For the otherwise uninitiated, Virtual Surround Sound (VSS) is the simpler and more compact way to simulate and enjoy the superior audio quality you’d get with a standard 5.1 surround sound audio receiver set-up – save for all those unsightly cables and space-consuming speakers that require a messy installation. All that’s generally needed with a virtual surround sound system is one speaker, one subwoofer, and a digital audio amplifier as pictured above.
So to those with limited space, to those that live in condos or apartments where every single square inch counts, to those in boardrooms and classrooms, and to those that just simply can’t be bothered with the all the time, hassle, and effort required to set up an audio receiver with accompanying speakers and cables, a virtual surround sound system could be just what you’ve been waiting for.
In the ultra-competitive world that is consumer electronics, we’re all familiar with the fierce brand battles for your dollars when it comes to HD televisions, projectors, cell phones, and computers. But an often overlooked, and now-burgeoning battle is emerging in the single-speaker, virtual surround sound system market, and today we’ll delve into a couple with lots of name recognition behind them – Niro (as in Niro Nakamichi) and their Niro 1000, and Yamaha and their YSP-4000.
As you may have gathered by the title to this showdown piece, I’m a big fan of timeworn clichés, so why not thrown another into the mix such as: you only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it count. With that said, both the Niro 1000 and the Yamaha YSP-4000 do a nice job, offering their products in a black or silver color finish. Similarly, they both utilize a design style that combines selective and subtle curves with hard, straight edges. That’s where the common ground ends however, and subsequently, that’s also where the Niro 1000 edges out the YSP-4000 in the looks and aesthetic department.
Both of these virtual surround sound systems were designed as a means of spatial convenience for those that want high-quality audio without the hassle of wires and multiple speakers taking over their room. While Niro did well to adhere to that memo, Yamaha went a wee bit above and beyond the notion of compact. It’s possible they did this thinking that because the YSP-4000 is only a one piece virtual surround sound system incorporating an amplifier, 5-speaker surround sound, and subwoofer into one, while the Niro 1000 has three pieces (satellite speaker, digital audio amplifier, and subwoofer), they had more slack to work with – or in this particular case, more rope to hang themselves with. The YSP-4000 measures in at: W x H x D: 40 9/16 x 7 5/8 x 5 11/16 inches, and weighs a mucho hefty 34.2 pounds, although when you’re lugging it about, it feel more like 50 pounds. By comparison, the satellite speaker for the Niro 1000 weighs only 14.7 pounds with dimensions of W x D x H: 27.5 x 6 x 5.5 inches. But forget the numbers, pictures really tell the story here, and the photo provided below will visually reinforce how far more compact and space-conscious the Niro 1000 is as compared to the wide and bulky YSP-4000, which is clearly banking on the old adage that bigger is better.
Seemingly out-of-place, 80’s pop culture reference: as per the above image, for some reason I couldn’t help but get the image of the poster for the film Twins out of my head. The amplifier for the Niro 1000 is as inconspicuous as could be, weighing a mere four pounds and 13 ounces, with modest dimensions of: W x H x D: 7.9 x 2.2 x 11.7 inches. The third and final piece is the subwoofer, which is the heaviest of the three at 23.3 pounds, with measurements of: W x D x H: 10.4 x 15.6 x 15.75 inches. While the fixed cables for the sub and speaker offer 16.5 feet worth of convenient slack, the removable power cord for the YSP-4000 is only about six-and-a-half feet long. Considering the subwoofer will sit on the floor (usually to the right or left of your TV or projection) and the amplifier is just barely noticeable, even though the Niro 1000 is three pieces as opposed to one HUGE piece for the YSP-4000, the Niro still manages to be the most accommodating choice when it comes to augmenting your existing home theater or boardroom or classroom configuration. With the Niro 1000 speaker, amp, and subwoofer, you get a total of 150 watts worth of power via five 3.5 inch mid woofers and a one-inch super tweeter, while the YSP-4000 all-in-one package delivers 120 watts of total power via two 4 3/8 inch woofers and 1 5/8 inch x 40 beam drivers. Both the Niro 1000 and the Yamaha YSP-4000 feature solid and sturdy case construction, although as mentioned above, the Niro 1000 manages to find that perfect balance between strong and sturdy meets compact and manageable.
