Review: Yamaha neoHD Media Receiver/Controller

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Yamaha’s neoHD Media Receiver/Controller

Yamaha’s innovative neoHD Media Receiver/Controller acts as both a receiver and control system.


Dec. 24, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Yamaha’s neoHD line of products mark a departure from the company’s traditional audio video products. In the same way that the original MusicCAST was innovative in 2003, the neoHD represents a new way of looking at a surround sound receiver. The family includes the basic YMC-500 ($599), network-ready YMC-700 ($799) and the 2.1 package YMC-S2 ($799, includes a YMC-500). 

The neoHD is a bit difficult to place into traditional audio/video categories, because its primary purpose is not clear. Yes, it’s a surround sound receiver that does everything a receiver is supposed to do: merge, sort and output the stuff you plugged into it. It’s got 5.1 speaker jacks (small spring clips rather than large binding posts), built-in digital amplification and a back panel full of jacks. It does some digital audio decoding (Dolby TrueHD and DTS) and there’s an FM tuner. On the YMC-700 version you get networking (Ethernet and WiFi) which allows you access to your PC’s stored content, digital radio or Rhapsody subscription music service. You can add optional iPod or Bluetooth adaptors as well. 

If that were all, it’d be a cute little shoebox of a receiver, but a bit underwhelming these days. What the neo strives to be is a control system to keep all your components in line and snap to attention when needed. And do to it all simply. While all receivers of at least a moderate level are control systems of a sort, that’s the neo’s primary purpose. It’s as if the product were a Harmony remote with a receiver glued to its back. 

The comparison to Logitech’s Harmony line is more appropriate here than you might think. The neo takes your various components (plus its own media skills) and sorts them into activities much like a Harmony. DVD, Blu-ray, Internet radio, DVR, USB drive all get filtered through more general activities such as Watch, Listen, Play. Everything is accessed through a novel onscreen interface and controlled by an elfin remote, similar to the basic remotes that ship with most projectors. If, for instance, you wanted to watch a DVD, from the main screen menu (Watch, Listen, Play) you’d select the Watch icon. Next you’d see a screen with icons for all the video sources you have connected. In this case you’d select the DVD icon, which would switch the neo to the player’s input and turn the player on. Because the tiny neo remote can’t possibly cover all the controls of a DVD player, you press the Control button to bring up a virtual remote overlay on screen with all your player’s control functions (play, pause, fast forward …). Using the up and down toggle button, you navigate the virtual remote to control your player normally. Press the control or exit button to make the screen overlay disappear. The components are all controlled through a series of IR blasters in the back of the main unit. 

You’re probably thinking either “that sounds simple” or “that sounds complicated.” In fact it’s both. I like that it’s very logical and linear. I don’t like that it seems to add a lot of extra steps.  The point is it takes the logical decisions involved in setting up a control system or universal remote (including grouping activities and planning macro commands) out of the user’s hands and lets the neo do the work. I have to admire that. 

So how easy is the neo to use? Let’s start with setup. I first plugged in the 2.1 speaker system that came with the YMC-S21 configuration (I actually used the YMC-700 controller because I wanted to try the network features). The speaker inputs are merely the small clip style, not the binding posts you’d expect on most receivers these days, which means no heavy gauge wires. Then I plugged in each of my components into HDMI inputs and the TV to the one HDMI output. You get three HDMI inputs, so if you need more HD than that you continue with the two component inputs (all video is output via HDMI). Next I plugged the wired IR blasters into the back (you get four) and connected them to the IR receiver ports on the front of all my components and the TV. Then I turned the unit on and followed the instructions, which would allow the neo to control my TV and components. The process didn’t take long. 

At this time I used the included microphone for an automated speaker setup routine. I placed the wired speaker in my standard listening position while the neo sent out a series of test patterns to measure the room and set the speaker levels. Strangely, when the audio tests were done I needed to manually adjust the subwoofer level. The sub happens to have it’s own microphone input as well. 

Finally, since I was using the YMC-700 controller, I set up the WiFi network and downloaded a firmware upgrade (which got hung up on the first attempt).

The whole setup process actually took less time than I’d spent on any Harmony remote—and I’ve used most of them. A customer service rep told me the part of the setup process people have the most trouble with is hooking up the IR lines. 

As a control system, the neo does its job well. You select the activity you want from the onscreen options, drill down in the submenus to the right component, and the controller turns on all the products in the proper sequence. Where it sometimes gets hung up is on components that have complicated original remote commands. The neo remote just doesn’t do a good job managing the record, on-demand and widget commands of my Verizon FiOS box, and the onscreen virtual remote lacks elegance. You also can’t easily control the menu functions of the connected TV, because the only TV commands neo is interested in are on and off. 

I ran into a particular problem when I wanted to use the TV’s built-in antenna input rather than my Verizon box. There was no easy way to get the TV to switch from HDMI to antenna without picking up the original remote. The customer service rep suggested creating a phantom component in the setup routine, then teaching the neo remote the necessary commands. It’s a creative solution, but not satisfactory. 

On the networking front, the YMC-700 performed admirably when streaming music from my PC, Rhapsody or free Internet radio. It does not, unfortunately, stream any video. The addition of music services Pandora or Slacker and video sources like Netflix or Vudu would make it even more compelling.

Control issues aside, the neo is an audio component, so I spent a lot of time listening to movies and music through the YMC-S2’s 2.1 system. Yamaha’s Air Surround Xtreme audio processing did a good job of creating a wide and full soundstage from the two small satellite speakers and digitally-amplified subwoofer. While the process bills itself as a virtual 7.1 experience, don’t expect very dynamic surround sound effects. Yamaha’s own sound bars do a much better job. The jack pack includes speaker ports for surround channels, so I suggest you take advantage of them. 

Stereo music listening was good, but not extraordinary. Highs during some traditional Celtic music were a bit sharp, and a Yo Yo Ma recording lacked the texture his cello produces. I was, however, extremely impressed with the richness delivered from the Internet radio channels, probably owing to Yamaha’s compressed music enhancer processing. 

Overall, I think Yamaha is off to a good start with this product. The concept of changing a receiver to a control system at a moderate price is exactly what both the audio and control categories need. The interface could use a more fine tuning, and the remote could be expanded, particularly with a home button to take you directly to the main screen. Mostly, I’d like to see the neo idea built onto a higher quality receiver—one with more power, more inputs and more decoding capabilities. Multiroom would be great too. I’ll be paying close attention to this line in the future. 


AT A GLANCE
Specs:
> Dolby TrueHD, basic DTS
> Air Surround Xtreme
> Compressed Music Enhancer
> HDMI Auto Lip Sync
> Analog Video to HDMI Upscaling
> HDMI Pass-through
> Deep Color 30/36-Bit
> YPAO (w/Optimizer Mic)
> On-Screen Display
> IR-Learning Main Remote
> 802.11b/g Wireless (YMC-700)
> Ethernet (YMC-700)
> HDMI (3 In/1 Out)
> Remote Control IR Ports (1 In/3 Out)
> Dock Port (for optional YDS-11/YBA-10)
> USB Input (Photos, Music)
> Internet Radio, Rhapsody
> DLNA for Network Access
> iPod Music option
> Bluetooth Audio option
> 11.75” x 3.625” x 13.125”
> 7.9 pounds
> YMC-500 basic $599; YMC-700 network-ready features $799; YMC-S21 package (includes YMC-500) $799

Pros:
> Receiver acts as a universal controller
> Fairly easy setup
> Good audio streaming

Cons:
> Extra steps required for control
> Surround sound could be better
> No video streaming



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