HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



February
2003

Reviewed by
Jeff Van Dyne
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2003


Outlaw Audio
Model 950
Surround-Sound Processor

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: Outlaw Audio Model 950

Price: $899 USD
Dimensions: 17.2"W x 4.6"H x 14.8"D
Weight: 17.6 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Features

  • Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Surround EX, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Pro Logic II, Cirrus Extra Surround
  • 5.1 multichannel analog input with bass management

Features (cont'd)
  • Analog-direct path for two-channel sources
  • Six digital inputs (two coaxial, four optical)
  • Two digital outputs (one coaxial, one optical)
  • Two HD-compatible component inputs (one output)
  • Five S-video inputs
  • Four analog two-channel inputs
  • 24-bit/192kHz Cirrus DACs
  • Toroidal power transformer
  • Second-zone capability
  • Main and zone DC triggers
  • AM/FM tuner with 32 presets
  • Universal programmable learning remote

The Outlaw Audio Model 950 surround-sound processor arrived on my doorstep the very day I moved into my new house. I knew it would be several days before I had a chance to connect and configure it for my home theater as I was in a major state of transition. As it turned out, I was able to utilize it in stereo mode later that weekend, but it would be nearly two weeks before the wiring for the surrounds was completed. It’s a tough thing for a reviewer to have a new, highly anticipated piece of equipment on hand and not be able to fully explore its capabilities. It’s a good thing Outlaw Audio made it worth the wait.

Description

Outlaw’s Model 950 is available Internet-direct for the reasonable sum of $899, putting it in a price class all by itself as far as surround-sound processors are concerned. Looking at its feature set, you’ll notice that you get a lot for the money, with enough inputs and outputs to control the majority of home theaters. No, it doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as lots of flagship receivers -- which you may not use anyway -- but it is a complete package in virtually every respect.

The features the Model 950 includes are significant, and the Outlaws have chosen wisely. For example, instead of only one or two levels of compression for the night-listening mode, the Model 950 has four, allowing you to tailor the level to your own personal needs. Another example is the subwoofer crossover, which is independently adjustable for the mains, center-channel, and surrounds from 40Hz to 150Hz. Many processors and receivers limit you to one crossover setting, and if the crossover frequency is selectable, more often than not, it’s a blanket setting for all the speakers. Additionally, there’s a fixed 80Hz crossover for the multichannel input should your DVD-Audio or SACD player not include internal bass-management capabilities. If that’s not enough, there are also trigger outputs to turn on an external amplifier or other accessories, and IR-sensor inputs for both the main and second zones.

Concerning more commonly available features, Outlaw didn’t cut corners where it counts. The surround-format list includes Dolby Digital Surround EX, DTS-ES, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS Neo:6, Cirrus Extra Surround, and five- and seven-channel stereo. You don’t get a bunch of gimmicky, and largely useless, "hall" and "club" surround modes. I sincerely doubt anyone will miss them. The Model 950 also has six digital inputs and two digital outputs, which should satisfy almost any requirements, and with two component-video inputs, five S-video inputs, and four analog-only inputs, there should be enough connections to go around. However, if you still own a turntable, you will have to buy an external phono preamp.

Build quality appears to be respectable for the money, with a solid-aluminum front panel and a volume control that has a surprisingly nice feel to it. The input jacks on the back of the unit are all the standard-duty gold-plated RCA jacks that I would expect at this price. Only the calculator-key feel of the buttons on the front panel detract from the overall impression of quality.

All in all, the Outlaw Audio Model 950 is a stunning value from a build and connectivity standpoint. The Outlaws have done a commendable job of balancing features and quality in a package that costs far less than many receivers. It has enough inputs to serve as the control center for all but the largest home theaters, and has a handful of features not found in some surround-sound processors selling for much more.

The Model 950’s partner

Outlaw Audio shipped a Model 770 multichannel amplifier along to pair with the Model 950. At 200W into seven channels, this beast will surely overpower any receiver in this combo’s price class, and the benefits of having all that power on tap were proven during the 770’s stay in my system. For a more detailed look at Outlaw Audio’s power amplifiers, read Home Theater & Sound’s review of the Model 755. Everything stated about the 755 applies to the 770, but the 770 has two more channels and 12 more pounds. At 90 pounds the 770 is one very large amplifier, so save yourself a trip to the chiropractor and enlist the help of a friend to unpack and heave this beast into place.

