Dennis Burger is a native Alabamian whose passion for AV began sometime before the age of seven, when he dismantled his parents' brand new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV and exclaimed--to the amusement of no one except the delivery guy--that it was missing all of its vacuum tubes. He has since contributed to Home Theater Magazine, Wirecutter, Cineluxe, Electronic House, and more. His specialties include high-end audio, home theater receivers, advanced home automation, and video codecs.
If you're not familiar with the custom installation and integration market, AudioControl may not be on the short list of manufacturers that comes to mind when you think of high-performance AV receivers and processors. At least it probably wasn't before the release of the Maestro M9. What's changed? I think it's pretty safe to chalk up the company's increased brand awareness to a perfect storm of new technologies--namely Dolby Atmos/DTS:X, HDMI 2.0a (with its support for High Dynamic Range video), and HDCP 2.2. The need for any one of those may have you hunting high and low for a new pre/pro right now, if you're into home theater separates. And with so many separates aficionados on the hunt for new gear at once, virtually no stone is going unturned.
The Maestro M9 7.1.4-channel home theater processor supports all of the technologies listed above, as well as Dirac Live room correction. It has a healthy connection panel, including seven HDMI inputs (one MHL, praise be to the baby Buddha!) and three outputs (two main zone and one second zone), six analog audio inputs, four coaxial digital and two optical digital ins, and a stereo zone two audio out, along with a host of control connectivity options. The Maestro M9 also features XLR balanced outputs for the main seven channels and sub (it lacks balanced outputs for its four overhead channels), as well as XLR balanced connections for two of its audio inputs. [Editor's note: AudioControl has informed us that, beginning soon, new versions of the M9 will include XLR outputs for the overhead channels.] At 44 pounds, it's an outright massive beast when compared with most surround processors, and it's a good bit taller than average--both of which can be attributed to its enormous power supply.
The thing is, though, the Maestro M9 doesn't look at all beastly. Far from it. Its elegant front panel (with your choice of black glass or espresso black brushed aluminum) is one of the cleanest and most attractive I've seen in quite some time, with a protruding volume ring that's an utter treat for the senses. Add to that in-depth (and customizable) Internet Radio capabilities and the ability to play music from USB sources, and you have what may not be the most feature-packed AV preamp to hit the market in recent years, but one that certainly presents itself well and hints from the get-go at a focus on reliability and performance.
Since the Maestro M9 is strictly a custom product sold only through licensed installers (and if you're curious how serious AudioControl is about its installer exclusivity, consider the fact that its $8,900 price tag is a "suggested client price"), I'm going to tackle this section a bit differently than I normally do. Consider this less a guide to what you may be in for with setup and more an overview of the setup considerations that might or might not affect your day-to-day enjoyment of the processor.
The biggest bullet point item in terms of setup is perhaps the M9's reliance on Dirac for room correction. Its product page provides a link to the AudioControl-specific version of the software, which can be used with the hockey-puck mic and USB soundcard included in the box, or any other USB measurement mic for which your installer has a calibration file. (In my case, I used the EMM-1 mic that shipped with my Emotiva XMC-1, along with its corresponding calibration file.)
In typical Dirac fashion, there are a few things that need to be set in the processor before running room correction. The number and configuration of speakers, for example. In a slight departure from the norm, you also need to run Dirac before adding the Maestro M9 to any sort of advanced control system. I found this out by doing it the wrong way around (out of a desire to spend a few days with the processor before applying any filters to its sound). The AudioControl IP driver for Control4, as it turns out, is quite a bit more advanced than most I'm used to, and frequently polls the unit to check its current status. As such, any attempt to run Dirac with the driver active results in the processor kicking itself out of room correction mode to respond. And disabling IP control isn't an option since you need it to run Dirac. It's also worth noting that the M9 forces a choice between RS-232 and IP control. Both cannot be active at the same time.
This was an easy fix, of course. I simply backed up my Control4 project, deleted the driver, ran Dirac, and restored my backup, adding a minute at most to the process.
As is usually the case, I shaped my own target curves in Dirac, limiting them to frequencies below 500 Hz. I would have liked to set different crossover points for my center speaker (a GoldenEar SuperCenter XXL) and surrounds (a pair of GoldenEar Triton Sevens), but the Maestro M9 only allows for a single, global crossover point between subs and less-than-full-range speakers.
