I love components that walk softly, bear modest price tags, and offer big performance; and since Yamaha's new $550 RX-V657 A/V receiver does all three, it's become one of the sweetest surprises I've encountered in a long time. This little A/V receiver is so good, not just for the money but in the broader sense, it makes me feel like an excited kid who wants to relate a gazillion important discoveries all at once. But instead I'll describe in an orderly way why the RX-V657 is one the best values in home-theater today. Let's start with the basics.
Today, most A/V receivers are fullfeatured and 7.1-channel; the 95Wpc RX-V657 is no exception, although its feature set is arguably more extensive than most. It sports the expected complement of Dolby and DTS surround modes, plus a broad array of proprietary DSP surround modes. Interestingly, and unlike most manufacturers, Yamaha allows enthusiasts to access and edit the internal parameters of its DSP modes—adjusting variables such as room size or "liveness," delay times, and other reverberation characteristics—to fine-tune their sound or to create new modes. Further, the RX-V657 is an XM Satellite Radio-ready receiver that, through addition of an optional XM "Connect & Play" module, lets users connect to the big "media server in the sky." Enticing though these features may be, the really big news is that the RXV657 sounds great.
In my system, the RX-V657 followed on the heels of Sony's terrificsounding flagship STR-DA9000ES receiver, and I didn't expect the Yamaha (or any other mid-$500 receiver) to come within a country mile of the Sony's gutsy, highly transparent sound. I was wrong. Though the RXV657 doesn't quite equal the big-dog Sony in terms of absolute clarity and raw grunt, the performance gap between the two is narrow enough that many listeners have a wide-eyed, "Ohmigosh-I-gotta-get-one-of-these" response to the Yamaha. And here's the kicker: Not only does the Yamaha's core sound offer plenty of transparency tinged with a hint of pleasing warmth, but its automated parametric EQ system manages to smooth inroom frequency response without mucking up the receiver's underlying clarity (a claim not many high-dollar AVRs can make). The net result is far more sophisticated sound than I've heard from a receiver at this price.
The Spruce Goose sequence from The Aviator [Warner Bros.] conveys both the exuberance and danger inherent in any first flight—especially one where a plane's developer has bet his future on a successful outcome. The director allows tension to build by focusing, first, on the elaborate startup ritual of Howard Hughes' gigantic, eight-engine Hercules flying boat. Anxiety builds as we hear the click of starter switches being thrown, the hard, percussive, bass-rich "pop" of exhaust pipes clearing their throats as the huge radial engines come to life, with the flight engineer shouting out engine status over the mounting din— "One's good. Two's good. Three's good…" The Yamaha caught this potpourri of engine sounds beautifully, thanks to its parametric EQ functions, which gave the system's lower midrange and bass an ideal mix of clarity, power, and extension. Later, when Hughes makes his all-or-nothing run at getting the Hercules airborne, the din of the engines, the thump of the flying boat's hull against the waves, and the terse voice of the flight engineer calling out airspeed data build to a richly-textured crescendo, which the RX-V657 handled gracefully, until the hull-noises abruptly cease and there is a sweet moment of decrescendo as the Hercules takes to the air for the first time. This ability to place you inside the action is what makes the RX-V657 so satisfying on films, and credit must go to the receiver's clearsounding amplifiers, which make the most of textural details, and to its parametric EQ system, which eliminates bass "bumps," smoothes frequency response, and maximizes midrange openness.
To ease video connectivity, the RXV657 provides composite and S-video to component video upconversion, and pass-through switching for two component video sources. Component signals switched through the Yamaha were essentially clean and noise free, though they showed just barely detectable softening of fine details; even so, the Yamaha passed component video signals as cleanly as receivers costing many times its price.
