Yamaha DSP-A1

written by Mike Shea on 21 November 1999

Many reviews of home theater equipment are done over a pretty short period of time by experts in the field who review everything from Sony Pro-Logic receivers to Linn ten amplifier pre/pro seperates. This review is a living document, started in August of 1998, that will cover the time I spend with my Yamaha DSP-A1. As I learn new functions (which I still am) and listen to new material on it, I will update this document with the information I have learned. Since the majority of people who would buy this amp are not home theater professionals and plan on owning the unit for a long time, I hope this review hits a little closer to home.

First off let me give you my background. I listen to both DVDs and LDs in Dolby Digital and TV in DPL. I would be hard pressed to tell a qualty difference between many receivers on the market, and I can't tell the differenece between Radio Shack 14 guage wire and MIT Straightwire. I can tell the difference between Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic. I have listened to a little DTS material, with the multi channel music recordings making the biggest impression, but the DTS LDs were not what I would call a night and day difference from the DD versions.

The Yamaha DSP-A1 was the best single unit Pramp processor power amp that I have ever layed hands on or read about in it's time (there are now a couple single units that at least match it's features). Here is a list of the features on the DSP-A1 I found important:

So there are the main features I liked. First off, I wanted to make sure it handled every source I had or would have in the near future. This required the right amount of inputs with the right types of decoding. With the large amounts of digital and analog inputs, it should handle everything I will have for a long time. Since it has both six channel inputs and multi channel output, I could hook up either a separate decoder (God help us if they come out with a new surround format) or a separate power amp (though why you would need more than 170 watts per channel is unknown to me).

The unit is very large and very heavy. On my Atlantis rack, it will only fit on the top shelf and is almost falling off of the back. It weighs about 60 lbs. It has no audible noise (fan or amp hum) no matter how long I drove it for with loud (about 85 dbs) signals.

It has binding posts on the rear for all channels which accept either bare wire or banana plugs. Since I use banana plugs on all my wire except front effects which are bare, I had no problem. Apparently with spades (the little Y connectors) you are screwed, since the plugs can't pin them down correctly. The system is very upgradable with pre-ins and outs on all channels, three subwoofer outputs, and a six channel input for an external decoder. The front effect channels are also bridged, so technically you could accept an eight channel decoder input if such a beast were to exist (say if Sony tried to bring out SDDS, or Dolby put out the Dolby Digital EX THX standard). I only mention this since this unit has AC3 and DTS, it is unlikely that someone else would have another six channel decoding scheme.

The system automatically detects the incoming signal for the decoding process (DPL, AC3, DTS), and then you can select which DSP (or none) you want active. As far as DSPs went, I used them some of the time and turned them off some of the time. With dialog based movies like Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting, I liked to have the DSP modes off. With movies like Starship Troopers, Braveheart, Fifth Element and other action based movies, I liked the way the DSPs built up a stage that reached from the front to the back. Basically it seems to take info from the front two channels and spreads them to the rear and front effect channels. This is not desirable for movies that have normal two channel music in them (like Good Will and Chasing Amy). For DPL (Dolby Pro Logic surround), the system really expands the sound setting beyond what normal DPL sounds like. With some older movies like Patton and Kelly's Hero's the DSPs made a big difference. With newer films like Titanic (VHS) and Silence of the Lambs (2 channel DVD) the DSP gave the sound a very immersive feel even though it was not discreet channel sound. I didn't ever notice a lot of material coming from the two front effects channels, but I am not sure I was supposed to. I later disconnected the front effect channels and ran it with the normal five channels.

Music sounds great on this system. While it does bring out the best in newer recordings like Lorenna's Mckinnet's Book of Dreams, and Madonna's Ray of Light, it does not help out older soundtracks like the Best of the Rolling Stones which isn't a great recording in the first place (though the Stones do rock). For acoustical tunes it does very well. Every strum on a guitar can be heard in Jewel's Foolish Games. I used the 24 bit DACs in the Yamaha since all my inputs are digital except for my VHS tapes. The DACs are leaps and bounds higher than I was used to (ie, I could tell the difference). They are warm and help fill out the midrange that was missing with my older units (the Marantz DP-870 and Technics A100 Dolby Digital decoders).

The remote seems very complex at first, but once it is programmed and the extra buttons are covered, the unit is very simple and very powerful. In my system, it can turn on the tv, switch video inputs (I have all my sources connected straight to the tv except for the VCR), control all basic (play, stop, forward, reverse) VCR functions, DVD functions, and LD functions. On the down side, I would ask for four more programmable function buttons, and the size is a little unwieldy. This remote is much better than the learning remote I had for the Onkyo which wouldn't even learn my TV or DVD player.

Initial set up of the system is a little complex, with a mix of test tone menus as well as system settings (equalization, speaker size, subwoofer settings, dimming ect). The sound levels of the system take a little work to understand. You can set the levels of the center, each surround, the front effect speakers and the subwoofer, but not the front left and right. There is a balance on the front of the unit to adjust the left and right, but as far as the rest of the system is concerned, you tune the rest of the speakers to the front left and right. There is also a slew of equalization features. You can raise or lower certain frequencies for the center channel (to enhance dialog, for instance), all channels have a variable cinema re-equalization (with the default being very close to THX spec with -3db at 12.5khz), and there is a dynamic range to help lower the power of the rest of the channels but keep the front at normal levels (kind of a late night viewing mode).

Initially I ran the center with a single set of leads, but later I decided to experiment by running both sets of center jacks to the twin sets of leads on my B HTM center (which can be bi-wired or bi-amped) and ran it as twin centers (basically dropping the impedance to 4 ohms). This really boosted the sound of the center, making it stand out from the fronts even when at the same level. I have always had trouble keeping the center volume up with the rest of the system, so this was a big bonus.

The only real problem I found with this system was the fact that for such a sleek looking system, I want to be able to dim the LCD panel all the way. The system allows you to dim it down very far, but not all the way.

The main question I asked myself before I bought this unit was whether or not it was worth it to buy the DSP-A1 or start the move towards separates. I can safely say that for me, this was the way to go. In one move I managed to turn what would have been four units (DPL receiver, AC3 processor, DTS processor, power amp) into one, and gained many features in the process. I doubt very much I would be able to tell much of a difference between this unit and some $2500 separates, and frankly the separates are more of a headache to set up. For me, one nicely integrated unit that has the best quality you can get in an integrated unit was the way to go.

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