by Chris Boylan
Of late, it seems like every manufacturer in the mid- to high-end audio/video space has jumped on the bandwagon of releasing ultra-expensive "state of the art" home theater receivers. Denon's AVR-5803, Sunfire's "Ultimate Receiver" and Sony’s STR-DA9000ES are just a few recent examples. Some of these companies, like Sony, for example, have even stopped making separate high-end audio components entirely in favor of these all-in-1 monster receivers. I have to admit... I don't get it.
Why crowd all the switching, tuning, processing and amplification into a single chassis? Specifically, why mix a low-current device like a surround processor with a high current device like a power amplifier in one box, with one power source? Is it to save money? I do not think so – these flagship receivers hover around the $4,000 mark. How about saving space? Not really – these behemoths usually measure in at 7” to 9” high which is not much smaller than a stacked preamp/power amp combo. Simplicity? C'mon... are you telling me that people really can not plug 6 (or 8) RCA cables from LINE OUT to LINE IN? Give me a break!
Outlaws To The Rescue?
Since 1999, Outlaw Audio has sold their gear directly to the public over the internet. The theory is that by eliminating the traditional supply chain and middlemen, Outlaw should be able to offer better value than traditional electronics manufacturers. With a selling price of only $799 for a full-featured surround sound preamplifier/tuner, and $899 for a seven channel power amplifier, it seems like this theory may hold water. But can it satisfy the die-hard audio/videophile? Read on and find out.
Connectivity Out The Wazoo
Outlaw's model 950 offers inputs for up to 9 source components – 4 are audio only and 5 audio/video. There are 6 digital inputs, 4 of which are fiberoptic and 2 coaxial. The unit offers an analog tape loop output, a PCM digital output (e.g., for a CD or DAT recorder) plus an audio/video output for a VCR, DVD or HDD recorder. As you would expect in this price range, you get 2 component inputs and one component output. Rounding out the source selections is an on-board AM/FM tuner that did a nice job of picking up a few less-than-powerful FM stations from the further reaches of Long Island from my home in New York City.
The 950 includes more inputs than most people need...
You can hook up a video monitor to the 950 via its composite, S-video or components outputs. Although the unit does convert S-video to composite (and vice versa), the manual came with a special note saying that this is not really recommended due to signal degradation. The 950 does not offer conversion to or from the component inputs to other types of video signals. And, as on most units in this price range, the component outputs do not carry the on-screen menus so you will need to hook up composite or S-Video video to your monitor if you wish to view set-up menus on your big screen.
All digital inputs are assignable, so if your VCR happens to have a fiberoptic digital output, then this is easily configured in the online set-up menu. Notably absent are a phono input and a headphone jack. If you are still spinning black vinyl, then you’ll have to BYOPP (bring your own phono preamp). Although I personally missed the headphone output and phono input, I’d say these omissions were probably necessary to reach this price point and may not be missed by most buyers.
Cramming 5 Pounds Of Control Into A 6 Ounce Remote
The remote control is a fairly comprehensive programmable universal remote that may seem more than passingly familiar. It's OEM'ed by Universal Electronics and is a near clone of their ubiquitous Home Theater Master SL-9000 without the top LCD screen and with a slightly different button layout. The SL-9000 sells on its own for $139 so including one with the 950 is one indication of good bang for the buck. The Outlaw version comes complete with direct source selection, pre-programmed codes and a code-learning option, as well as macro capability. It offers full back-lighting and a reasonably intuitive button layout.
However, I have to say, the remote was one of my least favorite parts of this product. As mentioned, there are direct input switches at the top of the remote for some, but not all of the inputs. For example, you turn on the integrated tuner by selecting "AM/FM" on the lower part of the remote, not at the top where all the other direct source inputs are. Plus there is no intuitive way to rotate through different surround sound modes. You need to hit the Dolby Digital button, the DTS button, the Cirrus Extra Surround button, or the Stereo button, depending on which set of surround modes you want to use.
The other annoying thing is that, as shipped, the remote's volume controls will only adjust the preamp volume if you have selected AUD on the remote. If you hit the VCR button to select the VCR input, then hit the volume controls, you get nothing until you hit the AUD button again. I understand they did it this way so that the volume control buttons could be reprogrammed for each source component, but I believe the default behavior should have made the volume buttons functional as a system volume control for all selected devices. I did realize, late in the review cycle, that you can program this behavior into the remote just by hitting a few buttons for each source selection. So, once I made this change, the remote was much more enjoyable to use. And hey, at this price, you can afford to buy an Uber-Remote, like the Philips Pronto or Harmony units, so this is, after all, a minor gripe.