The software did a spot-on job of setting my speaker distances and levels in every setup configuration I tested. However, it doesn't allow for two subs to be measured and filtered separately. It treats its dual subwoofer outputs as a single channel. In the end, I settled on a 100-Hz crossover point for my center, surrounds, and overhead speakers during the brief period in which I auditioned the processor in full Atmos/DTS:X mode. During that time, I relied on four GoldenEar SuperSat 3s mounted on-ceiling and driven by an old B&K Reference 200.7 S2 amp. My main speakers were powered by my Anthem Statement A5 amp for the duration of testing. My Triton Ones were left set to Large, and when I switched over to a strictly 5.1-channel setup, I bumped the crossover for the rest of my speakers down to 80 Hz.
Overall, the setup options are pretty straightforward and intuitive, with things like input renaming falling under the subheadings one would expect. That's handy, by the way, because the Maestro M9 is saddled with decades-old input names. There is, for example, an HDMI input labeled "VCR."
I'll let you reflect on that for a moment.
Thankfully, it couldn't be easier to map an analog audio input to an HDMI video input if, for example, you're using the analog outs from an audiophile player like the OPPO UDP-205, as I did. It's also quite straightforward to engage or disengage Dirac for each individual input in the setup menus, as well as set a default processing mode, like Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X, for up-mixing two-channel or surround material to fill however many speakers you might have.
As mentioned above, the Maestro M9 does lack balanced outputs for its four overhead channels and its second subwoofer output. Given that--and since my amps were no further than two feet away from the processor--I relied on RCA connections between the pre/pro and amps.
Describing the sound of a processor like the AudioControl Maestro M9 can be exceedingly difficult, in that one's tendency is to either resort to overly flowery language or simply describe the source material. Construct a word cloud of my testing notes, and by far the dominant words on the page would be "neutral" and "precise." A reader recently wrote in with a comment that his ideal preamp would do "nothing to the music/program; it's a wire with gain." If you're reading right now, bud, this one's for you. The M9 gives back what it's given, and as such its performance is dictated largely by the quality of material it's fed.
A somewhat personal note before we start digging into specific listening examples. I struggle with autism-related auditory processing difficulties. These difficulties don't affect my hearing in the slightest; in fact, for my age, I'm doing quite well in that department, as my sensitivity to high frequencies doesn't start rolling off until slightly north of 17 kHz. What it means, though, is that any significant imprecision in time-domain accuracy, or any appreciable mucking-around with the midrange frequencies, starts to take a significant toll on my ability to understand the spoken word. Every syllable may reach my ears fully formed, but by the time it hits my brain the result comes off as something like this. Add any sort of accent to the equation, and the problem is magnified. It's one reason I harp on dialogue intelligibility so much in my reviews.
I only mention that because it has particular relevance for this specific review. Simply put, the AudioControl deserves a spot on the short list of the most effortless and perfectly faithful preamps I've auditioned in quite some time, not to mention one of the clearest and most lucid. Without dragging you through my usual list of dialogue intelligibility test discs (The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Cloud Atlas, Downton Abbey), let it suffice to say that the M9 passed them all with flying colors.
Let's talk a bit about one recent UHD Blu-ray release in detail, though, because I think it shines a bright light on so many of the things that the Maestro M9 does so well. Daniel Espinosa's space-horror wannabe-sci-fi flick Life (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) is one that I noped out of about halfway through in cinemas--not because it's a bad flick (it is, but come on--that's half the fun of horror movies), but because I couldn't understand much of the dialogue pouring out from behind that big cinema screen. Especially that of Olga Dihovichnaya, one of the film's leads (although I guess it's safe to say that with such a small cast, they're all leads). I figured I'd simply watch it at home with subtitles on.
Through the Maestro M9, no subtitles were necessary. The clarity and precision of the processor's output made every word perfectly discernible, even amidst the chaos. But that's actually not what impressed me most about the processor's delivery of the film. For that, we have to skip forward to chapter 14, in which the film's biologically impossible Martian monster has pretty much ripped the International Space Station to threads and the two remaining astronauts are clinging to what little life support remains.
As the scene starts, a floating cloud of detritus wafts across the screen, and I found the M9's delivery of the tinkling and clinking and clattering of that debris to be so utterly lifelike as to be nearly distracting. It isn't simply enough to say that the audible cloud created by the collisions of those little bits and pieces floated in the room just as they did onscreen; there was a depth to that cloud of sound that I almost felt I could climb through.
