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Emotiva UMC-200 7.1 Channel AV Preamp Reviewed

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In my ten-plus years of writing reviews no brand, ever, has been more polarizing than Emotiva. You either love the brand or you hate it. Those that love Emotiva and the products the company makes are willing to defend their honor in ways that would make an Apple fanboy blush, whereas those who abhor Emotiva simply dismiss the products as cheap Chinese-manufactured junk. In truth, these two extremes are both minorities, as there are scores of Emotiva customers (like any other brand) who simply enjoy what they have and don't really fuss too much one way or the other. It's for these folks this review is written. I've come to the conclusion, as I sit here and write my first-ever Emotiva review, that there are those who have already pre-judged whatever it is I have to say based solely on their preconceived notions of the brand or this publication's prior statements about it. Rest assured, I had no preconceived notions nor ill feelings going into this review - I just wanted to see what all the excitement, good and bad, was about. With all that said, the UMC-200, reviewed here, was worth all the blood, sweat and tears.

Additional Resources
• Read more AV preamp reviews by the staff at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore more reviews in our Blu-ray Player Review section.
• Search for HDTVs or Video Projectors to pair with the Emotiva UMC-200.

The UMC-200 retails for $599 and is sold direct via Emotiva's own website, as is the case with all of the company's products. The UMC-200 is Emotiva's new entry-level AV preamp that replaces the UMC-1 which, depending upon what side of the fence you fall, was either an unmitigated success or a disaster. I have no personal experience one way or the other with the UMC-1, and seeing as how it is no longer manufactured or for sale, its somewhat tumultuous existence is no longer relevant, at least for me and this review. The UMC-200 does look a bit like the UMC-1, though it is more streamlined, not to mention smaller, measuring 17 inches wide by 14 inches deep and three-and-a-quarter inches tall. It weighs a scant ten pounds, though it still feels very solidly built, which I must say its product photos don't properly convey. From the outside, the UMC-200 is all Emotiva, bearing its trademark black and silver color scheme. Again, I haven't been the biggest fan of Emotiva's looks and in photos have always found its silver edge pieces (which are removable) to be a bit gimmicky, whereas in person they're not bad. Still not my favorite, but again, the pictures don't do the UMC-200 justice. The front of the UMC-200 is pretty sparse, possessing but a few manual controls, consisting of a directional keypad, menu, standby, return and volume buttons. There is an input for the calibrated microphone, as well as for headphones located on the front panel, directly below the blue backlit display. It should be noted the display is adjustable in its backlighting, but not fully defeatable.

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Around back, you'll find a neatly laid-out array of input/output options. Moving from left to right, the first of the UMC-200's input/output options is its AM/FM antenna inputs, followed by its 7.1 preamp outs. The UMC-200's preamp outputs are all unbalanced save one, the subwoofer out, which is available both unbalanced and balanced - and, yes, you can run multiple subs discretely. There's even a summed or mixed pair of stereo outs for use with an outboard recorder. Above the preamp outs rest four pairs of analog stereo inputs, flanked by the UMC-200's 7.1 analog inputs. Right of the preamp outs are the UMC-200's two pairs of multi-zone, analog stereo outputs. Above the zone outputs are two pairs of digital audio inputs, one pair coax, the other optical. To the right of the digital audio outputs are the UMC-200's HDMI input/outputs; there are four HDMI ins mated to a single HDMI out. The HDMI ports are all HDMI 1.4-compliant, with ARC support. Above and below the HDMI ports are two USB inputs, the top for use with the soon to be released but optional Bluetooth adapter and the bottom for software updates only - sorry, no USB auxiliary or computer connections here. Throw in a couple of 12-volt triggers, removable power cord and a master on/off switch and you've got the UMC-200's rear panel pretty much summed up. You'll note I didn't mention any sort of legacy video inputs located on the UMC-200's back panel and for good reason: there aren't any, which I'll get to later.

