Review: Yamaha CR-840 Vintage AM/FM Receiver Amplifier
How cheaply could I assemble a satisfyingly musical system for my bedroom? Much cheaper than I thought, as it turns out, thanks to the discovery of a vintage Yamaha receiver at my local hi-fi trading post.
After a failed experiment with the Cambridge SoundWorks Model 88 radio -- which, although very good as a table radio, suffered from annoyingly prominent port chuffing even at low volumes when playing CDs, and generally buzzy build quality -- I started to think of this project as a fun challenge. Could I put together a great little system for the price of, say, a Bose Wave Radio?
After all, my main system, which consists of seven separate components plus a MonsterPower HTS2500 power center, occupies about 30% of my living room’s total square footage. Simple could be good for a change. Without the HTS2500, just powering the beast up would be like cranking up the juice in Frankenstein’s laboratory. Don’t get me wrong; the system sounds wonderful. But for once, instead of asking, “How much will it take to make me happy?” I decided to ask instead, “How little?” (Besides, I’ll have to make major compromises sooner or later if I ever want to get married, since no woman in her right mind wants her home to resemble a demo room at the CEDIA Expo. Better start thinking about consolidation now and get a head start, I figure.)
I have a Phillips CDR-785 CD recorder that functions as a very nice 3-CD changer. (Not as a CD recorder, though. The CD-R is shot, and this is my second CDR-785 unit with a malfunctioning drive. Unfortunately, both failed when they were safely out of warranty.) A trip to a local used hi-fi store yielded a bargain—a minty Yamaha CR-840 receiver. When I say mint, I mean it: the (simulated) wood cabinet is spotless, all lights and meters work, and the silver face just needed a quick polish with Flitz (as did the jacks) to make it look 100%. The dealer cleaned the internal contacts and tuner section, and vacuumed the insides thoroughly. Total cost: about $100 for a tank-like unit (with giant heatsinks!) that sold for $500 when new during its 1979-1981 production run. How much would that be in 2003 dollars?
I have no idea how much power the Yamaha puts out, but it ain’t much. Still, it easily drove a pair of power-sucking, six-foot tall vintage Acoustic Reseach floorstanders in the showroom, though not to deafening levels. The dealer and I decided the receiver delivers about 50-70 watts or somewhere thereabouts; more than adequate, considering I had no plans to fill my bedroom with large speakers. In fact, I’d be choosing something that was easily concealable, meaning small and efficient.
But first, just for fun, I decided to connect the Yamaha to my ProAc Tablette 2000 reference speakers and take the old girl for a spin. The spring terminals around back meant I’d have to use some Radio Shack 16-gauge zip cord in place of my Kimber Kable speaker wires. Even so, the performance when connected to my Sony CDR-775 SACD changer was damn good—so fine, in fact, I could easily live with this receiver in my main system. It sounded a lot like my Rotel electronics in many ways, the only major difference being that the music was just a bit hazy and less spacious. (There are other differences, of course, but why overanalyze the fun out of this project?)
I hadn’t planned on testing out the Yamaha’s phono stage, but then I thought: Back in the late 1970s, LPs were the main program source. For $500 in 1979 money, you’d think this bruiser would have a decent phono section. (And, since it has preamp out jacks too, maybe it could someday temporarily stand in for my Rotel phono stage should the need ever arise.) As I expected, the phono stage is superior to anything you’d find in a modern HT receiver. I spun a few discs on my upgraded Rega P2 with Denon DL-160 cartridge, including Peter Gabriel’s “So” and a half-speed pressing of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” before packing it in. I came away impressed with the overall coherence and accuracy.
The tuner section is outstanding. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with tuners, certainly not with top-performing units like the Magnum Dynalabs. I can tell you that my Phillips digital tuner, which is hooked up to a Terk Pi powered indoor antenna, struggles to lock onto most signals in my area. The same is true of just about every digital tuner I’ve ever owned. The analog Yamaha, without any antenna at all, embarrasses everything I’ve ever owned. With an antenna, it’s unstoppable. The analog signal strength meters are a boon for fine-tuning fringe stations. Sound quality is warm and natural. (If anyone is interested in a nice Philips tuner, make me an offer. Please.)
I would have loved to experiment with better speaker cables, which may have increased the three-dimensionality of the sound and lifted the veil over the music. (I used a Kimber Hero 0.5M from the CD player to the receiver.) But this was a project about staying on budget, so that question will have to remain unanswered. I do suspect, however, that anything with tone controls like the Yamaha’s bass, treble and presence knobs can’t be expected to perform as cleanly as my straight-through Rotel preamp/amp combo. Still, in its day, the Yamaha would’ve made the heart of a cool system when paired with big, warm-sounding classics like Klipsch Cornwalls and a sensibly priced turntable, like a Dual CS-505 and a middle-of-the-range Audio-Technica moving magnet. (Go ahead, spring for the Shibata stylus!)
But Klipsch Cornwalls were out of the question and out of my budget range, so it was off to Best Buy. I decided a pair of indoor/outdoor speakers would be easily concealable, and they could be wall-mounted if I wanted. Since the Yamaha has preamp-out jacks, I could always add a small sub later.