Setup is everything

Initial setup for the 950 is similar to any number of other surround-sound processors and receivers I’ve seen. For each source you select the default input (analog or one of six digital inputs), default surround mode, bass and treble levels, and night compensation level. Speaker configuration is programmable, and consists of selecting the speaker type for the fronts, center, surrounds, and back surrounds. The crossover frequency for the front, center, and surround speakers can be individually set to 40Hz, 60Hz, 80Hz, 100Hz, 120Hz, or 150Hz.

Once the above is done, you calibrate the individual channel levels, then set the speaker distances in the system-configuration menu. Speaker-level settings can be done from either the speaker-calibration or trim-level menus; the former cycling through test tones and the latter letting you change the individual levels without going into the tones. When I first saw the trim-level menu, I wrongly assumed this was independent for each input, but this is not the case. The level settings affect all inputs and there is no facility to match sound levels among inputs. It would be a nice feature to have, but is by no means critical and not really expected at this price.

The remainder of the settings have to do with Dolby Pro Logic II parameters, second-zone settings, and a few miscellaneous adjustments for displays, sleep timers, et cetera. There’s also a switch on the back panel for a fixed 80Hz crossover for the analog stereo-bypass mode. The Model 950 has all of the usual configuration bases covered, and throws in excellent bass management for good measure.

The remote is an OEM version of the Home Theater Master SL-9000 learning remote, less the LCD, which displays the source the remote is set to control. This is the same remote as seen in any number of competing products, some of which are significantly more expensive. The remote is solidly built and has proven itself in the past to operate nearly any component available. Its one serious flaw is the lack of dedicated transport keys, which share functions with the menu and cursor-navigation keys. Otherwise, it’s a competent remote and is exactly what I would expect from a component in this price range.

Performance

The short version: In home-theater mode the Outlaw Model 950 is nothing short of stunning. Surround steering proved to be exceptionally good with any material I threw at it, particularly with Dolby Digital Surround EX and DTS-ES material.

Spider-Man was the first movie I watched after finally getting all seven channels operating. I immediately noticed an expansive soundfield in scenes such as the wrestling match in chapter 10. The difference between 5.1 and 7.1 is quite noticeable, and the Model 950 proved this ably. I heard an added sense of dimension going from five to seven channels, but the difference was not as dramatic as with the switch from Dolby Pro Logic to Dolby Digital. I rate it a notch below that vast improvement. Pans around the room and surround-steering accuracy were close to the best I’ve heard with either configuration.

The opening sequence to Men in Black is a great example of how the expanded soundfield came into play. The sound of the insects in the background had my cat searching for the source and had me wondering if I should call the Orkin man. Lesser processors and receivers I’ve experienced simply can’t deliver this level of detail and realism. With the Outlaw Model 950 in the system, I never questioned whether I was hearing everything that was on the disc. It was all there, and in bold relief.

The Model 950 didn’t immediately recognize the Dolby Digital Surround EX stream from Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones, but defaulted to standard Dolby Digital instead. Switching in EX processing manually worked just fine, and served to expand the soundfield with added depth and realism with scenes such as the fight sequence in the rain between Obi-Wan and Jango (chapter 26). The sound of the rain became ever so slightly more enveloping with the addition of the back surrounds. Directional cues in 5.1 or 7.1 mode were always spot-on with perfectly seamless front-to-back and side-to-side pans. This characteristic was heard quite clearly, particularly after the assassination attempt on Senator Amidala during the speeder chase in chapter 7.

Paired with my aging but capable Adcom GCD-600 CD changer, the Outlaw Model 950 sounded clear and precise in stereo-bypass mode. However, the sound was much less spectacular when run in one of the analog DSP modes where the analog signal must be converted to digital prior to processing and then back to analog for playback. The resulting sound was muffled in comparison to the stereo-bypass mode. As a result, I don’t recommend this option.

The results were much better when using the digital output from the CD changer, but still weren’t quite up to the same level as using the DACs in the Adcom and running in stereo-bypass mode. None of this would have mattered much to me, except I could never find a way to get the Model 950 to default to stereo bypass. Every time I selected the CD source on the remote, the Model 950 would switch back to the default DSP mode. I soon found a simple way around the problem, though, by covering the IR emitter on the remote whenever I switched back and forth between controlling the Model 950 and the Adcom. I suspect most people will use this product with the digital output from a DVD player and never notice the difference. If you own a higher-quality CD player and want to continue using it, then you may want to take this into consideration.

