By the early to mid-1970s, the Japanese giants YAMAHA, Matsushita Electric (Technics), and SONY had established a reputation as world leaders in producing audio equipment.
Japanese engineers recognized the need for fundamentally new technology. They started a tireless and frantic search for technical solutions for the new concept.
By this time, analog recording and mixing devices had reached the peak of their development. Subsequently, their capabilities had not significantly changed.
YAMAHA was a bit late in developing, but eventually, by 1974, it produced the timeless bestseller NS-1000. That speaker almost instantly won over an audience of experienced music lovers and recording studio workers.
That was only the beginning of their production of outstanding speakers.
In this article, I’ll go over the best vintage YAMAHA speakers and present the results of my listening tests.
1. YAMAHA NS-1000M
This speaker was the benchmark in the studio and home speakers for the entire decade (1974-1986).
The initial NS-1000s came on the market in 1975, constructed like the proverbial brick powder chamber and with HF and mid-range trim pots assembled into the front baffles.
At over $500, their price echoed their high-tech engineering and amazing 32kg per box build.
They were completely unlike anything folks had ever heard – best illustrated as sounding like a Quad ESL containing a ribbon super-tweeter and a subwoofer to endure the lows.
The YAMAHA NS-1000M is one of the few speakers that have been praised by both picky audiophiles and sound engineers around the world.
Most of the engineering that went into this loudspeaker was developed to maximize reproduction fidelity. A closed box was selected as the acoustic enclosure, sacrificing some volume but decreasing the possibility of parasitic resonances.
The speaker’s body was made of thick (3 cm) plywood (of different types of wood depending on modification). Despite its relatively big volume (50 liters), it was very light (from 31 to 38 kg for each modification).
The NS-1000Ms are one of the most transparent-sounding speakers ever made, with brilliantly fast transients, incredible sound staging, and outstanding clearness and detail.
But they also have a JBL-like ability to inject energy, drama, and scale into everything they play – a demanding mix of virtues!
I partnered them with Class A transmission power amps, turned the mid-range trim pot down to –3dB (they do have a small mid-forward balance, but this assuages it), and sited them on solid stands.
I struggled to find a speaker that was as much fun. It’s a whole lot loud!
The NS-1000M was re-released several times; in 1992, with an updated design, it was released in a large series under the name NS-2000. After four years of interest in it being renewed, it was again launched in a modernized version under the name NS-1000X.
Production of speakers that can be regarded as successors of the NS-1000 concept continues today with the NS-333 (Amazon link).
2. YAMAHA NS-1 Classics
I want to share a few words about my latest purchase and the personal holy grail, the Yamaha NS-1 Classics.
The Japanese speaker manufacturers’ fight was ongoing for many years, with most competitors using strange materials for drivers and usually massive cabinets sporting a 3-way design and weighing nearly the size of a grown-up human.
But a discrete conqueror emerged with a different approach, a little speaker made by Yamaha in the style of 2-way classic speakers employing a real Japanese birch cabinet, alnico magnets, and a smooth silk propylene dome.
Priced at around $500 at the time might seem expensive for a two-way speaker of 9.5 kg, but to get an equally exceptional sound from a home speaker, you would have to spend not anything less than $2000 to $4000.
The first moment I saw the NS-1 was browsing online images and not knowing which speaker it was.
The design impressed me (dare I confess, it’s the most beautiful speaker), and it took me a while to figure out which model of Yamaha it was since it’s an unknown speaker.
I believe the seamless cabinet with its mirror-like finish and the drivers’ minimal design is appropriate for a design museum instead of a living room.
Even the manner the visible coils are bound to the tweeter dome is special.
NS-1 is discreet, small, and sleek and sounds better than many speakers I have listened to.
And I listened to many of them. Here are just some of my reviews of the best vintage speakers:
My first impression was mixed because my receiver and its 120 watts were insufficient to drive the Yamaha’s with their 86db sensitivity.
But they displayed their magic when I connected them to a stronger one – Sony STRDH590 (Amazon link).
I have not decided if they’re better than some of my other speakers, which deliver a huge soundstage and the most articulate bass I have heard, but I know that I can’t stop listening to music on them.
On many occasions, speakers like these should not even have a price tag and were made with that in mind that some items are not about profit but merely for the sentiment.
3. YAMAHA GF-1
The GF-1 from 1991 was known as an active speaker enclosing an active crossover and a drive amplifier directly linked to all speaker divisions.
It was the climax of the Yamaha HiFi speaker technology. It was designed with a two-part structure (140 cm tall and 150 kg total), with the upper half lodging a three-way speaker component and the lower half a YST super woofer component.
GF-1’s four drive amps and active crossover units per channel were connected as four separate modules to the rear of the super woofer, with a huge external power supply weighing 25kg.
It supplied each of the four amp modules with separate power. It was a really weighty piece of gear.
The crossover slope, as well as cutoff frequency, were fully fixed. They could not be changed from the outside, with slight adjustments of up to ±2.5dB per module’s input level.
From this, we can notice that the developers planned the system to be entirely tuned and did not plan the balance to be adjusted effortlessly.
Rather than employing the vacuum deposition process of the past, 3 cm tweeter and 8 cm midrange (still made of pure beryllium) used a forged beryllium dome created for and used exclusively in this model.
Its pair of big and small woofers (27 cm bass and 30 cm YST sub-bass) also used a Kevlar cone and forged beryllium cap specific to this speaker.
