Is a music instrument manufacturer that also makes home audio gear, such as Yamaha, uniquely poised or best equipped to faithfully reproduce music to a high quality in their stereo and perhaps even their home theater equipment? After all, they make some of the finest-sounding pianos, basses, drums, strings, brass and woodwinds on the planet. Does this musical expertise translate to their hi-fi and audio/video gear?
In this two-part series, I put some of these questions to Yamaha’s UK Customer Services and to Yamaha Technical UK in searching out their answer to this theory.
Russ Welton: Yamaha audio and A/V products are sold under the “Natural Sound” imprint. How would you describe the Yamaha sound for stereo and A/V? Is there an overlap between any of your products, and in what way?
Yamaha UK: The term “natural” is interpreted in many different ways by many different people. The best way I can explain Yamaha’s “Natural Sound” is that it’s an attempt to remove the equipment sonically. Whether it’s a stereo amplifier, surround sound amplifier, set of speakers etc., preserving the sound of [for example], a particular bass guitar even down to the brand of strings installed on it intact, in the reproduction and listening experience, is the ultimate goal.
The biggest challenge is to not get in the way of the original recording. Evidence of our sound can be found throughout our range. Consider our flagship loudspeakers, the NS-5000s that sit at £15,000 a pair, [and then] if you would then listen to our NX-N500 active loudspeakers at £649, that Yamaha Natural Sound or signature can still be heard despite this massive price difference.
At Yamaha we strive to achieve natural sound. With the development of so much digital music it’s important that we produce a sound that is not too clinical or hard. We don’t want to produce something that is fatiguing for the listener but we do want to keep all those details that make for a high-definition sound. We go for no-holds-barred at any price point.
Digital sound comes from 0 or 1. Yes or no. But at Yamaha we are fully aware of how to have the correct [desirable] “distortions” and balance in the [musical] signal. We achieve this through our component choices, such as our capacitors. We use [everything from] tiny capacitors on some of our [circuit] boards, [all the way] through to large roll-sized units. Some of these may be exclusive to our flagship models but then trickle down through the product range. The accuracy of the component “leniency” [also] contributes. Our more expensive units employ 0.5% tolerances and this small [leeway] for error makes for a more consistent product.
RW: What have been the linchpin products in the development of Yamaha’s current stereo and A/V lineup?
Yamaha UK: Our flagship 5000 Series hi-fi products (which include the (C-5000 preamp, M-5000 power amp and NS-5000 speakers) and A/V components (CX-A5200 AV Processor and MX-A5200 11-channel power amplifier), push the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of performance. Once we discover improvements to our designs, we attempt to share this new-found expertise with the rest of our product line up. Our new line of hi-fi amplifiers (A-S3200, A-S2200, A-S1200) have been tweaked and share techniques first seen in our C-5000 and M-5000 [high-end] preamp and power amp system. The [development of the] NS-5000 uncovered new methods of cabinet design, which are shared with the baby NS-3000 speakers. Similarly, our MX-A5200 11-channel power amp features a high slew rate amplifier circuit, which has [also] been applied to our most affordable surround sound amplifier. If the same idea/improvement can be scaled to fit lower price points, we always try to offer this across as many products as possible.
Originally, Yamaha started out fixing reed organs before going on to making instruments. In more recent decades our NS-10 nearfield studio monitors have been notable. They became an industry standard for a lot of recording engineers and you will still find them in use in many studios to this day. They were launched in 1978 and ran until 2001, after which time they were discontinued, but they had made a name for themselves as a benchmark [for use] in studio recording.
In the home cinema arena, our DSP-A1 surround processor/amplifier was a great success. This was a flagship surround sound digital signal processor utilising 24-bit A/D and D/A converters with 18 different DSP modes. It had a programmable Cinema EQ function and supported stereo subwoofer outputs, Dolby Digital and DTS.
We also make projectors for home cinema, and sound bars, which effectively are speaker-array AV receivers but in sound bar clothing. If we look at our YSP5600 top of the range sound bar, for example, it has 44 speakers in it. To make it produce the sound as if it is coming from behind you, we can reproduce a frequency of, say, 1,000 Hz, and then by measuring the distance and timing the delay between the speakers to fire off of the rear wall, you [will] then hear that signal at a different time. This [creates] a virtual surround sound speaker effect. Although this isn’t for everyone, where there are [significant] space limitations in a listening room it can be a good help.
RW: How do you cater for different international markets and what people enjoy hearing?
Yamaha UK: Products that are sold internationally will be tuned differently per country. Largely this is a result of the construction of [the] houses [in the region]. Timber frame vs solid brick, for example, causes significant changes in sound and overall character. The room you listen in is part of the system, so this needs to be taken into account.
We take into account what the different markets have a preference for. In the UK someone may like the tonality added [by] the use of valves (vacuum tubes) making a traditional British sound. This may have [a] minimal [degree of] harmonic distortion and on its own can sound a little unnatural. Whereas the Asian market likes the “clinical sound” and the lowest [distortion] values on spec sheets. The two tonalities are different. Then the American market likes to hear a low-end swell, with bass that isn’t necessarily the tightest and cleanest-sounding. Knowing these characteristics and being able to measure the correct type of “distortions” when reproducing sound is key to making our products available worldwide.
