Equipment Review No. 1  •   September 2003

Outlaw Model 950 7.1-Channel Preamp/Processor
Surround Modes: Dolby Digital 5.1 & EX, DTS 5.1 & ES, DTS NEO 6, Dolby ProLogic II, 5.1 channel direct, Cirrus Extra Surround, 5 and 7 channel stereo.
Inputs-Audio: 5.1, 9 analog stereo (including tape and VCR in), 4 optical digital, and 2 coax digital.
Inputs-Video: 2 component video, 6 each composite and S-Video.
Outputs-Audio: 7.1, 1 optical digital and one coax digital, extra zone out stereo.
Outputs-Video: One each S-Video, component and composite.
Tuner: High Performance AM/FM/FM Stereo tuner with 32 presets.
Dimensions: 17.12” wide, 14.76” deep, and 4.6” high.
Weight: 17.6 Lbs.

Outlaw Audio
18 Denbow Road
Durham, NH 03824
866-688-5297
Sold direct on Internet only = www.outlawaudio.com



Introduction

This is the type of unit that I love to review. It has a very high performance-to-cost ratio. The Outlaw is only available factory direct to the customer, meaning that you do not have to pay for retail markup or sales people that travel to retail stores to sell the product. This means will you will pay about half as much as you would for the same piece of gear sold thru a retailer. The faceplate will not get points for sexy design, but is very user friendly. It is generic black with a larger than usual display window. You can set up the unit using just the display and the buttons on the front of the unit; I consider this to be an asset. The chassis appears well-constructed. The inside construction looks much better than units from most standard consumer electronics companies. There was a nice-sized toroidal transformer with three rectifier bridges. This means that they are supplying three separate isolated power supplies to different zones in the preamp, and the power supply is much larger than most receivers. There are four separate 192/24 Digital to Analog chips (Cirrus Logic CS4396), one for each two channels of output. They use the Cirrus Logic CS49326 DSP chip and the Cirrus Logic CS5360 A to D chip - the latest Cirrus Logic chips.

Surround Processing

This processor has 15 surround modes. For processing stereo sound into surround sound, the unit offers Dolby Digital I and II, Dolby Digital II with Cirrus Extended Sound Processing, and DTS NEO:6. Each of these has a music or cinema setting, which changes the processing to fit the type of sound being played. There is also a 5 and 7 channel party mode, which puts the signal in all the channels selected. Processing can be done from stereo analog or digital signals. For digital sound decoding the unit provides standard 192/24 processing and Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, DTS ES. It has Dolby Digital with Cirrus processing, which converts 5.1 DD to 7.1 surround sound. It also has a music and cinema mode choice. DD EX and DTS ES only work with material encoded with this process. Dolby Digital is a 5.1 channel encoding. DD EX adds a rear center channel sound. Dolby Pro Logic I (DPL-I - was formerly called just plain Dolby Surround) has limited-bandwidth mono surrounds. [But why anyone would want to use it when we now have the hugely superior DLP II I can’t imagine...Ed.] DPL II has full-bandwidth surround. DTS is a 5.1 discrete sound, with a higher sampling rate than DD. DTS ES adds a rear mono channel in the rear. This can be played back via one or two rear speakers. DTS NEO:6 processes sound into 6.1 full-bandwidth channels. Cirrus Extra Surround processes stereo or DD source into 6.1 or 7.1 sound. Whew!


Setup

Connection to components is straight-forward and as usual for an AV preamp. One small disappointment is that the detachable power cord socket has prongs of a smaller than standard size. They float the ground on the player. This fits well with the included power cord, but an aftermarket power cord may have problems. The cord may not fit tightly, particularly if it is heavy. I called and asked about this, and Outlaw said they did not expect users to use an expensive power chord on the unit. I feel like they should have used a standard IEC cord socket to give users a choice. They could have simply not attached the ground plug inside the unit. Their customer service people were responsive, friendly and helpful. They have the best customer service of any company I have experienced. The only company that was nearly as good was Eminent Technology.

