Saturday, May 3, 2008

Yamaha RX-V1800 AV Receiver

Yamaha RX-V1800 AV Receiver 
Yamaha RX-V1800 AV Receiver 
Yamaha RX-V1800 AV Receiver 
Yamaha RX-V1800 AV Receiver 
Yamaha RX-V1800 AV Receiver 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

For as long as I can remember (although the time scale is questionable nowadays), Yamaha has been a strong player in the AV receiver game. While Yamaha is not really a "high-end" company mentioned in the same breath with the likes of, say, Krell, Classe, or Lexicon, it certainly pioneered the behemoth, all-in-one-piece- hernia-inducing monster AV receiver starting with the $4,499 RX-Z9 several years ago (Yamaha's latest, biggest, and baddest, the 11.2-channel RX-Z11, will appear in November for $5,499).

In light of all this AV receiver high-endness, it might be hard for an AVR that sits more toward the middle of the price range, as does the new Yamaha RX-V1800, to get some attention. Even though it's obviously not the most expensive AVR Yamaha manufactures, at $1,299 it's not the least expensive on the list, either. And lately, there's been some pretty hard-to-beat AVRs on the market for well under $1,000. That makes it pretty tough for a receiver to establish a reason for existence in that low four-figure price range.

It turns out that the RX-V1800 has plenty of things going for it, and maybe a few that are not so hot.

It takes all kinds
One of the things you get when you spend a little more on an AVR is inputs, and the RX-V1800 is not shy in that category. With four HDMI 1.3a HDMI inputs (and one output), this AVR is more equipped than a lot of current high-end pre/pros. In addition, there are three component video inputs plus six S-video/composite inputs – not to mention a boatload of optical digital audio inputs and outputs. It's also the least expensive Yamaha AVR with onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding.

The RX-V1800 is both XM-ready and iPod-compatible, which means you'll need to purchase an XM Mini-tuner and Home Dock as well as a Yamaha YDS-10 Universal Dock to make those features fully functional. The XM tuner integration is nicely done with song/channel info available on your TV's screen. It's even easier to navigate an iPod's audio menus from your TV, but for videos you'll have to go to the iPod itself to choose what you want to watch. While I wouldn't recommend it as a first choice for video viewing, thanks to the excellent upconversion in the RX-V1800, video from the iPod is surprisingly watchable on an HDTV.

Your zone of zones
Virtually every AVR near this price has some form of multi-zone capability. The RX-V1800 goes one room beyond the typical two-zone configuration by adding a Zone 3 output. That's nice, but what's really noteworthy is the flexibility of the multi-zone configuration. If you're blessed with a couple of extra amps, you can use them with the independent pre-amp outputs for Zones 2 and 3. If you don't have the bucks for the extra amps, the RX-V1800 is designed to let you hook up a pair of speakers in each of the two zones and run them using four of the AVR's internal amplifiers.

That's cool, but since the RX-V1800 is loaded with seven 130-watt amps, you might wonder how you could fire up a full 7.1-channel system playing 300 in one room while Grandpa is listening to his favorite AM talk radio station in Zone 2 and your daughter is listening to as much Hannah Montana as any human being can stand, the Jonas Brothers, and whoever else might be slipped in on the XM in Zone 3? The answer is that it depends on how you configure the AVR's multi-zone speaker priority settings. Give the zone speakers the upper hand, and you'll hear 300 in glorious 3.1-channel. Give the surround speakers the right-of-way, and the other Zone listeners will hear silence until the credits start rolling over Sparta.

The multi-zone capabilities are limited to audio only. That's slightly unexpected since a lot of the newer AVRs over $1,000 include the ability to send at least composite video to Zone 2 – a feature thats extremely nice if you plan on searching channels on the XM tuner from a second zone.

As I've found with other Yamaha AVRs, the amplifiers in the RX-V1800 are beefy and possess enough oomph to drive a complete 7.1-channel system pretty hard without getting harsh or running out of gas. That's doubly important if the other zones are cranking up the music, too. If you're more interested in ultimate theater performance rather than multi-zone distribution, you can set up a 5.1-channel system and use the spare pair of the internal amps to bi-amp your front speakers (if they're capable of being bi-amped, of course).

Out of the box, the sonic character of the receiver is warm, laid back, and easy to listen to, which is a tribute to the attention that Yamaha pays to the internal signal path and the overall construction of the chassis. The RX-V1800 arrived just in time for me to try out the copy of the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City Blu-ray Disc I'd just received. "Crash Into Me" opens with some beautiful guitar work that the Yamaha reproduced with great delicacy and clarity. When set on straight-through playback of the Dolby TrueHD signal (decoded and converted to PCM within my Sony PS3), there was nothing in the amplifier that got in the way of either the music or the sense of space that was captured during recording of the concert.

On a whim, I pulled out an old two-channel CD, Jennifer Warnes' The Hunter, which I hadn't listened to in some time. The RX-V1800 handled the pace of the vocals and instrumentation in "Big Noise, New York", keeping all the elements distinct and layered, proving that it can function without any excuses as an audio-only piece of gear. (In fact, Yamaha's "Pure Direct" mode, like that found in some other AVRs, is a nod toward those who want to extract the maximum audio from an audio/video receiver. When engaged, all non-essential video and audio circuitry is turned off, eliminating potential signal noise.).

