Fans of the 1984 Barry Levinson film The Natural (or the Bernard Malamud novel upon which the film is based) will recall an epic baseball story where the mythical Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) emerges as one the most versatile and naturally talented players the game has yet seen. Roy, we are shown, is not only a smokin’ hot pitcher but an astonishingly skilled hitter, too; in the world of baseball, it seems there’s nothing Mr. Hobbs can’t do and do well. Our review subject this month, Yamaha’s third-from-the top-of-the-line RX-V3900 ($1,900), is a bit like The Natural, too, because it covers all the key bases—sound quality, video performance, and overarching flexibility—with a kind of muscular grace. In short, this receiver has all the right moves, including a few I’ve not seen before from models in this price class.
Consider this AVR if: you want an A/V receiver that combines three essential qualities: natural and very refined sound quality, killer video processing capabilities (thanks to an onboard Anchor Bay/VRS video processor), and input/output options galore. The only drawback: this Yamaha offers options upon options in places other receivers don’t even have places, so you really must read the manual to have any hope of getting the most out of this baby.
Look further if: you need or want a receiver sufficiently simple that you can set it up purely through experimentation and trial-and-error—without cracking open the manual. Yamaha’s RX-V3900 isn’t particularly “mysterious” or hard to use and many of its functions are self-explanatory, but it is extremely rich in features; some serious manual study time will be needed in order to master them.
Ratings (compared to sub-$2K AVRs)
- User Interface: 8
- Sound Quality, Music: 9
- Sound Quality, Movies: 10
- Value: 9
- 7x140 watts per channel with Yamaha Digital ToP-ART (Total Purity Audio Reproduction Technology) amplifier circuits.
- Unused amplifier channels can be re-routed to serve three different purposes: to bi-amp main loudspeakers; to power front “Presence” speakers—a unique-to-Yamaha technology where supplementary L/R front speakers are positioned well above the L/R main speakers and are used control perceived image height; or, to power a stereo pair of speakers in a second zone.
- 7.1-channel analog pre-amp outputs mean the receiver can drive a standalone multichannel amplifier, if desired.
- Yamaha next-generation YPAO (Yamaha Parametric Acoustic Optimizer) automated room/speaker EQ system applies multi-band parametric equalization to support several processing options: EQ optimized for a single listening location; EQ optimized for multiple listening locations (requires additional measurements); or, EQ optimized, at user’s option, for textbook “Flat” response or for slightly warmer-sounding “Natural” response.
- Video Processing: Anchor Bay VRS video processor provides 1080p upscaling for all video sources (including component video sources) via HDMI.
- Tuners: the receiver is XM/XMHD and Sirius satellite radio-ready, with AM, FM and HD radio as standard.
- Networking features: receiver provides Ethernet connectivity, is DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) certified, and provides built-in support for Internet radio and for the Rhapsody music service.
- Bluetooth and iPod support: receiver supports optional docks for iPods and for connectivity to Bluetooth devices.
- Moving magnet phono input is a plus for vinyl fans.
- Supports all contemporary surround sound codecs including Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, THX Neural Surround, and Circle Surround II (licensed from SRS Labs).
- Provides extensive range of proprietary Yamaha surround processing modes, including five Classical music modes, five Live/Club modes, five general-purpose Entertain modes, six Movie modes, two Stereo modes, and two compressed music Enhancer modes.
- Yamaha describes many of these modes in terms of four key parameters: size of sound field space; vertical/horizontal balance (where the “vertical” component refers to ceiling reflections, and the “horizontal” component to sidewall reflections); front/rear balance (where “front” implies a greater “feeling of openness and depth toward the screen” and “rear” implies a “sense of envelopment and movement”oriented more toward the back of the room); and sound field atmosphere (which Yamaha describes on both a “Simple-to-Complex” axis and also a “Calm-to-Powerful” axis).
- Pure Direct mode shuts down all extraneous processing (video and audio) to maximize sonic purity.
