A huge ecosystem, a neat and effective app, and some great sounds — Yamaha has delivered a fine multiroom system.
Last issue we took a detailed look at Yamaha’s ‘Studio’ NX-N500 wireless speakers, which are just one component of the company’s MusicCast wireless multiroom system. We loved them — hence our Sound+image 2016 award for them as Multiroom Component of the Year. And MusicCast itself won our Multiroom System of the Year. So clearly we’re quite enthused.
Why? What gives Yamaha an edge in our affections? (Although we should note that with apps evolving and new components and systems launching since our awards judging, the whole market is a moveable feast.)
Meet the family
Firstly it is impressively all-encompassing. From the off Yamaha made it clear that it wanted not just the usual range of wireless speakers and a few receiver units, it was preparing to install MusicCast abilities everywhere possible in its range. So yes, there are standalone speakers and wireless stereo speakers, but like Bose it has also taken several of its already-successful products and added the wireless streaming and multiroom abilities to its latest AV receivers, hi-fi amplifiers, its soundbars (or Digital Sound Projectors, as Yamaha calls them), and its ‘lifestyle’ products such as the weird hang-it-on-the-wall Frame thing.
All these can share their inputs with other MusicCast devices on your network, they can all receive via Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay or DLNA. And there’s the rather useful bonus of each MusicCast device also being able to share with an additional Bluetooth speaker (or headphone), whether that be a Yamahabranded box or not.
Once set up (see panel overleaf), the room images make the home screen of MusicCast extremely inviting, and emphasise the multiroom abilities of the system. To control any given room, you tap that picture, and you’re presented with a new screen for that device. This includes all the physical inputs
available to the device (see above for the NX-N500s), plus the options of AirPlay and Bluetooth, internet radio, Spotify, Pandora, the music on your device itself, and ‘Server’ for DLNA music shares on your network.
So this screen doubles as a remote control for input selection, plus a way of choosing music to send to your selected MusicCast player. Select Pandora, and you’ll be invited to input your account information, and then a sidebar appears on the right (see above) to control Pandora within the app. We were asked if we wanted to pass this account information to our other MusicCast devices, which we did, but later had to re-input the information anyway for each device.
Most of the other music sources work in a similar way, opening a sidebar on the right, allowing navigation in the usual ways. All this worked highly effectively. We could see the playlists on our smart device itself, we could see DLNA shares on the network and could navigate (sometimes a little slowly), by all the usual options of folder, artist, artist/ album etc. We ran our usual test files to see what file types it could stream and what it couldn’t, and it came out extremely well — pretty much everything except multichannel FLAC and one DSD file (though DSD is listed as supported at both 2.8 and 5.6MHz). So MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC and WAV up to 24-bit/192kHz, AIFF, Apple Lossless even, all passed through the system and played through the MusicCast units.
Internet radio again opens in a sidebar, with the usual navigation options including a podcast section. But it badly needs a search option or at least an alphabetical jump list — good luck finding your podcast of choice among the thousands presented in one long list for each country. The scrolling is good but the names don’t load until a second or two after you stop, so you’re guessing as to where you are, and after a few minutes we just gave up searching for, for example, Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2.
For Spotify the MusicCast app diverts you to the dedicated Spotify app and you send to the desired unit by the ‘Connect’ button.
Also in the app you can change inputs — anything you can connect to your MusicCast players or a MusicCast-equipped receiver, you can share. Compare that with most rival systems which offer a single minijack analogue input for sharing, and the possibilities seem enormous.
One omission in the app is that the hard volume buttons on your controlling device don’t seem to affect the level within MusicCast, which is handy on some rival systems to nudge levels quickly on the fly.
Back on the room screen (left) there is a small link button at top left which then invites you to select a ‘Master’ and then link other players to it. You will always control that master player, and the linked players will output the same audio. On the room screen, the linked players
disappear, leaving you with the master player, which will now display, say, “+ 2 rooms” (screenshot above).
The volume bar still appears as a single slider in the app, but when selected it splits into multiple controls for the different players. We like Yamaha’s implementation here which prevents rapid (perhaps accidental) volume shifts — slide it up, and the bar only gradually fills behind it as the volume ramps up; you can drop back to the desired volume without ever overshooting. Volume reductions, however, are instant. It’s good practical thinking.
Linking the players worked perfectly once our early Wi-Fi issue (see set-up) was sorted. It’s easy to do on an ad hoc basis, but think first which unit you wish to use as master and which as slave — since you’ll have access to the inputs of the master, but not of the slave. So if you want to share the input of a particular player, that must be the master.
Sync times were as perfect as we could wish with streaming or networked music, even between two devices in the same room. There is an inevitable delay when forwarding an actual physical input to another MusicCast device, and an even longer one when slaving using Bluetooth transmission (see Bluetooth bonus, below). This delay is understandable and indeed inevitable; it’s unlikely to be a problem when playing music, but it does become relevant when, say, using Bluetooth headphones slaved to the soundbar to watch TV. The delay of about 0.2 seconds was enough to put things out of sync with the TV image, so you may need to compensate using any available sync settings on your TV and/or Blu-ray player.
When you’re playing music, there’s a further set of controls next to the volume slider — the pop-up you see varies depending on the payer. For the N500 speakers, the WX-030 speaker unit and the lifestyle ISX-80 it offered a sleep timer (turn off after 30, 60, 90 or 120 minutes) and three-band EQ — high, mid, and low adjustment (we often tweak these to our preference — to Yamaha’s credit we left everything flat, as supplied).
But on the soundbar we were offered control of the sound mode and Clear Voice — especially handy feedback since the visual indicators on the bar itself are confusing.
The Bluetooth bonus
Also hidden away here in the individual player controls is one of MusicCast’s secret weapons — the ability to use any Bluetooth speaker as an additional linked player. Each MusicCast player can send to one non- MusicCast Bluetooth speaker (or Bluetooth headphones, if you like). So you can use anything you already own as part of your MusicCast system, even stick a Bluetooth receiver dongle into a dumb audio system and stream to it like that.
Can you link multiple rooms and still have each of them linked to a different Bluetooth receiver? Yes you can! We linked the soundbar and the N500s individually to different sets of Bluetooth headphones, then we linked the two rooms, and soon the music was flowing from all four. You can mute the master players and the sound will still come from the Bluetooth slave. Note there will be the obvious range limitation of Bluetooth — you may be able to pair with some other Bluetooth speaker but will you be using it within Bluetooth range of the MusicPlay unit?
We found you can’t share AirPlay — but then you can instead address multiple units simultaneously from your AirPlay source. The latest versions of iTunes (top right) make multiple-device AirPlay playback an absolute delight, and of course it’s full CD quality.