- Written by Gabe Lowe
- Published on 14 May 2009
There has been a huge boom, over the last few years, in the number of devices for your A/V system that stream or play music. These devices include many things, from gaming consoles like the Xbox 360 to standalone boxes such as Yamaha's own MCX-2000. In the past year, we have been seeing these types of features creep into traditional consumer electronics components, such as Blu-Ray players and A/V Receivers. The Yamaha RX-V3900 is one such component. Yamaha really took a big step forward with this receiver, offering several ways to access your digital music collection. In addition to that, there are a multitude of other outlets for content you can access directly on this receiver, making it almost more of an entertainment hub.
Still, the RX-V3900 is a true home theater receiver at its core, and has plenty of great traditional receiver features as well. With all of these new features packed into the RX-V3900, would Yamaha maintain a high level of quality as well?
- Design: 7.1 Surround Sound Receiver
- Codecs: Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Digital+, Dolby TrueHD, DTS (ES, Neo:6, 96/24), DTS-HD Master Audio, Neural THX (US and Canada models)
- Power Output: 140 Watts RMS x 7
- Four HDMI inputs and Two HDMI Outputs (1.3a compatible
- Ethernet Connection for Local Network
- Built-in Video Processing, Scalable to 1080p
- Dimensions: 7.1" H x 17.1" W x 17.25" D
- Weight: 38.4 Pounds
- MSRP: $1,899.95 USA
As I mentioned at the top of this review, the RX-V3900 is, in some respects, a media hub. Yamaha has jam-packed this unit with various means of getting audio content to the receiver. Along side the traditional methods, you can also get audio from XM/Sirius Satellite radio, the Sirius internet stream, the Rhapsody music service, the vTuner internet radio directory service, your iPod, Bluetooth stereo sources (via A2DP), USB hard drive and flash drives, and from a network media server that supports the Windows Media Connect protocol.
Some of these sources require external components, of course. Satellite radio requires the proper tuner and antenna, depending on what service you have, as well as a subscription. For the XM HD broadcasts, the RX-V3900 includes Neural THX Surround processing for the full high definition surround experience. Rhapsody also requires a subscription, but can be a great service to have as it gives you access to a huge catalog of music to which you can listen on demand.
The iPod and Bluetooth functionality both require separate Yamaha parts. The YDS-11SL Yamaha Universal iPod dock enables iPod integration. It supports all current iPod types (not including the iPhone or iPhone 3G). It allows you to listen and control your iPod from the receiver itself. You can use the on-screen GUI to navigate your iPod library, or you can choose to leave that off if you just want to use the remote control or the iPod itself. Also available, and even more intriguing in my opinion, is the YBA-10 Bluetooth audio receiver. This device allows the receiver to accept wireless audio from A2DP enabled sources. At some point in the future this very well may become a standard in A/V Receivers, and has already penetrated the car audio market. A2DP is pretty standard in smartphones these days (coming to an iPhone 3G near you this summer!), and is making its way into portable media players as well.
A2DP enables you to do a few very cool things. First of all, it allows you to stream high quality stereo audio signals wirelessly. This is, of course, the main point of the A2DP Bluetooth profile. Second, since A2DP is really just a way of proxying audio output from a given device, the audio is, of course, controlled from that device. This means that you select the tracks, playlists, etc. from that device, making it a very robust remote control. For example, if I have a Bluetooth adapter for my iPod, I can navigate my audio collection right on the device, yet listen to it over my home audio system. Third, and even more interesting, is that most PCs and all current Macs have the A2DP Bluetooth profile built in. The possibilities become endless as you can basically stream any audio from your PC directly to the Yamaha. A great example is the excellent Pandora Project. You use the Bluetooth A2DP feature on your Mac or PC to send the audio directly to the RX-V3900. Pretty nifty. Unfortunately, my review unit did not include either of these docks, so I cannot comment on how well they work in actuality.