RW: What are the benefits of Yamaha being a both music instrument maker and an A/V components manufacturer?
Yamaha UK: We hear and understand music from start to finish. This gives us great insight as to what the product needs to achieve at each stage [in the music creation and reproduction chain. Whether [in the areas of] performing, recording or reproducing [music], we have products that specialize in all areas. This gives our engineers a unique perspective, the ability to collaborate with a much wider field of expertise versus if we were solely creating home audio and A/V equipment.
Shared resources play a big part of our ability to create products to such a high standard. For example, the factory that finishes and polishes our most expensive grand pianos also finishes our NS-5000 and NS-3000 loudspeakers and GT-5000 turntable.
There are a lot of cross-divisional benefits between Yamaha’s products. When a musical instrument produces a sound wave, whether it’s from a piano, a guitar or [musical instrument] pickups, each component of the instrument has an effect on the overall sound.
Understanding what should be happening at the output of the instrument is important. For example, when recording live instruments and [then] you play it back, the recording does not sound the same. Something is missing in the audio signal and so only a music instrument manufacturer knows what to add back in. An example is in our sample packs (software downloads with sampled sounds of musical instruments) for digital piano.
RW: You know what source information is needed to make realistic musical-sounding tones.
Yamaha UK: We make a product called the SILENT guitar using our SRT Studio Response Technology. Typically, a guitar produces sound reflected from the rear of the soundboard.
Similarly, with a piano you generate sound as the strings vibrate the soundboard. With our Silent Piano system, the notes played no longer hit the strings. Instead, the pressure-sensitive keys can take the impulse from the hammer and send that signal direct to headphones. Alternatively, [the instrument can be used as a regular piano and sound] can be produced on the soundboard, [or the two can be blended together].
Using this system, Elton John performed in the UK while simultaneously linking between London and America. Everything [he played] was transferred – how hard he hit the strings, the timbre through the soundboard, any trills and so on. Using this technology, you could effectively have the artist perform in your home.
Another example is our THR [portable guitar] amplifiers. They have a lot of signal processing technology built into them [to create different guitar tones].
RW: How does this influence the type of DSP and surround-sound processing you use in your A/V preamp-processors and receivers?
Yamaha UK: Our connection with music in [multiple] areas has given us the opportunity to gain access to more music venues, which then shape [the [way we create] our DSP modes. Although some consider our A/V receivers’ Cinema DSP programs a gimmick, and created digitally from no reference, we actually capture the acoustics of real locations. A real jazz club (The Bottom Line mode), a real cinema (Standard mode), a real concert hall in Vienna. This is done using a 3-D microphone to accurately record the acoustics of that environment, so our customers can be transported to that very place from their living room. The exact shape (response pattern) of the 3-D microphone used to capture these environments is also [incorporated into] our high-end Aventage A/V receiver lineup.
Our DSP profiles can be thought of as building blocks that you can stack up on top of each other for your desired use. Because they are stackable, you can listen to each and use what you want. Yamaha likes to give you options and not take anything away. For example, your 2-channel stereo signal can be reproduced upsampled in a 5.1 format [but] without our Cinema DSP [surround-processing] option turned on. Or, you could take your Dolby 5.1 signal and upscale it to 7.1 in Sci Fi DSP mode for a different [dramatic] feel.
When it comes to room acoustics, certain rooms are known for having an excellent sound. An example could be a certain cinema such as the state-of-the-art Odeon Luxe in Leicester Square of London. Yamaha can sample information from that venue and measure the room size values, and the impulse [response] and early reflection times across the whole frequency range. We can measure the bass wavelengths coming into contact with different materials in the room. By measuring these frequency responses accurately, we can make a perfect blend of the best room attributes and sonic qualities based on the data taken from the world’s best-sounding cinemas. Then when you choose your room size for playback, you get the correct delays reproduced. [There is also a lot of psychoacoustics involved.]
RW: Please explain the Yamaha Parametric room Acoustic Optimizer (YPAO).
Yamaha UK: In simple terms, YPAO is a room correction technology that removes [the effects of] room modes. These are peaks and dips in frequency response caused by the room, [the result of cancellation and reinforcement of certain frequencies]. These [modes] can often distort or exaggerate certain frequencies; this can make hearing certain parts of the music or movie difficult. YPAO corrects these dips and peaks, giving the listener a more accurate presentation of the recorded material. In addition, YPAO will detect the distance the speaker is away from the listener, how big the speaker is, and when the subwoofer needs to take over (the crossover point from the main speaker) to play the lowest of bass frequencies. YPAO will also adjust how loud each speaker needs to play. But there’s more: YPAO’s Reflected Sound Control (R.S.C.) function will apply an impulse response correction, meaning [that the] treble, mid and bass frequencies coming from each speaker in your system will arrive at your ears at the same time. This helps improve the focus of all frequencies (it’s very noticeable in bass notes), which vastly improves the perceived “speed” of your system.
Part Two will explore fine-tuning a surround-sound audio system, wireless technology and more.
Header image of Yamaha MusicCast system and all other images courtesy of Yamaha.