Yamaha has announced a new MusicCast amplifier which can power four separate zones and fit neatly into a 9″ rack.
The XDA-QS5400RK is a very slim and compact unit which provides separate audio streaming for four rooms, with two channels of high quality class D amplification for each room. All from one unit which can be located in your server rack.
If you have more than one pair of speakers in the rooms you wish to power with the XDA-QS5400RK, you can double the amount of powered channels by pairing it with a XDA-AMP5400RK. This is an eight-channel amplifier which is built to the same form-factor. In fact, if you have a very large area such as a shop or restaurant you could add several of these additional amplifiers to power many speakers.
Having 4 zones seems like a good choice. In a smaller house for example, this could power pairs of ceiling speakers in the kitchen, dining room, bathroom and bedroom. While integrating fully with another Yamaha MusicCast product such as a home cinema AV receiver or soundbar in the living room to provide a 5th zone with surround sound in there. If you require more zones you can either add another XDA-QS5400RK to power another 4 zones, or other MusicCast products.
As previous visitors to Smart Home and AV Guide will know, we are are big fans of the Yamaha MusicCast system. If this product lives up to the usual Yamaha quality, it’ll be hard to find a better way to power an integrated audio system for your home.
The main wireless speaker or multi-room audio brands now are SONOS, Yamaha MusicCast and Denon HEOS. There are also token offerings from the big TV manufacturers like Samsung, LG and Panasonic.
The trouble with multi-room audio systems, is that they can be prone to glitches and unreliability. We’ve experienced these difficulties with some of the systems; certain speakers don’t show up on the app, music doesn’t play in sync from all speakers and products can randomly disconnect from the WiFi.
We can say with honesty that we have never experienced any of these glitches with either SONOS or Yamaha MusicCast here at Smart Home and AV Guide.
Just for the purposes of clarity, I will stop at this point to say that we do not receive any financial incentive from specific manufacturers. Although we do have advertising on this website, it is mostly generated at random. My recommendations on this subject are based purely on several years experience within the industry.
Here in the UK, the market leader is SONOS. From our own experience, this is very well deserved. The SONOS system and products are incredibly well designed, reliable and intuitive to use. It is a closed system, the SONOS app and the streaming services which work within the SONOS app are almost the only way to operate the SONOS speakers. However, this is part of the reason SONOS is so reliable and intuitive. It just works.
Yamaha MusicCast is a newer system, which offers a really interesting and broad range of compatible products. So far we have found the system to be equally as reliable as SONOS.
I equally recommend SONOS and Yamaha MusicCast. Specifically which of these I’d choose would be based on if you are wanting your multi-room system to integrate with other products. In this post I will outline the pros & cons of both systems in more detail.
In this article we’ll talk you through the differences between MusicCast and SONOS, so you can decide which is best for you.
SONOS Speakers and Product Range
SONOS has a range of three stand-alone wireless speakers, which sound decent, for what they are. There is the PLAY 1, or SONOS ONE which are the smallest and cheapest options. The Ply 1 is a compact little unit which is great for getting music to parts of your house where the sound quality isn’t too important. Last year they released an improved version of the PLAY 1, called the SONOS ONE. This is a the same as the Play 1, but also has a microphone and compatibility with Amazon Alexa. The voice control system. It is also compatible with Apple Airplay and SONOS’s TruePlay calibration system. This means that the SONOS ONE should, in theory give better audio performance.
Then there is the Play 5, this produces impressive results. It is bigger and more expensive, but provides much better sound with more detail and clarity.
With all SONOS speakers it is possible to buy two of them and configure two work as a stereo pair. If you take two SONOS Play 5s and configure them in stereo, you will acquire a sound which can easily compete with a HiFi separates system of a similar price.
SONOS also do a couple of sound-bars, two amplifiers and a device called the Connect, which allows you to integrate a HiFi into your SONOS system.
Yamaha Speakers and Product Range
Yamaha makes a MusicCast speaker called the MusicCast 20 which easily competes with the SONOS Play 1 and s around the same price. It also has Bluetooth, which means anyone can connect their device to it and play music without even needing the app.
