Yamaha was one of the earliest and most successful players in the soundbar market, a category which has exploded over the last decade, with a myriad new models and brands trying their hand. One particular area of success has been with soundbars which link into a wireless multiroom ecosystem, such as, in Yamaha’s case, MusicCast. MusicCast brings streaming music and multiroom operation to any number of Yamaha products, including a number
of its soundbars. But this Bar 400 adds an additional development, called ‘MusicCast Surround’, using other wireless speakers such as the pair pictured in the image above. Let’s hear how it all comes together.
What a bemusing collection of logos adorn the modern soundbar! So many technologies. But let’s deal with the physicalities first. Yamaha’s Bar 400 comprises the main soundbar to sit in front of or below your TV, together with a wireless subwoofer to place wherever is convenient. The main bar is 98cm wide, but the more important dimension is its height, just 6cm, low enough to avoid covering either the screen or the infrared receiver of many TVs. And if your TV is wall-mounted it could sit on cabinetry below, or can itself be wall-mounted (although “some knowledge of building construction is required for safe installation”, suggests Yamaha, sensibly).
The HDMI connections are reasonably straightforward, as most sound will come to the soundbar from the TV, down the Audio Return Channel of the HDMI cable you use to link the soundbar to your TV. There are also optical and analogue minijack audio inputs as fall-back inputs for anyone without ARC on their TV.
You can also plug one HDMI source directly into the bar itself, and you should pick the source from which you’re most interested in getting the best surround effect, perhaps your Blu-ray player or games console. The Bar 400 is not a true surround device — it delivers 2.1 channels, so stereo plus the subwoofer — it can however decode 5.1-channel audio arriving via it HDMI or optical input, and has DTS Virtual:X on board which promises ‘3D surround’ playback with “sound not only from horizontal directions, but also from varying heights”. Interestingly there is also a plain non-3D ‘surround’ playback mode, in addition to plain stereo performance. But further, there is now MusicCast Surround (see panel), which offers the ability to add additional rear speakers for true surround, with the Bar decoding 5.1 signals and sending the rear information wirelessly to the rears.
You’ll also want to network the Bar 400 to activate the abilities of the MusicCast wireless multiroom platform which is built-in. This you can do by giving it a wired Ethernet connection to your network, or by using the iOS/Android MusicCast apps to connect it with your home Wi-Fi.
Once networked, MusicCast can deliver a wide range of online streaming services (right) such as Tidal, Deezer, Spotify (including free Spotify accounts these days), and internet radio. MusicCast can also play from music shares on your home network via DLNA, and it includes AirPlay 2, which integrates it nicely into Apple-based homes. Finally there’s Bluetooth for direct streaming from any device, though the MusicCast app can also play tunes from your device over Wi-Fi, which may give better quality. As a final trick, MusicCast can also send sound via Bluetooth, so you could extend the audio to perhaps a small speaker in an open-plan kitchen to better hear things as you prepare food, or to wireless headphones so you can enjoy movies and music late at night without disturbing the rest of the home.
So a lot going on, despite the Bar 400’s simple enough appearance. Let’s get into it!
The surprise when unboxing the single package is first how large the subwoofer, and second how relatively compact the bar! In fact the subwoofer is slim but tall, though could equally be lain down; it’s a bass reflex cabinet ported to the front with its driver on the right side, so will be best positioned to the right of a TV where the driver can fire into free space. Cabinetry couldn’t fully surround it without affecting its performance.
The bar, then, sits in front of or below the TV, low enough not to cover our low-slung Toshiba, though its reflective top was slightly distracting, and it lacks any infrared passthrough to allow TV operation through to a blocked IR receiver.
The connections are in two bays at the back, so cables pass easily under a TV leaving things nice and neat at the front. We plugged in Ethernet to give the MusicCast platform its easiest connection, a 4K Blu-ray player to its HDMI input, and an HDMI cable through to the TV. Power cables plugged in, we hit the power button on the squat little remote control, and on came the bar and subwoofer in unison.
The remote has an interesting design — volume buttons prioritised and large on the right, subwoofer volume on the left. There’s an implication that you might want to mess with the bass regularly, rather than set and forget, and we found this to be the case. A daytime National Press Club address on ABC HD gave us a good variety of speech to hear, and the subwoofer added a separated bass mumble under many of the deeper male voices, distracting enough that we preferred the bar alone in this circumstance. But as soon as we switched to more action-based content, with music backing, we raised it back up, keeping it around halfway or less. The Hank Williams biopic I Saw The Light was delivered to the bar in stereo down the HDMI’s ARC (only the new and still relatively rare eARC standard can deliver 5.1-channel audio this way), so we tried switching between those three audio options of Stereo, Surround, and 3D Surround.
The Stereo setting yields the cleanest sound, perhaps the best balance for speech-heavy material, yet it’s a strong sound, so good for music too,, not particularly box-bound or reduced as are many ‘stereo’ options on soundbars where higher driver counts are cut down for stereo. This is a stereo soundbar anyway.
But the first ‘Surround’ option doesn’t much mess with the central channel either, so that speech also retains its clarity with this setting, while music and effects are spread wider; it’s a good balance between size of sound and clarity of sound. The fine big band sound in the movie Whiplash sounded tightest, cleanest in Stereo or the very similar music mode; the Surround mode expanded the sound at the sole expanse of a slight bloom in the bass.
