REVIEW: Yamaha MusicCast multi-room audio system
If you have vague memories of Yamaha MusicCast, then you might be surprised to hear that this is a new thing, writes Stephen Dawson.
Yamaha introduced a network music system capable of broadcasting from a server to up to five clients way back in 2003. I reviewed the system at the time.
It was very expensive, home network infrastructure was not very good at the time and after a couple of years it gave up on the concept.
But, it still owned what must be the best name for a multi-room network audio system. With the renewed popularity of these things, Yamaha has re-entered the field with the old name, but a new system and some wrinkles that separate it from all the others.
What is it?
The system will be familiar to those who know about Sonos, Heos and MusicFlow and the like: network (and internet) music is made available via the network to various speakers throughout the home, each of which can be set to play specific music or grouped with other speakers. And it’s all controlled by an app on a smart phone or tablet.
But Yamaha’s system differs somewhat, primarily by the type of devices available on the system. There are the kind of compact devices typical of such a system. Then there’s a higher level of sound available from the NX-N500 powered stereo speakers and the YSP-1600 soundbar. A current model mini hi-fi system and a stereo receiver work with it. And finally, all of Yamaha’s current lineup of network-capable home theatre receivers supports it – a total of a dozen models.
For our look at the system we’ve got one of the WX-030 compact speakers, a set of the NX-N500 powered speakers, and Yamaha’s top of the line Aventage RX-A3050 home theatre receiver. These basically encompass the range from entry to the highest level.
The WX-030 is the baby of this trio. It isn’t exactly portable because it has to be plugged into power, but it is quite small and packs just two drivers: a tweeter and 90mm bass/midrange. A passive radiator is on the back. I thought this might be a problem for wall mounting (there are keyholes on the back for this purpose), but it seemed to make little difference to the bass performance.
This has only one connection apart from power: Ethernet. But there’s also built in WiFi and Bluetooth. The Bluetooth is both for receiving music and for sending. For receiving it supports the standard SBC codec plus Apple-friendly AAC, so iOS devices ought to have the best sound. For sending (to Bluetooth headphones, for example) it offers SBC only.
Next up are the NX-N500 powered speakers. These are proper, compact high fidelity speakers with built-in amplifiers and MusicCast technology. Yamaha says that they inherit ‘the precision of the classic NS-10M studio monitor’. They certainly inherit the overall looks (white cone on the bass/midrange, black metal grille over the tweeter) but depart significantly on the technology (bass reflex rather than sealed enclosure, formed pulp rather than folded paper cones).
Each of these bookshelf-sized units has two amplifiers of around 20W, one for each driver. The left hand speaker is the master – the Ethernet, analogue, optical and USB connections are there – while the right hand speaker is a slave. It has the amps built in, but is otherwise driven and controlled by the other. A 2.5m balanced XLR cable is provided for the signal between the two along with a comms cable for switching.
These are also WiFi and Bluetooth capable, both in and out and come with a small remote control.
The Aventage RX-A3050 is Yamaha’s top of the line home theatre receiver. It’s like the RX-A850 we looked at recently, but more so, with nine channels of amplification and various other advanced features. Like the RX-A850 it supports MusicCast.
One vital part of MusicCast is free: the app for iOS and Android. This allows up to 10 MusicCast devices to be operated. It can link multiple devices together so that they produce the same music. Before the end of the year an upgrade is expected which will allow two WX-030 speakers to be linked together as a single stereo pair.
Setting up was for me a somewhat… ‘variable’ experience. I’d previously done the RX-A3050. With the WX-030 I just winged it. I plugged it into the power point, started up the app, went to ‘Settings’, then ‘Add Device’ and followed the instructions. Within 20 seconds I had music coming out of it.
Feeling I ought to act more like a consumer, I approached the NX-N500 speakers differently and followed the instructions in the manual. The first option was for it to broadcast its presence to an iOS device which could then set it up. Except that my iPad Mini failed to detect it. After failing at that a few times I went to the second option, which was to connect it to my network by using the automated WPS key on the router. Unfortunately the router-converted-to-WiFi-access-point I use for this purpose has a WPS key that, if held down a few seconds too long, factory resets the router… which of course is what I inadvertently did. So I spent some time reconfiguring this to return it to proper service. Frightened of doing it again, I went back to what I’d done with the WX-030, and that worked fine. This is not mentioned in the manual.
That done, everything thereafter was easy and solid in operation. As each device connects you can give it a name and a photo, or add these later. The app worked with complete reliability. All the devices could be switched on and off within the app and easily controlled. There are also tone and other sound controls within the app by which you can tailor the sound of the device. These vary according to the device’s capability. With the RX-A3050, for example, you can change the DSP setting for surround sound.
One final thing: the NX-N500 has a ‘gain’ control on the rear of the left speaker. You don’t use it as a volume control – you control the level using the app. But some systems are limited in the loudness they can produce not buy the power in their amplifiers, but by the amount of gain they can apply to tracks which happen to be recorded at a low level. With this unit you can make sure there is plenty of gain available.
The underlying music handling system for MusicCast is DLNA, but the app offers extra source and control functions. The most obvious one is ‘Link’. In a couple of clear steps you can link any number of devices into one and stream the same content to them. They are identified within the MusicCast app as linked devices, and to other apps as just the first of the linked devices. But if two have been linked and you use, say, a different Digital Media Controller app to send music to that first device, it will be reproduced by all the linked devices.
This is important because one of the sources on offer is Spotify (if you have a Spotify Premium subscription). In this case your devices (or linked devices) appear on the list of Spotify Connect speakers within the Spotify app, so you can send music to it or them. The Spotify API (application programming interface) apparently isn’t available to companies like Yamaha, so all they can do within their own app is link to the Spotify app.
However, you do get access to Pandora and internet radio (via vTuner) directly within the MusicCast app, plus whatever other inputs the specific device has available.
With the NX-500 you can choose the analogue input, or the optical, or the USB, or Bluetooth, or AirPlay or Server. Server is of course for music on your network. AirPlay is from Apple devices. This works best just by choosing your preferred speaker from within iTunes or your Apple device. Unlike with DLNA, though, the linking doesn’t work with AirPlay so only one speaker can be used at a time. But the linking does work with Bluetooth so you can stream from your Apple device that way to multiple speakers.
Anyone using the system will find themselves having mastered it within 15 minutes.
As for sound quality, the RX-A3050 is of course first class (depending on the speakers you use). The WX-030 was reasonable for the price. Out of the box it has the bass control turned up too high (in the app) and consequently seemed a bit dull, but dragging that down to the neutral position fixed that.
The NX-N500 speakers were the gem here, with small bookshelf, high quality sound delivery. Nice imaging and a good frequency balance with surprisingly extended bass and comfortably room-filling levels of sound available. Pushed to head banging levels they harshened up considerably, but given the price the results were impressive.
All units in the system supported most audio formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, Apple Lossless to 96kHz and WAV, FLAC and AIFF to 192kHz. In addition the NX-500 and (of course) the receiver support Direct Stream Digital, including DSD128.
I had the receiver wired into Ethernet and the other two devices connected wirelessly (only the 2.4GHz band is supported) and there was never any loss of signal, even with high bit-rate music.
The Yamaha MusicCast system is very impressive indeed, especially given the wide range of devices available for it, and its strong support of high definition audio.