The RX-V3900 has a two-tiered set-up structure. One level, called the “Advanced Setup” menu, uses front panel controls only to configure certain core functions that will likely only need to be adjusted once (for example, setting the impedance for the loudspeakers you’ll use). A second level, called the “Graphical User Interface” menu, offers a well-designed GUI to let you navigate through a very broad range of setup options—some of which you might want to reconfigure on the fly. In general, the GUI menu is well conceived and fairly easy to use, with a master menu that unfolds into multi-tiered “trees” of options presented in layered sub-menus. Graphics are quite good and help to steer you through the plethora of set-up and adjustment options at hand. Nevertheless, prospective buyers should be aware that there are (or can be) two catches. First, understand that this is a seriously flexible A/V receiver, which—of necessity—is fairly complex; in short, the sheer number of set-up/control options could be daunting or intimidating for some owners. Second, be aware that certain set-up procedures are not as logical as they could be.
Consider this anomaly as one example. Most of the RX-V3900’s inputs can and should be configured through a very handy I/O Assignment menu. The menu provides a list of (most of) the receiver’s available inputs, such as the Blu-ray or DVD player inputs, and allows you to assign audio and video ports to those inputs as desired (for example, you could assign HDMI port 4 to the Blu-ray player). But if you look closely, you’ll find the I/O Assignment menu does not allow you to configure the multichannel analog audio input. Only after poring over the manual (and doing some trial-and-error experimentation) did I discover that I needed to use an altogether different menu, called Inputs, to set up the multichannel analog audio input. Not an impossible problem to solve, but a puzzler all the same.
The good news is that the ultra-flexible RX-V3900 almost always offers a way for you to do what you want, but the bad news is the “right answer” isn’t always obvious or easy to find. The RX-V3900 poses just enough anomalies along the way to be confusing at times.
But one aspect of the receiver that’s not confusing at all is the well executed, next generation YPAO room/speaker EQ system. Unlike many such systems, this newest version of the YPAO system lets you choose between two fundamentally different EQ schemes. You can optimize EQ settings for just one listening position, or take more measurements and dial in settings that provide a best case solution for multiple listening positions at once. Either way, the room/speaker EQ system is a joy to use and gives audibly excellent results.
The RX-V3900 provides one of the better remotes I’ve yet found among AVRs in this price class. It has three things going for it: very effective backlighting (in brilliant blue) for all of the most commonly used buttons and switches, direct access buttons for every input that the receiver supports (a total of 16 in all), and a very complete set of listening mode control buttons. Realistically, no receiver with as many processing options as this one offers is ever going to be truly “dirt simple” to operate, but that said, I found the RX-V3900’s listening mode buttons made it a lot easier to narrow down my choices and to harness and enjoy all of the processing power on tap.
The RX-V3900 incorporates a VRS video processor from Anchor Bay and it performed extremely well on the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD, turning in a stellar performance on the disc’s extremely difficult jaggies tests, and film detail/moiré pattern tests. In fact, the VRS processor got very good-to-excellent on almost all of the tests, though its weakest area of performance involved noise reduction on static images, where test results, while good, were not the best I’ve seen.
But the benefits of the VRS processing also extend to high-resolution Blu-ray material. A practical test I’ve begun to use is the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Radio City Blu-ray disk, where I look to see how processors handle the small louvers on the arched ceiling of the hall and also the close-up details on Matthews’s and Reynolds’s faces. The processors in some AVRs give these details a smooth, almost film-like treatment but one that renders fine, small details just a bit indistinctly. But not so the RX-V3900 with VRS processing; it rendered the ceiling louvers and almost infinitesimally small details on the player’s faces with remarkable clarity and sharpness.
There are several aspects of the Yamaha’s core sound that are worth discussing, so let’s begin by talking about the purest mode of all; namely, the “Pure Direct” mode, which turns off superfluous audio and video processing. I tried the Pure Direct mode on multiple, high-quality CDs and multichannel SACD discs, and in each case came away impressed with the improvements I heard. Specifically, when I flipped on the Pure Direct mode, I heard deeper, finer low-level details that had not been readily apparent before, plus a marked improvement in presentation of imaging and soundstaging cues. As a result, everything sounded more three-dimensional and—as the name of the mode would suggest—purer, too (though not in a sterile, analytical sense). The bottom line, then, is that the Pure Direct mode is often the best way to go when you’re playing audiophile-grade records.
