HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



December
2005

Reviewed by
Jeff Van Dyne
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2005


Outlaw Audio
Model 990
Surround-Sound Processor

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: Model 990

Price: $1099 USD
Dimensions: 17.4"W x 7.75"H x 17.75"D
Weight: 28 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Features

  • DTS-ES Discrete and Matrix, DTS 96/24, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Virtual Speaker, Dolby Headphone
  • Digitally remasters 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM to 24-bit/192kHz
  • 24-bit/192kHz DACs for all channels
  • Pure Analog and Pure Digital modes
  • Quadruple Crossover Control (separate settings for front L/R, center, surround L/R, rear surround L/R)
  • Upgradeable via RS-232 or USB interface
  • Transcoding between composite-video, S-video, and component-video inputs

Features (cont'd)
  • Five optical and two coaxial digital inputs, optical digital output
  • Lip-sync delay
  • Automatic speaker setup
  • Crystal CS-49400 32-bit processor
  • 7.1-channel direct input with digital bass management and bypass
  • Two-channel subwoofer offset
  • 7.1-channel RCA preamp outputs with dual subwoofer out
  • Balanced XLR audio outputs
  • Room 2 A/V output with fixed/variable audio level, S-video, and coaxial digital
  • IR control with two inputs, one output
  • Dedicated second-room remote
  • Two Video Record Out selectors
  • Two 12V triggers
  • Three component-video inputs
  • Two DVI inputs, one DVI output
  • Six audio inputs with phono
  • Theater Compensation
  • Three-position dynamic-range control

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Outlaw’s groundbreaking Model 950. I would say that the 950 was at the top of its price class, but at $899 the 950 had that price class all to itself.

Since then, not much has changed. Can you name three surround-sound processors under $1099? Neither can I. For that reason, I’m sure many who look at Outlaw Audio’s new Model 990 will initially be drawn to it for its low price of $1099. Others may bypass it for the very same reason. Both would be missing the point that price, in this case, is largely irrelevant.

While its low price draws immediate attention, it’s what the 990 offers that I found most surprising. Take 30 seconds to scan the feature list accompanying this review; you’ll see that the 990 includes all kinds of goodies, some of which you won’t find on many far more expensive products. The two that caught my eye were the DVI switching and the phono preamp. I’ve been looking at upconverting DVD players lately, but my TV’s single DVI input has already been claimed by the output from my Sony HD DirecTV receiver. External DVI switching units can be had for $225 or so, but here I am staring at a $1099 surround-sound processor that includes that functionality at no additional charge. The itch to upgrade DVD players just got a whole lot stronger.

I suppose most people won’t care about the phono input, and I’m more than a little surprised to see one on the 990 -- it’s one place Outlaw could have shaved a little off the production costs. On the other hand, Outlaw wouldn’t be Outlaw if they didn’t do things a little differently. The option of spinning vinyl in my home theater is intriguing -- if I could only find a place to set up my turntable.

Design, construction, setup

I’d heard that the Outlaw 990 was on the large side, but I was still unprepared for what I saw when I opened the box. The 990 is fully 2" taller and 3.5" deeper than my reference Anthem AVM 20 surround processor. That may not sound like much, but it’s just enough to make the 990 an uncomfortable fit in my crowded equipment rack. Take a few measurements before you order a 990 to make sure it will fit your rack.

One advantage of the big size is that there’s more real estate on the rear panel for all those connectors and wires. When I have to locate and hook up a component input, my Anthem AVM 20 becomes an exercise in eyestrain and contortionism; the Outlaw’s expansive behind greatly simplifies this task.

The 990’s remote control is the same basic OEM learning unit that comes with the Anthem, and it’s one of the better ones around. It won’t make you want to give up a Pronto, Harmony, or Home Theater Master, but it’ll do nicely if you don’t have one of those more expensive universal remotes.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years helping friends set up and optimize their home-theater systems, and the most common faults I’ve found are poorly calibrated displays and improperly set-up receivers and processors. It’s not at all unusual to find audio systems in which no attempt has been made to match the levels of the individual speakers; sometimes, the channel levels differ by 5dB or even more. When they hear the difference even a quick system calibration can make in the overall performance of their theater’s sound, most people are shocked. I don’t think it’s their fault. Most people are overwhelmed by a home theater’s mass of wires and complexity of setup; once they’ve gotten any sort of sound and picture, they’re afraid to touch anything that might screw it up.

Thankfully, the Outlaw 990 comes with a calibration microphone and an automatic setup routine that should make this task relatively painless. We’re starting to see more of this sort of thing, and I couldn’t be happier. Now, if we could just get display manufacturers to start shipping products that are at least marginally optimized for a decent picture.

The first time I tried Outlaw’s automated system setup, the windows were open and the berm behind my house was being mown, underscoring the need for a quiet environment any time you calibrate a system. Second time around, the results were spot-on for all channels.

A minor quibble: As on so many other processors and receivers, the surround-mode indicators on the 990’s front-panel display are impossibly small. If you change modes, the new mode is displayed in larger text on the display for a few seconds; otherwise, the only way to know which surround mode is active is to get up and walk across the room.

Listening

In recent years, far too many budget components -- and the 990’s price puts it firmly in the budget range of home-theater processors -- have managed to get the surround duties right only to fall flat when it comes to simple two-channel stereo. It’s as if we all gave up music the second home theater hit the market. So I began my listening with a little two-channel music to hear how the Outlaw 990 stacked up as a music-only preamp.

