Yamaha TT-N503 MusicCast VINYL 500 Turntable Review

“Nobody knows sound better than Yamaha.” Yamaha boldly staked the claim on its US website, yet very few would come forward to challenge this because the company has earned its place on the table.

Yamaha was founded by Torakusu Yamaha in 1887, and they made their first piano in 1900.  137 years later, Yamaha is currently the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments, including pianos, drums, guitars, brass, woodwinds, violins, violas, cellos, and vibraphones.   They also own L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik GmbH (Bosendorfer Piano).    By all account, they are the elephant in the room, and it shares the same respect as some of the biggest names in the industry such as Altec Lansing which was founded in 1927, Klipsch in 1946, McIntosh in 1949, and Audio Research in 1970.     Yamaha’s electronic division was started in 1954, but has remained the same company for 137 years under the same ownership, with the same solid reputation, and making the same products with the same standards, only on a much larger scale than before.    Yamaha even has a music school that began in 1954, with over 6 million graduates in its lifetime.  It currently has over  750,000  students worldwide, ever invigorating the next generation with musical passion.  

Yamaha boasts a revenue of USD 3.01 billion dollars in 2023, of which $ 2.02 Bln comes from Musical Instruments.   The audio equipment business represents $ 720 Mln of Yamaha’s 2023 revenues.  

While conducting show coverage for the last two Singapore audio shows, I stumbled into the Yamaha room, and their prices caught my attention.    I can’t help but notice the relatively low MSRPs of its products; similar brands from the heyday of the Japanese hi-fi era, all have MSRPs which have increased several times faster than inflation.  Yamaha’s prices have not kept up with inflation; in fact, their products are cheaper today than in the 1980s, which brings us to the subject of our article today, the Yamaha TT-N503 Network turntable.  Of all the products I saw in 2023, the TT-N503 is likely the best bang for the buck at the entire show, and it could be be a strong contender as the best value of any product in the entire audio landscape for 2023.   

At USD $699.95, which I had initially mistaken as $ 6999.95, the TT-N503 is built with impeccable quality, fully demonstrating Yamaha’s long commitment to excellence in music reproduction, combined with superb Japanese precision craftsmanship – and at an incredible price to boot.

Yamaha’s Manufacturing Philosophy

On the surface, one might easily mistake Yamaha as a run-of-the-mill producer of low-cost mass-market electronics. But as I dug deeper into the company’s philosophy, Yamaha turned out to be the complete opposite of what I expected. All of Yamaha’s products are designed from the top down and guided by the company’s slogan: the commitment to “TRUE SOUND,” that is, to express sound as the artist intended and to enhance emotion for the listener.

From the initial conceptualization to manufacturing design to product testing and delivery of the final product, all of Yamaha’s products must remain consistent with the company’s core values throughout the whole process. Even the review of the TT-N503 turntable is without exception; Yamaha sent their Senior Product Specialist, Diong Qi Jian, who gave me a tour of the Yamaha retail facilities in Singapore. It is to ensure that I experience not just the turntable or audio equipment but the entire company’s founding principles so that the message can be properly conveyed to the consumer.

The Yamaha store is no small feat; it occupies nearly half of the entire floor of Plaza Singapura, a popular shopping mall in the city-state. The store is divided between Yamaha Piano, Yamaha Music Instruments, and Yamaha Home Entertainment. It even has a Music School offering classes on various musical instruments. Diong showed me the home audio equipment store, followed by a detailed presentation on the Yamaha product design process. While in the showroom, I was overwhelmed by the wide range of products that are offered by Yamaha. It is so much more than just a turntable, as the product is simply one part of a complete equation of how music is made, starting with the instruments all the way to reproduction through their audio equipment.

Diong explained to me Yamaha’s audio equipment adheres to the company’s guiding principle of “True Sound.”     “True Sound” encompasses three aspects:  Tonal Balance, Dynamics, and Sound Image.  To achieve Tonal Balance, all of Yamaha’s products strive to reproduce human voices and instruments accurately at the correct pitches and without changing the tone.    Dynamics is defined as the contrast between stillness and motion, which gives rise to sound to depict the story of the musical content fully.   And lastly, Sound Image is where the holographic image of voices and instruments is recreated.  It must also delicately express the atmosphere, including the nuances and mood of the performer and the music.

Yamaha’s products are viewed as “True Sound Projects,” where a team of specialists will create a range of products along the entire musical chain, from instruments to speakers, to reflect consistency in producing “True Sound.”    Each product is developed under the supervision of a Team Leader and Team members, who will perform three stages of sound quality assessment during the design process, which combines engineering measurements with actual listening feedback, all with clearly spelled out objectives and evaluative criteria.

With its arsenal of in-house manufacturing of music instruments, Yamaha certainly has the capability to gauge whether their product can reproduce the sound of instruments as they are the very manufacturer of such instruments themselves.    Yamaha also has the resources and access to in-house manufacturing facilities, recording studios, recording equipment, collaborating artists, as well as concert halls and recording venues to benchmark their products against.  If a product fails to meet the standard at any stage, the team will return to the drawing board to start over, which explains why product cycles in Yamaha can be long.   