The unit then needs to be configured properly. You first must make selections for the various inputs. Each input may be assigned either an analog source or a digital input. If you assign an input to a digital source, that input cannot be used for an analog source at the same time. Each input has settings for sound mode, treble and bass controls and night compression mode. Next you configure the speakers. First you enter size of speakers (small or large). Then you tell it if you have a subwoofer. You enter whether it is a 5.1 or 7.1 system. You then set up the bass crossover for each speaker. Frequencies available are 40, 60, 80, 100, 120, or 150 Hz. This is useful to not send bass to speakers that do not handle it well. Most three-way speakers are only good down to 60 cycles. Small speakers are good down to even an even higher frequency. Sending bass to a speaker that doesn’t handle it well usually deteriorates the overall sound. I would have liked to have seen no crossover to the front channels setting, in case you wanted to use stereo subwoofers. You then balance the sound output of your speaker system with a test tone and a sound meter such as the Radio Shack. The adjustment range of the channel trim is much greater than most receivers or players. This is helpful if you are using different speaker or amps for the surrounds.

You also set your distance to the speakers. Unfortunately there is only one distance setting for the side surrounds and none for the rear surrounds. This can be a problem if your surrounds are at different distances from you. The Dolby Pro Logic II also has a music parameter setup. You can control panorama effect, dimension and center width. The panorama effect mixes some of the front channels sound into the surrounds to give a wrap around effect to the music. This is either off or on. The dimension mode adds a sense of increased front to back soundstage depth. There are four settings in this effect. The center channel width starts with the center channel signal coming from only the center speaker and then mixes in center channel sound into the left and right fronts in varying amounts. This changes the apparent width of the center image. There are eight levels for this setting. These settings are all very personal setting and may take a lot of experimentation to see which you may prefer. I learned the hard way that you need to be in a multichannel output mode to get multichannel when you hit the six-channel-direct button.

Extra features

The Outlaw preamp has high-bandwidth component video switching. The Outlaw has five S or composite video inputs. It can convert composite to S or visa versa for output. This is useful if you have a long run to your monitor and a component that only has only composite output. You can run a short composite wire to the Outlaw, then output signal in the higher quality S-Video mode. It also adds input capability if your monitor does not have enough inputs. It also has two component video inputs. The Outlaw has a stereo direct mode that skips all the processing circuitry.

Equipment used in the review:

Marantz DV 8300 omni player
Modified Citation 7 Preamp (modified)
Crown Macro Reference Amp (modified)(Front channels)
Parasound HCA 600 Amp bridged to mono (center channel)
Sumo Amp (side Surround)
Adcom GFA 545 Amp (Rear surrounds)
Custom built Electrostatic Array Speakers (front channel)
Radio Shack Linaeum tweetered Center Channel Speaker
Chapman mini monitors (side surround)
Radio Shack Linaeum Tweetered surround speakers (rear surround)
Jena Labs and Cardes interconnect, digital, video and speaker cables
API power chords
Shakti Stones and Onlines
Shakti Sonic Hallograms
Lead bricks and sheets
Bright Star Bases
Mapingo and Avalon feet
Heavily treated room 20 by 21 feet.
Pioneer 55 inch HD TV

Listening Tests

AM/FM Radio

The tuner of this unit is very adequate. Its ability to pull in stations on FM is very good. Once the presets are set, changing stations is very easy. There are up to 32 presets that can be set for stations. The unit has unusually good AM reception. It is the first tuner I have had in my system that had listenable AM. The sound is AM so not great, but usable. I have never been able before to listen to AM on my main stereo. My stereo shelving area has so many wires and electrical fields that many tuners have problems picking up static free stations. The Outlaw had no problems. The sound of the FM was slightly compressed sounding.


