I don't typically review stereo components on this blog, preferring to concentrate on the music. But as I've had problems with this particular piece of equipment since day one, and seeing that it continues to be a current product offering from Yamaha, I thought I'd share my experiences with it. After all, the CD/SACD player is the primary source on which my music reviews originate. (I also use a wonderful universal disc player from Cambridge Audio for DVD-A, Blu-Ray Audio and multi-channel SACD.)
This Yamaha SACD player has been around for many years and it has been widely criticized for being plagued with problems since it was first offered. The problem: the DAC (Digital Analog Decoder) in it "skips". It cuts in and out during playback, often times with a sizzle - until it gets good and hot. Then it seems to settle down and stops skipping (for the most part). But you have to coddle this player to get it to play. And for 3 grand, this is absolutely absurd.
My routine has become well-established. I turn it on first thing, let it warm up awhile, then load a disc and let it play for about half an hour with the amp muted. Then, and only then, will it reliably play a disc without skipping, cutting in and out, or making tweeter-frying sizzles, and I can finally begin listening.
Operationally it is very slow to load, read the disc, and make itself ready for action. And it's very finicky about the disc you want it to play. I have encountered several that it refuses to read - discs that have worked with zero problems in every other player I've ever had, all of them significantly less expensive than this Yamaha. Also, it has an unusual tray table which requires a very careful placement of the disc before closing the drawer. There are 4 little rubber bumpers around the circumference of the disc area, in which one must carefully, deliberately and very accurately place the CD. Carelessness in this process results in the drawer failing to close.
So after all this - warming it up for a good hour, carefully placing the CD in the tray just right, waiting for the player to read the disc and finally availing itself for the play command, I can at last listen to music. And I'm usually rather annoyed with it all at this point. But once the music begins, I settle in.
Taken as a whole, it's a totally decent-sounding disc player. It sounds better than the run-of-the-mill players in the $1,000 range. Does it sound like a $3,000 disc player? Nope. But it's better than average.
Getting into specifics, this Yamaha doesn't have much of a character. It's not bright or dark, rich or thin. In a word, it sounds "Polite". "Boring" is probably a more accurate word, but that seems a bit brutal. "Neutral", "honest" and "lovely" are much kinder descriptors. But it is very laid back. My biggest complaint (other than the skipping), is that it's simply too relaxed, and thus tends to lack dynamic power and impact. It never fully opens up to provide the majesty and scope necessary for the realistic portrayal of large-scale orchestral music or opera. Nor does it fully convey the enormity of a full concert grand piano in a large hall, rendering it rather more like a baby grand. It doesn't actually miniaturize things; it simply doesn't reproduce the expanse of large sounds in large halls as it should. It is just the opposite of thrilling or exciting. Instead, everything tends to be confined and rather intimate in scale. Again - polite. (Or boring.) That being said, it is very sweet on top, with silky smooth violins, refined brass, and bass which is potent but never boomy. There is also a beauty in tonality as well, with warm, sumptuous orchestral colors. Thus, it excels on small-scale Classical chamber music, acoustic jazz and choral groups.
Unfortunately, it's not the most detailed player, either. It never startles with the sound of the performer being in the room with you. For example, it doesn't fully reveal the little clicks of the keys, or the finger on the string during pizzicato, the intake of breath from the players, or the "wet lips" of a vocalist. Those sounds are there, but you really have to listen hard to hear them. It provides a wonderful recreation of what's on a recording, but it doesn't make you believe it's the real thing. It just does what it does, and no more.
All of these characteristics are actually emphasized during SACD playback. Unlike any other SACD player I've encountered, this one actually sounds better on good old fashioned CDs. The touch of extra brightness and raw energy of most CDs boost this player's sound up a notch. However, the extra refinement of SACD simply takes it too far in the wrong direction, overly laid-back and smooth. (It's worth noting this is a stereo-only SACD player and therefore can not play the multi-channel layer.)
For the record, I have experimented with numerous high-end power cords, interconnects (both RCA and XLR), and power conditioners - to no avail. It's simply impossible to coax more performance from this player. I actually have achieved better sound using its digital-out jack, via the awesome Straight Wire InfoLink digital cable (coax/RCA), into my Krell Vanguard integrated amp. The DAC in the Krell produces sound which is much more "present" (but not "forward" - it's just more there). It is more dynamic, detailed and better focused. And thus, more realistic and involving. Now, a full symphony orchestra positively fills the hall in which it plays. And a concert grand Steinway sounds like the massive instrument it is, with a more powerful presence and a more realistic, full-bodied left-hand range. However, I, of course, lose the ability to play SACDs in this configuration, as DSD digital data cannot be passed via the digital output. I must set the player's default to read the CD layer only. And, in all honesty, I do occasionally miss the loveliness of the Yamaha player - on some music - which the Krell can't quite match. The Krell is good, but no one would ever likely describe its sound as lovely.
If this Yamaha player were offered at half its current asking price, and if Yamaha would actually fix the problem with the DAC, I could highly recommend this player. But at full price, and given its aging shelf life (this unit has been around many years) and with a known, recurring and uncorrected malfunctioning DAC, I'd stay away from this Yamaha player and buy just about anything else.
Unfortunately, SACD players are becoming a rarity. There are a few in the $1,000 range (offering average sound, I'm afraid), and Marantz likes to dominate the range just above this (with only incrementally improved sound over those lesser players). And then there are the astronomically priced units from the likes of Mark Levinson, Luxman and Esoteric. So, this Yamaha occupies a sweet spot, price-wise, at $3,000. And thus, it is not easy to replace with something better unless you have the resources to fork over the big bucks. So I stick with it and hope something else comes along before SACD disappears altogether.