Behind the scenes, the UMC-200 is about as full-featured as one can hope for under $600. The UMC-200 utilizes an AD 7623 internal HDMI switch that features Xpressview switching for faster pick-up when traversing between sources. It also utilizes Twin Cirrus 32-bit dual-core, fixed point DSPs in its surround sound decoding. Besides supporting and playing back all the latest surround sound codecs, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, the UMC-200 also features Emotiva's own EmoQ Gen 2 automatic room correction software. Auto room correction is nothing new, but EmoQ is. Emotiva's version of the technology, unique to EmoQ and perhaps to the UMC-200 on a whole, is its use of multiple memories, especially its user-definable memories as they pertain to its EmoQ findings. Apart from giving you automated room correction, the UMC-200 possesses an 11 band parametric EQ per channel (minus the sub) should you wish to create your own filters from scratch, provided you know how to do so. The subwoofer channel employs a four-band parametric EQ. As a point of reference, the only other AV components that I've personally come across that allow for full parametric EQ are Classe's SSP-800 and CP-800, both of which cost far more than the UMC-200. Lastly, there are the UMC-200's menus, which overlay the video in real time, thereby allowing for on the fly adjustments, including those to its various EQ settings - a very nice touch. For more on the UMC-200's lesser features or for a full, detailed breakdown of each, please visit the UMC-200 product page on the Emotiva website.

This brings me to the UMC-200's remote. As I understand it, UMC-200's remote is a departure from past Emotiva designs, as it is long, slender and made of plastic, rather than metal. Having not known previous Emotiva remotes, I can't comment on which is better or worse. Suffice to say I found the UMC-200's remote to fit comfortably in hand and, despite not having any form of backlighting, I was able to navigate it blind after only a few minutes.

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The Hookup
Installing the UMC-200 into my system was an exercise in simplicity, though once it was connected, I found I could make things as simple or as difficult as I wished. First, I swapped the UMC-200 in for my reference Integra DHC 80.2 and connected it to my Dune-HD Max media streamer, Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player and Parasound Halo A23 and A31 multi-channel amplifiers. My two source components were connected via one-meter HDMI cables from Monoprice, whereas my Halo amplifiers were connected via one-meter runs of Transparent Ultra interconnects. While Transparent Cables may seem a bit like overkill, I use them for two reasons: a) I happen to think they sound pretty damn good and b) their connectors are quite large, which means they're a great yardstick for determining whether or not a component leaves enough space between its inputs for all types of cables. The UMC-200 passed this initial test without incident. I connected my JL Fathom f110 subwoofer to the UMC-200 via a one-meter balanced interconnect from Monoprice, which then fed into my Behringer BFD that then ran out to the sub itself, also via a balanced connection. Many of you who follow my reviews know that I prefer to EQ my sub(s) manually, using the free software Room EQ Wizard (REW) before feeding those filters into a Behringer. It is possible to leave the Behringer in the signal chain when running any auto EQ program, including the EmoQ, which is what I did. I did compare and contrast the Behringer loaded with REW filters to the UMC-200 solo with similar filters applied to its subwoofer parametric EQ and found the results to be comparable. Obviously, the Behringer allows for more filters to be used, but still, it is possible to achieve similar results via the UMC-200 on its own. From the UMC-200's single HDMI out, I ran a 50-foot high-speed HDMI cable with Redmere from Monoprice out to my reference projector, the SIM2 Nero. As for loudspeakers, I relied on both the Tekton Design Pendragons and Wharfedale's Jade 1 bookshelf speakers, the first for front channels and the latter for surrounds. All speakers were connected to their respective amplifiers via varying lengths of 14-gauge, in-wall speaker cable from Binary, a SnapAV company.

Once everything was connected, I familiarized myself with the UMC-200's menus, which didn't take long, though, if I'm being honest, they're not the most intuitive. Once I figured out what the unit was doing, it was nothing if not 100-percent responsive, not to mention real-time in the different aspects' respective adjustments - this I liked very much. I began by renaming the inputs and then setting up their default playback options. From there I set my speaker sizes, distances, levels and crossover points with the help of a Radio Shack SPL meter and tape measure. I should note that my front speakers rest behind a 120-inch AcousticPro 4K screen from Elite Screens. I carried out a few basic listening tests before running the EmoQ software in order to compare and contrast between the two.

