THE GOOD: The Yamaha RX-V481 offers excellent sound quality in a relatively affordable package. Its enticing combination of features includes Dolby Atmos, multiroom music and streaming to Bluetooth headphones. The six HDMI ports support 4K video and HDR sources.
THE BAD: No Chromecast built-in. The user interface and remote control require a slight learning curve. The Zone 2 speakers have spring clips instead of binding posts.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Yet another strong contender from Yamaha, the RX-V681 combines a bevy of gotta-have features with seriously potent sound quality.
If you’re upgrading your home theater, what’s your main reason for doing so? Is it to run that new set of power-hungry speakers you bought? Or is it to keep up with the some of the latest audio and video standards?
The Yamaha RX-V681 can help with both. It supports Dolby Atmos and HDR, two of the latest home-theater standards, and has a number of other goodies including Yamaha’s MusicCast multiroom system, six HDMI ports and Bluetooth. It also has plenty of power and excellent overall sound.
With all of the tools in its arsenal, the Yamaha RX-V681 offers some compelling reasons to upgrade, especially compared to cheaper models in the company’s range. It’s available now in the US for $600, in the UK for £500 or AU$1,300 in Australia.
Many receivers today limit the functionality available from the front panel in order to keep the look minimal. Not the RX-V681. Its face is more cluttered than its competitors’ but we didn’t mind, especially since it includes handy shortcuts to the most popular inputs. The large LED display is blue and easy to read from across the room.
Yamaha’s onscreen interface has received a spit-and-polish over previous years. The RX-V681 now boasts a “high definition menu system” but it takes a little getting used to with its up/down and left/right navigation, even for users already familiar with AVRs.
On of the things the company has also “upgraded” in this receiver is the remote. Gone is the “friendly” candy bar, which is replaced by the dreaded “scientific calculator.” The rows and rows of lots of tiny buttons, 70 in all, can be a bit daunting. Still, the volume up/down buttons are well placed. But really, just get a Harmony.
If you’re trying to decide between the cheaper RX-V481 and the V681, the most obvious difference between them is that only the RX-V681 does the atmospheric, “object-based” formats Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Essentially, the cheaper receiver is a 5.1 model, or has five amplified channels, while the 681 boasts seven amplified channels. Power per channel gets a small bump from 80W to 90W. While most of the connectors are standard binding posts, we were a little disappointed to see a pair of spring clips for the Zone 2/Presence speakers.
The 681 also offers more HDMI ports than the 481 — an increase from (a frankly pitiful) four to a healthier six — and all of these ports are now HDCP 2.2 and HDMI 2.0 compliant. Connectivity also includes a decent selection of analog and digital ports in addition to both Bluetooth in and Bluetooth out (to compatible headphones or a speaker).
Yamaha’s proprietary MusicCast system offers access to a number of services including Rhapsody, SiriusXM, Pandora and Spotify. It also comes with the ability to read from users’ phones or network devices (up to 24-bit/96kHz) as well as transmit over Apple’s AirPlay.
One feature to look out for in 2017, but which the Yamaha misses out on, is built-in Chromecast(previously Google Cast). For Android and iOS phones and tablets, Chromecast offers the ability to stream directly from a music app to a single speaker or several of them without having to load a proprietary app like MusicCast.
We used a pair of Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR speakers in the front-left and -right positions, an Elite SP-C73 center-channel speaker, ELAC Debut B5s as surround speakers, and a Klipsch R-110SW subwoofer with the RX-V681. We ran all the speakers as “small” speakers with subwoofer-to-speaker crossover points set to 80 Hz. Audio setup was unusually straightforward; the RX-V681 sounded good from the get-go.
Listening to 192 kHz/24-bit high-resolution files from Judy Collins’ “Strangers Again” album, the RX-V681’s sweet tonal balance made the music go down easy. Her duets with Willie Nelson, Jeff Bridges and Jackson Browne sounded natural and had a solid three-dimensional presence; we heard a little less of that when we switched over to the Marantz NR1607 receiver. Between the two, the Marantz sounded somewhat clearer and more transparent than the RX-V681. As to which one sounds better, that’s a question of personal preference, though your speakers’ tonal balance should be considered. Our Pioneer Elite speakers are straight down the middle neutral, but if you have bright speakers the NR1607 might sound too lean, and the RX-V681 would be a better match.
To check the RX-V681’s power reserves, we braced ourselves for a healthy dose of the “Mad Max: Fury Road” Blu-ray’s endless road battles. Even when we pushed the volume to extremes, the RX-V681 never failed to deliver the “feel them in your gut” explosions, rampant gunfire and sounds of the crashing road machines’ twisted metal carcasses tumbling across the desert. Movies like this have tremendous dynamic range, which make big demands on receivers and speakers, and the RX-V681 took it all in stride. The Pioneer Elite speakers blend with the Klipsch subwoofer was smooth, so the sub never called attention to itself.
After that workout we needed something a bit quieter, so we turned to “The Dresser,” a 2015 film starring Anthony Hopkins as the aging stage actor, Sir, and his loyal dresser, Norman, played by Ian McKellen. The film is set in England during World War II, and the natural sound mix for the scenes inside a creaky old dressing room, and the stage scenes were spot-on. The sense of being there as the town and even the theater are being bombed by German aircraft kept us on the edge of our seats. No matter what, the performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” must go on. The sound was palpably realistic, that’s high praise for any home theater system.
Returning to two-channel music with the Grateful Dead’s classic “American Beauty” album, the acoustic guitars and vocals sounded clear and naturally balanced, but the soundstage wasn’t as deep as we heard from the NR1607.
The Yamaha RX-V681 is a good example of what a midprice receiver in 2017 affords home theater buyers, and is definitely worth the price. We liked its rich sound, though we noted the Marantz NR1607’s more vivid presentation will have its admirers. If you need Atmos but also want wireless music streaming, the Yamaha’s $100 discount on the Marantz might help sway your decision.