There is the ISX-18, ISX-80 and ISX-803 Restio These are all similar in design with the 18 being the smallest and the 803 is the biggest. Their design resembles a flat square which can either stand or attach flat against the wall like a picture frame or a wall-clock. The ISX-803 is also available with a floor-stand. In the centre of the square shape there is digital clock display. The ISX series speakers are very nicely designed lifestyle products. Like most wireless speakers they may not provide the best performance in terms of sound quality, but they will go nicely on the wall and provide acceptable background music for that room.
MusicCast does have a couple of significant advantages. The first is that as well as wireless speakers, Yamaha makes a huge range of other audio products that has MusicCast built-in, including; Stereo HiFI Amplifiers, home cinema AV-Receivers, mini HIFI systems and sound-bars.
Yamaha has now also introduced a MusicCast turntable. This can be connected to your HiFi amplifier just as you would any other turntable, allowing the full range of MusicCast streaming capabilities. It will also play your favorite records and will even allow you to hear your records playing on another MusicCast speaker elsewhere in your house.
MusicCast is even built into some of Yamaha’s pianos, meaning that it is possible to stream live piano music throughout your home!
Use With Passive Speakers
If you want to use Hifi speakers or ceiling speakers with the SONOS system you can do so using the SONOS Connect Amp or the new SONOS AMP. With MusicCast, not only is there a direct equivalent to the Connect Amp, there is a complete range of HiFi amplifiers and a mini systems which will do the same thing. In fact, for less than three quarters of the price of a SONOS connect amp, Yamaha makes the N470. This is a mini system with a CD player, DAB radio and Bluetooth. The amplification is on a par with the Connect Amp, but with all of those extra features.
The Apps, Streaming Services and Connectivity.
Both the MusicCast app and the SONOS app are easy to use and intuitive.
Unless you are an Apple Airplay user, the SONOS system is very closed*. You can only control SONOS devices using their app, which is available for IOS or Android devices, or as a desktop version for both Macs and PCs. The SONOS app can be used to access music which is stored on your device, or stored on either the shared folder of a computer or on a NAS drive or media server. It can also access internet radio and the most popular streaming services such as Deezer, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify Etc.
*If you have an Apple device and either the SONOS Beam, ONE, Play: 5 or Playbase, you can connect to your SONOS system using AirPlay. This means that if you want to listen to something which is not built into the SONOS app, such as YouTube or an internet radio catch-up service, you can.*
The SONOS Connect and the Play5 have analogue inputs, which allow you to input the sound from other audio devices. The SONOS sound-bars also have optical inputs for you to connect your TV.
If you don’t have Apple AirPlay and want to play music from any source which is not included in the SONOS app, such as YouTube, or from your web browser, you’ll need to use another device to access that content and plug it into a SONOS device which has an input. If you have a HiFI with the SONOS connect attached, this will allow you to play music through your HiFi just as you can with the other SONOS speakers. It also has an input. This means that it is possible to play a record or CD on your HiFi and listen to it on other SONOS speakers elsewhere in your house.
SONOS only works via the app only and through WiFi or ethernet connection to your home network. There is no Bluetooth capability.
Most of the Yamaha MusicCast products have Bluetooth and Apple Airplay, as well as network connection and can work on their own without the app.
It is possible to connect your phone to a MusicCast speaker using a simple Bluetooth connection and instantly play anything which you can play on your phone through that speaker. You don’t need to use the app to play a CD or use the radio on any of their amplifiers or mini-systems.
As with SONOS, the MusicCast app allows access to the streaming services, access to music stored on your device or elsewhere on your home network, and allows for independent control of all your MusicCast products. You use the app to make the most of the streaming and multi-room audio functionality. The app is available for both IOS and Android devices.
MusicCast offers compatibility with Hi-Res audio files, where SONOS does not.
If you have a collection of MusicCast devices in your home you can play the music from any source on any device, to other connected devices. For example, if you have a CRXN470 mini system in one room which is playing a CD, you can listen to the CD on a WX010 speaker in another room. Interestingly, if you can connect to one MusicCast device using Bluetooth, then listen to the music on another MusicCast device on your home network.
SONOS has been the well-deserved market leader in wireless home audio for a long time, and for very good reason. Their ease of use, software, app, general compatibility and reliability is second to none. The MusicCast app is almost as intuitive and easy to use. However MusicCast has a much broader range of compatible products.
Essentially, we recommend SONOS and MusicCast equally. If you are going to use a Yamaha AV-Receiver for your home cinema it makes sense to use MusicCast. For ease of use and if you don’t need compatibility with Hi-Res audio files, it might be best to choose SONOS.
