Yamaha Multimedia Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Kim Wilson   
Friday, 01 September 2000

Introduction
With true convergence as the objective, Yamaha’s RP-U100 ($499) Personal Receiver is the first audio component to accept the audio signal directly from a computer (Mac or PC). It provides switching capability between the PC, a built-in AM/FM tuner and two other outboard components, such as a CD or MD player. I used the two-way acoustic suspension NS-U50 speakers ($129 per pair) that Yamaha designed specifically for the RP-U100. The YST-SW45 ($149) powered subwoofer rounded out the system.

Regardless of what happens to Napster or MP3.com, it is abundantly clear that our computers will be a primary gateway for distributing, receiving, collecting and storing music files. So it stands to reason that the audio systems that reproduce these files must be of a higher quality than they have been in the past. While many computers are outfitted with speakers, performance levels vary radically. Moreover, even decent speakers are limited by the computer’s internal soundcard.

The Yamaha RP-U100 effectively replaces your computer’s soundcard with an actual audio component that powers six-ohms speakers and delivers 30 watts a channel. While it isn’t an actual 5.1 system, it does include Virtual Dolby Digital (VDD) for an engaging sound field when viewing DVDs or playing video games mixed in the multi-channel format.

The magnetically shielded NS-U50 employs a 3.5-inch woofer/midrange and a one-inch dome tweeter. Rated at eight ohms, the cabinet, which measures 4.3 x 11.5 x 7.8 inches, is vinyl wrapped in a light wood grain finish, permitting the speaker to sit comfortably and attractively on any desktop. When placed on their stands, the speakers tip back slightly so they point directly at the listener’s ears.

The 70-watt YST-SW45 powered subwoofer is rated down to 30 Hz at 10dB and kicks out the bass. The chassis is quite large (approximately 9.5 x 14.5 x 21.5 inches), as it houses an eight-inch woofer, requiring some of your floor space.

The RP-U100 can be interfaced to a computer in several different ways, depending on what the computer has to offer in the way of A/V connections. The RP-U100 provides analog inputs via standard RCA jacks, and digital inputs using either coax or optical connections. The third and most often used hookup is via the USB port, which effectively bypasses the internal soundcard.

Due to RFI generated within the computer chassis, the analog audio signal reproduced by the computer’s soundcard can be seriously compromised. Keeping the audio bitstream in the digital domain by using the USB connection prevents RFI from entering the signal path. Yamaha has also initiated further safeguards to isolate RFI from audio signals within the RP-U100.

The USB connection is the only way to access the Application Software that controls the RP-U100’s basic functions, such as volume and input selection. Arranging the tuner presets, adding equalization and making adjustments to such parameters as delay, seating position and room size are all performed directly from the computer, using Yamaha’s proprietary software. The CD-ROM that ships with the unit provides only the PC version. The Macintosh version was recently added to Yamaha’s website and is simple to download and install.

There are two sets of auxiliary RCA input jacks for other gear; AUX2 also provides outputs for a standard tape loop configuration. Speakers attach to the pull-clip terminals on the rear of the RP-U100, which are only designed for small-diameter speaker cables. The dedicated subwoofer output plugs directly into the YST-SW45, eliminating a more complex speaker arrangement that would require an extra set of speaker cables. Antennas for both AM and FM reception are included with the unit.

The Software
There are seven DSP functions on the RP-U100, including Virtual Dolby Digital (VDD), which simulates a 5.1-channel system with only two speakers. It is used to decode any CD or DVD with a Dolby Digital soundtrack. (There are no provisions for DTS discs.) There are three sound fields programmed for sources with both audio and video content: Movie for non-Dolby Digital sources, Live for concert footage and Game for enhancing action-packed diversions such as Quake. Not being a huge fan of DSP effects on my music, I had a lot more fun using the remaining effects Hall, Jazz and Church on the computer’s regular binks and boinks as it opened and closed windows or scrolled down menu lists. AOL’s "Welcome, You’ve got Mail" sounded like a disembodied voice from the bowels of some deep, dark cave.

The front panel screen of the Application Software resembles the face of the RP-U100 and controls input selection and volume directly from the computer. The DSP screen is activated by clicking on the arrow inside the round button (that indicates the currently selected DSP setting) of the front panel screen.

From the DSP screen, clicking on Virtual brings up the rear speaker position screen that adjusts the placement of the "virtual" rear speakers. A pink noise generator allows you to hear the placement of the virtual surrounds in relation to the mains (actual speakers) and the seating position. Grasping the rear speakers with the mouse cursor, they can be moved in an arc and it’s possible to hear the relative difference. If you are not sitting directly between the two speakers, balance and imaging can be shifted to ensure a proper surround effect. Clicking on the Edit function (also in the DSP window) will open the graphic equalizer window, providing a nine-band, 12-step EQ. Up to six EQ settings can be programmed and stored for simple and fast retrieval. From the EQ screen, basic settings for the DSP effects level, room size and seating position are established. A more complex set of parameters defining surround delay and room reverberation can be set in the advanced mode.