TT-N503 Unpacking and Assembly

The TT-N503 came in a bombproof box with machine-molded foam, which only manufacturers with substantial economies can benefit from.   Just Yamaha’s “packaging” division must be larger than many audio manufacturers. 

The Arcylic top cover, the die-cast aluminum platter, and the plinth were neatly separated, housed, and wrapped in foam sheets to prevent scratches.   The pride in Japanese packaging is fully demonstrated as there were no fingerprints, dust, or the slightest scratch, which makes me wonder whether the product was packed in an air-tight sealed chamber.

The turntable came finished with black piano lacquer, which looks exactly the same as the finish of the Yamaha C4 grand piano sitting in my living room.     I am sure the Yamaha piano division has something to do with the exquisite piano finish.   Few in this price category offers this quality of finish.    

I didn’t read a single page of the phone book thick owner’s manual, which must have taken some Yamaha employees a couple of weeks to compile. It is more detailed than any other owner’s manual I have ever owned, showing the consistency of the high standards at which Yamaha operates.

But even for a beginner, the TT-N503 requires nothing more than common sense to put it together. You flip the platter upside down and loop the belt on the inner ring; then, you simply place the platter onto the spindle. Stick a finger into the hole of the platter to catch the belt and loop it around the spindle. Put the turntable mat back onto the platter, and you’re good to go.

The TT-N503 MusicCast Network Turntable

At just $ 699.95, the Yamaha TT-N503 is packed with features, and it has everything that a beginner needs to play vinyl. For an entry-level product to offer this many features at this quality level, the TT-N503 likely benefitted from Yamaha’s economies of scale, which would not have been possible for a smaller company.

The TT-N503 is a belt drive table that comes mounted with a tonearm and an Audio Technica AT3600L MM phono cartridge ($29.95). On the back of the unit, it has traditional analog RCA outputs, switchable between Phono Out and Line out, which tells you that if LINE OUT is chosen, the unit is built in with an MM phono stage, which allows you to connect directly into a preamp, an integrated amp, or active speaker units. If you choose to install a higher quality phono cartridge, such as an MC cartridge, users can select the Phono output, which bypasses the internal phono stage.

The name “Network” Turntable may be confusing for some, but the “Network” part is precisely what sets the Yamaha turntable apart from others. It is simply packed with features that allow the next generation to get started with high-end audio. The TT-N503 comes with a set of “network” outputs that will enable you to connect to a router, network server, PC or NAS (Network Attached Storage Hard Disk device) via CAT5/6/7 LAN cables, Wifi or Bluetooth, or Yamaha’s own “MusicCast” compatible devices.

On the streaming end, it supports MP3 / WMA / MPEG-4 AAC: up to 48 kHz / 16-bit, ALAC: up to 96 kHz / 24-bit, FLAC / WAV / AIFF: up to 192 kHz / 24-bit, DSD: up to 11.2 MHz – to us analog folks, these are a foreign language, but it is precisely these features which sets it apart.

I asked my 19-year-old daughter if the network capability is something important, and she said the ability to stream music off her iPHone is the lynchpin of the equation. This very feature could very well be the ticket for a young person to transition into vinyl. Those who are used to streaming music from their iPhone or Android devices can connect Spotify or other music streaming apps to play music through the TT-N503 turntable into connected amplifiers and speakers. The TT-N503 can be connected and controlled by Yamaha’s MusicCast Controller App on mobile devices to act as a streamer.

The TT-N503 can output to Bluetooth devices such as headphones, and speakers regardless brand. But the Bluetooth standard is a bit tricky and does not always work. I tried connecting the TT-N503 to the popular Marshall guitar Amp-like Home Speaker via Bluetooth but to no avail, and I had to use an RCA to Phono Jack cable to get a connection, but the Bluetooth connected OK with a few portable speakers.

The Tonearm

The weak point amongst entry-level turntables is the tonearm that comes with it. Not all tonearms are created equal, and many entry-level arms suffer from either poor design or simply lousy workmanship. The lifter, for instance, is often raised too high, so the cartridge is over 1 cm from the platter. When you lower the lever, many of them do not come straight down but diagonally, which makes choosing tracks to play challenging because the stylus will land on the wrong spot.

The offset angle on the headshell is another common problem. They are arbitrarily chosen on numerous tonearms regardless of price and do not correspond to any alignment geometry. Some very expensive tonearms, for instance, have an offset angle that is simply incorrect. The cartridge has to be mounted at an awkward angle to achieve proper alignment.

Then there is anti-skating, where many manufacturers simply add it on without even asking whether the anti-skating force is needed in the first place. Too many turntables come with an anti-skating force that is too great or too coarse an adjustment to achieve proper setup.

Last but not least, how many tonearms come with poorly fitted joints or a poorly constructed bearing where each part is loose and wobbly. Some are so poorly fitted that the tonearm’s pivot will shift every time the arms swing outward and do not return to the same spot.

