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Yamaha YSP-5100 review: Yamaha YSP-5100

OVR
8.1

Yamaha YSP-5100

The Good

Sound bar home theater system (no AV receiver required); best-in-class virtual surround processing and overall excellent sound quality ; four HDMI inputs; three digital audio inputs; analog video upconversion; wireless music streaming from an iPod with included adapter; wireless subwoofer kit included; Sirius-ready; FM tuner; automatic speaker calibration.

The Bad

Very expensive; doesn't sound appreciably better than step-down YSP-4100; doesn't support 3D video pass-through; no subwoofer included; much larger than many competing models; a true 5.1 home theater system sounds better.

The Bottom Line

The Yamaha YSP-5100 sound bar has an outstanding assortment of features and best-in-class virtual surround, but it's very expensive and doesn't sound much better than the step-down YSP-4100.

More than any other sound bar available today, the Yamaha YSP-5100 delivers a single-single speaker home theater solution without making too many compromises. It's one of the few sound bars that actually does a credible job of creating virtual surround-sound effects, and it's packed with almost as many features (four HDMI inputs, analog video upconversion, automatic speaker calibration) as a standard AV receiver. It's also a powered unit, so it may be bulky, but it's a more simplified approach than unpowered sound bars that require a separate AV receiver.

As much as we liked the YSP-5100, we ultimately have a hard time giving it an unequivocal recommendation. It's currently selling for about $2,000, which is much more than its competitors and doesn't include the price of a separate subwoofer--which many competing systems include. Furthermore, when we tested it side-by-side with the almost identically featured YSP-4100 ($1,700 street price), we found no appreciable drop-off in sound quality. Yamaha's high-end digital sound projectors are excellent products for the niche they serve, but we'd recommend buyers in this price bracket still go with the cheaper YSP-4100.

Design
Mainstream sound bars get sleeker and slimmer, but Yamaha's YSP-5100 is unapologetically big. Although thinner than some previous Yamaha YSP systems, it still comes in at a mammoth 47.25 inches wide, 8.38 inches high, and 3.5 inches deep. With that height it's unlikely to fit below your TV without blocking part of the screen, as it did in our test environment. The best bet is to have it wall-mounted, although you'll need to be clever about hiding all the wires that need to be connected to it. So yes, the YSP-5100 can deliver single-speaker simplicity, but you'll have to plan ahead to really take advantage of the design.

Large footprint aside, the YSP-5100 doesn't draw attention to itself. The majority of its front is covered by a matte-black speaker grille, with a strip of glossy black running along the bottom. Behind the speaker grille is Yamaha's unique speaker design, with a total of 40 separate 1.5-inch drivers and two 1-inch tweeters that work together to reflect sound off walls and create a surround-sound effect. There's an LCD screen in the center of the glossy black strip for volume level and other basic indicators.

The included remote is serviceable, although we found the button layout and tiny labels disappointing at this price level. Unfortunately the most important control, volume, is lumped in with two other commands (TV volume and channel); we would have preferred a large rocker button set off from the rest of commands. If you're spending this much on a sound bar HTIB, you owe it to yourself to pick up a quality universal remote.

Features

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Key features
3D pass-through No Subwoofer No
Remote Yes LCD display Yes

Though the YSP-5100 clearly has more functionality than any other sound bar we've tested, it is missing a few features found on similar systems that cost much, much less. The YSP-5100's HDMI inputs do not support 3D video pass-through, which means you'll need to run a separate HDMI cable directly to your 3D HDTV--and an audio cable to the YSP-5100--to utilize 3D functionality. We don't consider it a huge loss, since 3D is still in its infancy and it's unclear whether it will take off, but it's a little disappointing considering units like the Panasonic SC-HTB10 ($200) and the Sony HT-CT150 ($300) both support 3D pass-through.

Unlike many less-expensive competitors, the YSP-5100 does not include a subwoofer--wireless or otherwise. The Yamaha's sound quality is good enough that you don't necessarily need one (more on this in the performance section), but nonetheless a sub would offer a significant improvement. If you want that improvement you'll have to purchase one separately, further driving up the expense.

Yamaha YSP-5100 graphical user interface
The YSP-5100 does have a basic graphical user interface for making adjustments, which is unique among sound bar home theater systems.

On the upside, we appreciated the front-panel LCD display, which makes it easier to make sound level adjustments and switch inputs. It's also worth pointing out that the YSP-5100 features a basic, text-based graphical user interface (GUI), so you can make adjustments using menus on your HDTV. Aside from the YSP-4100, we're not aware of any other sound bar home theater system that offers a GUI (excluding systems with a built-in disc player).

