My surround-career started with the Yamaha DSP-A1000. This was a beast of an amplifier and Yamaha's first (actually the first ever) surround amplifier. It only had pro logic but had all kinds of extra soundfield options. It also sounded extremely powerful and had more aparent drive and slam than even the Bryston 7B-ST's. This was in the late 80's, begin 90's. In the meantime I tried various other brands but as it so happens right now, in 2010 I'm back once again with Yamaha amplification for the surround setup.
I had to heighten the audiotable using Finite Elemente Cerapucks, otherwise the big Z7 wouldn't fit
Very nicely made - thick solid aluminium flap and bright, high resolution display.
A little history
As I mentioned in the header, the DSP-A1000 was my first Yamaha surroundamplifier. But although the soundfields were calculated digitally, that one only had analog surroundprocessing, ie pro logic. The disadvantage was that the centerchannel would float from left to right and that surround channels were anything but discrete as well as being severy limited in the frequency response. Still, there was something to the sound of the A1000 that made me keep it around until only a year ago. You should know that in the meantime my system had grown to huge audiophile proportions. But still I kept the Yamaha around. Sometimes I needed to check whether I was going the right direction with my main setup. Sometimes I wanted to connect new or guest speakers to it, just to see what would happen. And lately I had used it as the main amplification for the 3 front channels in the surround setup while using a Denon AVR 2802 for the preamplification. This really worked wonders. There was something to its sound that made you sit up and pay attention. It had immense power and drive, really making you part of the movie. Sure, it could be egdy and rough around the edges, and its detailing was only mediocre but man it could really rock. Some years ago I swapped the cheap speaker outlets for WBT's and was in for a big surprise! Gone was the edgyness and all of a sudden this was a really good amp. Although it never came close to highend amplification for focus, detailing and high frequency smoothness and extention, even in the context of a music setup it slayed many amplifiers, amongst which was also the Krell 300i. For movie experience, I even kept prefering the Yamaha over my Bryston 7B ST monoblocks. So you see, I really liked the A1000. But at some point it was 20 years old and although it refused to die, I didn't use it anymore after I decided that my setup had to be simpler and because it was so very heavy it was always sitting in a corner unused. You couldn't just take it down the stairs and back up without feeling like you just did a 2 hour workout. So I sold it.
Other surround amps
Before I sold the Yamaha I had already owned the Denon AVR-2802 for a couple of years and was very happy with its surround processing and user-friendlyness. But its built-in poweramp section was below par. Not only compared to the Yamaha but in general as well. Sure it was plenty polite, smooth and in all fairness did nothing wrong, but it sounded synthetic and lacked power and drive. The pairing with the DSP-A 1000 was a match made in heaven. But it made the setup too complicated and I wanted a simpler solution. I ditched all the surround stuff and went strictly 2-channel for some time. But being a hopelessly indecisive audio neurotic, of course it started to itch again.
At the time when I felt that my surround setup had to be separate from the main system and be minimalistic at that, I bought the Marantz NR1501 because it was so flat. This way it would fit under the TV and still have room for a recorder or set top box. The Marantz actually surprised me with its very lively sound. In fact, I found it better sounding than the Denon AVR2802. The Marantz would even happlily drive my B&W Nautilus 804's that I still kept around, although not with extreme gusto but it did it nevertheless. And voila: enter the beginning of the new surround system. The Marantz was crude setupwise but had good enough sound that I kept it around until the upgrade bug really began to bite.
I started longing for a Yamaha again. But these being monstruous beasts, one would never fit under the TV and still have room for the HDX videostreamer. In fact, a Yamaha would only fit by itself and still be too deep to fit in the cabinet under the TV. So, I started thinking. If I really wanted a big Yamaha again, then I would want the whole caboodle so I started searching for a HTM-1 centerspeaker and Nautilus 805's for surround speakers. In order for this complete surroundsystem to fit into my listening room I had no other choice but to integrate the two systems again. So, first the Marantz surround amp went under the audiotable. Due to its low profile it did fit very nicely.
Although the Marantz looked pretty under the audiotable, now that the speakers were firing down the long end of the room, they didn't sound that impressive anymore. So I started looking for a better amplifier. A Yamaha was still difficult as the audiotable was too low to fit it underneath.
After a long comparison I decided to try a Harman Kardon's flagship AVR-760 for its slim profile as well as the inclusion of the new feature dolby volume which intelligently keeps audiolevels at a listenable level, so no more loud commercials and indistinguishable dialogue. The Harman Kardon was a dream to setup and it operated flawlessly. I really liked the user interface and it had every feature under the sun. But the sound was not getting me excited. In short, it was full and relaxed, to the point of lacking drive, attack and liveliness. On top of this, its active cooling-fan came on way too often and when it did it would even make itself heard over the music or film that was playing. So out it went again. You can read the entire review here.
Finally, enter the Yamaha DSP-Z7
So without any further delay, even though it wouldn't fit under the audiotable, I had to get myself a Z7. In order to fit it under the audiotable, I used 4 Finite Elemente Cerapucs. As it turns out, even though the maker doesn't recommend this, the Z7 doesn't get very warm and is easily ventilated well enough with a couple centimeters of space above it. By the time that the Z7 arrived, I also had aquired a HTM-1 centerspeaker and Nautilus 805's for surround so my system was now complete.