Evidently, Outlaw didn’t sacrifice musical abilities for the sake of the 990’s surround capabilities. First up was "Take Five," from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out [CD, Columbia CK 65122]. I flipped back and forth between the 990’s Stereo and Bypass modes to try to determine if the digital processing in Stereo mode had any negative effect on the sound. I felt I detected just a hint of loss of openness, particularly in Paul Desmond’s alto sax in Stereo mode, but it was so slight that, without quickly switching between modes, I wouldn’t have known the difference. I’d probably use Bypass mode if I had speakers that were full-range or nearly so, but Stereo mode and a subwoofer if my speakers were even slightly bass-challenged.

In addition to the normal complement of Dolby and DTS surround modes, the 990 includes three Dolby Headphone modes, a feature my Anthem lacks. I loaded up Patricia Barber’s Café Blue [CD, Blue Note 21810], thinking it a good candidate for added ambience through headphones. Unlike the typical hall and concert modes so many of us have come to hate in surround receivers, the induced ambiences of the Dolby Headphone modes were nicely reserved, but I was unimpressed with them overall. My complaint concerns their lower overall output and reduced clarity across the frequency spectrum at all volume levels. This manifested itself in a pronounced loss of openness in Barber’s voice on "The Thrill Is Gone," and a lack of luster to the cymbals. The thrill was indeed gone. That said, the 990’s headphone amp provided clean, very usable output to my Grado SR60 headphones in Stereo mode, so at least there was no sonic penalty for straight two-channel use.

One thing serious headphone users should note is that activating the 990’s Headphone mode requires pressing its front-panel Mute button for three seconds, or the remote’s Mute button for five seconds. In addition, the only way to change the Dolby Headphone mode is via a configuration menu -- a situation worsened by the fact that the menu system is not displayed on the 990’s front panel, meaning that the TV has to be on in order to change modes. These issues are odd missteps in an otherwise well-designed product.

I’ve always maintained that the true test of a surround system is how well it handles subtle details. For a surround processor, big dynamic events such as explosions are mere child’s play. What separates the wheat from the chaff is the ability to resolve the finest details and place them precisely in the soundfield.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is filled with enough dynamic and subtle surround events to keep a reviewer busy for some time. There are enough creaks and groans from the ships’ hulls and rigging alone to satisfy the casual listener. One of my favorite surround events comes at the end of chapter 19, as the H.M.S. Surprise prepares to get under way: the sound of ropes rubbing against wood above and to the right at the rear of the soundstage. It’s something that many will never notice as a discrete surround event, but its presence effectively adds to the sense of realism of the moment. The Outlaw 990 proved up to the task throughout the entire film, making these sounds as realistic as I could have wished.

The Harry Potter movies are always good review fodder. This time I turned to The Chamber of Secrets. From the confused flight of the Cornish Pygmies to the Quidditch game, the 990 resolved every last detail and placed each sound precisely in a completely three-dimensional soundfield. In fact, the performance of the 990 with movies was sonically on a par with any other processor I’ve had in the house. Quite a feat at the price.

Comparison

The features lists of the Outlaw Model 990 and the Anthem AVM 20 ($3399, now superceded by the AVM 30) are surprisingly similar. Both feature a wealth of inputs and outputs, including balanced amplifier outputs. Both have highly flexible crossover functionality, though the Outlaw adds bass management to the 7.1-channel direct inputs, which could be useful with SACD players that lack sufficient bass-management functions. The Anthem processors are on a different level when it comes to more advanced setup flexibility, but the Outlaw manages to hit the 90% mark, and will be much more than adequate for all but the most demanding consumers. Then there are those unusual features in which the Outlaw one-ups the Anthem: composite video and S-video transcoding to component video, and DVI switching (which owners of front projectors may find highly useful).

Sonically, the Outlaw 990 and Anthem AVM 20 were very close. Driving the same combination of amp and speakers, the Anthem was slightly smoother, particularly in the upper treble. The difference was relatively minor, though, and well past the point of diminishing returns. Where the Anthem pulled away from the Outlaw was in its ability to fine-tune a number of settings for improved sound. However, in a less complex system with conventional speakers, many of these settings will never be used. In such cases, the Outlaw is a very close match for the Anthem for less than a third the price.

Conclusion

The Outlaw Model 990 sets a new standard in affordable home-theater surround-sound processors. It would present a good value at twice the price. Those looking at high-end receivers would do well to instead consider the Outlaw 990 and a high-quality power amplifier (of which Outlaw makes several, often package-priced with their processors). Those looking at higher-end surround processors may wish to consider spending less on the preamp and more on better speakers. Either way, the Outlaw Model 990 presents a value that can’t be ignored by potential customers -- or the competition.

Review System
Speakers - Magnepan MC1 (mains, surrounds), Magnepan CC3 (center), Rocket UFW-10 (subwoofer)
Processor - Anthem AVM 20
Amplifier - Rotel RB-976
Sources - Pioneer DV-563A DVD player, Sony SAT HD200 DirecTV receiver
Cables - Analysis Plus, Audio Magic, Straight Wire, Monster Cable
Monitor - Hitachi 46F500 rear-projection HDTV
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Outlaw Audio
P.O. Box 975
Easton, MA 02334
Phone: (866) 688-5292

Website: www.outlawaudio.com


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