The ninth wave

There’s an old sailing expression that the ‘ninth wave’ brings the height of the sea’s power — so has Yamaha delivered something equally powerful for its ninth range of Aventage receivers?

Yamaha’s ninth series of premium Aventage receivers has now arrived. And they’ve arrived with some interesting changes, including one that might alter the way you interact with your home entertainment equipment. The first one we’ve been able to examine is the Yamaha Aventage RX-A1080, which is right in the middle of the range.

Equipment
Before getting to those changes, let’s refresh our memories about the capabilities of this receiver. It is a seven-channel unit, providing a solid 120W per channel (into 8 ohms, full bandwidth, 0.06% THD, two channels driven). As is Yamaha’s long-standing practice, only the front two channels can be used with four-ohm loudspeakers. The rest — at least if you want to comply with the manual’s stated requirements — need at least six-ohm speakers.

The receiver supports the latest surround formats: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround and DTS:X. It is limited to seven channels plus a subwoofer. There are two subwoofer sockets, but the signal is the same to both. Nine sets of speaker binding posts allow you to have two speaker arrangements wired up and switch between them easily. The basic arrangements provided are 7.1-channel surround plus a second zone, 5.1.2 plus a second zone, 5.1 channels with the front channels bi-amped, or 7.1 channels with the front channels bi-amped. In that last case you’ll need an external amp to power the surround back speakers.

If you go for 5.1.2, the default arrangement is for the ‘.2’ channels to power Yamaha’s ‘Front Presence’ speaker positions. This uses a pair of speakers up high on the front wall, and these are used by Yamaha’s various DSP modes to help simulate different acoustic spaces. Yamaha has been providing this mode since at least the early 2000s. But in the settings you can change this to ‘Overhead’ for ceiling speakers, or ‘Dolby Enabled SP’ for those upwards-firing speakers that sit on, or are part of, your front speakers. The Atmos (etc.) decoder is limited to two height channels.

There are seven HDMI inputs, all supporting HDCP 2.2, Ultra-HD video, Dolby Vision and vanilla HDR and all that stuff. In other words, they’re all ready for whatever Ultra-HD Blu-ray can deliver. There are also composite video and component video inputs, but no outputs — the receiver converts these signals to digital over HDMI. It can scale them, as well as lower resolution HDMI inputs, all the way up to Ultra HD if desired. There are three HDMI outputs, one of which can be switched to Zone 2.

The receiver doesn’t have the fairly common front HDMI connection. Instead it has a pair of RCA sockets for a good old-fashioned analogue connection. I guess those who like to connect their digital camera to the HDMI input will be the losers, but I like the idea of having a readily accessible analogue input. Speaking of analogue, around the back is a moving-magnet level phono input.

And of course the receiver is a full network unit. It supports Spotify, Deezer, internet radio, playback of DLNA-compatible audio from the network, plus Apple AirPlay. And it works with Yamaha’s MusicCast multiroom system. The network connection is via wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi, with dual-band support and up to 802.11ac compatibility. Also supported: Bluetooth, with the AAC and SBC codecs available, though not aptX.

Changes
So what are the changes for the ninth wave? First, there’s a new remote control. A little thing, to be sure, but Yamaha AV receiver remotes have not really changed for something like a decade. The new one is slimmer, more like a European design. It feels good in the hand. The keys are backlit, lighting up when movement is detected.

Going with the remote is a change in input selection paradigm. For some years Yamaha has had a ‘Scene’ facility in its receivers. These group together input selection and a bunch of other settings. You can, for example, press the ‘Scene 4’ button on the remote, and the receiver will select, say, the CD input, choose Speaker Pattern 2, and invoke the Pure Direct sound mode.

To set up a ‘Scene’, you go to the input you want, make the settings you want, then press and hold one of the Scene buttons (e.g. Scene 4) for a few seconds. Other things that can be associated with a Scene are HDMI control, the HDMI output settings, surround modes, video settings, lip sync, various speaker settings and even volume level.

Two Scenes can invoke the same input. So, for example, you might want Pure Direct and two-channel sound for CDs played on your disc spinner, but Dolby Surround and all seven channels for Blu-rays from the same player.

So? Well, the remote control no longer has direct input selection keys for most of the inputs (it still has them for tuner, network, USB and Bluetooth). Instead it has a rocker for cycling through the inputs, plus eight Scene keys. This is really encouraging you to use the Scenes capability, otherwise you’ll be doing a lot of rocker tapping.

Second change: a major reorganisation of the on-screen menu system. It seems a little more basic than the old one, but it works. Initially, I thought the signal information displays had disappeared, but in fact they’ve just been moved around, including to the more immediate context-aware on-screen display.

Third change: Amazon Alexa. Provided for free with all 2018 Yamaha Aventage AV receivers is an Echo Dot. That’s the smallest of Amazon’s units for interacting with its Alexa voice system. I’ve set my home up with Google Home devices, so of course I’d prefer that Yamaha had gone that way instead. Nonetheless, this is potentially an exciting development: voice control of your high quality home entertainment system.

What can you do with Alexa? It allows you to control the MusicCast functionality by voice. You set up Alexa and sign up to the service. You install the Alexa app. Then after some other configuration (you have to enable specific Alexa ‘skills’) you can tell Alexa to ask MusicCast to do stuff, like set a volume in a named room, choose an input, play named music and so on.

