Yamaha RX-V861 Receiver 
Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Sunday, 01 July 2007

With technology changing so rapidly, especially in the areas of high-definition content and flat panel displays, the rest of the consumer electronics industry has been forced to play catch-up. While many have stepped up, there are those who still seem painfully behind the curve. Well, the designers and engineers over at Yamaha haven’t fallen into that latter category with their new RX-V861 receiver. The RX-V861 represents the current state of the art, not only for Yamaha, but for receivers everywhere, with its seemingly endless array of features. The most important of these is its complete support of 1080p video through its HDMI inputs. When you consider that most receivers boasting the same claims as the RX-V861 cost upwards of two grand or more, the rather modest price of $999.95 for the RX-V861 makes it a relative steal in more ways than one, before even opening the box. However, like all things HDMI (and perhaps, more importantly, HDCP copy-protected), specs can be misleading and the reality is often painfully different than the hype. On paper, the RX-V861 seems pretty fantastic for the money, thus my excitement about doing this review.

Out of the box, the RX-V861 is pretty standard-looking for an AV receiver: it’s black, loaded with buttons and controls, has a large display and is about as visually appealing as most other receivers in its class. The RX-V861 measures in at 17 inches wide by six-and-three-quarters inches tall and another 17 inches deep. The RX-V861 is surprisingly lightweight at a bit under 30 pounds, which made it very easy to put in my main equipment rack, where it would be installed next to gear from Mark Levinson, Meridian and various players for all of the HD disc formats. This is the part of the review where the Yamaha PR people take a big gulp, but to be compared to the world’s reference gear, if only by proximity, and to be connected to the world’s finest 1080p sources is meant to be nothing other than the highest compliment to a receiver at this price point.

Turning my attention to the rear of the RX-V861, I was greeted by a menagerie of connection options. Moving left to right, I noticed the RX-V861’s XM Radio input, single optical audio out, three optical and two coaxial digital audio inputs. Next to the digital audio inputs are the RX-V861’s two HDMI inputs and single HDMI monitor out. Across the entire top of the RX-V861’s back panel are its analog audio inputs and outputs. The RX-V861 has a phono input and a full complement of preamp outputs, neither of which are usually seen in a lot of receivers in the RX-V861’s price bracket. The RX-V861’s analog video connections are below its analog audio section. The RX-V861 has three high-definition-capable component video inputs mated to a single component video out. There are also a host of composite and S-Video inputs for you. The RX-V861 has inputs for both an FM and AM antenna, as well as remote triggers both in and out. However, it does not have any RS-232 support for you Crestron/AMX users out there. Located along the bottom of the RX-V861 are nine plastic five-way binding posts. The RX-V861 is a true 7.1-channel design, but the back channels can be configured in a variety of ways, including the option of bi-amping. The additional two sets of binding posts can be used for either a second zone or for what Yamaha calls Extra SP. Extra SP allows for the consumer to place two smaller speakers higher up on the front wall, most likely in the right and left corners, to aid in creating a fuller, richer surround sound experience. Lastly, the RX-V861 has a hardwired power cord, as well as two 120-volt switched outlets.

Satisfied with the outward features, I turned my attention inward and to the RX-V861’s numerous internal power and decoding features. First, the RX-V861 has a rated power output of 105 watts across all of its seven channels via its ToP-ART High Current Amplifier section. It also boasts full HDMI 1.2a support, which isn’t absolutely the newest 1.3 spec (that was seen on prototype receivers from the likes of Sherwood Newcastle at this winter’s CES show), but is impressive nevertheless, given that it can decode multi-channel audio, such as SACD and DVD-Audio via its HDMI inputs, which makes connecting multi-channel sources, such as my HD DVD and Blu-ray players, rather easy. Keeping with high definition, the RX-V861 allows for full HDMI video upscaling from both its analog and digital video inputs through its single HDMI monitor out. The RX-V861 will upscale any video signal, be it 480i or 480p to 720p/1080i, as well as de-interlace native 480i content to 480p through its HDMI output. The RX-V861 will also pass a full 1080p signal through its HDMI inputs and output, provided your player can output true 1080p. As far as audio features go, the RX-V861 is ahead of the competition in a lot of ways with its upgraded DSP settings, including Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS-ES and DTS Matrix decoding. A word on DSP or Digital Sound Processing, for which the RX-V861 has 17 different programs: I find them to be mostly unusable, but in the case of the RX-V861, they are welcomed and often work exceptionally well, but more on that later.