Next, let’s talk about the sonic differences made by using Yamaha’s next generation YPAO room/speaker EQ system. As I mentioned above, the new system lets you optimize equalization for either a single listening position or for multiple positions. In the Playback lab, a multi-position setup worked best, but the good news is that the YPAO gives you both options, so you can choose what works best in your room. Once EQ setup is finished (and it works like a charm), you’ll have to decide whether to use the “Flat” or “Natural” EQ settings (an option some but not all Audyssey EQ systems also offer). I found the“Natural” setting gave the smoothest, sweetest, and most believable tonal balance over all, though you should definitely audition both settings and pick what works best for your room/speakers. (The difference between “Natural” and “Flat” setting mostly involves upper midrange and treble balance, with the “Flat” option sounding noticeably brighter but also just a bit more “edgy”).
How does YPAO affect sound, and how does it compare with the characteristic sound of Audyssey systems? I would say YPAO generally smoothes and tightens up bass and lower midrange frequencies while also cleaning up small peaks and valleys in the system’s midrange, upper midrange, and treble response curves. The result, paradoxically, is a sound that’s at once smoother and more relaxed, yet also more open and intelligible—especially on movie dialog. In comparison to the Audyssey system, its seems to me that the YPAO system affords a slightly more lightly balanced, though also tighter and more focused, bass sound coupled with an every-so-slightly more forward midrange presentation that adds a subtle but welcome measure of dialog intelligibility. Differences between Audyssey and YPAO equalization are subtle, so that I’m hesitant to declare one system better than the other; both do a good job of helping to match your speakers to your room, which is the main point. I will say, though, that the longer I listened through the YPAO-treated system, the better I liked it.
Finally, we should discuss Yamaha’s many proprietary surround sound field processing modes, which are mostly meant to help synthesize believable surround sound effects when listening to stereo material. Here’s what I found. When stereo recordings contain a lot of recording venue sounds, it’s generally better to listen to them in their original stereo format or to use one of the traditional Dolby, DTS, or Circle Surround processing modes. However, when stereo recordings have more of a pure, “studio sound,” Yamaha’s sound field modes can sometimes yield significant benefits. For example, I used the Ludvig Berghe Trio’s Weekend [Moserobie], a fine jazz recording, as a test vehicle and discovered it synced beautifully and quite realistically with the RX-V3900’s Live/Club “Village Vanguard” setting. The setting gave the Berghe recording much greater three-dimensionality within the convincing acoustic setting of a famous jazz club. But keep two points in mind: first, Yamaha’s processing modes work with some recordings but not others, and second, you will always get best results by choosing surround modes that are consistent with the material you want to play (for example, a small chamber group might sound great with the Classical “Church in Freiburg” setting, but terrible with the Entertain “Sports” setting; you get the picture).
To appreciate the benefits of the Yamaha’s superior bass control, try watching the scene from 10,000 BC where the hunters stalk a herd of wooly mammoths. The scene is a low frequency torture test of sorts, because the mammoths’ footsteps emit loud, very low frequency thumps, while their grunts and groans are also quite low-pitched. It’s the sort of scene that can (and with many receivers does) turn into bass mush, but that the RX-V3900 masters with a nice combination of low-end power and clarity.
Yet the Yamaha’s powers of clarity and expressiveness are by no means limited to the bass region. To see what I mean, put on the “Out of Range” chapter from Déjà vu to take in the amazing trans-dimensional chase scene where Agent Dave Carlin (Denzel Washington) retraces the path a criminal took four days earlier while wearing ultra high-tech goggles that allow him to view the past as if it were unfolding in real time. The tension in the scene derives from three key elements: the sound of Carlin hurtling down heavily trafficked New Orleans streets in the present, overlaid with snippets of sounds that occurred during the criminal’s getaway four days ago, merged with an ominous, fast paced, and richly textured soundtrack that’s calculated to get your pulse racing.