Once I started listening to music, I was impressed with what I heard. On Dvorak’s 8th Symphony [DG 447412], instrument placement was nearly pinpoint and the layers of horns, woods, and strings were clearly defined. At one point during this listening session I looked at the back of the CD and realized I was listening to a recording that was originally created in 1966. I had no idea. Not only is that a great "vintage" recording (hey, I was four years old at the time), but it’s obvious that the entire system, based on the Outlaw Model 950 and Model 770, was getting out of the way and letting all of the information from the original recording come through. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

The story was no different when I put on Susannah McCorkle’s Let’s Face the Music: The Songs of Irving Berlin [Concord 4759]. So long as I was operating in stereo-bypass mode with music, the Outlaw was equal to, or better than, anything I’ve heard in this price range. My listening notes about this particular recording are littered with phrases like "crystal clear," "nothing in the way," "open," and "dynamic." In fact, I found phrases like that throughout my listening notes for the Model 950 no matter what recording I was listening to. I can think of no better compliment for any surround-sound processor, much less one that lives in the sub-$1000 category.

Tuner performance was adequate. It pulled in local stations well, which is an easy thing to do in my part of the country, but distant stations were spotty at best. However, this is no better or worse than just about every other component I’ve had through here in recent history.

Unfair comparison?

I auditioned the Outlaw Model 950 in my reference theater system where I compared it against the Anthem AVM 20. This is hardly a fair comparison -- or is it? It turns out that the Outlaw Model 950 holds up pretty well against one of the best home-theater surround-sound processors on the market today.

In seven-channel home-theater mode, the Outlaw is nearly a match for the Anthem, which is an astonishing discovery considering the fact that the Model 950 is nearly one quarter the price! The overall sound is a little leaner and cooler than that of the Anthem, but the difference is extremely subtle. If you were to ask which was more accurate or appropriate, I’d have a hard time choosing. Both have superb detail, imaging, and soundstaging, with the Anthem taking the lead by a very slight margin in each category. That being said, the differences are subtle enough that it takes high-resolution speakers to tell any difference at all.

In stereo-bypass mode, the Outlaw proved to be a close match with music, though here the Anthem starts to exhibit its audiophile tendencies with slightly improved soundstage depth. Sonically, that’s really the only place where I felt the Outlaw was giving up much ground to the more expensive Anthem.

In terms of build quality and features, though, the Anthem AVM 20 is clearly in another class. The AVM 20 is simply a more substantial piece of gear and the overall fit’n’finish’n’feel are a clear step up from the Model 950. The Anthem is also loaded with options: balanced inputs and outputs, three zones, et cetera. When you buy the AVM 20, you don’t feel you’re compromising anything.

The fact that I’m even comparing the $899 Outlaw Model 950 to the $3399 Anthem AVM 20 should speak volumes for what the 950 achieves. Throughout this review I fought, and frequently failed, to remind myself that I was comparing two components separated in price by $2500! That’s how good Outlaw’s Model 950 is.

Conclusion

The Outlaw Model 950 seems to be an unbeatable value. I know of nowhere else you can obtain this much functionality at anything remotely resembling the price. The Model 950 may not be a powerhouse switching system -- that can be found in some flagship receivers in the same price range -- but it should suit the vast majority of people. What is does give you may be more important than that.

With the option of running every major surround format currently available, the Model 950 will certainly provide plenty of entertainment and system-configuration options. The addition of second-zone capability means that the family can enjoy music in other parts of the house while a movie is playing in the family room. The Model 950 provides a compelling option for home-theater buffs in search of power and flexibility at a relatively affordable price. Combined with a high-quality amplifier such as Outlaw Audio’s own Model 770, it certainly presents a strong argument against the growing tide of expensive receivers.

Review System
Speakers - Silverline Sonatina (mains), PSB Stratus C5 (center-channel), PSB Alpha AV Mites (surrounds), ACI SV12-based 200W subwoofer
Processor - Anthem AVM 20
Amplifiers - Outlaw Audio Model 770, Chiro C-300 (mains, center), Rotel RB-976 (surrounds)
Sources - Sony DVP-NS755V DVD player, Panasonic RV-32 DVD player, Adcom GCD-600 CD changer, JVC HR-S3600U S-VHS VCR, RCA DirecTV receiver
Cables - Analysis Plus, Audio Magic, Straight Wire, Monster Cable
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Outlaw Audio
P.O. Box 975
Easton, MA 02334
Phone: (866) OUTLAW2

E-mail: info@outlawaudio.com  
Website: www.outlawaudio.com

 


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