Every so often, a piece of hardware arrives at the MacUser offices for review and draws admiring looks from even the most jaded reviewers.
It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it's usually a sign that the peripheral in question is pretty special. And that's certainly the case with the Yamaha AP-U70.
Described by Yamaha as a PC Home Theatre Amplifier, the AP-U70 is the epitome of what Apple means when it talks about the digital hub. It looks more like a consumer entertainment device than a computer peripheral, but to describe it as one or the other would be an injustice, because it's both. You can use it to connect to your Mac and take care of the audio output for MP3 tracks and games. And you can connect it to any audio device that has composite or optical outputs.
The AP-U70 connects to the Mac by USB. It allows the Mac to control the amplifier directly once the software has been installed. And it's the software and hardware working together that is the really clever bit. It may not be the best-looking Mac application in the world and it doesn't exactly comply with the interface guidelines for Mac applications, but for once we can forgive that.
From inside the application you have complete control of the amplifier - changing the volume even causes the volume knob on the amp to turn. You select which of the AP-U70's six inputs you want to set up and then choose from the options available.
There are a variety of settings for different environments and functions, such as Hall, Church, Game and Virtual Dolby Digital. In each setting, the Digital Signal Processor (DSP) editor allows you to change three basic parameters - the size of the room in which your setup is located, your seat position in relation to the speakers and the Effects level. There are also 12 detailed parameters to play with.
The seven-band graphic equalizer allows you to choose from presets in the Graphic Equalizer tab or set your own levels and store them. The Virtual Dolby Digital effect can be fine-tuned by adjusting the dynamic range of the output, and selecting the parameters for a 3D effect.
In addition to controlling the amplifier from within the software, you can operate the basic functions from the front of the amp and a few more from the remote control. You can connect any regular hi-fi speakers and, if you want that extra oomph, there's a connection for a sub-woofer.
Sound quality is excellent and the adjustments in the software really do make a difference. We were able to set it up so we could listen to it at a reasonable volume at one desk in the MacUser office without disturbing anyone else.
If you're after a multi-purpose amplifier to connect to your Mac, CD player, or mini disc player, the Yamaha AP-U70 is ideal. It sounds great, looks great and you can play with the software settings to your heart's content.