Good though the Yamaha is on films, what amazed me was its performance on music, whether playing multichannel material (DVD-Audio and SACD discs) or conventional CDs. Three qualities stood out for me: transparency, neutrality, and surroundsound imaging. I compared the sound of the RX-V657 to that of a very wellregarded, affordable two-channel integrated amplifier and discovered that it sounded every bit as pure and open, though the Yamaha of course offered more channels, more power per channel, a built-in tuner, and the expected battery of surround-sound decoders thrown into the bargain. To appreciate the RX-V657's transparency, try "I Could Eat Your Words" from Patricia Barber's Verse CD [Blue Note], first in stereo, and then with the Dolby Pro Logic II Music mode engaged. The track opens with the exposed sound of Barber's voice and solo piano, which— when properly reproduced—can make the singer sound eerily present in the room with you. Any good AVR can make this track sound "pleasant" or even "impressive," but it takes a better- than-good one to draw out its underlying realism—something the Yamaha did with nuance aplenty. While the receiver's various surround modes may sound slightly less pure than its unprocessed stereo mode, their clarity is more than sufficient to place Barber in your room, and with the added benefit of delicious wraparound imaging. This would be great performance for any AVR, but it is remarkable in one priced around $550. Sonic neutrality demands smooth, even frequency response, which the Yamaha helps your system achieve through its automated, seven-band YPAO (Yamaha Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer) EQ system. While the RX-V657 is not the first YPAOequipped receiver we've tried, it may be the first whose implementation passes muster by audiophile standards (earlier iterations worked as advertised, but they undercut clarity). Here, YPAO eliminates most audible room-induced colorations, while letting fine inner details and textural subtleties come shining through. While you might hear an ever-so-slight coarsening of treble textures with the equalizer engaged, this seems a small price to pay for getting rid of unwanted room resonance and for achieving less colored and better balanced sound.
Finally, the receiver helped my system deliver exceptionally believable surround-sound imaging, so that when listening to good multichannel stage mixes, as in Gary Burton's Like Minds SACD [Concord Jazz], I sometimes had the powerful illusion of sitting among the performers, hearing their instruments on either side of me (talk about listener involvement!). But the Yamaha also did a great job on more conventionally mixed multichannel recordings, helping my system cast a wide, deep soundstage with just the right touch of hall ambience. On David Chesky's The Girl from Guatemala [Anthony Aibel/"Area 31" ensemble, Chesky SACD], the acoustics of the recording venue were presented so convincingly I almost felt I could get up from my chair and walk out into the performance space. Unlike A/V receivers whose separate channels never quite gel into a cohesive whole, the RX-V657 is a champ when it comes to capturing a three-dimensional sense of place. I attribute this to the receiver's clear and easygoing sound, and to the ± .5dB precision with which it performs automated channel-level adjustments.
In fact, the RX-V657's superior automatic setup and equalization features (which include a system calibration microphone) make it one of the easiest-to-use and most foolproof receivers you will find. If doing your own A/V system setup is cause for high anxiety, this may be the AVR for you, because it can adjust itself to deliver audiophile-grade sound at the click of one simple menu item.
The Yamaha's FM tuner section is surprisingly good, too, offering high sensitivity and selectivity, low noise, and just plain good sound. But the receiver's XM Satellite Radio-ready capabilities add an extra twist. By plugging an XM "Connect & Play" module ($49.95) into your Yamaha and signing up for an XM subscription, you'll enjoy up to 130 channels of constantly refreshed, multi-genre content beamed down from outer space. Very cool. Two things to note about XM Radio, however, are that its thoroughly decent sound falls somewhat short of CD-quality, and that XM antenna modules require reasonably unobstructed exposure to the southern sky for best results (if your room has no south-facing windows, you can mount the antenna outdoors or experiment with indoor locations to find acceptable reception).
Yamaha's RX-V657 is, by a significant margin, the best-sounding affordable AVR I've ever heard, and I think it will leave many card-carrying audiophiles shaking their heads in disbelief. For those assembling their first highend home theater and multichannel music systems, this receiver makes a great place to start, offering value for money that will be tough to beat.