Up to ‘3D Surround’, which has an enormous tonal effect on the whole sound, hollowing out the centre, shifting and thinning speech, sometimes overemphasising elements such as the chirping crickets and later the rain during a porch scene which ‘3D Surround’ lifted from the background into unnecessarily prominence. The big band sounded phasey with muffled cymbals. Our preference was for the two simpler modes, but it’s easy to experiment using those big buttons on the remote make it easy to choose your own preference.
The lower two remote buttons need a little more attention — ‘Clear Voice’ and ‘Bass Extension’ can be turned on and off, and since the indicators on the bar aren’t visible from a seated position, you might leave them engaged when you don’t need them. It’s clearer in the app (see above) — and indeed the MusicCast app adds still more EQ options: Movie, Music, Sports and Games, along with easy toggle control of the others. Oddly the ‘surround’ option here disappears, but pressing it on the remote switches the app to ‘movie’ mode, so we guess they’re one and the same.
MusicCast devices can also be controlled by either Google Assistant or Alexa — you’re prompted to set this up when connecting to MusicCast. Using Google required registering with a Yamaha account, and the two-part request of “Hey Google, ask MusicCast to…”. It worked, but it was usually easier to use the remote control.
Or the MusicCast app. We’re MusicCast regulars from many past reviews, and we find it clear to use, easy to access our music, including high-res files to 24-bit/192kHz over the network, and online music. It’s even easy to get multiroom sound happening by joining MusicCast ‘rooms’ together.
The more music we played, the better we were impressed. We also resituated the subwoofer, better able to judge its positioning with music; its performance was tightened and integrated significantly by bringing it as central as possible, the wide side with the active driver facing forward and the port firing to the side. We’d pick a good box-speaker solution for musical accuracy, but we played many days of enjoyable Spotify through the Bar 400 without our ears objecting at all, something we can rarely say of soundbars.
Under the main app settings you can set up MusicCast Surround. This is a new development for Yamaha’s MusicCast wireless and multiroom streaming platform, which allows you to use other MusicCast speakers either temporarily or permanently as rear speakers, thereby delivering a true surround sound. Currently you can use either two MusicCast 20 speakers (as pictured below, with the bar), or a single MusicCast 50 (right), which would be positioned directly behind the listener, using its stereo speakers to produce rear left and right channels.
We’ve tried both options, and the twin MusicCast 20s give best results for spread of sound and for multiple listeners, but the one MusicCast 50 speaker works well behind a single listener. MusicCast Surround has perhaps its best advantage as a temporary set-up, because then you can use the two MusicCast 20s, say, as standalone wireless multiroom speakers in other rooms for most of the time, but if you’re having a special movie night, just move them into their rear positions in the lounge and it’s simplicity itself (a matter of seconds) to reassign them within the app as rears. Once the movie is over, you just press ‘release speakers’ and they’ll return to duty as standalone wireless speakers in those other rooms. It’s double functionality — real surround when you want it, wireless multiroom the rest of the time.
We were supplied two of the little wireless MusicCast 20 speakers, which we installed at equal distances beyond either end of our comfy sofa, and while we had to run mains power to each one, there were at least none of those long snaking cables that used to be required before we had the joys of wireless signal transmission, in this case from the Bar 400 to the MusicCast 20s (we gather this uses its own connection rather than your home network). From there on we enjoyed a great deal of movie fare, especially from Blu-ray where we could enjoy the proper 5.1-channel surround. And one thing was quickly clear — real surround makes a huge difference to the immersion of a good movie soundtrack. And not only with the blockbuster action movies; so of course we blasted out Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land sequence, its shells flying and bullets careening off her conveniently-positioned bangles, but the rear information also filled out the cityscapes of Blade Runner 2049, or the winds of Balmoral and halls of the palaces in Victoria & Abdul.
Highly versatile, loaded with MusicCast, unusually musical, expandable for surround, the Bar 400 proved an exceptional performer for its price.
Yamaha Bar 400 soundbar + subwoofer
Price (soundbar + subwoofer): $799
Options: MusicCast 50 speaker $599; MusicCast 20 speakers $349 each
+ Good sound for both movies and music
+ MusicCast streaming and multiroom platform adds a whole lot of ways to play
+ MusicCast Surround can add real rears
- Subwoofer positioning fairly critical for best integration with soundbar
Model no: YAS-CU408
Drivers: 2 x 25mm tweeters,
4 x 4.6cm woofers
Quoted power: 100W (no criteria quoted)
Inputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x minijack analogue,
1 x optical digital, Bluetooth, MusicCast
(includes DNLA, AirPlay)
Outputs: 1 x HDMI ARC, Bluetooth out,
wireless to subwoofer/MusicCast Surround
Dimensions (whd): 980 x 60 x 110.5mm
Model number: NS-WSW43
Subwoofer driver: 1 x 160mm
Quoted power: 100W (no criteria quoted)
Inputs: wireless from bar
Dimensions (whd): 180 x 417 x 405mm
Contact: Yamaha Music Australia
Telephone: 1300 739 411