The RX-V861 also has a compressed music enhancer setting, which goes a long way in cleaning up and improving the sound quality of poorly ripped MP3 and WMA audio files for those of you using an iPod or AppleTV-type of device. Speaking of iPods, the RX-V861 has an optional iPod doc (YDS-10), which allows you to navigate and control the content stored on your iPod via your monitor, provided it’s connected to the RX-V861. Again, the RX-V861 is XM satellite radio-ready and has several audio decoding features that better the quality and experience derived from such a format, including XM HD surround sound and Yamaha’s own Neural Surround. Lastly, the RX-V861 features an automated room EQ program called YPAO, which works in conjunction with a small microphone to aid in calibrating the RX-V861, giving you improved sound in seemingly any environment.

Which brings me to the remote. I honestly wish I could skip this part, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t warn you about just how disappointing the RX-V861’s remote is. Ten years ago, this remote would’ve cut the mustard, but by today’s standards, it misses the mark. For starters, it has no backlighting, which is a problem, considering that home theaters themselves tend to be dark by nature. The layout of the remote didn’t exactly speak to me, requiring me to turn the lights on to make changes to the system through the receiver.

The RX-V861 went out of the box and into my reference rack. Getting the RX-V861 into my rack was easier said than done, not because of the RX-V861’s physical constraints, but because of the enormous amount of rewiring it took to remove my reference Meridian and Mark Levinson gear. To say that the RX-V861 had its work cut out for it was an understatement. I first connected the RX-V861 to my Meridian in-wall speakers. For two-channel listening, I connected my new Paradigm S8s to the RX-V861’s zone 2 or speaker B binding posts. All speakers were wired via Ultralink’s line of reference cables. Next, I connected my Toshiba HD-A20 HD DVD player and Sony BDP-S1 Blu-ray player to the RX-V861 via single runs of HDMI cable, also from Ultralink. I connected my Motorola DVR and my highly customized Apple TV to the RX-V861 via component video and optical audio cables. Lastly, I connected the RX-V861 to my Sony 1080p “Pearl” projector via a single HDMI cable from the RX-V861’s HDMI monitor out.

With all of my gear locked and loaded, I began the process of navigating the RX-V861’s numerous onscreen menus and automated EQ software. Starting with the YPAO program, or automated EQ, the RX-V861 performed flawlessly. Yamaha’s YPAO program is simpler than my reference Audyssey EQ and not quite as robust in terms of absolute performance, but it worked quite well and improved the RX-V861’s sound dramatically. Next, I moved on to the RX-V861’s set-up menus, which was an exercise in patience. When reviewing, I rarely have to consult the manual for anything these days, but I was glad I had it handy, because the RX-V861’s menu architecture is anything but intuitive. Although it was in English, I felt as if it was written in a different language. Yamaha has a long way to go with the RX-V861 when it comes to ease of use before they can claim to be competitive with the likes of Denon, Sony or Marantz.

All in all, the entire process of integrating the RX-V861 into my system took the better part of two hours before I was satisfied enough to start my listening and viewing tests.