Fourth change: Surround:AI.

Performance
Odd as it might seem for a review, I’m not going to talk much about the audio performance of this receiver. It worked pretty much perfectly. It did what it was supposed to do. I used two different sets of loudspeakers and both delivered sound quality that was first-class. The Atmos and DTS:X and Dolby Surround processing delivered sound to the ceiling speakers just as they ought. As I keep noting, while the ‘completist’ in me wants four ceiling speakers, in a regular room it’s really quite difficult to detect a difference in the sound field produced between two and four. In 5.1.2 mode this receiver easily delivers at least 90% of the effect of a 5.1.4 system.

Surround:AI
Now what was that about AI? New to Yamaha’s higher-end receivers this year is ‘Surround:AI’. This is a kind of automatic surround sound processor on steroids. The AI part is due to the way that the processor decides how it is going to treat audio. It analyses the signal and then heads off to Yamaha’s servers to look for scenes with similar audio profiles. Then it applies the same treatment to your sound that has been worked out for those references.

Distrustful person that I am, I prefer to select the appropriate surround mode myself. It’s especially easy with the Yamaha Scene system. So, can Surround:AI do better?

First impression: with high quality surround tracks on movies, there was very little difference between Surround:AI and just having Dolby Surround selected. There seemed to be a slightly wider left/right separation for sounds at the back of the room, but there wasn’t a huge difference.

Second impression: I used the walk-around-the-room track from an ancient Video Essentials DVD. That was weird. For two thirds of each circuit there was little difference from straight Dolby Digital. The other third? Between the right front speaker and the right surround speaker the voice had gobs of reverb folded into it, as though the talking man had wandered into a large reverberant room.

Third impression: stereo audio from the CD of Nirvana ‘Unplugged in New York’. A slight addition of stage depth, along with the applause being pulled out and placed up high to the rear, a bit like I was in the crowd.

Video processing
Yamaha generally provides different levels of video processing capability between different models in its ranges. As the mid-priced model, it scales up to full Ultra-HD. But there are limitations. First, if the video is being scaled, when you hit the menu key the resolution changes back to the input resolution before the menu is displayed. I used an LG OLED TV and that generally responds quickly to a resolution change. But many home theatre projectors can take five to ten seconds to switch. If that’s what you’re using, you may have to choose between not using the receiver’s scaling, or not using its on-screen menus, or just enduring some long pauses.

The upscaling of 576i/50 video content was excellent, with a surprisingly sharp image produced, without marked artifacts, and with near-perfect detection of film and video source. With 1080i/50 inputs, the performance wasn’t as good. In particular, it seemed to treat far too much film-sourced content as video-sourced.

Smarts
All the good stuff worked just as it should, including Spotify and Deezer. One thing I love about Yamaha receivers is that you can feed them a DTS signal ripped from a DTS CD and encoded to FLAC. The receiver decodes the FLAC then recognises the DTS within it and uses a DTS decoder. Most receivers just feed the decoded FLAC as PCM to their DACs, producing noise. (A lot of noise.)

Yamaha seems to have been quietly upgraded the digital audio handling of its receivers. This one now handles up to DSD256 (QuadDSD) and PCM in the form of FLAC, WAV or AIFF up to 384kHz sampling. That PCM handling is more convenience than a resolution advance because 384kHz/352.8kHz are downsampled to half that rate before decoding.

I set up the receiver using a Wi-Fi connection, but found that my 352.8kHz test tracks were breaking up, and even more so DSD256. When I switched over to a wired connection they played perfectly. Some of those high resolution tracks require impressively large bandwidths. In theory the throughput of Wi-Fi at 802.11ac standards ought to be higher than the 100Mbps Ethernet connection, but how it works will depend on your Wi-Fi’s performance and how busy it is.

You can exercise some control over the receiver via its built-in web interface, rather more utilitarian than in previous models.

Conclusion
The Yamaha Aventage RX-A1080 is a fine sounding, powerful and easy-to-use AV receiver fully maintaining the standards of this long-running range. 

Yamaha Aventage RX-A1080 AV receiver
Price: $2099

+ Very strong audio performance
+ DAB+ radio
+ You can talk to it!

- 4-ohms speakers only possible with front channels
- Poor 1080i/50 deinterlacing

Tested with firmware: 1.08
Rated power: 7 x 110W (8 ohms, 20-20,000Hz, 0.06% THD, two channels driven)
Inputs: 7 x HDMI, 2 x component video, 4 x composite video, 7 x analogue stereo, 1 x phono, 3 x optical digital, 3 x coaxial digital, 1 x USB (front), 1 x Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, F Type for FM/DAB+
Outputs: 2 x HDMI, 7.1 analogue output, 1 x 6.5mm headphone, 9 pairs speaker binding posts
Zone: 1 x HDMI, 1 x analogue stereo, assignable amplifiers
Other: 1 x Remote in, 1 x Remote out, 2 x trigger out, RS-232C, 1 x calibration microphone
Dimensions (whd): 435 x 182 x 439mm
Weight: 14.9kg
Warranty: Four years