The magnet used a voice coil with a smaller diameter and dendritic crystal aluminum-nickel to lighten the movement of the diaphragm system.
The tweeter and midrange magnets were also comprised of dendritic crystal aluminum nickel. The gold deposition process was conducted on each unit’s diaphragm to soften the slight squeal of beryllium and deliver a uniform tone across each unit.
As Yamaha’s speaker development altered the course for a new era of emphasis on the home theater, the GF-1 stopped the pure beryllium development narrative that had played out since the NS-1000M.
In 1992, YAMAHA presented a dedicated 100W/ch Class A power amp, the GFD-1, with an external power supply to assist the GF-1 loudspeaker.
It contained a 6-position source selector and a 23-position rotary attenuator. Its structure made it feasible to use with any passive loudspeaker, not only the GF-1.
4. YAMAHA NS-500M
The M in Yamaha NS500M means that they have a midrange driver complementing the beryllium tweeter and 12″ woofer of NS-500.
I listened to them in my friend’s listening room, pushed by my own Denon PMA-600NE (Amazon link), and it was a combo made in heaven. Yes, a pair of NS500Ms today in solid shape would hold their own against some strong present speakers.
They are extremely well balanced from top to bottom – smooth, transparent, and airy above, profound, with really amazing bass.
Excellent midrange richness just brings vocals and acoustic instruments into the room with you.
They were also very revealing, meaning that the edge of the back-in-the-day’s SS electronics was really in your face, but they played sweetly, driven by excellent tube stuff.
Yamaha made the NS500 before the NS500M. They were similar, but the M had a different bass driver and a slightly smaller cabinet outside with about the same interior volume.
Both were solid, heavy, efficient, and smoothly in-your-face with beryllium mid and high drivers.
They sucked up watts like water into a sponge and got louder with no noticeable difference in SQ until ears began to bleed – but they also did very well with subtle amps. I remember them to sound a lot like the best JBL monitors of the day but “more likable.”
I liked the 500Ms more than the 500s. I believed they were a bit tighter down low and sweeter up high. But the midrange created the difference – they were slightly more natural on my reference vocals.
5. YAMAHA Soavo-1
Not exactly vintage, but honorable mention is the 2008 Soavo-1 – both a gorgeous, ground-breaking design and a feat of engineering in and of itself.
Toshiyuki Kita‘s Soavo style is gorgeous, and the woodwork is top-notch. The birch veneer cabinet (with an open-pore finish) is created of the exact material as Yamaha’s finest wood-grain pianos. It is available in various finishes, including dark brown, brown, natural, and black.
These loudspeaker cabinets have non-parallel sides to minimize standing waves. The woofer and midrange parts are internally separated by a slanted wall and reinforced with substantial, vertical ladder-type bracing.
The tweeter, which Yamaha refers to as the “DC-Diaphragm,” is a 3 cm aluminum dome with a completely integrated voice coil and diaphragm structure.
The best grade components, including Solen metalized polypropylene capacitors and sizable recessed interior coils with carefully selected wire, are reported to be used in the crossover.
The dimensions are 349x1051x487mm, and the weight is 27kg per unit. The Soavo-1 sounds marvelously alive from the get-go, with outstanding intonation and no quacky or honky coloring. It is moderately efficient and valve-friendly at 89dB sensitivity.
They simply sound natural, making them transparent in the greatest meaning of the word “monitor.” As you ascend to the treble range, you’ll notice that struck hi-hats sound excellent, almost as crystalline and clear as the finest ribbon tweeters. There is a lovely metallic shine.
The bass is robust and smooth at the other end and doesn’t sound the least “out of puff.” The bass’s seamless transition into the mid-band seamlessly fades into the treble, which is the most rewarding.
The Soavos have thus been brilliantly assimilated.
The next accomplishment for Soavo-1 is imaging, which joins its already impressive strengths in tonality and integration.
The large Yamaha speakers produce an incredibly wide stereo image that, when slightly tipped in, makes them almost disappear into the air.
There is no compression or strain at high volumes, and the mid-band and treble are unaffected by what the bass drivers are doing. They are unconcerned with the enormous amount of air they are being asked to move.
The Soavo-1 is simply outstanding in every way. It’s as musical as it can be for the money while being remarkably unbiased and transparent.
The type of music you chose doesn’t matter much to them; they seem to do well with practically anything.
They appear outstanding in every traditional hi-fi sense (imaging, dynamics, details, etc.), yet they don’t sound like they were constructed in a lab; on the contrary, they enjoy boogieing.
YAMAHA’s Usage of Atomized Beryllium
In the ’60s, every major speaker manufacturer developed new products with unique conceptual differences.
So the new concepts were born, claiming to be the best of the masterpieces of loudspeaker technology.
One such difference for the new flagship speakers was the unique sound characteristics that would later become the canonical standard.
YAMAHA experts decided to make the most even, the so-called monitor frequency response, and thoroughly worked to improve the quality of the tops and mids.
For the first time, the company used metallic beryllium drivers to reduce distortion in the midrange and treble.
YAMAHA engineers were the first to understand how to process this capricious metal and applied it to the design of field-effect transistors and dynamic loudspeakers.
The company’s engineers used vacuum deposition technology, using atomized beryllium.
Using this costly metal, Yamaha came up with treble and midrange drivers with incredibly low levels of distortion, superior dispersion, and phase coherence.