When the Tuner is selected on the front panel screen, an arrow appears to the left of the Tuner button. Clicking on the arrow brings up a window with a small, vertically oriented Tuner scale. Clicking the red arrows at the top and bottom of the window selects a station, which is displayed at the bottom of the scale and on the front panel screen. Presets groups are displayed here as well. In fact, if you like to listen to the radio when you’re on the computer, the RP-U100 is your dream machine. It provides up to 40 presets in five groups. There’s even an auto preset function that searches for all the available stations in the area, then presets them automatically. Once stored, they can be rearranged according to your personal preferences. Each group could be your favorite stations that play a particular genre. Here is where you use the RP-U100’s internal memory. Up to 208 presets can be stored directly on the computer’s hard drive in any order that the user desires.

Except for equalization and surround parameter adjustments, most functions are easily accessed from the RP-U100’s "real" front panel, and since it was sitting just to my right on the desk, I used it instead of the software once I got all the settings adjusted.

Evaluation
The computer environment is especially interesting because of the variety of sources you can access, from CD to DVD to Internet Radio or MP3 files. So here’s a sampling of how the Yamaha RP-U100, NS-U50 and YST-SW45 fared on several of these sources.

Are people out there really using their computers to watch movies? I don’t know. For myself, I’d go to my home theater room for that. However, if watching DVDs on the computer is your thing, the VDD setting on the RP-U1000 creates a credible surround field. In fact, the sound is far more enveloping than the picture, which is only about five inches by three inches. (While it’s possible to fill the screen, the lower resolution essentially makes the DVD unviewable.) On playing ‘The Mummy’ (Universal), I found the VDD setting exhibited a very tight and localized center with effective ambient effects, providing a good sense of depth and space. The subwoofer was a critical factor, without which the soundtrack was thin and lifeless.

There has been a great deal of interest in the concept of "virtual" surround, but does it have merit? Under normal home theater conditions, I’d say forget the pseudo-surround and go for the full-blown multi-speaker array. It is far more realistic and dynamic. That said, the computer offers a completely unique environment. In most cases, the space is finite and adding speakers all around may be impossible or prove to be too cumbersome. More importantly, the speakers are generally placed on either side of the monitor, creating an extreme near-field positioning. A phantom center is more than adequate and the short distance from the speakers to the back of your head makes it possible to produce a convincing surround effect with only two speakers.

Using a system with this level of quality definitely heightens the game-playing experience. I actually felt an adrenaline surge as those ominous notes that foreshadow doom for ‘Tomb Raider III's’ (EIDOS) popular heroine Lara Croft rumbled through the jungle landscape. Using the Game setting, the shift in environmental effects could change the scene from one of peace to imminent danger quite effectively. Singing birds and chattering monkeys fill the soundfield, providing a realistic 360-degree setting. As you walk toward something like a waterfall, the sound gets louder and its location is easily identified. Playing one of these games with a real audio system pulls you right in the action and is thoroughly engaging. I received the game demo with some other software. What was going to be a five-minute evaluation turned into almost two hours of intense interaction that lasted late into the night.

The NS-U50s are very efficient, requiring a small amount of volume from the RP-U100 for a gratifying performance at any sound level. For instance, Sinead O’Connor’s new CD Faith and Courage is punchy and coherent. For the most part, the frequency response is smooth, a product of the sat/sub configuration, although I detected some instability in the tonal balance on the violins at the end of track 6, "Til I Whisper U Something." The NS-U50s demand a subwoofer, because without the YST-SW45, they were top-heavy and fatiguing.

When it comes to Internet audio, it’s a mixed bag. Like any good sound system, the severe flaws of poor source material are more difficult to tolerate. Browsing to worldclassrock.com, the Internet counterpart of a local Los Angeles radio station, the narrow bandwidth produced a muddy and scratchy signal with less fidelity than a car radio. The RP-U100’s internal Tuner provided a far more pleasing performance. Low bitrate files are, of course, poor substitutes for a well-mastered CD, although MP3s are quite enjoyable despite the data compression. For those that scoff at the MP3 format, get off the computer and listen to them using the RP-U100. Use a "real" audio component for sound and let the computer do what it does best…process data.

Conclusion
The RP-U100 is the real gem of this system, offering switching capabilities, EQ and DSP functionality to computer audio. For the price, performance and functionality, I could find no serious downside to this system. All in all, this complete system priced at $777 delivers clean, punchy audio, whether listening to a CD, watching a DVD or playing a video game.

Since the speakers, sub and receiver are sold as separate products, if I were to make a suggestion that would result in attaining higher fidelity, it would be to search out a different sat/sub system. However, the RP-U100’s 30 watts per channel will limit your choices, especially if the speakers are not very efficient. Still, the standard speaker terminals and direct subwoofer output makes this upgrade feasible.

As music downloads and streaming audio on the Internet become more prevalent, computer sound systems will continue to improve. We already see computer and consumer electronics companies bundling products together. More third-party alternatives are bound to propagate as well. I hope the next generation of PC receivers, including the successor to the RP-U100, contain 24-bit/96kHz digital-to-analog converters. In the near future, I predict there will be a wide variety of audio for PC products. In the meantime, high-end performance for the computer is rare. There is the extreme position such as Evett and Shaw’s Elan Loudspeakers and Flatt 50 Amp (see the review in the Audio Revolution archives), though for a far more modest price, this Yamaha system is about the best option I have come across for superior computer audio.
Manufacturer Yamaha
Model Multimedia Speaker System
Reviewer Kim Wilson





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