Digital to Analogue Conversion, DACs: How Digital Audio Quality Can Vary Between Devices
When sound is first recorded it is it is captured using a microphone, which is an analogue device. The sound waves are made into analogue waveform, which is then later processed into binary digital data for storage and transmission.
The analogue to digital conversion process works by repeatedly measuring the analogue waveform, then outputting these measurements as a long list of binary data, to create an image of the sound.
The quality of this conversion is determined by two things; how frequently these measurements of the waveform are made, and how accurately they are measured, also known as the word length.
Each measurement of the sound wave is called a sample. The sample rate or frequency is the number of times each measurement is made per second. With CD quality the sample rate is 44.1KHz, which means that the converter has measured the sound wave 44100 times each second.
The sample rate of a recording is consistent, it does not vary throughout a single recording. The higher the sample rate, the better the quality, but the more data is required to store the file. With a lower sample rate, you loose quality, but have a file which is smaller and easier to store or transmit.
The accuracy of each measurement is known as the word length and measured as a Bit rate. The Bit rate corresponds to how many binary numbers make up each measurement of the waveform. For example, a 4-Bit sample might look like this: 1111, this: 1010, or any four digit combination of 1s and 0s. There is a maximum combination of 16 four digit numbers which can be made, taken from a 4-Bit measurement.
A 8-Bit sample is made up from a combination of eight 1s and 0s, for example: 11110000. This allows for 256 possible combinations.
A 16-Bit sample is made up from sixteen 1s and 0s, (ie: 1110011000110001) allowing for 65,536 possible combinations.
Imagine for a moment that you have to continuously physically measure the analogue sound wave with a special ruler. Then note down your measurement (or sample) on a piece of paper, for playback later. You have three rulers, each of the same overall length. Your 4-Bit ruler has 16 graduations spaced out along it. Your 8-Bit ruler has 256 graduations and your16-Bit ruler is divided into 65,536 graduations.
When you measure using your 4-Bit or even your 8-Bit ruler, it is very rare for the sound-wave to actually come into line with a measurement on the ruler. You have to round-up or down to get the nearest sample. This is noted down on your paper, but when it is replayed later it does not sound exactly as it did to begin with, it is the nearest sound.
The samples you made with the 8-Bit ruler are more convincing then the samples made with your 4-Bit ruler, as each measurement was much closer to the original point on the sound wave. When played back, the results from the 4-Bit ruler are rougher and more distorted then the 8-Bit.
The samples made with the 16-Bit ruler provides a sound which is considerably closer to the original and far less distorted, as the measurements are made far more accurately.
CD quality is 44.1KHz/16-Bit. This means that each second the converter will produce 44,100 16 digit numbers, each number being a sampled measurement of the original analogue waveform.
There are High Resolution Audio formats available these days which are superior to CD. Even though CD quality is very good. High Resolution Audio is often 192KHz/24Bit.
So music is recorded as an analogue waveform and the Analogue to Digital Converter makes it into data. The data is then stored and distributed, then your Digital to Analogue Converter reads the data, converts it back into an analogue waveform. This waveform is then amplified and made back into sound-waves by your speakers.
As we’ve explained, the accuracy of the Analogue to Digital conversion is an important factor to the sound quality. So to is the accuracy of how that data is then read and converted back.
Not all Digital to Analogue Converters (DACs) are created equally. The DAC which powers the speakers and headphone socket on your phone, costs a couple of pence to manufacture and is capable of nothing close to the performance of a DAC which costs hundreds or thousands.
There are several factors which can effect the performance of a DAC and the resulting sound.
Firstly, a basic DAC might not support the full range of file data rate. Your cheap DAC might not be able to process 24Bit/192KHz data, or even CD quality 16Bit/44.1Khz.
Then there is jitter, or digital timing errors. Remember how we said that when a analogue signal is measured, the samples are made with consistent timing? At the stage of Analogue to Digital conversion an accurate clock is used to time when these samples are made. You need a clock which is equally as accurate in your DAC to ensure that the readings are made with the same consistency. A cheap DAC is also likely to introduce unwanted noise to the playback, due to poorly designed circuitry.