A Very Ergonomic User Interface
Remember the days when "set-up" on a pre-amplifier meant plugging in a few wires, turning it on and adjusting the tone controls (if you had them)? Not so in the 21st Century. These days an important part of a preamp’s usability is based on how easy the set-up and operation menus and functions are. And happily, I must say the Model 950 scored highly in this regard. The set-up menus were all very intuitive. I assigned digital inputs to various sources, set up loudspeaker levels, crossover and configuration, and set default surround modes for each source with the greatest of ease.
The user manual was quite well written, and included some really useful touches like a set-up chart for you to jot down exactly which source is plugged into which digital, analog and video input. This is extremely useful to a gearhead like me who didn’t leave a single source empty.
In terms of surround sound modes, this baby has pretty much everything you could hope for, including Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS-ES, Dolby Digital EX and Cirrus Extra Surround. It can be configured for 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 channels (selectable) so it is compatible with pretty much any speaker complement you may currently have or plan to purchase. Of course, there is a 6 channel analog line input for DVD-Audio and SACD players with limited but functional bass management built into the unit itself. There is also a “Stereo Bypass” mode that allows you to listen to 2-channel analog-based sources without any digital sampling or processing. In this mode, only the front left/right and subwoofer outputs are active, and all digital processing is bypassed.
The model 950 features high quality parts and innovative
Enough Of All That Techno Mumbo-Jumbo!
Sound quality of the unit is actually quite good, particularly in light of the low ticket price. On DTS sources such as The Eagles Hell Freezes Over and the film Gladiator, the 950 created a nicely balanced presentation and a convincing illusion of space. A direct comparison of the 950's built-in DTS processor to Pioneer's DV-47Ai DVD-Audio player ($999) revealed subtle differences. In fact, the Outlaw's handling of DTS source material was a little smoother and more refined overall, but with plenty of punch and dynamics. The 950 instantly recognized the DTS-ES flag in Gladiator and set itself to that surround mode as soon as the film began.
The unit did not recognize a Dolby Digital EX mix on Star Wars Episode II – The Attack of the Clones but it was easy enough to switch the unit to EX mode manually. When I did, the rear channel effects came through loud and clear on Chapter 28 in the dogfight between Jango Fett and Obi Wan Kenobi. I like to use Star Wars II for testing gear because the film’s thin plot and stilted dialog allows me to concentrate on the fine visuals and superb audio mix without distraction. But my favorite Dolby Digital test, the Diva scene on the Fifth Element DVD sounded similarly excellent with a seamless blend of channels and excellent micro-dynamics.
For two channel sources, I started with Chesky’s 24/96 sampler DVD entitled The Super Audio Collection & Professional Test Disc. On it, Sara K.’s rendition of "Brick House" sounded lush and rich (as usual), but perhaps slightly harsh compared to other systems. I suspect that this may have been more the amplifier's contribution than the processor. Sara Pidgeon's "MacDougall's Men" on the same DVD had a great sense of depth, but also sounded a bit raw. The interesting thing about using this 24-bit/96kHz digital source was that, while the Outlaw had no trouble locking to the signal, it would not go into any surround modes – it was stereo only playback. Perhaps the prospect of expanding a 2 channel 24/96 PCM stereo signal to 24/96 X 5 or 24/96 X 7 is just too daunting a task for this processor. In any case, it is a pretty minor omission as this type of digital source material on anything other than a true DVD-Audio disc is pretty rare indeed. And on a true DVD-Audio disc, the signal would be carried to the 950 in analog format, not digital.
Continuing on to "normal" two channel sources (like standard CDs, for example), the Bypass mode was an excellent choice revealing all of the source materials’ natural beauty (or ugliness). But with all these channels and speakers, I felt compelled to experiment a bit with the Cirrus Extra Surround mode. This mode allows you to create a 6.1 or 7.1 channel mix from 2 channel or 5.1 channel analog or digital sources. It can be used with or without Dolby Pro Logic II, depending on source material. On Rush 2112 (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 2 channel CD), the effect of Cirrus Surround was subtle yet effective in conveying a little extra dimensionality to this luscious recording. I still preferred the "purity" of Bypass mode for this CD, but I enjoyed both presentations of it.
My favorite use for Cirrus Surround was in conjunction with Pro Logic II-Cinema mode on 2 channel audio/video materials. Live broadcast television shows like West Wing, ER and Survivor sounded fantastic in Pro-Logic II with Cirrus Extra Surround. Even commercials sounded good in this mode, and you know that’s saying something. It’s saying that I’m a weirdo who likes listening to commercials.
