Yamaha NX-N500 Network Powered Speaker Review
When audiophiles or those in the pro music industry think of Yamaha loudspeakers, the first thing that comes to mind is, arguably the most important speaker of all time, the Yamaha NS10. A little known fact about the NS10 is that it started as a consumer HiFi product before moving to the pro market exclusively. The NS10 was involved in so many of our favorite recordings that it's nearly impossible to mention them all. It's probably easier for someone to create a list of recordings in which the NS10 was not involved in some fashion. Love them or hate them, the Yamaha NS10 has played a significant role in everyone's music listening experience for decades. Fast forward almost fifteen years after the NS10 was discontinued (2001) and Yamaha continues to manufacture a wide range of consumer and professional audio components. Over the years the company has changed and improved performance through its massive global R&D organization, but one thing remains constant, Yamaha's iconic bright white bass/mid driver cone in its loudspeakers. The Yamaha NX-N500 active loudspeakers that I've had connected to my 27" iMac 5K for the last month can't be mistaken for anything but a Yamaha product. In fact these speakers exude a sense of music history, a confidence, a je ne sais quoi all their own. These speakers aren't the highest of HiFi or the flashiest of audio jewelry, but they are distinctly Yamaha. The NX-N500 delivers exactly what Yamaha customers have come to expect over the company's 120 year history. Solid products with good sound and commensurate build quality. In addition, the NX-N500 delivers features commonly associated with niche high-end components such as XMOS asynchronous USB, PCM and DSD support up through the highest sample rates, and gapless DLNA playback at 24/192 via wired Ethernet or WiFi. This is just the beginning of all the supported features of the Yamaha NX-N500. These all-in-one active loudspeakers should easily satisfy 99.9% of music enthusiasts.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Yamaha NX-N500 (Objectively)
The Yamaha NX-N500 can be described as all-in-one HiFi monitor speakers with built-in amplification, a built-in DAC, and a host of digital and analog inputs. These self powered, bi-amped, two-way speakers feature a 5" white cone woofer and 1" dome tweeter. The frequency response of the NX-N500 has been tuned to 54 Hz - 40,000 Hz (although at -10 dB), crossed over at 2,000 Hz. The drivers are powered by 45W amplifiers for the woofers and 25W amplifiers for the tweeters. One difference between the NX-N500 and many of its competitors is these loudspeakers are driven by discrete analog amplifiers as opposed to digital amplifiers. Neither type of technology is inherently better rather it all comes down to implementation and personal choice. Many computer audiophiles have an increased interest in blocking noise from entering their audio systems lately. Fortunately, Yamaha shares this interest. The NX-N500 features what Yamaha calls balanced transmission and balanced connection to "eliminate sound quality degradation due to noise." According to Yamaha, "Balanced transmission cancels the external noise that becomes mixed with the signal during transmission. In the NX-N500, all digital audio input signals undergo balance conversion in the L-channel speaker before being transmitted to the R-channel speaker." I've included a diagram of the NX-N500's balanced transmission below. The balanced connection piece of this is something with which all audiophiles are familiar. The NX-N500 left channel is connected to the right channel via balanced XLR terminated cables. Keeping all of the guts together is a thick MDF with high rigidity to suppress unwanted resonance. While playing music I frequently touched the speaker cabinet to check for resonance and I was pleased with the small amount vibrations I felt throughout the review period. Keep in mind that these aren't the $26,500 Magico Q1, constructed completed from aluminum and copper, that have nearly no measurable resonance. I should also mention that the Magico speakers also come with stands for that price, whereas the $799.95/pair Yamaha NX-N500 speakers arrive stand-less.
The Yamaha NX-N500 is one of the most feature rich products I've ever reviewed. There is a little, or a lot of, something for everybody. I prefer to look at the available connection methods in two distinct categories, direct connect and indirect (for lack of a better term). Direct connection methods one can use with the NX-N500 are pretty standard in HiFi circles. A single TosLink input that supports sample rates up through 24 bit / 192 kHz, a single mini-jack analog input, and a single asynchronous USB (type B) input are available.
