More than any other sound bars available today, the Yamaha's high-end Digital Sound Projectors deliver a single-speaker home theatre solution without making too many compromises. The Yamaha YSP-4100 is one of the few sound bars that actually does a credible job of creating virtual surround-sound effects, and it has almost as many features (four HDMI inputs, analog video upconversion, automatic speaker calibration) as a standard AV receiver.
The YSP-4100 packs a tonne of features and performance into a single speaker cabinet, but you'll have to pay for it. It's currently selling for about AU$2500, which is much more than its competitors. On the other hand, it's a better choice than the step-up YSP-5100, as we found very little sonic difference between the two models. Yamaha's high-end digital sound projectors are excellent products for the niche they serve, but the YSP-4100's high price will keep that niche relatively small.
While it's not as big as the YSP-5100 — the only difference between the two is size and the two extra 1-inch tweeters on the 5100 — the YSP-4100 is still a hulking sound bar. It's thinner than some previous Yamaha YSP systems, it still comes in at a sizable 40.25 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-4100 can deliver single-speaker simplicity, but you'll have to plan ahead to really take advantage of the design.
Large footprint aside, the YSP-4100 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 that work together to reflect sound off walls and create a surround-sound effect. There's an LCD screen in the centre 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.
Though the YSP-4100 clearly has more functionality than other manufacturer's sound bars, it is missing a few features found on similar systems that cost much, much less. The YSP-4100'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-4100 — to utilise 3D functionality.
The YSP-4100 does have a basic graphical user interface for making adjustments, which is unique among sound bar home theatre systems. (Credit: CNET)
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-4100 features a basic, text-based graphical user interface (GUI), so you can make adjustments using menus on your HDTV. Aside from the YSP-5100, we're not aware of any other sound bar home theatre system that offers a GUI (excluding systems with a built-in disc player).
Along with the similar YSP-5100, the YSP-4100 offers by far the most connectivity of any sound bar home theatre system that we've tested. Most important are its four HDMI inputs, which should be enough for all but the most complex home theatres, and most sound bar HTIBs don't have any HDMI functionality.
The rest of the YSP-4100'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-4100 doesn't offer a mini-jack input, but it does include a wireless iPod dock.
You can assign inputs, and there are seven total "input labels", which creates plenty of flexibility for even complicated home theatres. (Credit: CNET)
The YSP-4100 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 theatre system, which usually maxes out around three.
In addition to the HDMI inputs, the YSP-4100 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.
Again, the YSP-4100 outdoes other sound-bar home cinema 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 theatre components can handle.
The YSP-4100 trumps competitors by offering more peripheral features, too. As we mentioned before, Yamaha includes a 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-4100, while you browse your music in your hand. We tested the dock 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 unit didn't have a direct line of sight to the YSP-4100. 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-4100 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-4100 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-4100 also includes an SW225 subwoofer.
Unlike most sound-bar HTIBs, the YSP-4100 includes a microphone for automatic speaker calibration, which is an essential feature since Yamaha's virtual surround technology requires careful set-up. The inclusion of an FM tuner is also a step-up over competitors that omit terrestrial radio options completely.
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-4100 has manual and automatic set-up options, but we didn't get very far with the manual set-up. It's pretty involved and no matter what we tried we never felt like we were actually improving the sound. Manual set-up 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 set-up instructions. To get the best sound we strongly recommend reading the manual, even if you're an experienced home theatre 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-4100 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 bounced 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-4100 also features Yamaha's Cinema DSP (digital processing), which is another way to fine-tune the sound balance to your liking.
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.
But the YSP-4100 failed to project sound far forward, out to the sides of our couch, two metres 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 space, but we've never heard sound come from behind us, as it can with traditional surround speakers.
The YSP-4100's dual-4.5-inch woofers make a fair amount of bass, so the speaker can be used without a subwoofer. That said, the included sub radically improves the YSP-4100's overall sound.
The Across the Universe Blu-ray sounded especially good, and the YSP-4100's clarity and resolution brought to life the Beatles songs used throughout the film. It was much the same with the Toy Story Blu-ray, and we noted that the dialogue, from Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) to Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to Mr Potato Head (Don Rickles) sounded great, without the artificial, processed quality we've heard from some sound bars. Imaging focus was exceptional, and remained so even when we changed positions on the couch — again, no other surround bar we've heard can match the YSP-4100 in that regard.
Ramping up the action with the Black Hawk Down Blu-ray didn't faze the YSP-4100 one bit. The clarity, even in the midst of battle and helicopter crashes, was intact. Dynamic range was lively, even after we turned the volume up. The YST-SW315 subwoofer proved its worth here, providing the visceral impact the speaker's twin 4.5 woofers couldn't muster on their own.
Acoustic music on Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's self-titled CD sounded quite natural. The soundstage, with Dolby Pro Logic processing, spread the full width of the CNET listening room. Hard rock, played just moderately loud, was less convincing. The blend between the Yamaha subwoofer and the YSP-4100 wasn't perfect, so rock music's mid-bass punch was in short supply. That's par for the course, however; sound bar speakers simply don't have the muscle to rock like larger speakers.
As much as we like the YSP-4100, it's an expensive speaker, and it gets a little more so when you add a subwoofer. For about the same price as the YSP-4100 you could get substantially better sound with a satellite/subwoofer and receiver combo. On the other hand, if Yamaha's high-end Digital Sound Projectors best fit the needs of your budget and living room, the YSP-4100 is the model to go with, as we found it sounded just as good as the more expensive YSP-5100.