OK, But How About Real Multi-Channel Music?
I rounded out my listening sessions with a selection of multi-channel DVD-Audio and SACD titles in the 950's External Input mode. The best a preamp can do for discrete multi-channel music is get out of the way, and the 950 did this very well. On Gus Black’s "Uncivilized Love" DVD-Audio (from Immergent Records), the presentation of a discrete multi-channel mix was pretty close to flawless. "12345" (track 4) starts in just the center channel then explodes very effectively into 5.1 channels around 2 ˝ minutes in. And "City Life" (track 5) had me up and dancing when listening through the 950. I think this album is one of the best pop albums released in the past few years and listening to it on the 950 was no disappointment.
Another fun DVD-Audio is Silverline's "Inside The Music: Women on Top." This album collects some of the coolest tunes from female-fronted bands in the 80s (mostly) and hits them with the full treatment of new multi-channel mixes from the original master tapes. The remix of Pat Benatar’s "We Belong" sent chills up my spine played through the 950. Blondie’s "Heart of Glass" and The Motels "Only the Lonely" were equally enjoyable.
On the SACD side, Philip Bailey's interpretation of "Nature Boy" (Telarc SACD Sampler I, track 3) sounded simply amazing – smooth and refined. The harsh edge I noticed earlier in the 950's 24-bit/96kHz Digital mode was nowhere to be found when listening to this SACD. And Orff's "O Fortuna" segment from Carmina Burana (Telarc SACD Sampler I, track 15) carried its full power in this tastefully simple multi-channel mix. More multi-channel SACD recordings from Pink Floyd ("Money" from Dark Side of the Moon) and Bob Dylan (various tracks from his newly remastered catalog of SACDs) were unable to trip up the 950. It simply passed along what the player gave it... just as it was supposed to do.
And Now A Few Words About The 950's Partner...
Outlaw offers several power amplifier options including two 7-channels amplifiers. For the purposes of this review, I used their lowest-priced model – the 7100 ($899). This amplifier can drive up to 7 channels with a rated power output of 100 Watts Per Channel into 8 ohms, or 165 WPC into 4 ohms. The 7100 is the most likely match for the 950 since Outlaw offers the preamp/power amp combo for a paltry $1,599 (an additional savings of $100 vs. buying the units separately).
The 7100 had plenty of power and punch in my 16' X 16.5' living room. There was no hint of strain, though there was a touch of glare in the high end on high frequency-rich source material. Compared to my regular stable of power amps (Tandberg, Conrad-Johnson and Marantz monoblocks), the Outlaw amp definitely favored the high frequencies, but not in a way that led to undue strain or fatigue.
Loudspeakers on-hand included NHT SuperOne and SuperZero monitors and Martin-Logan Aerius full-range electrostats (with standard acoustic suspension woofer). I suspect the 7100 would be a decent match with most speakers, but would really shine on speakers that have a darker, softer character.
I also have on hand the 7100's big brother, the model 770, which weighs in at a whopping 90 pounds of solid muscle and is rated at 200 WPC into 8 ohms. I plan a follow-up review of this amp once I get over the hernia I got from trying to lift it into the equipment rack.
Can You Tell I Liked These Little Guys?OK, in case it was not obvious, I really enjoyed this "little pre-amplifier that could," and the power amplifier was competent at delivering the goods to all 7 channels. They were not perfect, nor were they the best I have ever heard, but for about half the price or less of a behemoth home theater receiver, the Outlaw 950/7100 combo is a no-brainer. And in the most overused cliché of audio reviewing, but in this case entirely genuine, I’m voting with my dollars – I’m buying the review samples.
Model 950 preamplifier/tuner
Model 7100 power amplifier
Signal to Noise: 119dB "A" weighted
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz (+/- 0.1dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.05% at rated output
Intermodulation Distortion: <0.05% at rated output.
Power Bandwidth: 5Hz to 100kHz (+0/-3dB)
Damping Factor: >400 from 10Hz to 400Hz
Crosstalk: >90dB from 20Hz to 20Khz
Gain: Voltage gain of 28
Slew Rate: 50v/Microsecond
Input Impedance: Nominal 50k ohms
Input Sensitivity: 1.00 Volts for Full Rated Output
Remote Trigger Voltage: 3 - 32 Volts DC at 5 ma or greater
Dimensions: (HxWxD): 5" with feet x 17.2" x 16.2"
Weight: 51 lbs.
Power Requirements: 115VAC, +/- 3%, 50Hz - 60 Hz. 1200 watts, maximum