Movies And Music
Given Yamaha’s press hype on the RX-V861 and the fact that they tout their DSP software as highly as they do, I felt it fitting to give it a test run. I decided to forego listening to traditional stereo CDs, instead opting for ripped two-channel music through my AppleTV. My entire music library lives on several hard drives in my office and can be streamed wirelessly to any room in my house via my AppleTVs. I’ve ripped my entire collection in Apple’s own lossless format and have had great success with it, so I thought this to be a fair test of the RX-V861’s capabilities. With my new Paradigm S8s at the ready and the RX-V861 set to Enhanced Stereo, I began with Evanescence’s second album, The Open Door (Wind-up). On the single, “Call Me When You’re Sober,” Amy Lee’s vocals were exceptionally non-receiver-like, which is a very good thing. Her voice was full, rich and warm, with terrific presence and weight. Compared to other receivers I had on hand, all of which were at least three times the Yamaha’s price, the RX-V861’s sound fared exceptionally well and was even better than a few of the others, which speaks volumes about the RX-V861’s value. At insane volume levels, the RX-V861 lacked that last ounce of sparkle and air in the upper frequencies. However, that said, the sound was still very listenable and never became fatiguing. When the track picks up in both dynamics and complexity, the RX-V861 did an admirable job of keeping up. The guitars were bold, dynamic and free from nearly any signs of compression. The bass, while thunderously deep, was remarkably controlled, considering the RX-V861’s price. The bass never sounded sluggish or bloated, just not quite as resolute as I’ve heard from my reference rig or costlier receivers, such as my long-standing favorite, the Denon 4806. Still, I was most impressed, not only by the RX-V861’s sound, but by its Enhanced Stereo DSP. In fact, when I did throw on the actual CD, I found I honestly preferred the Enhanced DSP sound to its direct stereo counterpart. For the first time since installing my Meridian G Series, I have found a matrix surround sound mode that is very musically engaging. Amazingly, it’s inside a $1,000 Yamaha receiver.

Moving onto the track “Lithium,” it was more of the same. Again, Amy Lee’s vocals were pristine as ever and magic to my ears. The bass, again, was deep and steered free of overpowering the midrange, which was a tad aggressive and forward-sounding. I decided to punish the RX-V861 and throttled the volume for the stratosphere. The RX-V861 held its own in almost every way. However, at the extremes, the RX-V861’s treble presentation does flatten ever so slightly, as does the bass. Overall, there seems to be a bit of spatial condensing to the soundstage at extreme volumes. At normal listening levels, the soundstage is wider than it is deep and does a good job of keeping multiple instruments separated. One area where the RX-V861 shines is in its center image, which has a real sense of in-room presence you don’t usually hear out of receivers in the RX-V861’s price class.

Moving onto multi-channel music, I opted for an all-time favorite, Monster Music’s presentation of Peter Cincotti’s Live in New York (Monster Music). Let me start by saying the RX-V861 is a multi-channel music lover’s dream. On the track “Sway,” with the help of my new Toshiba XD-A20, the RX-V861 dished out a multi-channel experience that rivaled those provided by some of the best gear, both receivers and separates, that I’ve had in my system over the years. The sound was punchy, lively and extremely lifelike. The treble, especially the upper octaves of Cincotti’s piano, was sweet, robust and completely free of any digital compression or glare. The cymbals simply shimmered with all the air and detail I could ever hope for, especially from a sub-$1,000 receiver. The midrange was pure, natural and rife with emotion you simply don’t find in most of today’s receivers. The bass improved dramatically across the board, gaining in depth and impact and, most importantly, control compared to two-channel music. Beyond its individual attributes, the sound overall had a greater sense of purpose and rhythm through the RX-V861. It was as if the RX-V861 was having fun playing back Peter Cincotti’s live performance, which was an attribute I welcomed and frankly would pay a lot more than the RX-V861’s asking price to have. On the track “I Love Paris,” the musicality and rhythm of the RX-V861 was infectious. Regardless of volume, the RX-V861’s performance was simply toe-tapping fun. To say I got a truer sense of being there through the RX-V861 would be an understatement. The sound was live in my room and just wonderfully balanced throughout all the speakers in my system. Across the board, be it double bass or vocals, the RX-V861’s multi-channel performance was simply stunning. The surround sound presentation was bolder and more inclusive through the RX-V861 than with any other receiver I’ve encountered in recent memory. Where the RX-V861 failed to match my reference gear was in terms of absolute detail, resolution and air. However, the RX-V861 more than made up for that last one percent by being more emotionally involving than anything that came before it. If multi-channel music is your thing, you’ll love the RX-V861.

