An amazing piece of design from Yamaha, we really were blown away
THX Ultra 2 Plus... we could go on
Even hardcore AV fans might struggle to utilise 11 channels
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The first amp I ever owned was a Yamaha, vintage 1978. It had 10W per channel in stereo and four controls – and one of them was on/off. Fast-forward 30 years to the eagerly-anticipated DSP-Z11. Packing 170W for each of its seven main channels and 50W apiece for the other four, it offers a little more beef than my first amp.
CPU architecture, four-zone multi-room, Full HD video and HD audio processing, and about five million other features make it a bit more complicated too. Okay, so Yamaha locked 40 of its top engineers in the lab for almost four years to create the Z11 – but do we really need such an overtly muscular and hideously complex beast? Yes we do, more than the air we breathe.
If you love music and movies and want the best AV amplifier money can buy then the Z11’s £5,000 asking price is worth every sacrifice.
In terms of features, the Z11 ticks all the boxes for a flagship amplifier at the heart of a major multi-room AV installation… then invents 100 or so more boxes and ticks those as well. This is the first AV amplifier to feature THX Ultra 2 Plus certification, which introduces a raft of new and improved post-processing modes (which frankly I don’t have room to elucidate upon?). Suffice to say, cinephiles will find much amid all the post-processing modes to admire.
The Z11’s core architecture is more like a top-spec PC, based around a high-speed data processor to which the OS, GUI, and decoding algorithms are loaded from solid-state memory (containing the upgradeable firmware) when you switch on. While this does mean it takes quite a few seconds to ‘boot up’, the Z11 is the most flexible, feature-laden and future-proof AV amp I’ve ever seen.
Taking the features list from the top, the DSP-Z11 is four-zone multi-room, fully networkable with Ethernet hardwire, HDMI v1.3-compatible with twin outputs and upscales any video source to 1080p with Anchor Bay’s finest processing engine. The video side handles 120Hz and 24Hz refresh rates for that true movie experience and you get auto lip sync.
The audio processing is fully tooled-up for every AV sound format including Dolby True HD and DTS Master Audio (of course) and the power and amplification stands comparison with even the most esoteric high-end hi-fi. Indeed, I’d rate the power supply as one of the finest I have ever tested. And audio-tuning details extend to a full Rahmen construction – specifically placed metal rectangular braces that cancel out microscopic eddy currents in the chassis!
But I’m actually only scratching the surface of the features and technology developed for the Z11 – and I feel well qualified to verify that. The review sample was accompanied by Yamaha’s Terry Murphy, who sat me through a 212-page Power Point presentation before he would give me the remote control.
The sheer level of attention to detail, both in the feature set and engineering, is of the absolute highest calibre. It is eminently clear that those 40 engineers weren’t just knocking back the sake and playing Three-Card Stud since 2004. For a four-page overview of the features alone, download the Z11 Product Bulletin from Yamaha’s website – because I need to tell you what it is like to live with…
So where do you start with a piece of kit like this? Buying more speakers probably. This is an 11.2 -channel amp; to max-out its abilities you are going to need two more pairs of speakers to place high and wide on the front and rear walls and another active sub. These ‘presence’ channels come into play using Yamaha’s DSP modes to expand the usual 5.1 and 7.1 sound formats. Having rustled up the requisite speakers, brackets, subs and another 40m of cable, the real suffering for your art begins.
Auto setup might have been invented to simplify initial operation but the Z11 takes setting up an AV amplifier to new levels of depth and detail. Although there is a quick setup, to get the best from the advanced YPAO parametric EQ system and to make your listening sweet spot actually a ‘sweet-area’, the beast needs to measure and analyse all 13 channels in eight different room positions – and then three times more at the hot seat. This takes about an hour of hissing and whooping noises, interspersed with having to move the mic around the room. Then you accidentally cancel the settings without saving. I did. Twice.
Assign amps, tie up the relevant video inputs with matching audio inputs, rename everything and finetune all the video processing settings and preferences.
Having had all manner of issues getting AV amps to speak to my home PC network, I was pleasantly surprised that the Z11 sniffed it out and grabbed an IP address just by plugging the network cable in. Built-in wi-fi would have been more convenient, but wired Ethernet is more robust and wireless Ethernet bridges are only a few quid.
