Performance, portability, and power
By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central
The Yamaha MSR400 Powered PA Speaker has been an established fixture on the live music scene for some time now. But because of a recent price drop by the manufacturer, this self-contained amplification system has raised the bar in the under-$500 powered speaker market, offering a modular—and now ultra-economical—PA solution for a wide variety of applications. Bands, DJs, solo artists, sound installation managers, and anyone looking for a versatile two-speaker or stereo sound-reinforcement rig for under a grand (or under $1800 if you include the MSR800W subwoofer along with two speakers) now have a new contender vying for their attention. I had a pair of MSR400s to review, and I'm happy to report they produced powerful, full, and distortion-free sound in a variety of live-sound settings, and were surprisingly versatile to work with—from both the signal routing perspective as well as physical setup.
Yamaha's MRS400 is a single-cabinet two-way system with a full 400 watts driving a 12" woofer for the low and midrange frequencies and a 1-3/4" voice coil compression driver for the upper mids and highs. The enclosure is a handsome black plastic cabinet that is both rugged and classy looking, and features several mounting options, all artfully and elegantly employed. For a 400W unit, it's not unduly heavy (a little over 50 pounds), weighing about as much as many tube combo amps, and is compact but still large enough to say to a club owner or client, "Big sound is in the house."
The MSR400 is biamped, which means an active line-level crossover electronically splits the signal before the amp stage at precisely 1.6kHz, and ensures against distortion and phase cancellations between the two paths. The low and high divisions of each signal are routed to their optimized amplifier section and designated speaker. Back-panel physical connections consist of a balanced 1/4" and two XLR jacks, one male and one female. The input section is actually labeled In/Thru, because all three jacks are wired in parallel, enabling you to use any one of them as an input and any other two as outputs (or, technically, throughputs).
Making the right connections
This versatile connection scheme makes it possible to, say, plug your mixer or wireless mic receiver output into the 1/4" jack while hooking up an additional speaker via the male XLR. You could daisy-chain four powered speakers this way, to widen your dispersion, using just standard XLR mic cables that you probably already have in ample supply. Want to go direct into the MSR400 with your stage mic? No problem; just plug the end of your mic cord into the female XLR and use either the 1/4" or male XLR as a throughput to another device. Since these are line level signals we're dealing with, the connected device doesn't have to be just another speaker; it could be a mixer or recording deck.
The input accommodates a wide range of signal levels—continuously variable from "Line" to "Mic" with +4 to -36dB sensitivity—adjustable from a single level control that has a center detent for unity gain (helpful for optimizing gain stage levels in your signal chain). Two EQ knobs help you shape your tone: the high frequency control provides a ± 3dB boost or cut above 1.6kHz (the crossover point); the low frequency control has a center frequency of 55Hz and also provides 3dB of boost or cut. These knobs are well-built and substantial-feeling—not likely to drift under heavy vibration—and both have a center detent as well, which helps you dial back to a neutral setting quickly and in one motion. Other back panel connections and controls include the AC In connector, the Power switch, and two LEDs indicating Power status (on/off) and Peak/Limit threshold.
Mount up and ride
The MSR400s can be physically set up in a number of ways. They can be pole-mounted, to raise them up over the heads of the audience. If you're using an MSR800W subwoofer, you can connect one MSR400 to the sub without the need of a base; the two go together with just a length of pole, like a barbell stood on end. You can fly the cabs into the airspace above the audience, courtesy of two 8mm "eyebolt-ready" threaded inserts molded in the top of the cabinet. (Yamaha offers optional eyebolts for this purpose.) A thumbscrew in the pole socket at the bottom of the cabinet is also an eyebolt, so the speaker can be pulled back to the desired angle when suspended. The cabs can stand vertically on their own or can be placed on edge in a floor-monitoring setting. When placed upright, the cab rests on four firm, hard plastic feet, allowing the bottom to clear a hard floor, concrete, or other smooth surface. On the cabinets' tops are four corresponding cups that will receive the feet of another stacked MSR400.
During the time I had my pair of MSR400s I subjected them to a gauntlet of signal reproduction tests, from live ensembles consisting of a mix of acoustic and electric instruments to presentation work to playing CDs of preprogrammed techno and high-energy dance music. In all cases I was struck by the tonal clarity the MSR400s showed without muddying the bass or causing the high end to become shrill. I didn't have a subwoofer in my setup, so even on the occasions when I had to crank the low end to get the floor joists rumbling, the woofers still faithfully produced the fundamentals of the lowest electric bass notes, keeping them as clearly focused and defined as I knew them to be on the master recordings.
During my various tests, I got these cabs going plenty loud and almost never saw the Peak/Limit indicators light up. The few times I did see the infrequent flashes of red (an electric bass player who didn't have a handle on his sound), the speakers themselves never let on by allowing distortion into the audible range. These cabs are well matched for any house of worship, school auditorium, small to medium-sized club, and outdoor stages the size of a baseball field. The fact that they are so easily movable, and will take any input and provide a parallel hookup to another device is also a big plus. You can go from PowerPoint presentation to DJ setup in the time it takes you to move the cabs.
When you've hauled and hoisted enough speaker cabs, you come to appreciate good design, even when it's subtle. The MRS400 is well thought-out in this regard. The cabinet itself has rounded corners, but not so rounded that it loses that sense of rectangular strength and stability. The controls, while recessed, are accessible, easy to read, and quick to dial back to neutral, if necessary. They go a long way toward shaping your sound, in many cases eliminating the need for outboard EQ. The gray bars are actually stylish and streamlined as well as multifunctional. But the best part comes when the speakers are in place and you power them up: The sound is amazing right out of the box, and with a quick tweak of high cut and low boost—or vice versa—you're ready for any sonic situation.