The Z7's setup menu is satisfactory rather than great. Compared to the Harman Kardon's (which really is a Lexicon menuwise) the Yamaha's setup menu is cluttered and unlogical. It is easy enough though to find what you need, you just need to flip to and fro more than you really want to. Also, the Z7 lacks some user friendly features such as remembering the soundfield and/or speaker levels chosen per input. Instead, it offers 6 user programmable presets that cover the entire amplifier's settings. The Z7, like almost all surround amps these days, has an auto setup feature that uses a microphone to measure the size and distance of your speakers. It can even equalise them to match a theoretical flat repsonse, or match a set of speakers to another set, as well as giving the option to manually tweak a parametric EQ for every channel separately. The auto setup is very precise and most of the time doesn't need any tweaking afterwards. I am very sensitive for incorrect phase due to the subs being misaligned but here I had nothing to complain about. The Yamaha can adjust distances even up to 10cm and does this very accurately (which is much better than the Marantz' 30-60cm steps) resulting in flawless integration of all channels. It has multiple HDMI inputs and two outputs. importantly, whatever you route through the amp, comes out completely unharmed. There is a bucket load more to say about the features but that info can also be found elsewhere. I rather concentrate on the sound itself.
Adaptive DRC instead of Dolby Volume
The Z7 also has something that resembles Dolby Volume which they call Adaptive DRC which works just like Dolby Volume but instead depends on the position of the volume control to control the amount of compression. The louder the volume, the less the sounds is compressed. It is therefore very much a set and forget kind of feature.
Finally, the sound itself. The Yamaha sounds big, colourful, lively and smooth at the same time. This isn't the DSP-A1000 sound of the 90's. At all. Where the old DSP-A1000 took no prisoners, was bold and unrelentless but great at home cinema, the new Z7 is less forward and much more smooth. The Z7 also has much, much better highs and low level detailing which makes it generally better playing various music styles than the DSP-A1000 was. While on the subject of music replay, I have to say that even though the Z7 is very refined (for a home cinema amp), its timing could be better. Sometimes, with some songs it seems slow or just missing the beat. But with other music types it is great. It is less limited with music than the old A1000 but unless you're no audiophile, the Z7 is no substitute for a decent stereo amplifier. Still ,it is quite satisfactory with most music. Much better in fact than the fat and sleepy-sounding Harman Kardon AVR760. Luckily, the Z7 still has some get up and go to it. Just less so than with their early amps. But this more musical side also means that the Z7 is less boisterous and ultimately somewhat less involving with movies. I don't know but I have the feeling that for The Real Cinema Experience, you don't need low distortion or a bucketload of musicality and sweetness. I get that Yamaha tried to make the amp more suited to playing music as well as serving as a home cinema amp but deep inside me, I still miss the A1000's boldness.
But those times are no more. Amplifiers are made better now, have lower distortion and much smoother high frequencies. The old A1000 had plenty distortion but somehow it benefited the enjoyment of action on screen. Nevertheless, the Z7 is no boring animal. On the contrary. With movies there are never any timing issues, instead, it sounds lively, open and in control, as well as never erring over to shouting or aggression. It posesses just the right amount of bite to be exciting without being aggressive. With the very refined B&W Nautilus 804's I can actually use some more agression, but with most speakers, I think that the Z7's balance would be spot-on. The Z7, like the A1000, throws a huge soundstage while maintaining excellent focus. Its sound is simply enveloping, it completely surrounds you in a manner much more impressive than the Denon AVR2802 or Marantz NR1501 could. The Harman Kardon AVR760 made a fair stab at this too, sounding quite big. But here its lazyness spoiled it for me. The HK is simply too refined for its own good and it would probably only sound good when paired with very open or aggressive sounding speakers.
By way of curiosity, I also compared the sound coming from the HDX media streamer via HDMI to that of the same source but via digital coax. There was a slight difference: coax sounded slightly more bold, just a bit fuller in the bass, but this was really slight and when I listened for a longer period to either connection method I quickly adjusted making the difference academical in a way. This doesn't go for optical I haste to add: optical sounds compressed, rounded and overall a lot worse than either electrical connection method.
What is that plastic layer on top?
When you unpack the Z7, you'll find that there is a perforated plastic sheet attached to the top of the amp. It really stands out as it is white! What are they thinking? Well, after doing some research I found out that it is to do with CE regulations. The top may get hot and you might burn your fingers and the plastic is there to prevent this. Having had the amp in use for a prolonged period I can safely say that it doesn't in fact get very hot. With my use (addmittedly not hurrican-level) it only gets hand-warm. Never ever so hot that you might get burned and I seriously wonder if that might ever be the case. So I just removed the plastoc sheet. Looks much neater;-)
The Z7 amp is well-thought out, looks very pretty and is built like a tank. I have no doubt that this one will be every bit as durable as its pre-pre-pre predecessor the DSP-A1000. The Z7's sound is well-balanced and caters for music and movies alike. But despite the apparent efforts to make it more musical than its predecessor, it is still very much a home cinema champ. Here it excells while for music it is simply good. Part of me still wonders what the Z11 would sound like, as the innards of the Z7 are derived from the RX-3800 with only small refinements. But the Z11 costs twice the Z7-outlay which, while it would certainly be worth it, is still a lot for a home cinema amp, and it is even more monstruous in size, requiring plenty of room in your setup.