Yamaha DSP A1 Home Theater Control Center

      Date posted: August 17, 1998

Yamaha DSP-A1

Sugg. Retail: $3995 (CAN)
Distributor: Yamaha Music Canada Ltd.,
135 Milner Ave., Scarborough, Ont.
M1S 3R1
PH. (416) 298-1311
FAX (416) 292-0732

(Reprinted from the Summer 98 Audio Ideas Guide)

      Forgive me is I don’t articulate every feature and function of this complex home theatre component, but I might not be able to after a year of using it. The DSP-A1 is a large box with only 2 buttons and 2 knobs on the front, but there’s a lot inside, and a bevy of controls under the flip-down panel.

      If it seems that this component has more of everything to intimidate a reviewer, let alone a simple user, one has to be relentlessly logical. Where does the DSP-A1 begin to be more complicated? Well, it has 7 channels, not 5, and uses its DSP processing to make these work with the discrete Dolby Digital and DTS signals. It also enhances Dolby Pro Logic, in all cases, “synthesizing sound fields based on actual data”, and adding “early reflection and reverberation processing.” There are the usual collection of DSP sound fields you’d expect from Yamaha, this time with sub-categories. The main modes are Movie Theatre 1 and 2, Concert Video 1 and 2, and TV Theatre, with the possible overlay of DTS Spectacle, DTS Sci-Fi, 70mm Sci- Fi, 70mm Adventure, Mono Movie, DTS and 70mm General for movies, and Pop/Rock, DJ, Classical/Opera, Pavillion (sic), and Variety/Sports for music and general TV programming. There are also modes selectable on the remote labelled Hall 1, Hall 2, Church, Jazz Club, Rock Concert, Entertainment (!), and Concert Video 1 and 2. How they count them I’m not sure, but the Yamaha colour brochure says, “The DSP-A1 is equipped with 42 surround sound field programs”, some based on real spaces, such as New York’s Bottom Line jazz club. Whoopee.

      You can try all these out (and all 7 channels) if that’s your thing, but I had neither the time nor the inclination. Maybe they would have made things realer than real, but I’m more interested in whether the the DSP-A1 will faithfully reproduce film soundtracks and music, which is real as real, so that’s how I set it up and used it. I did, however, try the Enhanced mode for Pro Logic, and liked its more natural rear channel sound field, which had more space and sense of realism. It’s all about getting real.

      The DSP-A1 also has lots of inputs, including those marked CD, Tuner, LD, TV/DBS, VCRs 1 and 2, V-Aux, Tape 2, and Phono. All the A/V inputs supplement composite video with S-video jacks, and digital inputs are configured to operate the various surround systems automatically, and the LD one has an RF demodulator for Dolby Digital decoding. Yamaha has learned much in its considerable experience with digital audio, and has made the DSP-A1 quite easy for the neophyte to operate once it has been initially set up, something any responsible dealer should do. It should be no surprise to purchasers that the manual is thick and perfect bound, and the remote control is twice the size of most others.

      Power output is rated at 110 watts through 5 channels, with a paltry 35 watts for the front effect additional ones; maybe this is a way of keeping them from overwhelming the main channels. I suspect few users will actually hook them up at all. There are also full preamp out RCA jacks for those wanting to drive outboard multi-channel amplifiers in a more elaborate home theatre system.

      The most interesting thing I noted in listening to the DSP- A1 was the fact that it was wholly satisfying with 4 or 5 channels in terms of dynamics, imaging and surround excitement, especially with the discrete formats, but also with Pro Logic using only the enhanced mode. As with all really good products, it’s hard to say a lot about it because there’s so little to criticize. The last similar component we reviewed from this company, the DSP-A3090 (Wtr 97), also had similarly excellent performance, but with less power available (80 watts per channel) and a less involving and enveloping surround presence. It also did not include DTS surround.

      And DTS is certainly worthy of some discussion. In the last few months this company has been working overtime to get products containing its surround system into the market, realizing, perhaps, that if Dolby is the Microsoft of audio, they are the Netscape, and have to compete harder.

      The DSP-A1 makes using DTS surround easier and less dangerous than any other decoder I’ve yet encountered. Less dangerous, you ask? Well, just stick a DTS CD into your normal CD, LD, or DVD player and see what comes out of your speakers, but don’t do so at a high audio level. What you’ll hear is the raw DTS bitstream, something I call “red noise” because it’s like pink noise with about a 9-dB boost around 10 kHz and above. This red noise can fry tweeters fast, and is the reason there are so many warnings on DTS CDs. I did not encounter this problem with this unit, the DSP-A1 able to distinguish immediately that it was a DTS signal and switch to the appropriate decoder without any noise.

      I watched parts of several movies with DTS, including Casper, and was struck by how good the sound was, though I’d be hard pressed to say it’s audibly superior to the Dolby Digital in recent DVD releases, such as Apollo 13 (which I’ve heard in both formats) but it is very good, with outstanding ddirectionality and fully involving sound overall.

      I have a sampler DTS DVD that has clips from several movies, and I assume that its digital bitstream is the PCM output. But when I tried in our Pioneer Elite DVL-90 it would not provide any audio at all, even though the Yamaha front panel read DTS sound, while the DTS icon flashed. However, putting it into the Samsung player resulted in everything working perfectly, and a quite spectacular picture on clips from Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, Schindler’s List (which is black and white, and a good test for grey-scale accuracy), and Waterworld. There is also an excellent test pattern with channel checks for the DTS sound. I will find this DVD a very useful reference with DTS gear in future.

      Once I got the DTS audio working, I realized that, unlike any previous DTS decoder in our experience, this one is the first to allow a phantom centre channel with this format, which, in my view, is a good thing. And if you do want a centre channel, it allows you to set its correct level and distance, the latter noy always possible with other surround processors.

      Also notable about the DSP-A1 was its excellent passage of video information through the S inputs and outputs: there seemed to be no loss in resolution or colour accuracy, making it a versatile and very high quality video switcher, probably the best in our experience since the $12,000 Linn AV-5103 (Smr 97). This alone makes the Yamaha DSP-A1 seem like something of a bargain in high end home theatre. If you are genuinely serious about video images and sound, have a look at and listen to this well integrated A/V control amplifier.

Andrew Marshall

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