Next up is the ability for the RX-V3900 to access audio files stored on a USB hard drive or flash drive. What is really excellent about this feature is the variety of codecs the Yamaha supports. These include WAV, MP3, MPEG-4 AAC, and WMA files that adhere to the supported sampling rates. The real benefit to this feature is the convenience if you do not have some type of network server that stores all of your music. I tested an old 256MB thumb drive I had lying around. I threw a few MP3 tracks on there, popped it in the USB connector found under the door on the front of the receiver, and was listening in seconds.
The folder structure supported is good too, as you can have sub-directories (which you normally find when ripping CDs with iTunes or Windows Media Player). Another benefit to this feature would be if you have an MP3 player that supports USB Mass Storage Device mode. That way, you can simply plug it in and see the files laid out as you would a USB hard drive.
Last, but certainly not least, is the ability to connect to a server that supports the Windows Media Connect protocol. This includes dozens of services, such as Orb, Twonkey, TVersity and Windows Media Player 11 (built into Vista and the forthcoming Windows 7). The beauty of this is that if you are already using one of these services, there is nothing more to set up! While not required, it is easiest to navigate your music collection with the GUI. You must select the PC/MCX option under the "input select" menu. Oddly, there is not a hard button on the remote dedicated to this input. Once selected, you get a list of all available servers on your network. Selecting one, you will get the top menu that your particular service creates. For example, the standard Windows Media Connect service built into Windows Media Player 11 will show artists, albums, all music, folders, genre, and playlists. An Orb server may show something different, such as music, pictures, and videos (don't be fooled, the RX-V3900 will not stream video).
Each service provides a slightly different top level menu, some of which may even be customizable. For large libraries, playlists will be essential to ensure you don't spend a ton of time trying to locate specific music. While the Yamaha's media connect feature is superb, its implementation could use some enhancement. For example, I have a library with nearly 1200 artists in it. This makes for a lot of scrolling to get to the M's! The one nice thing Yamaha did as far as that goes is that if you hold down the down or up button on the remote, after a couple of seconds it will start jumping by page instead of one at a time. Better, but I would rather see the ability to jump to a given letter quickly, or something similar. As of the latest firmware update, you will also get album art on screen if it is included with the audio file being played. Another positive here is that if you are listening to a track and then switch to another input, when you switch back to PC/MCX, the track will pick up playing where it left off (assuming it is still available on the network, of course). Even with the shortcomings, I loved this feature of the receiver.
Folding down the front panel exposes some of the menu buttons and additional input/output jacks.
Showing that its roots are in music and audio, Yamaha has continued to add and tweak its surround field modes. Back when surround sound DSP modes were new to the industry, I was amazed at how they actually could make your audio sound as if you were in a theater or a jazz club. As time wore on, however, I realized that I didn't really want to listen to my music as if I were in, say, an echo-filled, noisy stadium. As I have said before, I find most of these modes gimmicky and rarely use them.
However, as this technology has evolved, levels of sophistication have been added, especially by Yamaha, that make some of these modes enticing once again. Each of the various DSP modes found on the RX-V3900 has its own subset of modes. The ones I specifically found useful were those included under the Live/Club and Classical headings. Many of the modes under these two headings are meant to faithfully recreate the acoustical characteristics of real venues.
Having quite a few live shows in my music library, I thought this would be a good test to see if the implementation here was useful or still gimmicky. I can actually say that for several of my recordings I truly did appreciate the effect, my favorite being the Roxy Theater setting. This particular Roxy Theater is the one located in Los Angeles, and holds around 450 people. While I can't vouch for the accuracy of the reproduction, since I have never actually been to that theater, I can certainly say that it did apply a small venue sound to my music, which was a perfect enhancement. The effect is subtle, but much more natural sounding than DSP modes once were. The Classical modes are pretty neat as well, as they include several famous European concert halls and even a church. I can honestly recommend at least giving them a try to see if they enhance your experience. Purists may scoff, but then again, these modes aren't really aimed at that crowd.