With respect to setting up, both the Niro 1000 and the YSP-4000 manage to keep things simple and direct, although with the YSP-4000 from Yamaha, there is an additional (optional) calibration set-up whereby you’re asked to place the supplied IntelliBeam microphone at the height and distance where you plan on listening from, to thereby maximize your listening experience. Based on its readings and determinations of your specific room, it will give you the thumbs or thumbs down. Thankfully, in my case, I passed this test. Just thinking out loud for a moment here: what would’ve happened if the room didn’t meet the optimal room settings for calibration, thereby causing the YSP-4000 to not maximize my listening experience? Would I have to change rooms? Would I have to reconstruct the existing room by taking down a wall or two? Or would I just simply have to return the product altogether for a different model that liked my room better? In terms of actual connectivity, this is where we find the main difference between the Niro 1000 and the YSP-4000. The Niro 1000 is strictly an audio terminal, meaning no video switching or video inputs. This entails that your DVD or Blu-ray player’s video signals and cables (HDMI, Component) go straight to your TV, and the audio cables (Optical, Coaxial) run from the Niro 1000 amplifier to your video source (DVD, Blu-ray player). For some, this may prove easier, as it isolates video from audio, and doesn’t require you to know which cables output and which cables input when you’re plugging them into one single device. With the YSP-4000, you can go the Niro 1000 way, or, because the YSP-4000 acts as a video switching device, with a dual terminal for both audio and video inputs, you can have everything going from your TV to the YSP-4000 directly. Two is usually better than one, and in this case, the YSP-4000 offers superior versatility in this regard.
In terms of physically placing the Niro 1000 and the YSP-4000 in a given room, as mentioned in the section before this one, the Niro 1000 offers much greater range and flexibility due its more compact and lightweight design. For example, when I set up the Niro 1000 with my 47-inch LCD TV, the satellite speaker blended in nicely with the television and was easy to lift and move about the room, while conversely, the YSP-4000 stuck out like a sore thumb, almost matching the width of the TV inch-for-inch and causing hernia-like pains whenever I needed to move it around. And when you combine that weight with such a wide wingspan, you’ve got a product that registers as exceptionally awkward in the portability category. With the Niro 1000, you can either place the speaker just above the TV with an optional mount, or place it at the base of the TV. With the YSP-4000, placing the unit at the base of the TV is a non-option because its height will block out some of the bottom portion of your TV screen, and therefore the only option is to wall mount it (mounting kit sold separately), unless you don’t mind losing some of the picture, or will simply make-do by slightly raising the TV up.
From an inputs POV (point of view), the Niro 1000 keeps things ultra-streamlined with a healthy number and well-rounded array of audio inputs that include: Coaxial (1), Optical audio (2) for DVD/CD and satellite/cable TV, and Composite audio (1). The front of the amplifier additionally offers another Optical audio and Composite input, along with an input option for headphones via a mini jack. A smart and nifty input touch on the Niro 1000 is the one for a memory card. This essentially “future-proofs” the product, allowing you the ability to upgrade your speakers or amplifier hardware down the road.
For the YSP-4000, things are a little more involved, being that it incorporates audio and video inputs/outputs. Audio inputs include: Optical audio (2), Coaxial (2), Composite (2), and one front panel mini jack. Video inputs include: HDMI (2), HDMI Out (1), Component (2), Component Out (1), Composite (3), and Composite Out (1). It also offers an output for a subwoofer, which as we’ll discuss further down, is a good thing, because although integrated into an all-in-one unit like the YSP-4000, the absence of a true subwoofer is quite noticeable by its absence.