While I could’ve gone on ad nauseam with multi-channel music, it was time to test the RX-V861’s movie muscle. I kicked things off with the HD DVD presentation of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (Paramount Home Entertainment) starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. Before I get into the sound and image quality, I want to start off by saying that HDMI is the bane of my existence and I’m always skeptical of any manufacturer’s claims to have tamed the beast. That being said, the RX-V861 not only passed the 1080p signal coming from my HD DVD player flawlessly, it also switched between multiple HDMI sources without hesitation or hiccup. No other product in my experience, save the Radiient HDMI switcher, has managed such a feat so effortlessly. Getting back to the film, the sound emanating from the RX-V861 was excellent. Dialogue was clear and intelligible and remained composed in the face of sweeping action, such as in the church sequence. The bass, especially the thundering hooves of the Horseman’s black stallion, was epic, well-controlled and never threatened to become boomy, despite my efforts. The highs were well-mannered and appropriately sweet, giving just a hint of harshness at the extremes. Overall, the RX-V861’s sound was extremely balanced and poised, never attempting to be something that it’s not, thereby creating an overall sound that was lively, intense and extremely enjoyable. On the image side of things, the RX-V861 didn’t disappoint. Again, the HDMI switching worked without a hitch and the subsequent 1080p image being passed through the RX-V861 was equally impressive. I could not detect any image degradation with the RX-V861 in the equipment chain than with it out. Through the RX-V861, the blacks were deep and inky smooth. The skin tones, while intentionally whiter than normal in this particular film, were incredibly dimensional and textured, without appearing overtly so. The white values were superb and overall the RX-V861 maintained the HD DVD transfer’s terrific three-dimensionality.

I ended my time with the RX-V861 with Ridley Scott’s latest period epic, Kingdom of Heaven (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment), on Blu-ray. Again, the RX-V861 had no trouble with the HDMI switching nor did it seemed bothered by the stunningly rich 1080p image. Personally, I didn’t much care for the film, but the images contained in it were pretty spectacular. The RX-V861 did a wonderful job of presenting the sheer scope of the picture without adding any unnecessary artifacts or grain. The RX-V861’s video capabilities are rather impressive, given its price. The sound was equally impressive. Again, the RX-V861 is a multi-channel enthusiast’s dream. I’m not entirely sure what Yamaha is doing with their surround sound decoding. Needless to say, I really do like it and find it completely unique to their products. Truthfully, in direct comparison with the competition, the RX-V861’s surround sound performance seemed fuller, richer and simply more dynamic than anything else I had on hand. All nuances aside, the RX-V861’s way with multi-channel music and movies is rather eye-opening, because it’s just so involving and exciting. While some would argue that this “excitement” comes at the expense of fine detail and accuracy, I’d argue that it doesn’t matter, for when I sit down to listen to music or watch a movie, I want to be wrapped up in it and entertained. The RX-V861 may not be the most neutral-sounding nor the most resolving of receivers out there, but it still may be one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever heard.

The Downside
Take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt, for the RX-V861 is frighteningly good. That being said, I simply despise how utterly difficult it is to get to the good stuff. The RX-V861’s menus are horrid and painful to navigate and decipher. There’s no excuse for this, especially when some of the competition has menus that will literally walk you through the process, complete with illustrations on your screen, making the manual seem like a waste of paper.

The remote is crap. That’s it.

The appearance of the RX-V861 itself isn’t awe-inspiring, nor does it feel like the giant killer it truly is. The back panel and its connections are equally bad and extremely cramped, especially around the digital audio and HDMI inputs. Speaking of HDMI inputs, I would’ve liked to see at least one more, preferably two. While I’m happy that the RX-V861 has HDMI inputs, two simply isn’t enough given today’s high-definition-savvy consumer.

At pennies under a grand, the Yamaha RX-V861 is a bit of an enigma to me. On one hand, you have its performance, which is exceedingly better than just about everything at or near its price, but it’s wrapped up in this dated-ugly package that screams, “Move on.” While the RX-V861 may not be quite as adept with straight two-channel music, although Yamaha’s DSP settings do help, it’s the RX-V861’s way with multi-channel material I cherish most, for it’s just stunning. Throw in flawless HDMI switching and up-sampling and you have one hell of a receiver that is an absolute bargain. If Yamaha would work out its styling cues, menu architecture and daily livability, they would have an absolute sure thing and a strong endorsement from me for AVRev.com’s Top 100. All of this being said, is the RX-V861’s performance worth the hassle? Ultimately, it depends on the individual. I for one haven’t unplugged it yet.
Manufacturer Yamaha
Model RX-V861 Receiver
Reviewer Andrew Robinson
# of Output Channels 7.1

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