There are two other audio items worth mentioning. One, I was very impressed with the quality of sound from the external XM tuner, especially when using the Neural-THX Surround mode. I've been an XM subscriber for quite some time, and since I normally listen to XM in the car, I'm somewhat desensitized to the less-than-optimal sound quality of satellite radio. But many channels, especially the XM HD Surround-encoded channels sounded quite good, both in terms of enveloping surround and fidelity. The second thing is the RX-V1800's Compressed Music Enhancer. While I didn't do a side-by-side comparison of a song on the iPod versus a CD, I will say that this sound mode did a relatively good job of mellowing out the harsher effects of lower-bit rate encodings.

Just one correction
At this point in the new millennium, it's hard to unearth an AVR that doesn't include some sort of built-in room correction technology. Yamaha's YPAO (I think I ordered Chicken YPAO at a Chinese restaurant the other day) circuitry isn't new. And I know you already guessed it stands for "Yamaha Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer." As it was with digital soundfield processing, Yamaha was early to the room correction party; as a result, you can find versions of YPAO in various Yamaha AVRs.

Whereas the room correction circuitry built into some other companies' AVRs is designed to compensate for multiple seating positions, YPAO takes its readings of the room (using the included microphone) from a single position. Not surprisingly, the entire process takes about a third of the time as it does with other systems. If you so choose, you can do three independent calibrations of the room: one each for "Flat", "Front", or "Natural", and each will have different crossover and equalization settings. As an added bonus, the RX-V1800 can memorize up to four system configurations including changes made to room calibrations and soundfield parameters. This means you can have Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear configurations or maybe Movie, XM, and iPod variations.

I know a lot of people who dislike automatic room correction because, in theory, you can manually set up a home theater system that will perform better than the one the AVR's built-in computer can configure – and I agree. But I also believe that there a lot of people who aren't as good at setting up systems as us finicky folk are. Actually, I thought that the YPAO in the RX-V1800 did a nice job of correcting the output of the system when the speakers were set up in generally unsuitable locations, which is what will happen in lots of homes.

For my money, the "Front" YPAO configuration did the best job. It equalized the output of the center and rears to match my front left and right Definitive Technology Mythos Four speakers. Even when I placed one of the rear channel Mythos Twos in a corner and the other up against a flat wall, the RX-V1800 was able to compensate by removing the boom in the back channel and adjusting the volume between the two rear speakers. Depending on the source material, the "Front" configuration was sometimes a little dry, though. In comparison, the "Natural" setup was more warm and full but lacked a bit of clarity. Both configurations benefited from a little tweaking of individual settings, proving that the human element isn't ready to be replaced just yet.

From a processing standpoint, the RX-V1800 lives up to Yamaha's tradition for including nearly every surround decoding algorithm in the known universe – and then some. In addition to all the usual flavors of Dolby and DTS, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, Yamaha provides a complete suite of Yamaha-specific digital soundfields, many of which were developed to enhance two-channel music by simulating playback in specific live environments (the Village Vanguard for jazz and several concert halls in Europe for classical music are just a few examples) These can be really fun and entertaining with the right source, or they can be disastrous. For example, when my daughter was playing her new Animusic 2 DVD (the Animusic DVDs, if you're not familiar with them, are kind of like a mix of Mannheim Steamroller and the Blue Man Group with some cool computer animation for kids), sounded great in the classical hall in Munich but totally awful in the church in Freiburg. One thing is certain, if you want to, you can spend days adjusting all the parameters – such as room size, liveness, reverb time, reverb delay, and etc. – for all the soundfields and decoder modes. It's a tremendous tool if you really get into it.

What's on the menu?
For all of Yamaha's advanced technology, I'm surprised at how the RX-V1800's on-screen menus, with their basic layouts and blocky lettering, are so uninspiring and dull. I mean, I've seen clock-radios with more glitz than this. On the other hand, the menus are straightforward and relatively easy to navigate. But it's definitely an area where Yamaha should invest some design time, if nothing else than to avoid its AVRs from appearing to be something left over from the 1990s.

There's nothing dull about the unit's video prowess, however. First there's the abundance of HDMI 1.3a inputs. More impressive, though, is the caliber of the built-in video deinterlacer. The RX-V1800 deinterlaces composite and S-video inputs and outputs a maximum of 480p over component. The resulting image is excellent in terms of both color and detail. Those same source inputs can be upconverted to 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p when using the HDMI output, but there's a greater amount of jaggies when you choose 720p or 1080i as the output resolution. The result is a small loss of visible detail. On The Fifth Element DVD, for example, early in the movie when Leeloo jumps from the skyscraper down into the layers of flying car traffic, the RX-V1800's 480p output – over both component and HDMI – looked smooth with plenty of detail and depth. 720p and 1080i upconverted video, on the other hand, had a slightly dirtier, less three-dimensional look.

As I mentioned earlier, I suspect this is the reason why it's possible to stand watching video from an iPod on a big screen. For grins, I downloaded and watched parts of an episode of "Monk" and an old black-and-white episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". I'm not ready to throw out my Sony PS3 and the various Blu-ray discs I have accumulated already, but the RX-V1800 did a surprisingly good job of making an image meant to be played on a tiny screen look good on a much larger one.

When you take everything into account, Yamaha's RX-V1800 is certainly worth the $1,299 price tag, especially when you match the number of inputs with the quality of the video processing, the multi-zone flexibility, and the wide variety of audio processing modes. Of course, you may not need all those options, in which case you could easily find an equally satisfactory choice in the sub-$1,000 category of AVRs. But if you're looking for something that's a little more full-featured, the RX-V1800 is definitely worthy of consideration.

Plenty of ins and outs, including HDMI 1.3
Very flexible multi-zone configuration
Excellent deinterlacing and video quality
Warm, laid back sound

Related Links...