Yamaha YSP-5600 Dolby Atmos soundbar: Surrounded by sound, not speakers

Yamaha has played a pioneering role in bringing the cinema into the living room, being one of the first manufacturers to really nail the soundbar concept – providing home-cinema quality sound from a single discrete speaker placed underneath a TV. Its latest addition, the YSP-5600, takes soundbar engineering to a different level: it’s the first to include Dolby’s Atmos three-dimensional surround sound technology.

What is Dolby Atmos?

That might sound like marketing fluff of the highest order, but Dolby Atmos is pretty darn special. I watched a presentation of the (frankly execrable) Man of Steel in Dolby Atmos, and despite the awfulness of the film found myself transfixed by the spectacle. Sounds genuinely do move up, down, left and right – floating free of the speakers and flying across the theatre with unsettling ease. Imagine the finest, most dynamic Dolby TrueHD sound, and make it move – this is Dolby Atmos.

That kind of aural trickery takes some dedication, and a serious amount of hardware. In cinema installations, the sky really is the limit, with speakers stretching across, around the sides, behind and creeping across the ceiling – as a result, sounds move throughout the room with an ease that simply hasn’t been possible with previous technologies. It isn’t an understatement to describe Dolby Atmos as 3D for the ears – and for those who hate 3D screenings, I mean that in an entirely good way.

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It seems that 2015 is the year which sees Dolby Atmos lurch out of the cinemas and take over our living rooms, and it’s fair to say that the technology presents its fair share of issues. Currently consumer systems can potentially reach up to a maximum of 32 discrete speakers, although this remains the preserve of insanely expensive professional installations. It is, however, possible to implement a home cinema setup in a minimal 5.1.2 arrangement: that is, you keep the existing left, right, centre, surround and subwoofer speakers of a 5.1 setup, but add a further two ‘height’ channels above the front two stereo speakers. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Surround sound, without the faff

Of course, even this modest Dolby Atmos setup presents an offputting cable management headache – fancy installing some ceiling speakers? Adding another two cables to the growing pile? For most people, I suspect this is unappealing. This is where the Yamaha YSP-5600 steps in. Following in the footsteps of Yamaha’s YSP soundbar range, the YSP-5600 attempts to bring forth room-filling Dolby Atmos sound from a single, relatively discreet soundbar.

It is noticeably larger than most soundbars – taking up a hefty chunk of space on the wall below the 50in Panasonic TV in the pictures here – but there’s good reason for that. Behind the soundbar’s plain black exterior, Yamaha has packed in a total of 44 speakers. Six 2.8cm drivers are mounted on each side of the unit to send audio up vertically to bounce off the ceiling and provide the surround effect, while a further 32 4cm drivers push sound horizontally across the room, to mimic the front and centre speakers. Meanwhile, the optional subwoofer deals with the really low bass frequencies – and as it’s wireless, positioning can be a lot more flexible than traditional subwoofer setups.

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Once hooked up, the only thing left is to attach the YSP-5600 to a compatible Bluray player. All the Dolby Atmos decoding (the rival format DTS:X will be available with a firmware upgrade) is done natively, so there’s no need for a separate AV unit. As ever, the setup process is quick: a microphone is placed at the listening position, and Yamaha’s DSP wiazrdry sorts out the rest.

Listen carefully, I will say this…

Right now, there are around 30 Dolby Atmos compatible Blu-ray movies on the market – apparently there’s not a huge data overhead to add the Dolby Atmos matrix to the existing lossless TrueHD soundtracks – but Yamaha showed off a variety of specially-tailored Atmos demonstrations, as well as a few clips from movies such as Mad Max.

The results, it’s fair to say, are very impressive. With Yamaha’s demo room set in the midst of a noisy IFA trade show hall, the finest subtleties were swallowed up by the ambient noise, but more bombastic examples of the tech clearly showed the potential. Sounds moved vertically up and down from the speaker bar, shooting upwards or away from the central driver unit, while atmospheric effects seemingly dripped from the ceiling. There was little genuine rear surround effect to be heard – it was there, albeit swallowed by the IFA din – but the ear-splitting dynamics, clarity and breadth of the sound was far broader than any soundbar technology I’ve heard previously.

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Factor in the impressive surges of sub-bass from the subwoofer, and the overall effect is enthralling. I’ve heard 5.1 systems that didn’t give the same impact, and the results weren’t a million miles away from the efforts of my 4.1 active speaker setup at home. Not quite as clear, not quite as spacious (even if the vertical movement was, of course, far better) – but then, this is from a package which is far more discreet, and doesn’t leave cables sprouting from every corner of the room.

Early thoughts

For huge home cinema sound with a manageable footprint, the YSP-5600 may win alot of friends – I’m going to hold off any final judgment until I can hear the effect in a quiet living room rather than a riotous trade show, but I’m quietly optimistic. The price? Ah, yes. At £1,600 without the subwoofer, and £1,900 with, this is the Rolls Royce of soundbars – keep an eye out for Alphr’s full review.

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