I listened to all of the display models (via the automated in-store demo, which allows you to select from a few different types of source material pumped out via who knows what type of amplification). This is not, of course, the best way -- or even a good way -- to audition speakers, out in the middle of the store next to the booming car stereo aisle. But then again, these speakers were designed to function out in the backyard, so maybe it’s a fair test after all.
The sad truth about outdoor speakers, I discovered, is that they all kind of sound the same. The plastic enclosures and paintable metal grilles imbue them all with the same basic sonic signature. As you ascend the price scale, you get a little more low-end (though I wouldn’t exactly call it bass) and a little more clarity and tonal balance. But not much more. In the end, I found that the cheapest pair, at $69.95, sounded about as good as the way-overpriced Bose units (which cost three times as much) and other current offerings from manufacturers like Yamaha.
The speakers, marketed under the moniker “HomeTech,” have a model number but it really doesn’t matter. This same unit appears to be sold under at least three other brand names. I saw a pair this weekend marketed under the “HiFi Home” name that appeared identical to the HomeTechs for just $61.99 on closeout at Lowe’s. At any price, they’re not going to knock anyone’s socks off. But I was shooting for a system that will gently sing me to sleep, not part my hair from 10 feet away. So I brought the HomeTechs, ahem, home.
In truth, the little white boxes are fairly rigid (at least as rigid as my Model 88 radio and almost as stiff-feeling as a Bose Wave Radio when tapped with my knuckles). And you know what? They don’t sound half bad. Honestly. In fact, for the type of program material I normally listen to at bedtime -- solo guitar, paino, light jazz, vocals -- they’re just the ticket. The midrange is actually fairly sweet, if you can allow for that slightly “plasticky” sound that all speakers in this class exhibit. Various Michael Hedges CDs were a pleasure to listen to, as were offerings from artists like Earl Kulgh, Keith Jarrett, Wes Montgomery, John Williams and Bucky Pizzarelli (and son John Pizzarelli’s “Kisses in the Rain,” a typically well-recorded Telarc disc).
On rock and orchestral music, the system falls short. Its lack of bass and the speakers’ resonant cabinets make it more painful than pleasurable to listen at room-filling volume. But with a sub to help take the pressure off, who knows? Maybe someday I’ll grab a cheapie and see what happens. Maybe I’ll just leave well enough alone.
Either way, for less than the price of a Bose Wave Radio, I have a very nice bedroom system that doesn’t take up too much space. Here’s the tally:
Yamaha CR-840 Receiver
$75? ($399 new, but worth about $75 as-is?)
Monster Standard Interlink 200, 1M
Radio Shack 16-ga. zip cord, 30-ft spool
Oh, I almost forgot about my best discovery. At Lowe’s, I found doorstops that look and feel a lot like Audioquest Sorbothane feet, for just $3.99 per package of two. So I had a piece of glass cut to serve as a platform ($5.74) and placed the feet underneath to elevate the receiver and CD player off the floor. For about $14, I have a cheap and seemingly effective isolation platform. (When I say “seemingly,” I mean it sounds about the same as if the components were just sitting on the floor, which is about the same effect I got when I tried isolation platforms in my main system.) Really, I just wanted to lift the receiver an inch off of the floor to shield it from dust. The platform certainly doesn’t hurt the sound quality any, so if it helps, that’s a bonus.
Total cost: about $289.94. Not bad, considering the receiver itself retailed for $500 when new. With a pair of used classic speakers in place of the HomeTechs, like those Cornwalls I love so much or some old ARs, this would make a very nice main system for the audiophile on a budget. Hell, I even have a Yamaha YP-B4 turntable that’s currently on loan to a friend that would only have added only about $100 to the system cost. (I think I paid about $75 for the table and new belt, and about $25 for an unused Grado Black from a fellow ‘Goner.) With its gimbal-bearing arm and full-bodied Grado, the YP-B4 would probably sound OK. I may try it out when I get it back.
The moral of the story, if there is one, could be that the best place to start for anyone on a budget is with quality, vintage equipment. Late 70s solid state stuff isn’t the pinnacle of audio art, but to my eyes, the substantial build quality and wood/silver styling of the era is quite attractive. Those soothing green lights and analog meters don’t hurt, either. With forgiving speakers and sensible source components, one could conceivably assemble a lower mid-fi, audiophile-grade music maker for the price of an ordinary mini-system.
Maybe it’s time to drag those old receivers out of the attic and start a revolution by handing them down to young music lovers before we lose them to MP3s and iPods. (Heads-up to Radio Shack store managers: stock up now on contact cleaner.)
Rega P2 turntable
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono stage
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Rotel RQ-970BX phono stage
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
Phillips AM/FM tuner
Realistic laserdisc player
RCA DVD player
Apex Digital 27” TV
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Paradigm speaker stands
Kimber 4PR speaker cables
Various Audioquest/VampireWire/Kimber/Monster interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Various receivers from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, specifically A/V and home theater models from Teac and Pioneer Elite.