Finally, the receiver helped my system deliver exceptionally believable surround-sound imaging, so that when listening to good multichannel stage mixes, as in Gary Burton's Like Minds SACD [Concord Jazz], I sometimes had the powerful illusion of sitting among the performers, hearing their instruments on either side of me (talk about listener involvement!). But the Yamaha also did a great job on more conventionally mixed multichannel recordings, helping my system cast a wide, deep soundstage with just the right touch of hall ambience. On David Chesky's The Girl from Guatemala [Anthony Aibel/"Area 31" ensemble, Chesky SACD], the acoustics of the recording venue were presented so convincingly I almost felt I could get up from my chair and walk out into the performance space. Unlike A/V receivers whose separate channels never quite gel into a cohesive whole, the RX-V657 is a champ when it comes to capturing a three-dimensional sense of place. I attribute this to the receiver's clear and easygoing sound, and to the ± .5dB precision with which it performs automated channel-level adjustments.
In fact, the RX-V657's superior automatic setup and equalization features (which include a system calibration microphone) make it one of the easiest-to-use and most foolproof receivers you will find. If doing your own A/V system setup is cause for high anxiety, this may be the AVR for you, because it can adjust itself to deliver audiophile-grade sound at the click of one simple menu item.
The Yamaha's FM tuner section is surprisingly good, too, offering high sensitivity and selectivity, low noise, and just plain good sound. But the receiver's XM Satellite Radio-ready capabilities add an extra twist. By plugging an XM "Connect & Play" module ($49.95) into your Yamaha and signing up for an XM subscription, you'll enjoy up to 130 channels of constantly refreshed, multi-genre content beamed down from outer space. Very cool. Two things to note about XM Radio, however, are that its thoroughly decent sound falls somewhat short of CD-quality, and that XM antenna modules require reasonably unobstructed exposure to the southern sky for best results (if your room has no south-facing windows, you can mount the antenna outdoors or experiment with indoor locations to find acceptable reception).
Yamaha's RX-V657 is, by a significant margin, the best-sounding affordable AVR I've ever heard, and I think it will leave many card-carrying audiophiles shaking their heads in disbelief. For those assembling their first highend home theater and multichannel music systems, this receiver makes a great place to start, offering value for money that will be tough to beat.