With set-up and cable connections complete, the next order of business is to get cozy with the remote controls for the Niro 1000 and the Yamaha YSP-4000. This is essentially a cat’s game, as both offer ergonomic design, above-average functionality with a nice blend of one-touch button controls, and the ability to be programmed with other peripherals devices such as DVD players and televisions. And if you happen to find yourself the proud and happy owner of such obscure and trivia-stumping electronics classics that include Dwin, Kloss, Onwa, Nad, Zerith, Funai, Fraba, and its rhyming cousin Saba, along with all the other well-known, name brands that need no mention because their names aren’t nearly as fun to write or funny to read, rest assured that the Niro 1000 and the YSP-4000 are quite likely to have the programmable code you’re looking for. The only feature that may nudge your interests towards the Niro 1000 remote control, giving it the ever-so slight edge over the remote control for the YSP-4000 is by virtue of the fact that it offers glow-in-the-dark functionality for some of the more frequently used buttons. Taken individually, it’s not a major thing by any stretch of the imagination, but in combination, it further reinforces the Niro spirit of wanting to offer convenience with performance.
As with any single-speaker, virtual surround sound audio system, the real test is whether it sounds like sweet music to your ears, or alternately, being cruelly subjected to another album by Philip Michael Thomas, ex of Miami Vice TV-series fame and not much else. For audio testing purposes, it was conducted in two different-sized rooms to see how both would perform in diverse listening environments. The first room was of average size, measuring in at: (L) 16 x (W) 13 x (H) 9 feet, and free of any obstructions, save for the table-top unit which housed the 47-inch LCD TV. Via a coaxial audio connection and a Pioneer DV-400V DVD player, I first went through various scenes from Pearl Harbor and The Fifth Element.
Both films overall exhibited clean and clear sound, though as I cranked the volume on the Niro 1000 and the Yamaha YSP-4000, the Niro was still able to maintain the clean audio, while by contrast, the Yamaha did experience some hiccups in the form of static and distortion. It was by no means overwhelming or painfully distracting, but it was definitely obvious and audible. Another noticeable point of contrast was presence in the room. The Niro 1000 had it; the YSP-4000 did not. While both can not replace or completely replicate the authentic feel of what a conventional audio receiver with a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound speaker system does, the Niro 1000 at least offers a reasonable facsimile to creating the feeling of audio coming at you from different angles. With the YSP-4000, no matter what surround sound mode I used (5 Beam, Stereo plus 3 Beam, 3 Beam, My Surround), everything sounded and felt like it was simply coming from directly in front of me. The various preset Cinema Modes weren’t any better (they usually aren’t), as they sounded false, phony, and digitally manufactured. As well, when the action got loud and heated (the attack on Pearl Harbor for instance), it was almost impossible to differentiate the score, SFX, ambient sounds, and dialogue, and as such, the loudest sounds took precedent over everything else, rendering all the subtleties of the soundscape virtually non-existent. The Niro 1000 did a far better job balancing and juggling all the various sound elements, and as a whole, everything sounded richer, fuller, and deeper. The exceptional work on the part of the Niro 1000 subwoofer handling all the low range audio frequencies had more than a little to do with this I’m sure. For those familiar with The Fifth Element, while there is no specific scene on par with the auditory assault that you get in Pearl Harbor, there are several scenes with a deep and bass-heavy score that underpins all of the action. Had I first sampled the Yamaha YSP-4000, I would have never even known there was score of any kind going on. Having tested the Niro 1000 first however, I knew what to expect. And once again, it delivered tremendous audio, with every bass line coming through majestically so you could hear it and feel it. That’s what we often take for granted when it comes to sound and audio. While it’s important to hear everything crisp and clean and clear and full, it’s also equally important to feel it, and while the Niro 1000 delivered more often than not, the Yamaha YSP-4000 by comparison mostly failed in that department.
