Yamaha RP-U100 Personal Receiver Review

Youve probably noticed that personal computers and home audio systems are merging quite rapidly, at least from the standpoint of functionality. All PCs now have sound cards as well as CD or DVD drives, so playing music or watching movies on a computer is so easy that its taken for granted. Likewise, most home audio gear has sophisticated digital signal processing (DSP) software onboard, and A/V receivers and digital satellite receivers perform millions of calculations per second to decode Dolby Digital audio and MPEG-2 video data. But despite the functional similarity, there are surprisingly few products that really cross over between the two realms. We still tend to think of computers and stereo gear as different animals.

The Yamaha RP-U100 officially known by the unwieldy name of @ PET RP-U100, with the PET standing for Personal Entertainment Theater and the @ standing for who knows what is a bold new species that expertly merges the two genera. It is a full-fledged A/V receiver, but its innovative styling, USB (universal serial bus) port, and Windows 98-compatible software make it a potentially breakthrough product. One look will convince you that the RP-U100 is different. Its sloping vertical chassis sets it apart from a world of horizontal rectangular receivers. In fact, its face mimics the slope of a PCs monitor, and whereas other receivers look awkward next to a computer monitor, the RP-U100 looks terrific.

In further contrast with conventional receivers, which bristle with a multitude of buttons, this one has just nine, which let you select inputs or playback modes, including sound-field processing, and tune or preset radio stations. While the consolidation of controls and features into a few buttons takes some getting used to, it proves to be quite efficient once youve learned the ropes. The RP-U100s silver face is further distinguished by an enormous volume-control knob padded with a rubbery grip.

The rear of the chassis contains a variety of analog inputs and outputs including a dedicated line-level subwoofer output. There are three digital inputs (one coaxial and two optical) and one output (optical). Plus theres that USB port, the key to the receivers multimedia magic.

Although the RP-U100 is not a multichannel receiver, it does contain a Dolby Digital decoder but it has neither 5.1 channels of amplification nor six decoded line-level outputs. Instead, its a two-channel receiver that makes the best of its output modesty with Virtual Dolby Digital and Yamahas own Near-Field Cinema DSP. These algorithms process a pair of stereo channels, adding psychoacoustic cues to expand the sound field outside the normal stereo panorama. The Near-Field Cinema feature also creates three different sound fields (Game, Movie, and Live) as well as simulating three specific venues (Hall, Jazz, and Church).

You could use the RP-U100 as a personal receiver and never bring it near a PC. Attach some speakers and a few audio program sources, and youve got a great little sound system. But youd be missing all the fun. The RP-U100 is designed to use the computer as a sound source and to be linked to it bidirectionally via the USB port. The USB is a relatively new interface, but its fast becoming ubiquitous on new PCs and Macs. In fact, if youve bought a desktop computer within the last couple of years, you probably have a USB port though you might not have known what the squarish socket was for.

Anxious as always to explore the future of audio, I first loaded the software into my Windows 98 PC using the supplied CD-ROM (Yamaha is still working on a Macintosh version). It loaded in a few minutes without any trouble. I connected the USB cable and, like other USB peripherals Ive tried, the RP-U100 did indeed plug and play; the PC automatically loaded the correct drivers and successfully talked to the receiver. (A mild complication was that I had to go to the Windows Control Panels Multimedia/CD Music menu and enable my DVD drive for digital playback so that it would stream SPDIF data out of the USB port to the receiver and then to my B&W; DM302 speakers.)

The application software has three main functions. You can use your PC to control the RP-U100, to output music data to it, or to input music data from the receiver. The control features are quite interesting. Although the GUI (graphical user interface) menus arent particularly attractive, and are unnecessarily small, they let you efficiently do everything the hardware allows. For example, using an on-screen graphic of your listening position, you can reposition the virtual speakers used to create sound fields. This would be difficult with a traditional receivers faceplate controls, but its a piece of cake with a GUI. You can also adjust an onscreen nine-band graphic equalizer and assign curves to different presets, adjust specific acoustical parameters of the created spaces, and custom name your inputs and outputs. This is not awesome software, but it functioned without any glitches and never crashed my system. Of course, MS Windows 98 hardly ever crashes anyway, right?

I started my audition with music CDs. For reasons I surely cant explain, I have recently gotten into Richard Strausss symphonic poem Macbeth. Its not a particularly sophisticated work, but Ive played it about a thousand times over the past month. Anyway, the RP-U100 did a fine job of conveying it. Once I got my classical fix, I popped in the Sultans of Swing The Very Best of Dire Straits. This bands recordings are well regarded for their high production values and make excellent demo material. Songs like the title track of the compilation CD have pristine cymbals, a brilliant high hat, and crisp guitar solos. The RP-U100 did a fine of job of conveying this technically and musically impressive recording it sounded as clean and clear as Ive ever heard it from any CD player.

Moreover, the Yamahas 30-watt-per-channel power amplifier was surprisingly peppy and will adequately power most bookshelf speakers. More significant, using the application software, I was able to create a virtual space that was simply fantastic. Some 3-D sound-field programs are pretty good, and some arent. The Yamahas processing was quite good, and I was able to simulate a very open sound that was, while not completely enveloping, surprisingly spacious. The band was clearly conveyed across a broad soundstage, with minimal coloration. Ive heard Yamahas Near-Field Cinema processing before, and its always been useful for enhancing playback, but I was really impressed this time around. Perhaps this kind of spatial processing is inherently more effective in computer playback because your head is usually optimally placed between the speakers.

Next I turned my attention to DVD playback. Dolby Digital does not flow through the USB path, so I ran a cable from the coaxial digital output on my PCs sound card to the RP-U100s lone coaxial digital input and let the receivers decoder do its thing. It delivered a fine stereo version of the soundtrack. And when I engaged the Virtual Dolby Digital mode the soundstage became more spacious. While the virtual surround processing is never as convincing as full-bore Dolby Digital over a five- or six-speaker system, it can provide an encompassing movie-sound experience. In fact, this implementation of Virtual Dolby Digital ranks among the best virtual surround systems Ive heard.

The tuner worked about as well as any tuner in a contemporary receiver, with fairly good capture ratio and low noise. However, you should remember that many PCs radiate electromagnetic noise that can disrupt radio reception, so you may need an outdoor or cable antenna. I did not experience any computer-generated radio-frequency interference, but you have been warned. A small quibble: the RP-U100 is designed to be operated at arms length, but I can imagine using it a little farther away, so its unfortunate that a remote control isnt provided.

In a world of me-too products, its always refreshing to see something completely different. Yamahas RP-U100 is indeed different. In its own right, it is a great little receiver. When you add in its USB port and software, it opens the door to more sophisticated control than other receivers allow, and its a natural for listening to sound from computer games, online MP3 files, music downloads, and CD and DVD playback. The software isnt perfect, and the receiver has only two channels, but I was very impressed nevertheless. If youve been waiting for the electronics industry to get its act together and design a full-fledged audio component that is also a full-fledged computer peripheral, the wait is over. The Yamaha RP-U100 is here. It is truly a breakthrough product and the first wave of the future. S&V;