Some products are much more than they appear on the surface, and this new powered speaker system from Yamaha is a case in point. From the front, the NX-N500 looks like a run-of-the-mill two-way bookshelf speaker.
Have a look at the back, and you begin to discover what this product offers. The big heatsink and AC outlet on each speaker alert you to the built-in amplifiers. Not a big deal, you say: the audio market is awash in compact powered loudspeakers. But on the left speaker, you'll also find an Ethernet port and antenna, confirming the NX-N500's network and wireless connectivity; and its USB input hints that there may be a USB DAC under the hood.
The NX-N500 also has built-in Bluetooth, allowing music streaming from a mobile device. Most interesting, it's part of Yamaha's MusicCast audio ecosystem, meaning that it can be used as part of a whole-home wireless music system. In short, this is a thoroughly modern audio product, and definitely not your father's two-way bookshelf.
SPEEDS AND FEEDS
While not particularly striking, the NX-N500 is an attractive product and will blend in comfortably to just about any setting. It's available in two finishes: matte-black and white. The back of the left speaker is more crowded than the right, as it has the system's USB, Ethernet, optical digital, and 3.5mm mini analog stereo inputs. There's also a volume control, on-off switch, connect button for making a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection, and a Wireless Direct button for establishing a Wi-Fi connection when no router is available. As the left speaker contains the system's smarts, it's slightly heavier than the right (6.3kg, compared to 5.9kg).
The NX-N500 uses two cables to connect the left and right speakers: an Ethernet-type link cable as well as a line-level audio cable terminated in XLR connectors. The supplied cables are 10 feet long; the maximum separation between the two channels is accordingly slightly less than 10 feet. In desktop applications this will not matter, nor should it be a consideration in small or medium listening rooms. The only thing missing is a subwoofer output, which would be a welcome option for users who wish to augment the system's low-frequency capabilities.
Each rear-ported enclosure contains a 13cm white cone woofer, crossed over at 2kHz to a 3cm dome tweeter placed behind a protective mesh grille. It's a biamplified design, with a 24-watt amp (4Ω, 1kHz, 0.01% THD) powering the woofer and 20-watt amp (6Ω, 20kHz, 0.02% THD) powering the tweeter. As the large heatsinks indicate, these are Class AB amplifiers.
At the heart of the NX-N500 is an ESS Sabre DAC that supports high-resolution PCM to 192kHz/24 bits, as well as single- and dual-rate DSD (DSD 64 and DSD 128) from a Windows PC or Mac connected via USB. It also supports those formats for streaming from DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) devices (mainly Windows PCs) over a home network, via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. The optical input supports streams to 24/192, but not DSD.
Other connectivity options include AirPlay, for streaming from an iOS device over Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, for streaming from any Bluetooth device. But what really sets the NX-N500 apart from other powered speakers is its MusicCast features.
To use MusicCast, you start by downloading the MusicCast app to an Android or iOS device. There are several options for getting the NX-N500 system onto your Wi-Fi network, but the default method is from the MusicCast app. In the app, you click the Connect button, after which you're instructed to leave the app and go to the Wi-Fi option in your device's Setting menu, and set MusicCast Setup as the Wi-Fi network. You then return to the app, where you're asked to enter home network's password. Do that, and you're connected. The process worked without a hitch from my iPad.
MusicCast is built into over 20 different Yamaha products for 2015, not just the NX-N500, but also soundbars, AV receivers, desktop music systems and other wireless speakers. It's a flexible, highly functional system, enabled by an attractive, intuitive app.
Like other wireless multi-room systems, MusicCast lets you stream music from supported streaming services to one room, or to many, controlling everything the MusicCast app. Streaming services currently supported by MusicCast include Spotify, SiriusXM, Rhapsody and Pandora; and there's also an Internet radio function. Yamaha says other services are coming to MusicCast soon, and they'll be enabled by app and firmware updates.
If you're using an unsupported service, you can still use the service's app to stream music to a single MusicCast component, either via AirPlay from an iOS device, or via Bluetooth. I had no problem streaming music from the Tidal app on my iPad to the NX-N500 via AirPlay. However, with AirPlay and Bluetooth, you're restricted to one device; you can't stream to several rooms simultaneously as you can with services supported by MusicCast.
You can also play music stored on computers that support the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) protocol. Windows supports DLNA out of the box; with Mac, you need add-on software. MusicCast supports high-res audio to 96kHz/24 bits; but some components (including the NX-N500) also allow playback of high-res music in DSD format.
