's an impressive feat, accomplished by bouncing sound off nearby walls and furniture, but the catch is the pricing tends to start at $1,000, putting them out of range for most buyers.

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7.2

Yamaha YSP-1400

The Good

The <b>Yamaha YSP-1400</b> sound bar features the company's Digital Sound Projector technology that bounces sound off the walls in your room to create credible virtual surround sound. The system has built-in Bluetooth and an IR repeater, so it won't block your signals from your TV's remote control. There's also onboard decoding for both Dolby Digital and DTS. And its budget price is far below Yamaha's other Digital Sound Projector sound bars.

The Bad

Getting a true surround sound signal to the YSP-1400 can be difficult. While it does sound more spacious than a standard sound bar, it doesn't match the true virtual surround magic of Yamaha's pricier sound bars. And the lack of an external subwoofer means bass won't be quite as deep or powerful as systems with a separate sub.

The Bottom Line

Yamaha's YSP-1400 brings the company's Digital Sound Projector technology to a budget price point, but a couple of caveats keep it from being a standout sound bar.

That's what makes the YSP-1400 ($400) so compelling. It's a full-fledged Yamaha Digital Sound Projector, but for just a fraction of the price, putting virtual surround sound within reach of a buyer on a budget. It has a sleek piano-black cabinet and a solid set of features, including built-in Bluetooth and an IR repeater so the sound bar won't block your TV remote signals.

But some significant compromises keep the YSP-1400 keep it from being a completely recommendable surround-friendly sound bar. It's built to use your TV as a switcher, but since most TVs "dumb down" incoming audio to stereo, that means you'll miss out on most of the surround effects the Digital Sound Projector line promises. Even if you get the right surround sound signal to the YSP-1400, don't expect the full surround experience you'd get on the more expensive Yamaha models -- although it is more spacious than a typical sound bar. And without a separate subwoofer, the bass just isn't as deep or powerful, however it does have an output for adding one on your own.

The Yamaha YSP-1400 gets a lot right, especially the price, but buyers should be aware of the limitations that keep it from being a standout pick.

Design: Sleek and slim
The YSP-1400 may superficially look like a typical sound bar, but its design is actually pretty unconventional. Rather than a long speaker grille that fills the front panel, there's just a short grille in the center, covering up an array of eight 1.13-inch drivers. That array of drivers is the magic behind Yamaha's Digital Sound Projector technology, creating beams of sound to reflect off walls in your room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Also of note are the two legs holding up the bar, which enclose two 3.25-inch subwoofers. That mean there's no wireless subwoofer with the system, which is nice for minimalists looking to eliminate another box, but typically bad for making deep bass -- more on that later.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The YSP-1400 is a relatively short sound bar at 3.75 inches high, so you're less likely to run into the common problem of the sound bar blocking your TV's remote sensor. But even if its modest height is an issue, the YSP-1400 has you covered, as its IR repeater will send any codes the sound bar receives out through its back, ensuring they reach your TV set.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The included remote is a cut above most sound bar clickers. Its chunky size fits well in your hand, and important buttons like volume and inputs are nicely separated. Backlighting would be nice, but it's rarely offered at this price.

Features: Bluetooth and a handful of inputs
The YSP-1400's back panel has the standard assortment of inputs: optical, coaxial, analog, and minijack. Typically, that's plenty to cover a standard home theater if you use your TV as a switcher and connect its optical output to the sound bar.

Sarah Tew/CNET

However, it's not quite as simple with the YSP-1400. Most TVs "dumb down" incoming surround-sound signals to plain old stereo, which isn't much of an issue with a standard 2.0 system or 2.0 sound bar. But it's more of a concern with the YSP-1400, which promises a convincing faux-surround experience. That means to get the right kind of signal to the YSP-1400, you'll need to connect your component directly to the sound bar or you'll have to employ a more clunky workaround, like an HDMI switcher with an optical output.

Aside from physical connections, you can also wirelessly stream audio to the YSP-1400 using its built-in Bluetooth. There is compression with Bluetooth audio, so there is some sound quality lost, but it's less noticeable from a sound bar than a system with separate speakers.

There's also onboard Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, which are handy since the YSP-1400 promises a legitimate surround-sound experience.

Setup: Tricky to get it right

The YSP-1400's setup seems straightforward. For the best sound quality, Yamaha recommends keeping the YSP-1400 away from corners, but that's true for all sound bars. Like the more expensive YSP models, the YSP-1400 creates surround sound by bouncing sound off the room's side walls, so best results will be achieved when those walls are free of furniture and thick drapes.