Let's take a closer look at the USB input and DAC chip. The NX-N500 speakers use the XMOS USB receiver chip. Using a Mac with newer versions of OS X or a USB Audio Class 2 compliant operating system such as several Linux distributions will not require driver/software installation. Unfortunately our "friends" over at Microsoft still haven't seen the need to make Windows 10 UAC2 compliant, thus all Windows users are required to install a device driver for use with the NX-N500. Officially the NX-N500 USB input supports PCM sample rates up through 32 bit / 384 kHz and DSD sample rates up through 1 bit / 5.6 MHz. My testing revealed that these speakers are 100% trouble-free when playing quad DSD (DSD256) at 1 bit / 11.2 MHz. DSD is played using DoP encapsulation and switches the PCM sample rate to 705.6 kHz during DSD256 playback. This raises the question of whether the NX-N500 can play PCM material at 705.6 or 768 kHz. I located a single 768 kHz test file from a Japanese language download site and managed to click a few buttons correctly to obtain the file. Playback of this file didn't go very well, although some sound was emitted from the speakers. The NX-N500 speakers use the ESS Technologies ES9010K2M DAC chip. According to ESS this chip supports 32/384 PCM and 1/11.2 MHz DSD. Because of this I was a little thrown-off by the fact that Audio Midi in OS X lists both 705.6 kHz and 768 kHz as selectable sample rates for PCM. I guess the chip can accept encapsulated DSD at these extremely high rates but not PCM at the same rates. The bottom line is this, the NX-N500 will play every PCM and DSD sample rate that really matter, including 384 kHz PCM and 11.2 MHz DSD.
What I call indirect connection methods supported by the NX-N500 are all related to streaming in one way or another. Technically these speakers support audio input over Internet protocol (IP) via Ethernet or WiFi (802.11n at 2.4 GHz) and Bluetooth. Both of these inputs methods involve a host of more commonly used marketing terms such as AirPlay, DLNA for audio over IP and 2.1 + EDR / A2DP, AVRCP with codecs Sink: SBC/AAC, Source: SBC for Bluetooth. How does this translate to the end user experience? Yamaha has brought back the name MusicCast as an all encompassing term to describe both the connection methods and the services available via these connection methods. A MusicCast compatible component is capable of streaming audio via IP or Bluetooth from one device to another device or from one device to many devices. Neither a connection method nor a service, Apple's AirPlay is supported via wired Ethernet or WiFi. Services supported by MusicCast components, such as the NX-N500, are vTuner, Pandora, Rhapsody, SiriusXM, Spotify (Connect), Napster, and Juke.
Distilling this down a bit to describe real world scenarios will likely be much easier to understand than my previous paragraph.
Scenario One: Using the Yamaha MusicCast iOS or Android application, the user selects a service such as Spotify (Connect). This launches the Spotify app for music playback. Within the app a Connect icon appears and enables the user to select the NX-N500 speakers for audio output. The audio doesn't route through the iOS/Android device rather the mobile device acts like a remote control for music selection and the audio is sent from Spotify directly to the wired or wirelessly connected NX-N500 speakers.
Scenario Two: Using the Yamaha MusicCast iOS or Android application, the user selects Bluetooth. This is really an input selection that enables to user to stream audio via Bluetooth from any app on the iOS, Android, or any Bluetooth compatible source.
Scenario Three: Using the Yamaha MusicCast iOS or Android application, the user selects AirPlay. This is also an input selection that enables to user to stream any content from any AirPlay compatible source. This includes streaming the audio from an app such as HBO GO while video plays on one's iPhone (I tested this :~))
Scenario Four: Using the Yamaha MusicCast iOS or Android application, the user selects Server. This enables the user to browse wired or wireless DLNA servers by turning the mobile device into a DLNA control point.
Scenario Five: This is what I consider a likely scenario for somewhat learned computer audiophiles. Using the physical remote control included with the NX-N500 speakers, one selects the NET input. During my testing the speakers will also sense music streaming to them and switch to the NET input automatically. Either way, the NET input is used on wired Ethernet or via WiFi. Then in an application such as JRiver Media Center, the user simply selects the NX-N500 as an automatically appearing DLNA zone. Once this is completed either the Jriver interface or the terrific JRemote iOS/Android app can be use to stream music to the speakers. I frequently used this method of playback while sitting at my desk in addition to a straight USB connection.
