To appreciate the benefits of the Yamaha’s superior bass control, try watching the scene from 10,000 BC where the hunters stalk a herd of wooly mammoths. The scene is a low frequency torture test of sorts, because the mammoths’ footsteps emit loud, very low frequency thumps, while their grunts and groans are also quite low-pitched. It’s the sort of scene that can (and with many receivers does) turn into bass mush, but that the RX-V3900 masters with a nice combination of low-end power and clarity.
Yet the Yamaha’s powers of clarity and expressiveness are by no means limited to the bass region. To see what I mean, put on the “Out of Range” chapter from Déjà vu to take in the amazing trans-dimensional chase scene where Agent Dave Carlin (Denzel Washington) retraces the path a criminal took four days earlier while wearing ultra high-tech goggles that allow him to view the past as if it were unfolding in real time. The tension in the scene derives from three key elements: the sound of Carlin hurtling down heavily trafficked New Orleans streets in the present, overlaid with snippets of sounds that occurred during the criminal’s getaway four days ago, merged with an ominous, fast paced, and richly textured soundtrack that’s calculated to get your pulse racing.
If my description makes it sound as if the scene presents a tremendous amount of sonic information to process, that’s because it does. Nevertheless, the Yamaha does a masterful job of disentangling and clarifying the individual soundtrack threads, so that you can at once appreciate Carlin’s chaotic experience, while rising above it to follow the simultaneously unfolding past and present plots. It takes an elusive combination of power, clarity, and—oddly enough—delicacy and finesse to keep so many disparate elements straight even when all hell is breaking loose. And that difficult to balance set of qualities is, I think, precisely what the RX-3900 delivers and what makes this receiver so good.
While experimenting with the Yamaha’s “Pure Direct” mode (see comments under “Sonic Character,” above), I chanced to put on a multichannel SACD recording I know well: namely, the Conspirare choirs’ performance of Tarik O’Regan’s Threshold of Night [Harmonia Mundi]. Frankly, the recording is not an easy one to reproduce, partly because it is rich in subtle spatial cues that are hard to capture accurately, partly because the various sonorities of the sophisticated choral voices are even more subtle and more difficult to render faithfully, and finally because the choir’s almost shocking dynamic range can (and sometimes does) overload amplifiers and speaker systems alike when large, powerful vocal swells come along.
As I listened to my favorite track, the third movement of a composition called “Triptych,” I was bracing myself for a potentially bad outcome (because the piece provides huge, exuberant vocal swells that can overtax most systems). But to my pleasant surprise the Yamaha turned in an unexpectedly strong, muscular, and yet also delicate performance. Three things caught my ears. First, the three-dimensional cues that defined the size and acoustics of the recording space were beautifully handled and remained consistent despite huge swings in volume between loud and soft passages. Second, the Yamaha did a great job of teasing out one of the subtlest yet most distinctive characteristics of the Conspirare choir; namely, the uncanny if not downright eerie beauty of the choirs’ unison voices (the name Conspirare means “to breathe together,” and with good reason). Finally, I was wowed by the RX-V3900’s grace in handling the largest vocal swells. Granted, on the very loudest passages I could hear faint traces of compression setting in, but that’s much, much better than can be said of most AVRs on this challenging material. My point, really, is that the Yamaha maintains clarity and a natural-sounding presentation in the face of demands that would make many receivers “blow a gasket.”
Yamaha’s RX-V3900 is a highly capable A/V receiver that has earned my respect and admiration. It’s one of the two best receivers I’ve yet tried in the sub-$2k class. The receiver’s strengths are clear and natural sound, an excellent room/speaker EQ system, strong onboard video processing, and tons of flexibility. Built-in Internet Radio and Rhapsody functions make the Yamaha a great vehicle for discovering new music, too. Just remember that for best results, you need to read the manual (hey, it’s a small price to pay for excellence).