A great feature of MusicCast is that it lets you stream audio from a source component that's connected to one MusicCast device to other rooms. So if you're playing an LP on a turntable hooked to a Yamaha receiver, you can enjoy the music on other MusicCast components elsewhere in your home. You can also stream music from a computer connected to the NX-N500 to MusicCast components in other zones.
You can even link one MusicCast component to a Bluetooth device, such as a wireless speaker or headphones, as long as it's within 10 metres. For example, you could use the MusicCast app to link the NX-N500 to a portable Bluetooth speaker so that you can play music from your computer out on the deck, under control of the MusicCast app.
Over a three-week period, I listened to the NX-N500 in a variety of configurations and locations in my home. For background music my second-floor den/TV room, I placed the NX-N500s on end tables on opposite sides of the room, then used Bluetooth to stream music from the music library on my iPhone 6 Plus and AirPlay to stream music from a MacBook Air running BitPerfect 3.0 on top of iTunes.
For critical listening in my third-floor music room, I placed the NX-N500 speakers on isoAcoustics Aperta speaker stands, slightly toed-in, on a built-in cabinet along one wall, opposite my listening chair, located about 10 feet away. In that room, I used two sources. Most of my listening was with the NX-N500 system connected via USB to my Mac Mini, playing lossless and high-res music using Audirvana 2.2 software. I also streamed music from an iPad to the NX-N500 via AirPlay.
I was initially concerned that my music-room listening sessions might not flatter the NX-N500, as this is exactly where and how I listen to my main system: KEF LS50 monitors driven by a Simaudio Moon Nēo 340i integrated amp with built-in DSD-capable DAC. In fact, I was impressed by how well the NX-N500 acquitted itself. At no point in the many hours of listening where the NX-N500 displaced my main rig (which costs about seven times as much) did I feel I was slumming. Quite the contrary: I really enjoyed my time with this innovative, flexible network speaker.
Playing "Joban Dna Nopia," from Two, a wonderful live album featuring pianist Chick Corea and banjoist Béla Fleck (Concord Jazz, 24/96 FLAC download from ProStudioMasters), I was struck by how big the presentation was, but at the same time it was smooth and inviting. This little system had no trouble filling my listening room and tracking the dynamics in this tremendously exciting recording. Corea's piano had good authority in the lower and middle register. The sharp transients of Fleck's instrument weren't quite as incisive as I would have liked. Although the soundstage lacked depth, left-to-right imaging was quite precise.
Similarly, the soundstage in "Growlin' Dan" from Cécile McLorin Salvant's second album For One to Love (Mack Avenue Records, 24/88.2 FLAC download from ProStudioMasters) was flat, though wide with good left-to-right placement of musicians. The walking bass and piano that open this rollicking, jazzy track had good snap and drive. The Yamaha system beautifully conveyed this marvelous singer's playful swoops, though it didn't fully capture her flirty high register. And as the track heated up, the sound got a little congested (though never harsh).
A recent high-res remastering of Karl Böhm's classic recordings of Mozart's late symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, 24/96 ALAC download from HDTracks) had lovely string tone, with warm breathy lower strings that drew me into the recording. Macro dynamics were excellent, for example in the sudden forte passages in the Andante of Symphony No. 39. Once again though, the spatial presentation lacked depth, though left-to-right spread was good. Almost without exception, instrumental timbres were commendably neutral, though the tympani had a slightly thuddy character, pointing to the small system's low-frequency limitations.
Streaming an Apple Lossless file Keith Jarrett's Vienna Concert (ECM, CD rip) from my iPad via AirPlay, I thought the NX-N500 did a commendable job conveying Jarrett's touch on the piano in the mysterious opening, though there was some compression as the drama picked up, and the top end was a bit less incisive than I'm used to.
THE BOTTOM LINE
By now, some common themes have emerged. The Yamaha NX-N500 can produce a surprisingly big sound given its stature, and is smooth and inviting. Its main deficiencies are a somewhat two-dimensional spatial presentation, a mild lack of top-end sparkle, and a slight tendency to homogenize the sound. The last characteristic can work in its favour with problematic recordings. Jarrett's solo piano concerts can sometimes sound a little clangy, but that didn't happen with the NX-N500. And the strings on many of DG's earlier Berlin recordings could sound wiry, but through the NX-N500 they sounded lush and breathy.
These observations shouldn't detract from the fact that the NX-N500 is a marvelous, innovative product, with engaging sound and cutting-edge connectivity. I can imagine many different usage scenarios. The NX-N500 could serve as a thoroughly modern music system in a small or medium-sized room for both serious and background listening. It would also be at home on a desktop, for use in nearfield listening. And with its MusicCast functions, it can serve as a node in a whole-music music system. At its Canadian suggested list price of $1,100, the NX-N500 represents excellent value.