The tonearm on the Yamaha TT-N503 is one of the few in this price category that perfectly scores all of the above. In fact, the arm is so good compared to many $1000-2000 dollar tonearms that I would give it an award if it was sold separately.

Out of the box, I was surprised to find the cartridge aligned to perfection, and by that, I mean when it was verified against the Acoustical System Pro-Alignment Set (€ 3,995), which is the world’s most accurately alignment tractor, the stylus of cartridge landed at the exact laser cut divot of the Baerwald IEC template. The cantilever was also 100% aligned perfectly parallel to the grid! The offset angle of the headshell is perfectly aligned to the Baerwald IEC geometry grid lines. The arm felt solid, with a properly working lifter, anti-skating mechanism, as well precisely fitted connection joints without any wobbling.

The only missing piece in the equation is a cartridge scale which the TT-N503 did not come with. The tracking force was stated at 3.5g in the owner’s manual, and upon checking with a digital scale, the tracking force was indeed 3.5g out of the box. The turn dial is marked with gridlines and numbers that are supposed to indicate that the tracking force, is a free-spinning wheel. It can be turned without moving the counterweight which means it cannot indicate the correct tracking force.

The actual recommended tracking force for the Audio Technica AT3600L is at 2.5g to 3.5g, so I dialed it back to around 2.7g instead of the factory setting of 3.5g.

Given that a digital cartridge scale can be bought for $ 5-10 dollars, perhaps Yamaha should consider providing a scale with the turntable, given how much effort they have spent on creating this nearly perfect product. This would complete the last missing piece of the puzzle before reaching perfection. Even a plastic mechanical scale would do the job and wouldn’t even add a dollar to the manufacturing cost.

The Sound

I must admit, I am an analog snob regarding tonearms and cartridges, and I have nothing in my possession that costs less than $ 5,000 dollars, so there simply isn’t anything I can compare the Yamaha with. My lowest-priced item is my 1982 Luxman PD-284, but when adjusted for inflation, it would still be a $ 1,000+ dollar turntable with a $ 5000 dollar cartridge on it. So when we are talking $ 695.95 for a complete turntable combo, my expectation was set at the lowest level.

As I spun the first vinyl, I expected a high background noise and hiss, which is commonly encountered with entry-level MM cartridges and built-in phono stages. To my surprise, there was a complete absence of any noise or hum! The Yamaha was off to a good start!

Over a period of 2 months, I played over a hundred records on the turntable. No, it isn’t comparable with any of the high-end turntables I have on hand; they do everything better in every way. But could I have lived with the Yamaha without any of the high-end tables? I would hate to admit it, but truly I could have lived with the Yamaha.

On frequency extension, the Yamaha scored well because the higher frequencies are not plagued with coarseness or noise. The lower bass notes are not muddy and flabby; you can distinguish the bass notes with reasonable clarity. The overall setup is not ultra-detailed, but for a $ 29.95 dollar cartridge, should I even be complaining?

The Yamaha TT-N503 does everything correctly, true to Yamaha’s commitment to producing “True Sound”; none of the frequencies deviated or changed in tonality. Everything was rendered correctly and accurately. The correct way to put it is the TT-N503 is performing more like a $3500-$5000 dollar turntable. Both functionally, aesthetically, and sonically, the Yamaha TT-N503 far exceeded my expectations.

And Now to the Award

While attending the last few audio shows across both continents, it was pretty noticeable that there was a complete absence of young people. The same crowds who are attending the shows are getting older and older, while MSRPs keep going higher and higher. The trend is even more pronounced in North America. Most manufacturers are adopting the strategy of raising the MSRP to target the top 1% to make up for lost volume. But the handwriting is already on the wall, and this strategy will eventually backfire as the industry is pricing out an entire generation of young people.

My daughter once told me that her entire school has no schoolmates or parents who are audiophiles. According to Luminate, which recently published its Top Entertainment Trends for 2023 report, “50 percent of consumers who have bought vinyl in the past 12 months do not own a turntable”. Our industry has managed to disconnect itself from a generation of young people, or perhaps they simply could not afford one?

In an industry where most product carry luxury pricing, it is refreshing to see a company with such a strong history and reputation to remain true to its core principles while offering quality products at reasonable prices. Yamaha seems to be bucking the trend. It continues to be, first and foremost, a musical instrument company, offering music lessons and quality equipment to connect the next generation with music.

At $ 695.95, the Yamaha TT-N503 MusicCast Turntable is a star amongst the crowd. It offers an entry point at a price level that young people can afford. In fact, the entire line of Yamaha products is significantly underpriced compared to its peers. From Yamaha’s commitment to “True Sound” to its careful attention to detail, to its well-thought-out execution, to the customer experience, the Yamaha TT-N503 is a fine example of an exemplary product at a very reasonable price.

Side by side, it can easily best some of the turntables out there in the $ 2-3000 dollar range, and none of them will offer the convenience of the network capabilities – and for this, Mono & Stereo is awarding the TT-N503 with the Best Buy Award. Job well done!!

By Richard H. Mak, Analog Equipment Editor