I’ll start by describing everything that the system did right. First, it always played music. When I selected a source — either Internet radio or a track streamed from my PC or iPod — it played straight through and never paused, stuttered, or stopped. This might sound like a simple thing, but it's the primary task for a music player, so score one for MusicCAST2.
Second, I loved how the system allowed me to scroll through lists from top to bottom (rolling past Z and back to A) and bottom to top (A to Z). This proved super-helpful when working through large lists of music. (I have more than 8,500 songs in my library.) Also, by sliding your finger along the right side of the track pad, you can skip through pages of information at a time — again, helpful for blasting through a long list.
The Yamaha controller’s battery life was decent; it was able to last around 24 hours off the charger, which is certainly long enough that it would still work if you left it off the charger all day or overnight.
Soundwise, the A300 is similar to many digital amplifiers that I’ve encountered; performance is adequate at low to medium loudness levels, making it a good match for average-size rooms. I listened with both in-ceiling speakers and some small B&W bookshelf speakers, and it produced full sound from both. However, at the upper end of its volume range, the sound starts treading into harsh and strident territory. Yamaha declined to provide power specifications for the MCX-A300 — a first in my experience. Here's what it did offer in lieu of specs: "The MCX-A300 is designed to offer zone audio at normal listening levels with the ability to run speakers of multiple sizes including efficient tower speakers."
Now for what I didn’t love about the system. First, the components feel insubstantial. “Plasticky” was the word that came to mind. Also, I’m not a fan of trackpad controls; I don’t like them on my laptop, and I didn’t like it on the RC100 controller. Even after I had played with the speed and sensitivity settings, it often took multiple attempts to get where I wanted to go, making the experience of using the controller less enjoyable than it should have been.
Displaying music stored on a networked computer on the RC100’s display takes a while. For instance, it took 40 seconds to load "All Artists," 35 seconds to load "Albums," and a brutal 5 minutes, 25 seconds to load "All Music." On the plus side, once a track/album is selected, it begins playing within a couple of seconds. The Twonky server offers additional browsing options — like viewing artists in alphabetical groups such as ABC or MNO — that greatly sped up this process, and it was my preferred means of browsing my PC’s music library.
I was initially very intrigued by the idea of using the RC100 as a universal remote. It sounded like the system’s killer app. So I went through the process of adding my receiver, cable box, and TV to the system. While the remote is fully capable of controlling your other sources, in reality the operation is so cumbersome that I can’t see anyone using this feature. It might work if the screen was a touchscreen, but as it is, navigating through icons on the screen with the trackpad is too awkward and slow. Even after multiple tries, I couldn’t jump the navigation hurdles required to select a 3-digit channel number on my cable box before it timed out and switched me to channel 8 or 82 instead of 820.
Highest on my list of dislikes is the system’s inability to create a playlist from the controller. For an audio system to truly stand on its own, it shouldn’t require you to return to your computer to do essential tasks. Also, sources connected to a zone player (iPod, USB, Bluetooth) are only accessible to that player; they're unavailable to other zones, or when the system is in Party mode (a mode where the same content is distributed to multiple players at once). Speaking of Party mode, only three zones can be selected, which will definitely be limiting in a large system, especially since MusicCAST2 supports up to 32 players! Worse is the very noticeable delay of 1 or 2 seconds between zones, making it unusable in rooms that are within earshot of each other. Also, I found the fact that random play isn’t permitted in Party mode to be bizarre.
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