If my description makes it sound as if the scene presents a tremendous amount of sonic information to process, that’s because it does. Nevertheless, the Yamaha does a masterful job of disentangling and clarifying the individual soundtrack threads, so that you can at once appreciate Carlin’s chaotic experience, while rising above it to follow the simultaneously unfolding past and present plots. It takes an elusive combination of power, clarity, and—oddly enough—delicacy and finesse to keep so many disparate elements straight even when all hell is breaking loose. And that difficult to balance set of qualities is, I think, precisely what the RX-3900 delivers and what makes this receiver so good.
While experimenting with the Yamaha’s “Pure Direct” mode (see comments under “Sonic Character,” above), I chanced to put on a multichannel SACD recording I know well: namely, the Conspirare choirs’ performance of Tarik O’Regan’s Threshold of Night [Harmonia Mundi]. Frankly, the recording is not an easy one to reproduce, partly because it is rich in subtle spatial cues that are hard to capture accurately, partly because the various sonorities of the sophisticated choral voices are even more subtle and more difficult to render faithfully, and finally because the choir’s almost shocking dynamic range can (and sometimes does) overload amplifiers and speaker systems alike when large, powerful vocal swells come along.
As I listened to my favorite track, the third movement of a composition called “Triptych,” I was bracing myself for a potentially bad outcome (because the piece provides huge, exuberant vocal swells that can overtax most systems). But to my pleasant surprise the Yamaha turned in an unexpectedly strong, muscular, and yet also delicate performance. Three things caught my ears. First, the three-dimensional cues that defined the size and acoustics of the recording space were beautifully handled and remained consistent despite huge swings in volume between loud and soft passages. Second, the Yamaha did a great job of teasing out one of the subtlest yet most distinctive characteristics of the Conspirare choir; namely, the uncanny if not downright eerie beauty of the choirs’ unison voices (the name Conspirare means “to breathe together,” and with good reason). Finally, I was wowed by the RX-V3900’s grace in handling the largest vocal swells. Granted, on the very loudest passages I could hear faint traces of compression setting in, but that’s much, much better than can be said of most AVRs on this challenging material. My point, really, is that the Yamaha maintains clarity and a natural-sounding presentation in the face of demands that would make many receivers “blow a gasket.”
Yamaha’s RX-V3900 is a highly capable A/V receiver that has earned my respect and admiration. It’s one of the two best receivers I’ve yet tried in the sub-$2k class. The receiver’s strengths are clear and natural sound, an excellent room/speaker EQ system, strong onboard video processing, and tons of flexibility. Built-in Internet Radio and Rhapsody functions make the Yamaha a great vehicle for discovering new music, too. Just remember that for best results, you need to read the manual (hey, it’s a small price to pay for excellence).
SPECS & PRICING
Yamaha RX-V3900 7.1 channel A/V receiver
Power output: 7 x 140 Wpc @ 8 ohms
Decoding formats: Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital, and Pro Logic IIx Music/Movies/Games; DTS-HD Master Audio and High Resolution Audio, DTS 96/24, DTS Express, DTS-ES Discrete and Matrix, and DTS Neo:6; THX Neural Surround, and Circle Surround II. Yamaha also provides 25 proprietary surround sound field processing modes.
Video inputs/outputs: Composite video (6 in, 5 out); S-video (6 in, 2 out); Component video (3 in, 1 out), HDMI (4 in, 2 out)
Audio inputs/outputs: Stereo analog (9 in, 5 out), 6.1-channel analog (1 in), 7.1-channel analog (1 out), moving magnet phono (1), digital audio (5 optical in, 3 coaxial in; 1 optical out), HDMI v1.3a Repeating/Switching (4 in, 2 out), XM satellite radio (1), Sirius satellite radio (1), headphone output (1), AM/FM/HD Radio tuner (1)
Other: RS-232 port (1 in), IR input/output (2 in/2 out), 12V trigger output (2), auto calibration mic (1), USB port (1), Ethernet (1 RJ-45 jack), iPod dock port (1)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 7.125” x 17.125” x 17.25”
Weight: 38.375 lb.
Warranty: 2 years parts and labor
Yamaha Electronics Corp., USA