After staring at Yamaha’s gorgeous, easy-to-use GUI for three hours I think I am there. Insert disc into HD DVD player, press play.
Imagine one of those high-speed flashback scenes; my old Yamaha amp from university, Yamaha’s first AV amp (the DSP-A1000), a string of DSP-AX models with black fascias and orange displays, the Z11 launch event in Prague, the hangover, the adverts in the trade press, Terry arriving at my house, all 212 slides, the blue-background GUI and the Dolby True HD logo spinning onto screen… and pow! The world is a huge cataclysmic explosion of sound that is deep, powerful and articulate, expanding to fill a soundstage that is truly vast.
My jaw is on the space-bar as the player rolls a clip from Sahara. The car chasing across the sand with a helicopter in hot pursuit. The sound is a tangible, physical force that immediately gives the open-air sense of the desert, punctuated with engine noises, wheels on sand, helicopter blades, dialogue, gunfire, a character rustling in an old bag for explosives, and the subsequent explosions – all laid out with intricate detail and pin-point positioning.
It’s hitting 105dB of chaos in room but it is clearly made up of a thousand individual sounds that you can pick out and place with laser precision. The separation is fantastic, the impact stunning, and the sheer involvement factor is off the scale – even my goosebumps have got goosebumps. I have to press pause just to relieve the sensory overload. Hubba!
And if revelations weren’t already in plentiful supply, I looked at the front panel of the Z11… Regular readers may know that I have never really ‘got’ DSP modes, considering them a phasey-sounding diversion from what the director intended, and haven’t had the best of results from RoomEQ systems either. You guessed it; the Z11 was in ‘Movie Action’ DSP mode and the YPAO EQ was set to ‘Natural’. It was taking the basic 5.1 True HD signal, employing EX decoding to generate the rear-backs, and using some pretty clever processing to fire-up the second sub and the four presence channels, and then applying subtle room EQ to balance the sound and reduce standing waves.
Play it again, Yam
Playing the clip again in straight 5.1 True HD is superb, with all of the intricate detailing, power and clarity firmly intact (proving you don’t have to run the amp in 11.2 mode if you don’t have enough speakers). There is precision effects-steering that is the best I have heard and all five channels work together remarkably cohesively. At any volume the Z11 impresses with its vice-like grip on the speakers and the huge power reserves (measured at 149W in multi-channel mode) keep everything ultra-tight, right up to serious ASBO levels. With a set of big floorstanders front and rear, the ship that thunders overhead in the opening few seconds of ...The Phantom Menace has a very real, very substantial presence.
Switching back to Movie Action DSP mode adds about five metres to every room dimension – including the ceiling height. The sound is no longer largely concentrated in a horizontal plane but expanded into a three-dimensional space that far transcends the actual room boundaries. Better still, this effect is not at the expense of clarity, nor does it lose the plot with phase issues – it’s like 5.1 sound only much, much bigger. The rear presence channels give the soundstage huge height and depth behind the sofa, and the additional front pair neatly pulls dialogue up into the centre of the screen. Well, just call me a convert… I now ‘get’ DSP.
Behold the good news!
The good news does not stop at movies either. If purism is in your heart, you have just got to hear the Z11’s Pure Direct mode with a CD. The music performance is as natural, clear and articulate as some of the best two-channel integrated amps
I have heard, and packs 190W of punch and power to boot. It seems as happy with Katie Melua as it is with Metallica, managing to elicit swells of emotion and passion as if it were on tap. It doesn’t quite pull-off the visceral dynamics and sheer ‘rock n roll’ factor of Denon’s ageing monster AVC-A1XVA, but the DSP-Z11 is a far better all-rounder with music.
Fast-forward a week and I have given the Z11 a serious session with the CD collection, a back-to-back sitting of the first three Star Wars movies, a romp through 300, The Bourne trilogy, Transformers and Blade Runner all on HD DVD, and I am seriously thinking about consumer finance. The sound is the best I have heard from any AVR to date – full stop. Moreover, the picture processing is up there with the very best, the day-to-day operation is delightful, the remote controls are great, the multi-room offering is the most flexible on the market, and the CPU innards means it can be kept bang up to date for years to come.
Yamaha’s DSP Z11 is a ridiculously brilliant piece of design and engineering, and can confidently be considered a new reference standard for AV amplifiers.