Sound

This is a very good sounding unit. The DTS, DD, 44.1/16 and 96/24 processing is as good or better than anything that I have heard is. This includes preamps costing 4 times as much. The Outlaw unit had stiff competition from the Citation 7. It was a $4000 preamp about 5 years ago. I bought the unit used and have been told it was one of Jim Fosgate’s own, hand tweaked units. It has the best-synthesized surround of any processor, I have heard. I had MSB install a 5.1 input on it for discrete multichannel input. The Citation had easily beat out a $4000 Melos tube hybrid stereo preamp for over all sound quality. It was the first processor that did not screw up the front channels. I used a Pioneer receiver in 5.1 bypass mode for satellite and laserdisc digital processing. It had DTS-ES, DD-EX and NEO: 6 processing. However I used the onboard processing on the Marantz DV 8300, which sounded better.

On DTS video concerts, like The Eagles Hell Freezes Over DVD, the music comes alive with the Outlaw processing. Before the Outlaw, I always felt that this recording was dull. Dolby Digital processing was improved to a lesser level because of the sonic limitations of the format. The Outlaw’s 44.1 and 96 K processing proved to be superior to the Marantz’s onboard processing. This really surprised me, because the Marantz’s is so good. On the Arts Audio Percussion XXX 96/24 disc, the clarity and focus were better with the Outlaw, but there was a slight loss in ambient air feeling. On CD playback it was much more controlled and tight through the Outlaw. Images were better placed and more solid. Using the Marantz decoding the instruments were larger and there was a little more sense of the room. On the 96/24 uncompressed Melissa Etheridge cut on the Live and Alone DVD, there was a huge difference in the sound. It sounded as if you were playing 2 different recordings, with the Outlaw sounding more realistic.

There are many ways to listen to standard CDs with this unit. You can listen with the unit serving as a DAC with or without surround. You can listen through the regular analog inputs with or without surround. You can listen through the analog inputs in a stereo direct mode. Finally you can listen to music input by the 5.1 outputs of a player or other processor. Each one sounds different. Now for the fly in the ointment: one small problem is the 5.1 input. It sounds very, very good, but lacks the ambient information and tactile sense of the 5.1 bypass input in the Citation. I feel that some of this may be due to the Citation’s discrete outputs. The other factor is that the Citation has Shakti Onlines, capacitor and chassis damping on top of the other modifications. The synthesized surround processing is also not quiet as good as the Citation. The Citation is slightly more seamless and effects the front channels less. It also puts the surround channels in the rear and synthesizes the side channels on 5.1 information, which I prefer. I believe no other preamp does this, because it is not considered to be proper decoding. The Outlaw’s synthesized surround modes are as good or better than any other preamp I have heard other than the Citation.

Wrap Up

Time to come down to reality though: The Citation is a $4000 modified tweaked preamp, put up against a stock $800 preamp. I have yet to hear any preamp, at any price, do a better job at synthesized surround than the Citation. The best sound for stereo SACD or DVD-A was through the analog input from the Marantz using the stereo bypass mode of the Outlaw. I have also never heard any preamp outdo the Citation in the bypass mode. Let me summarize what I hear: The Outlaw has better DTS, DD and PCM decoding than the $1600 Marantz DV 8300, which was previously the best that I have heard. It has sound that competes with a $4000 modified preamp. I have heard the B&K, Encore, Anthem, Parasound and NAD AV Preamps in stores and have been unimpressed. This is not necessarily a good test, because I have not had these preamps in my system. They are also at least four times the price. This Outlaw unit really impresses me! It does everything and does it very well at a very reasonable price - except in the view of other manufacturers who probably feel that this is a very unfair price. In the constantly changing digital world this is a great way to get very near State of the Art performance at a price you will not take a bath on in three or four years when you upgrade to newer technology.. I am definitely thinking of buying the unit for myself. It is truly amazing that an $800 preamp can even think about vying in such competition and come out non-wanting.

- Clay Swartz


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