It was now time to listen music CDs, and the two I used were “Turn on the Bright Lights” by Interpol and “Southern Harmony And Musical Companion” by the Black Crowes. The limited (as in nobody bought them) edition copies of “Living the Book of My Life” and “Somebody” by Philip Michael Thomas were unavailable for testing because A. I didn’t own them, and B. even if I did, I would’ve burned them right before running them over with my SUV… just to make sure they were really dead and done. At any rate, if I was impressed (and I was) at how well the Niro 1000 handled movie audio, it couldn’t have prepared me for just how amazing it would sound with music CDs where it seemed to find another two gears worth of performance. Conversely, the YSP-4000 went from average to worse when it came to audio CDs. While the Niro 1000 was able to punctuate every guitar riff and drum solo with clean and crisp vocals, and super deep bass lines, the YSP-4000 sounded oddly limp and muted by comparison. None of the Yamaha surround sound modes were particularly rich, warm, or inviting, and while standard stereo sound was the best of the bunch, it lacked presence in the room. Further, you never felt, heard, or got the sense of each instrument emerging or blending from a separate audio channel – everything sounded like one mass cluster of blandness, and some speaker pops were slightly audible when the volume was raised. In short: what the YSP-4000 wasn’t, the Niro 1000 was. Audio always maintained a clear and sharp integrity, the sound was immersive, and you could literally hear every subtle nuance of the musical landscape that the CDs had to offer. The only potential downside I could see with the Niro 1000 is just how disappointing and underwhelming every CD would sound in comparison when you couldn’t listen to it through the Niro 1000. It would be like going from dining on a perfect filet mignon and a fine glass of red wine, to having to munch down on a greasy, fast-food burger and carbonated soda pop of your choice.
Moving on, I then switched the proceedings to a much larger space (L: 30 x W: 29.5 x H: 9 feet) to see how the Niro 1000 and Yamaha YSP-4000 would fare. Worth noting: the Niro 1000 is designed to offer the ideal listening experience from 10-13 feet away, and while the YSP-4000 doesn’t offer any specifics in this regard, I’d approximate it would likely be in the same range as well. Overall impressions of the listening experience would be as follows: while the audio for both the Niro 1000 and the YSP-4000 gets somewhat lost and scattered in a larger space, the Niro 1000 manages to admirably hold its own, and the subwoofer does a really nice job delivering all the low frequency audio that’s quite often the very core of any worthwhile listening experience. Additionally, in both instances, the notion of virtual surround sound is a tougher sell in larger spaces because they are limited insofar as only having one actual speaker at their disposal. While the Niro 1000 fares better, it’s certainly not enough for someone to up and replace their traditional 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound receiver and speaker package – and in fairness to the YSP-4000 and the Niro 1000 in particular, they aren’t marketed as such anyway.
In response to the title of this piece, the answer would be: "No, bigger isn't always better, because good things do indeed come in small packages."
Ultimately it comes down to priorities – and in the case of the Niro 1000, it clearly knows what those are. It’s an audio device: a virtual surround sound system designed to deliver big-time audio with as little hassle… and speakers and cables as possible. This streamlined approach has no doubt lent itself to being able to offer a truly dynamic and powerful listening experience. With the Yamaha YSP-4000, its approach appears to have been trying to be all things to all people (video switching, analog video to HDMI digital video upconversion, analog to HD video upscaling, iPod compatibility, built-in FM tuner, and XM satellite radio-ready), and in the process, its essential purpose and reason for being – audio/sound projection – was somewhat compromised in the process. And with a U.S. MSRP price-point that happens to be about $200 more than the superior Niro 1000, these added features become merely gimmicks without the inclusion of a subwoofer, doing more to hurt than help the YSP-4000 cause. And once you’ve added a subwoofer of reasonable quality – at an additional cost of at least $300 to $400 – into the YSP-4000 mix, you’ve just made a bulky product bulkier, and an expensive product even more expensive. Bottom line: if you’re looking to complete your (home theater or business or classroom) picture with the next best thing to an actual 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound audio package, then the Niro 1000 is easily the best option currently available.
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