As usual I tested the DLNA capabilities of the NX-N500 speakers via wired and wireless interfaces. Performance of DLNA audio devices is all over the board and the reality is often different from the specifications of the manufacture. Such is the case with these Yamaha speakers. The provided user manual states the NX-N500 speakers are capable of streaming up through 24/192 PCM and up through DSD128 at 5.6 MHz via DLNA. My testing showed that neither the wired Ethernet nor the WiFi 802.11n interfaces could play any DSD content at DSD64 2.8 MHz or DSD128 5.6 MHz. Now for the good news, both wired and wireless interfaces supported PCM playback at 24/192. In addition, both interfaces supported gapless playback up through 24/192. This is really extraordinary for a WiFi DLNA device, considering I have used several very high end wireless devices, including the recently reviewed Moon by Simaudio Neo 380D DSD ($6,100), that couldn't support audio anywhere near 24.192 kHz let alone gapless playback at that rate. Bravo for Yamaha for figuring this out and putting it in a $799.95 pair of speakers.
One area of concern I have with the NX-N500 speakers is their ability to reject WiFi noise through proper internal shielding. During the last month I've had the speakers next to my 27" iMac 5K, about three inches from the left and right sides of the monitor. Off and on during each day I heard very low level bursts of static through the speakers. I narrowed the problem down to my WiFi signal. I can reproduce the problem 100% of the time through any number of seemingly innocuous tasks. For example, right-clicking on any word on any website and selecting Look Up In Dictionary from the subsequent pop-up menu in OS X. As soon as I click the Look Up item the small burst of noise emanates from the right channel first, followed by the left channel. I talked to Paul from Yamaha about the issue and he assured me they had tested the speakers with a host of different WiFi enabled computers and found the shielded analog circuit wasn't effected by WiFi signals. I followed this up with additional testing and found I couldn't cause the issue with either of my two MacBook Pro laptops. Readers should also understand that the review sample I was sent was the first pre-production sample available in the world. I informed Yamaha of this issue during my review process and the company has since acquired an iMac 5K for testing. Yamaha hasn't found the issue with any other WiFi devices, similar to my experience with not finding an issue with other WiFi devices, but the company takes this very seriously and highly values its long standing reputation for quality assurance.
Yamaha NX-N500 (Subjectively)
Given that I average 10-12 hours per day sitting in front of my iMac, I had plenty of opportunity to listen to music through the Yamaha NX-N500 speakers. During this time I've used many different applications but mainly used Roon, Amarra for TIDAL, and JRiver Media Center. I also streamed a bit from my iPhone 6 running iOS 9.01, but this was more to test the functionality than really listen to music.
If there is one overarching sonic characteristic of the Yamaha NX-N500 speakers I believe it's a smoothness to the sound. I view this smoothness a sonic preference of the listener rather than a characteristic that decreases the sound quality. Similar to how tubed electronics are many peoples' preference over solid state, the character of the NX-N500 will please many enthusiasts. More than anything, I noticed this smooth character made it possible for me to listen to music all day long, day in day out. If there is one thing I can't listen to for very long it's a harsh sounding speaker with a bit of an edge. The NX-N500 is definitely not in that harsh category.
The Dead Weather's new album Dodge and Burn has been available through TIDAL for about one week and I've figuratively worn it out already. I love the sound of this hard rocking release with all its distortion and nontraditional sounds. Strangely this album wasn't available through Roon during its TIDAL exclusive release week, but it was available through Amarra for TIDAL, thus my use of A4T. This entire album sounds really good through the NX-N500 speakers. The track Three Dollar Hat is a good example of what these speakers can do with hard rock. It starts with a little guitar intro then a tiny tap of a cymbal by Jack White on drums. The cymbal has a nice amount of air around it and good decay before the song eases into another phase. There are all kinds of cool sounds produced by a guitar and Jack's unique drum set throughout the track. All of these are reproduced nicely by the loudspeakers. At about 1:20 into the track a little drum roll followed by a heavy guitar lick really kicks the track into another gear. It's all very enjoyable at low levels as well as with the volume cranked fairly high.