There's no setup or calibration per se and the YSP-1400's one setup adjustment is easy enough to accomplish: the remote has "L," "C," and "R" buttons that are used to optimize surround effects when the YSP-1400 is placed on the left, center, or right side of the front wall, respectively. We had the YSP-1400 in the center, but when we tried the "L" and "R" settings we didn't hear much difference in sound quality or surround imaging.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The first hiccup occurred when we initially hooked up our Pioneer TV's optical digital output to the YSP-1400 and were disappointed with the surround sound. That's because our Sharp PRO-60X5FD, like most TVs, was downscaling the Dolby and DTS surround sound sound tracks from Blu-rays and DVDs. We ended up hooking the optical cable directly to our Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, which expanded the soundstage quite a bit. To get the best sound from the YSP-1400, hook up your satellite or cable box's coaxial or optical outputs directly to the sound bar, or use an aforementioned workaround.

We couldn't help but notice that the YSP-1400's dual down-firing 3.25-inch subwoofers incited rattles and buzzes in our TV stand. Removing stray remotes and other objects helped, but every now and then we heard bass frequencies that made our Pioneer display's backside plastic panel buzz. We could feel the subs' energy when we placed our hands on the heavy TV stand. We've heard similar buzzes and rattles with other brands of sound bars with built-in subs; sound bars with separate subs don't have this problem.

The YSP-1400's remote can separately adjust the left, center, right, surround, and subwoofer's volume levels. Pressing the "Ch Level" button initiates a series of test tones that play through the speakers, but, surprisingly, the subwoofer tone was significantly distorted. That level of distortion didn't crop up when we listened to music or movies, but it was strange to encounter it during Yamaha's recommended setup procedure.

Sound quality: Not quite surround, but bigger than stereo
The Yamaha's sound is clear and clean, but even with Digital Sound Projector technology, the YSP-1400 couldn't produce truly room-filling surround sound. Yes, it's big and spacious, with the imaging nearly reaching the sides of the room's front walls, but the surround effects didn't extend behind us like more expensive models. It did, however, sound bigger than Sony's more conventionally designed HT-CT260 sound bar.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The YSP-1400's UniVolume feature maintained a consistent sound volume, which worked well and is terrific for late-night listening. Bass output was adequate. The YSP-1400 didn't sound thin or lean -- but the Sony HT-CT260 definitely supplied deeper bass, and we attributed that to its separate subwoofer. When we checked out the YSP-1400's Clear Voice feature, we didn't hear any difference with it turned on or off.

With the "Avatar" Blu-ray, the densely mixed ambient jungle sounds were more detailed over the YSP-1400, but once the action heated up with the big helicopters, the HT-CT260's subwoofer oomph outpaced the YSP-1400's built-in subs. There was no obvious winner here -- the two sound bar systems had different strengths and weaknesses.

We also pitted the YSP-1400 against Vizio's ultrawide S5430w-C2 ($300) sound bar. Like the YSP-1400, the S5430w-C2 doesn't come with a separate subwoofer, but the S5430w-C2 measures 54.5 inches wide, while the YSP-1400's width is less than 40 inches. The Vizio was designed for use with 60-inch or larger displays, and the sound bar's size advantage allows the S5430w-C2 to produce a bigger soundstage than do the YSP-1400 or Sony HT-CT260. The S5430w-C2's bass fullness exceeds the YSP-1400's and nearly matched the HT-CT260's separate subwoofer. The S5430w-C2's clarity also surpassed that of the Sony and Yamaha systems.

With the YSP-1400's "Movie" and "Music" surround effects turned on, the sound bar created a wide soundstage, but the S5430w-C2 did a better job filling the CNET listening room. It also out-muscled the YSP-1400 with the battle scenes on the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray. After listening to a variety of sources, the S5430w-C2 was clearly the best sounding of the three systems.

Conclusion: Big soundstage from a small box, if you can make it work
The YSP-1400 has a lot of caveats up front. You need to find a way for your components to transmit a legit surround-sound signal to it, and even when you do, it may not deliver the full surround experience you're looking for. But if you can get past those hurdles, there's a lot to like from this stylish system that leaves a smaller footprint in your living room than most competitors.

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Yamaha YSP-1400

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Sound 7Value 7