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">AV connectivity
HDMI inputs 4 Analog audio inputs 2
Optical inputs 2 Coaxial inputs 1
Minijack input No Max. connected ext. devices 7

Along with similar the YSP-4100, the YSP-5100 offers by far the most connectivity of any sound bar home theater system that we've tested. Most important are its four HDMI inputs, which should be enough for all but the most complex home theaters. Most sound bar HTIBs don't have any HDMI functionality, but it's worth pointing out that two much cheaper options exist: Sony HT-CT150 (three HDMI inputs) and the Panasonic SC-HTB10 (one HDMI input).

The rest of the YSP-5100's connectivity is generous, too. Three digital audio inputs along with two stereo analog audio inputs are enough to handle any older, non-HDMI devices you still have. We're surprised that the YSP-5100 doesn't offer a minijack input, but it does include the YIT-W10 wireless iPod dock, discussed later.

Yamaha YSP-5100's input assignment menu
You can assign inputs and there are seven total "input labels," which creates plenty of flexibility for even complicated home theaters.

The YSP-5100 also has a generous allotment of "input labels" (such as "HDMI 1" or "Aux 1"), allowing you to connect and switch between seven total devices using the sound bar. That's much more than a standard sound bar home theater system, which usually maxes out around three.

In addition to the HDMI inputs, the YSP-5100 also supports analog video and includes both a component video input and a composite video input. It's also capable of analog video upconversion, which means that analog video signals can be output over the HDMI output. Though there aren't many analog video devices left (mostly just the Nintendo Wii), it's a nice extra feature and allows you to make one less connection directly to your HDTV.

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Audio decoding capabilities
Dolby Digital Yes DTS Yes
Dolby Digital Plus Yes DTS-HD HR Yes
Dolby TrueHD Yes DTS-HD Master Audio Yes

Again, the YSP-5100 outdoes other sound bar home theater systems by offering a full suite of decoding for all major surround-sound formats, including both high-resolution formats: Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. One could argue that these formats aren't as important on a sound bar HTIB--where you probably can't hear the difference between, say, Dolby Digital and Dolby TrueHD--but it's still nice to know you're getting the highest audio fidelity your home theater components can handle.

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Other connectivity
Subwoofer output Yes Headphone jack No
iPod dock Wireless Satellite radio Sirius-ready

The YSP-5100 trumps competitors by offering more peripheral features, too. As we mentioned before, Yamaha includes the YIT-W10 wireless iPod dock, which in many ways is superior to the iPod docks offered on other HTIBs since it allows you to wirelessly stream music to the YSP-5100, while you browse your music in your hand. We tested the YIT-W10 with an iPod Touch and we were largely impressed; just stick the adapter in the Touch, select iPod as your source, and it works without any further configuring--you can even adjust the volume with your iPod. We didn't hear any significant sonic degradation because of the wireless transmission, although we did experience some drop-outs when the YIT-W10 didn't have a direct line of sight to the YSP-5100. As with all wireless products, your experience will depend a lot on the environment it's used in.

It's not included on the chart, but the YSP-5100 also includes 7.1 pre-outs, although it's hard to imagine anyone using them. Adding an amplifier and a separate speaker system--then just using the YSP-5100 as a switcher--eliminates nearly all the benefits of having an all-in-one sound bar in the first place. On the more useful side, the YSP-5100 also includes the SWK-W10 wireless subwoofer adapter, which takes some of the sting out of the YSP-5100 not including a wireless sub like many of its competitors.

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Additional features
Automatic speaker calibration Yes Virtual surround Yes
AM/FM FM Built-in disc player No

Unlike most sound bar HTIBs, the YSP-5100 includes a microphone for automatic speaker calibration, which is an essential feature since Yamaha's virtual surround technology requires careful setup. The inclusion of an FM tuner is also a step-up over competitors that omit terrestrial radio options completely. If you're looking for a sound bar with a built-in disc player, you'll have to check out the Samsung HT-BD8200 and the Philips SoundBar HTS8100.

Audio setup
The sound bar can be wall- or stand-mounted; we went with the second option for all of our listening tests. Since the speakers rely on the room for reflections, sound-absorbing objects such as drapes or couches can adversely affect the perception of surround envelopment.