You will find all of the major flavors of surround decoding from both Dolby and DTS here, as well as Neural THX (US and Canada models only). This includes the latest advanced surround codecs, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. I was not able to test the receiver's ability to decode either of these formats, as I do not have any sources that will output them via bitstream, but it is nice to know they are there as more and more sources become capable of doing this. The RX-V3900 does include an analog multichannel audio input which allows you to take advantage of outboard decoders if you choose. This can also be useful since there are only 4 HDMI inputs on the receiver. Should you have a fifth device that can output surround sound via analog outputs, this would provide a solution. Still, as with nearly all HDMI-capable receivers, the RX-V3900 accepts multichannel PCM signals, which is how I was able to enjoy the high resolution audio soundtracks on my Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs.
The included RAV386 remote control unit is one of the best I have seen included with an A/V device in some time. With the huge number of universal remote control options available to home theater enthusiasts, it's no surprise that many manufacturers have skimped on their included remote controls, sometimes even with high end models. This was not the case here. Yamaha clearly intended to supply not only a functional remote, but one that excelled in several key areas.
First off, the main remote actually feels pretty good in the hand. The bottom has a slightly textured finish that prevents the remote from slipping out of your hand. There is also an indented groove in the bottom wide enough for just about anyone's finger, which allows the remote to rest perfectly in your hand while you operate it. The remote includes a backlight for the main area which glows a pleasant blue when the button on the left side of the remote is pressed. This illuminates the source keys (shown below), the directional pad, the volume and transport keys, the macro keys, and the small LCD screen. Should you not wish the backlight to come on at all, this feature is also defeatable. A second, smaller remote, is also included.
What does this LCD screen do, you ask? It has several purposes, but the biggest is that it is used to indicate what device and zone is currently being controlled, and what mode the remote is in. Of particular interest is the first point. You can switch between devices to control without changing the selected input on the receiver. Of course, this also means that you can program the remote to control several different devices. The receiver's manual (which is one of the best I have seen for a piece of home theater gear, by the way) includes a list of hundreds of manufacturer codes. The LCD screen is used to walk through the easy programming of these codes for a given source device. If necessary, codes can be learned from a source's native remote control as well. Finally, the remote can also be programmed to use macros, again made easier with the help of the LCD screen. As I said, it is clearly a well thought out remote control, one that I would be happy to use as my universal remote control had I not owned one already.
I unpacked the solid, 38 pound RX-V3900 and slid it into my rack. The two outlets, power cord, and speaker terminals are grouped in the right third of the back panel, while the remaining 2/3 encompass all of the A/V, antennae, and miscellaneous hookups, such as Ethernet, RS-232c, etc. Included in high end Yamaha receivers for some time now have been front effects channel speaker terminals (in this iteration, they are referred to as "presence speakers"). These speakers add ambient effects to the front channels, and are recommended for use with Yamaha's cinema DSP modes. In fact, they are even required in the case of Yamaha's new Cinema 3D DSP mode, which is meant to create a more enveloping, multidimensional sound field in your listening room. They are not part of the DTS or Dolby specs, so there aren't dedicated signals for these channels, yet they can potentially create a more enveloping sound field.
Also to note is that out of the box, this receiver is configured to drive 8 ohm loads. You can power 6 ohm loads (and down to 4 ohm for the front channels only) by booting the receiver into a special advanced settings menu and setting the impedance there. I like the idea of this procedure because the configurations and features found in the advanced menu, if used incorrectly, can potentially result in damaged equipment. By requiring specific steps to boot the receiver into this advanced menu, Yamaha has drastically reduced the possibility that an unknowing customer would randomly stumble upon one of these configurations and modify it inappropriately. Also found in this menu is the ability to update the receiver's firmware either over the internet or from a USB device. This was important for my review, which I will touch on later.
I cabled everything up, using mostly HDMI connections for my sources. One thing of note here is that the RX-V3900 can output to two HDMI connections, though not different sources at the same time. This is an excellent feature for those interested in using ithe receiver to control a second zone. I slid my rack back into place and fired the unit up. The front of the RX-V3900 features the traditional Yamaha orange LED display, with some red thrown in for various indicators. It is crisp and easily readable from a distance. There is a drop down door underneath the display that reveals some added inputs, and advanced controls. The calibration microphone jack is also located there.