It is worth being mindful of the quality of the DAC in products you are using. Many products such as CD players, computers, TVs and streaming devices have the means to output their audio digitally. This makes it possible to by-pass the internal DAC and instead use a stand-alone DAC of a higher quality.
If you are looking for the best audio performance from a variety of sources, it might be worth considering a separate DAC to add to your HiFi rack.
When choosing amplification people often place far too much importance on the advertised wattage. In this post I aim to straighten out some of the popular myths regarding wattage and amplification.
“I’ve heard this is a good amplifier, but I think I’ll get this one instead because it says it’s a higher wattage”.
“Power’s not too important because we’ve got neighbours and won’t be blasting it out”.
“SIXTY WATTS! THAT’S NOTHING, I NEED one that’s AT LEAST TWO HUNDRED WATTS!”
If you’ve already read our guide to putting together a HiFi system, you may realise that it is not so much the power of an amplifier that is important, but the way in which the amplifier is powered that will effect the sound quality. A well designed amplifier with a good transformer will be able to not only turn up loud enough, it will also be able provide power more responsively. It will respond efficiently to the changes in the music to create a sound which is dynamic, vibrant and more detailed.
You might not want to ‘blast the sound out’, but you’ll still need some power to create a good sound at low volume. A half-decent HiFi amp with a good transformer and a power rating of say 60 watts per channel (wpc) is still going to sound significantly better and give you a more enjoyable listening experience at low to mid volume than a cheap amp or mini system will.
In fact, a half-decent mid-range 60wpc amp with a toroidal transformer, will even sound better than an amp which claims to have an output of say, 160w, but uses a cheap EI transformer.
The higher wattage amp would be capable of going louder but not by as much as you might think. It might even sound terrible. The relationship between wattage and volume is not linear. If you had a 10 watt amp, you would need a 100w amp to double it’s volume, then a 1000w amp to be twice the volume of the 100w amp.
When shopping for amplification, most people place far too much importance on the wattage. Not only are there other factors which make up the performance of the amp than pure power, but the advertised wattages can often be deceptive. There are different ways to express the wattage of an amplifier.
For a start, the advertised wattage could either state the watts per channel, which is the the power for each speaker, or it could refer to the total wattage. So if you see a stereo amplifier advertised at ‘total power 100w’, it’s really a 50 watts per channel amp.
There are also different ways to measure the wattage. The main standards are peak wattage, continuous wattage and RMS (root mean square).
The peak wattage is the maximum power output that the amplifier has been measured to output in perfect conditions, in the lab, when the amplifier is running at 100% efficiency, often immediately before the amplifiers point of total destruction!
An audio amplifier is capable of producing a very large wattage for a fraction of a second. Forcing the amplifier to do this will cause component failure and is likely to produce an awful sound.
Manufacturers will sometimes advertise the peak wattage, or even total peak wattage, because it’ll look like an impressive number. In reality, the peak wattage figure is completely irrelevant and should be ignored.
To understand and compare the power outputs of amplifiers you need to look for the continuos power or the wattage per channel RMS (route mean squared). This is the power that an amplifier is capable of consistently producing, without failure.
The wattage RMS is the most accurate measurement but is still not an exact science. The relative loudness will depend on the impedance Ω of the speakers. So 60watts RMS @ 8Ω is not the same as 60watts RMS @ 4Ω. It also doesn’t tell us anything about the performance of the transformer. As we now know, the responsiveness of the power plays a vital role in the sound.
So, to summarise:
Power is not just about volume. Your amplifier relies on power to provide a dynamic sound with plenty of detail, even at low-medium volume.
If your shopping for an amplifier, ignore ‘peak-wattage’. Only look at the wattage RMS and be wary of if this is; per-channel, or the total wattage. If the seller can’t provide you with this information, walk away.
Don’t obsess too much on the wattage. There are powerful amplifiers that can go loud but have under-whelming performance. There are moderately powered amplifiers that are plenty loud enough for most of us and sound amazing.
A 120W RMS amplifier is only a tenth louder than a 60W RMS amplifier.
If a bloke down the pub tells you he has a 1000w amp, he likely doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Most of all, be aware that even if you know to look only at the watts RMS, it is only one part of the story. To get the best idea of how an amplifier sounds, check out some reviews, get an idea of how much you’d like to spend, then go and talk to your local specialist HiFi retailer. They should be able arrange for you to listen to a couple of different systems to see what suits you best.