The YSP-5100 has manual and automatic setup options, but we didn't get very far with the manual setup. It's pretty involved and no matter what we tried we never felt like we were actually improving the sound. Manual setup might be of more use to professional installers.

Yamaha no longer provides a printed owner's manual with its YSP speakers, but you get a CD-ROM with setup instructions. To get the best sound we strongly recommend reading the manual, even if you're an experienced home theater user. However, the basic Auto Setup routine is straightforward: plug in the included IntelliBeam measurement microphone, and initiate the Auto Setup program. It takes just a few minutes to complete. Before and after Auto Setup, the Dynamic Range Control will be set to "On," and since we want to hear movies with all of their sound intact we turned the DRC "Off."

Because each room's acoustics vary, the YSP-5100 offers a range of Beam-Mode settings. The main mode is "5 BeamPlus2" for seven-channel sources, and we also checked out "3 Beam + Stereo + 2", "5 Beam, 3 Beam + Stereo", "3 Beam and Stereo." All but the stereo mode bounce sound off the walls to generate surround sound. The surround modes all sound different, so we recommend experimenting with the Beam Modes to learn which sounds best in your room. The YSP-5100 also features Yamaha's Cinema DSP (digital processing), which is another way to fine-tune the sound balance to your liking.

Audio performance
Yamaha's YSP speakers use the company's best-in-class Digital Sound Projector technology, which reflects sounds off walls to create a surround experience without the back channel speakers. The technology also provides a wider sweet spot than competing virtual surround modes and devices; we heard convincing surround effects from other spots in the CNET listening room, not just the seat directly in front of the speaker.

On the other hand, the YSP-5100 failed to project sound far forward, out to the sides of our couch, 9 feet away from the speaker, or to the rear of our room. In the past we've played other YSP speakers in nearly empty rooms and heard surround that filled more of the room, but we've never heard sound come from behind us, as it can with traditional surround speakers.

The YSP-5100's dual 4.5-inch woofers make a fair amount of bass, so the speaker can be used without a subwoofer. That said, adding Yamaha's terrific YST-SW315 sub ($300) radically improved the overall sound. Of course the YSP-5100 will work with any brand of subwoofer.

We used the "Godzilla" Blu-ray disc to see how the YSP-5100 coped with heavy-duty home theater demands. This is the 1998 flick, and as soon as we heard Godzilla's thunderous footsteps off in the distance we knew the Yamaha was ready for action. Later, the sounds of the monster crushing cars and smashing hundreds of windows, as well as the screams of panicked New Yorkers in the streets, all had plenty of detail. The rainstorm that runs through so many scenes sounded realistic, too, which was all the more remarkable because a lot of surround bars make rain sound more like noise. The YSP 5100's clarity is closer to what we've heard from the best-sounding sound bars, like the unpowered Atlantic Technology FS-7.0, which doesn't even try to generate faux surround effects.

The "Pan's Labyrinth" Blu-ray movie demonstrated the YSP-5100's ability to render more-subtle details. When a dragonfly fairy buzzes around the bedroom, the YSP-5100 let us precisely follow its movements. Dialogue sounded natural, without any of the processing colorations we've heard from many surround bar speakers.

CD sound was also good, if not quite on par with what we heard from movies over the YSP-5100. Philip Glass' dense score to Godfrey Reggio's film "Koyaanisqatsi" starts with an organ playing low-frequency notes accompanied by a vocalist. Few sound bar speakers can play this music without sounding overdriven and distorted, but the YSP-5100 sailed right through it. The score's orchestral strings and synthesizers sounded gorgeous, with a soundstage that stretched from wall to wall. Rock music didn't have anywhere near the power we'd get from a good 5.1-channel speaker/subwoofer system, as you might expect.

We compared the YSP-5100 with Yamaha's smaller and slightly less expensive YSP-4100. The sound was nearly identical so we were hard pressed to hear much difference between the two. Maybe the YSP-5100 had a tiny bit fuller bass (from the larger cabinet) so the speaker blended a bit better with the YST-SW315 subwoofer. In any case, we can't recommend stepping up to the YSP-5100 on the basis of sound quality.

We really like the YSP-5100; it delivers remarkably good sound, but it's an expensive speaker, and it gets a little more so when you add a subwoofer. As always, audiophiles should note that you'll get substantially better sound from a full 5.1 home theater system, such as the Aperion Intimus 5B Fusion SD satellite/subwoofer system ($1,560) used with an Onkyo TX-SR507 receiver ($400).

OVR
8.1

Yamaha YSP-5100

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 8