Unlike the Denons and Onkyos, which employ the excellent Audyssey system for automatic calibration and equalization, Yamaha implements their own program called Yamaha Parametric room Acoustic Optimizer (YPAO). It works in basically the same fashion. You plug in the microphone, and begin the setup routine. It asks you to move the mic to the various listening positions (in advanced mode), generates a test tone, and then calculates distances, speaker sizes, proper equalization curve, etc.
The manual even includes a page dedicated to explaining how this system works in their implementation. The results were quite accurate as they have been with Audyssey, although the big difference was with the amount of time it took to run the calibration. For whatever reason, YPAO took much less time than it usually takes me to run the Audyssey setup. It got all of my distances correct, and even my speaker sizes. It did want to set the crossover level for my surround speakers a bit higher than I like (100Hz rather than 80Hz), but other than that I was ok with the rest of the settings.
The next step was to assign and label the sources. The advanced GUI of this receiver made the former quite intuitive, but as I have lamented about other consumer electronics devices in the past, entering text is a chore, making the latter tedious. Yamaha has introduced an interesting new twist on assigning the source components to the proper connections. The GUI has a table view that shows the sources (in their originally assigned names) on the left side of the chart, and the connection type appears on the top.
You navigate to a given box on the chart, which matches a component with a connection type. Once you select that box, you then choose which number of that connection type the component will occupy. For example, if you want to set your DVD player to use component input 2 and optical digital audio input 1, you would first move the place on the chart where the "DVD" source meets the "Component In" input. When you click "enter" on the remote or the receiver front, you then get a choice along the bottom of none, A, B, or C. After selecting the component input number, you then highlight the "Opt In" input on the same line for the DVD source, and select "1". This is an absolutely excellent way of selecting inputs. Not only is it exceptionally intuitive and easy to use, but it also shows you what inputs are already assigned so you don't have to go back and check which ones you have already used should you forget. This should become the standard for assigning inputs on receivers.
Next, I configured the video settings. The RX-V3900 uses Anchor Bay's Video Reference Series (VRS) technology for its video processing. It is capable of converting all analog connections to digital, as well as upscaling all video to 1080p for output over HDMI. My complaint here is that it seems these settings are universal, and cannot be applied on a per-source basis. That being said, I did set the system to output all video at 1080p to match my HDTV's native resolution. I left processing set to 'on' for all HDMI to HDMI connections (it is unclear from the manual whether it actually processes 1080p at all, but I believe it does not).
One positive about this receiver's video processing is that it will pillarbox 4:3 material for output to a 16:9 TV. This is nice for legacy video such as non-anamorphic DVDs and SD television programs, especially if the source component does not offer a pillarboxing feature. Rather than have to endure stretch-o-vision, you can actually watch content in its native resolution without reconfiguring your source or HDTV. Having the basics all set up, I was ready to explore the huge feature set offered by this receiver.
As is always the case, all the features in the world can't trump performance, and in the RX-V3900's case, they don't need to. It has been a long time since I used my trusty old RX-V992 as my primary receiver, but this one reminds me of why I bought a Yamaha in the first place. The audio performance of this unit was outstanding all around. Take this for what it's worth: I found myself listening to more music on this receiver than I normally do. The warm, dynamic sound is intoxicating.
In addition to the effects I discussed earlier, there are two modes that eliminate processing on audio signals, "straight" and "pure direct". They are basically the same thing, although the latter will also turn off some video circuitry in the receiver which is supposed to limit signal interference even more. Either way, the resulting audio is unprocessed, making it as faithful a reproduction of the originating material as possible. This is a real test of the receiver's amplifiers, which were awesome during the course of this review. I was able to drive my speakers quite loudly without any hint of distortion or clipping. All that resulted was crystal clear sound, no matter what kind of music I threw at it.