As a HiFi demonstration or a test of what these speakers can do with serious bass I played Marcus Miller's Into Duction and Outro Duction from his album Silver Rain. These two tracks feature Marcus plucking his electric bass like he is known for doing and are really a great test of very deep bass accuracy. These tracks have no hip-hop boomy bass, rather it's all about tightness and how fast the speaker's woofer and start and stop moving. The NX-N500 surprised me quite a bit during this demonstration. I turned up the volume on the rear of the left speaker to about 75% and turned up the volume via remote control to almost 100%. The accuracy and amount of bass these small monitor speakers put out made me smile and chuckle to myself a little bit. My entire 12 foot slab of wood desk was vibrating, but the speaker cabinet wasn't out of control. Sure there was some resonance, but nothing worth writing about. Right before writing this review I put Jay Z's track Holy Grail on through these speakers and cranked the volume up. This track has serious bass boom and the NX-N500 kept up without a problem. The amount of bass was appropriate for the track and every bit as deep as one can expect from such a small speaker. Overall the NX-N500 bass performance is very impressive.
Switching things up 180 degrees, I listened to Shirley Horn's Beautiful Love from her You Won't Forget Me album. This is a delicate track that's all about her vocal with a light dusting of acoustic guitar throughout. The Yamaha NX-N500 speakers don't reveal the ultimate in detail at very low volumes like the aforementioned Magico Q1, but with a little volume boost this track comes out really nice. It's even possible to notice Shirley saying "I love you" at the very end of the track in a whispering voice.
I guess if there is one area where this speaker show some weakness it's with Keith Johnson's reference Recordings material. For example, on Britten's Orchestra by the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern, it's just not possible to hear the minute details and all of the concert hall ambient information that's contained in this recording through the NX-N500. There is a lack of texture to the string section in Passacaglia, a lack of boom to the drums, a lack of ultimate shimmer to the cymbals and a lack of transient snap to the tuba around the 5:45 mark of the track. Every component and every loudspeaker have weaknesses. The weaknesses of the NX-N500 may be ignored by some listeners who aren't looking for the best full scale and fine detailed classical music reproduction while sitting at their desks. Others may scoff, turn their pinky finger up and sip a little scotch before dismissing the Yamaha NX-N500. Such is life.
With a touch of the classic NS10 legacy in its veins and over a century of R&D into its design, the Yamaha NX-N500 all-in-one powered network loudspeaker will be a great fit for most music enthusiasts. The feature set of these speakers is incredibly vast for a speaker at any price. Whether one wishes to connect to the NX-N500 directly via USB or indirectly via a home network the performance is much the same. The USB input has an advantage of asynchronous clock control and support for the extremely high quad DSD 11.2 MHz sample rate, but this may be important to only the highest of HiFi customers. Both the wired Ethernet and wireless 802.11n (2.4 GHz only) interfaces perform remarkably well with support for sample rates up through 24/192 PCM and trouble free gapless playback. Both build quality and sound quality are exactly what we've come to expect from a Yamaha product. The speakers weight is substantial for their small size and they are built to last. There is nothing flimsy about the NX-N500 loudspeakers. Sonically the smooth sound signature is pleasing for the most part. The speakers reproduce most of the music one can throw at them very respectably. From crunching hard rock to deep bass to delicate female vocals, the NX-N500 reproduces them all very well. This is definitely a speaker that one can use all day at the office or during those endless weekend gaming sessions without becoming fatigued by harsh edgy sound. I recommend the Yamaha NX-N500 speakers to anyone looking for a high value, good performing, feature rich, all-in-one solution from a company that has been around a long time and will likely be around for some time to come.
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- Product - Yamaha NX-N500 Network Powered Speakers
- Price - $799.99 / pair
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- Product - Yamaha NX-N500 Network Powered Speakers