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Running the EmoQ software is pretty straightforward and not wholly unlike what you're no doubt used to experiencing if you're at all familiar with Audyssey. Unlike Audyssey, however, the EmoQ program utilizes a single stationary point from which to take its measurements and make its adjustments. I set the included microphone atop a spare tripod and put it at a level equal to the height of my ears when I'm seated in my primary listening chair. From there, I connected the mic to the front of the UMC-200 and then went into the menus and selected the EmoQ calibration option. The EmoQ ran through a series of sweeps before presenting me with its findings. I ran the procedure six times in rapid succession to test the program's accuracy. In each test, the results were nearly 100 percent consistent. I say "nearly" because the distances and/or levels may have differed by a half of a dB or an inch here or there, but for the most part, the system was solid. What did surprise me was how it chose to configure my loudspeakers each and every time. I've never encountered an auto EQ program that "saw" my Pendragons as anything but large, full-range loudspeakers, and yet the EmoQ software labeled them as "small" and set their crossover point at 90Hz - six times. The Pendragons' distance and levels were spot-on with reality, but what the EmoQ thought they were was curious. Likewise, it found my Jade 1 bookshelf speakers to be small (they are) but requiring a crossover point of 200Hz - again, six times in a row. Before passing judgment, I went ahead and conducted the same listening tests that I did prior to running EmoQ. While I may not have agreed with the UMC-200's settings, the resulting sound wasn't horrible. The beauty behind the UMC-200's EmoQ was that I could then adjust for what I knew my speakers were truly capable of without losing the benefits of the rest of EmoQ's findings and adjustments. Audyssey can do this, too, but not to the extent of the EmoQ software, and in some instances not without spending more money on Audyssey's Pro Installer Kit. Remember, you can also create your own room correction filters and enter them manually in any of the UMC-200's eight channels of parametric EQ, which pretty much covers all the bases if you're looking to extract the most out of your setup in virtually any room.

It should be noted that I like the sound of my system (and room) sans a great deal of EQ - minus my subwoofer, of course - so I carried out the following listening tests with the UMC-200 in its natural state, i.e., without EmoQ. Still, as far as auto EQs go, the EmoQ is impressive, though if I wanted to utilize EQ extensively in my room, I'd probably opt for a full manual configuration, but that's just how I am.

I did encounter one minor quibble when setting up the UMC-200, though it turned out to be not the fault of the UMC-200 but rather that of a setting I had applied within my Dune-HD Max. Once I discovered what was causing the error (an image preset that had previously gone unnoticed), setting up and living with the UMC-200 proved to be largely trouble-free.

Performance
I began my listening tests with some two-channel music in the form of Barenaked Ladies' album Born on a Pirate Ship (Reprise/Wea) and the track "When I Fall." What immediately struck me about the UMC-200's two-channel performance on this track was the presence and weight it helped impart to the sound. Furthermore, the natural inflection and emotion of the performance came through brilliantly, which clued me in on one of the UMC-200's hallmark traits: an uncolored and extremely articulate upper midrange and treble performance. There was a clarity, not to mention organic sharpness, to the high frequencies that you don't often find in so-called budget components. This isn't to suggest that the UMC-200's high-frequency performance was somehow harsh, forward or fatiguing. It was just far more nuanced, open and resolute than what I'm used to hearing from budget components. I also took note of the UMC-200's natural sense of air and decay that preceded and trailed every note and verse. There was a truer sense of dimension to the UMC-200's soundstage, compared to that of other AV preamps (and AV receivers) I had on hand, possessing equal parts depth and width.

Read more about the performance of the Emotiva UMC-200 on Page 2.

continue to page two
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