Yamaha includes a couple of features they call Adaptive Dynamic Range Control (DRC), and Adaptive Digital Signal Processing (DSP) Level. When engaged, Adaptive DRC modifies the dynamic range based on the current volume output level of the receiver. As the volume lowers, the range is compressed to allow for better night time viewing. This is an improvement on standard DRC because it is a gradual modification based on volume rather than simply having to set the DRC to something like "max" or "min". The Adaptive DSP function is interesting in that it actually modifies the values of the DSP program you have selected also based on volume.
Again, the intent here is to allow the DSP effects to work as intended even at low listening levels. I found it largely effective. I watch a lot of my shows late at night after my kids (and sometimes wife) go to sleep. I kept both the Adaptive DRC and the Adaptive DSP engaged all the time, and was pleased with the results. I was able to enjoy things like Fringe and Lost, which have many suspense filled scenes in which the volume goes from low to high very quickly. I didn't feel like I was compromising at all by keeping the volume rather low. These features worked as advertised.
I was pleasantly surprised by the video performance of the RX-V3900 as well. The Anchor Bay Video Reference Series solution found in this receiver did an excellent job at scaling video for output to my 1080p HDTV. I set my Toshiba HD-DVD player to output signal at 480i over HDMI so I could make full use of the receiver to both upscale and deinterlace the video to 1080p.
I began with a couple of scenes from the Director's Cut release of Stargate. My testing process started by setting the receiver's video output to "through" instead of "processing". This setting simply passes the 480i signal through to the television, which then scales and deinterlaces the video. After viewing a scene, I then set the receiver's setting back to "processing", and re-watched it. The differences were even more noticeable than I had anticipated. The scene at the beginning, in which they first unearth the stargate takes place in the Egyptian desert. With the processing engaged, the colors seemed more accurate, and the image overall had a much crisper quality. The harshness of the heat and terrain appeared more vivid with the VRS system doing its job. Next, I reviewed several clips from the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers. When the people arrive at Helm's Deep, there is a sweeping shot of the fortress city from above. With the processing engaged, it seemed more film-like both in terms of colors and clarity, as well as in terms of smoothness of the panning. A pan in film looks less smooth than one in video, due to the difference in frame rates, so a good deinterlacer will not introduce artificial smoothness to these types of shots.
I am glad to say that the VRS solution does not. The other thing that is apparent from the A/B tests was that images appeared much softer and less defined without the processing engaged. That may speak to the quality (or lack thereof) of the upscaler in my TV, but nonetheless, the VRS system once again made me a believer. Finally, I tested the performance of deinterlacing 1080i sourced material. For this test, I used both HDTV signals as well as a couple of HD-DVDs. I must say, that the differences between engaging the processing and not with these sources were extremely subtle, if at all noticeable. All in all, I felt the video processing portion of the RX-V3900 did a great job.
When you get into the price range that the RX-V3900 competes in, it is pretty unusual to find something that is bad. At the same time, if you are paying close to $2000 for a receiver, it should certainly be better than just "good". The RX-V3900, simply stated, is stellar. I was reviewing my notes from my testing period, and only found two real negatives. I have already mentioned the inability to set video processing at the per-source basis, which is far from a deal breaker.
The other thing I noted was that often times when switching between HDMI sources or skipping ahead on my DVR, the audio dropped out. It could not be brought back unless I skipped back again, or changed the volume level. This was a big deal to me, as I would not want to have to employ that workaround every time I fast forwarded a program on my DVR! I went to look for support on Yamaha's website, and noticed there was a firmware update (version 1.07). I quickly checked the installed version, and it was only at 1.02. One of the three main improvements/fixes in the firmware was to improve HDMI and iPod connectivity, and they were not lying. As soon as I applied the firmware update, not only did this problem with the audio dropouts go away, I found that this is the fastest HDMI switching in any receiver I have owned or tested. Problem solved and performance improved!
Now you also see why it is so nice to have the ability to upgrade the firmware on a receiver! If I were in the market for a receiver today, and this was in my price range, the Yamaha RX-V3900 would likely be at the top of my list. It's huge range of features and the incredible performance make it a true winner in the mid to high end receiver category.