This was true whether listening in Atmos or mere 5.1. In either case, the sound felt free to roam the room in spite of speaker positioning. The front soundstage felt like a presence, not a collection of three speakers. I didn't feel surrounded by sound; I felt immersed in it.
There is something of a double-edged nature to this rich dimensionality, though. On the one hand, it made for one of the more seamless and pleasurable object-based listening experiences I've had here at home, even with up-mixed non-Atmos listening material. On the other hand, it did make Atmos and DTS:X feel ever-so-slightly superfluous.
It should go without saying that the Maestro M9 handles the explosive action and bombastic soundtrack of UHD Blu-rays like Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Brothers) with strength and authority. That's quite easy. What I love about the M9 is the way it delivered the "quieter" moments in the film. The beginning of chapter 8, for example (where Max returns from disposing of the War Boys on his trail) is full of little details that I wouldn't say are normally obscured, but they certainly don't ring through with the clarity I heard from the M9: the rustling of leather, the clanking of chains and bullet casings, the little drops and ripples of Mother's Milk that Max uses to clean off his face. Skipping forward one scene, I found myself quite impressed by the processor's delivery of the scavenging birds flying around the dusky desert as the War Rig makes its escape.
Again, what's most impressive is that the sound is delivered in layers. It isn't merely that some of the birds were louder than others; it's more the fact that their sound seemed to stretch out in front of my main speakers and recede into the space behind them. Just in case I need to toot this horn again, I found the difficult dialogue throughout the film to be perfectly intelligible, with but a few rare exceptions. In the case of this film, that's quite a feat.
The same clarity and depth that makes the M9 such a joy to listen to with movie soundtracks also extends to two-channel music. I've been digging into Jenny Bienemann's self-released album Every Soul Grows to the Light quite a bit here lately (the CD only seems to be available via CD Baby), if you're interested), but via the M9 I found myself digging deeper. The layers in a track like "Biggest Mistake" are near-infinite here, and the processor beautifully captures the aspect of the mix that I can only describe as "distant intimacy." That is to say, Bienemann's voice feels at once a bit diffuse and in-your-face, big yet delicate, so nearby but hard to reach. The M9 also does a wonderful job of resolving every instrument in the dense acoustical mix with the utmost precision and purity of tone.
The Maestro M9 also outright rocks when called upon to do so, as evidenced by its delivery of disc two from the 20th Anniversary Edition re-release of Nirvana's In Utero (Geffen), one of the few recent major-label rock remasters that I actually prefer to the original. The processor positively excels at delivering the micro dynamics of tracks like "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle," but again what impresses me most is the depth sussed out of a mix that I've never thought of as being particularly deep before. The squelches of feedback that burst out of the song around the 40-second mark? Here they take up tangible space in the room, like a methed-up version of that water creature from The Abyss.
It's relatively safe to assume that, if you're shopping for a home theater preamp like the AudioControl Maestro M9, you'll also be connecting it to an advanced home control system from the likes of Crestron or Control4. If not, it's worth noting that operating the preamp with its own included remote can be frustrating at times. It's a touch crowded, for one thing, but that's not the main issue. What frustrates is that AudioControl follows the same convention as some other manufacturers by switching the remote's power functions over to whichever input you selected last. The only way to power off the preamp when you're ready to do so is to press the Amp button on the remote first. (For what it's worth, the M9 also lacks any sort of front-panel power or standby buttons, so the remote, or your control system, is required for powering the unit down).
The M9 can also be a bit lethargic when switching inputs or, for example, if the program you're watching switches resolution or sound formats. Switching inputs takes in the neighborhood of five seconds. Every time I started up an episode of Downton Abbey on Blu-ray, I had to immediately click the skip-back button or deal with missing the first few notes of the opening credits theme music.
As mentioned above in the setup section, the preamp also lacks individual per-channel crossover settings, which can be disappointing if you prefer (as do I) different crossover points for your center and surround speakers. It's also something of a bummer that the M9 lacks multichannel analog audio inputs, and that firmware updates must be performed via the back-panel USB port.
Comparison & Competition
One has to assume that anyone in the market for the AudioControl Maestro M9 will also take a serious look at Arcam's AV860, which shares much of the same DNA as the M9. It boasts much the same connectivity, much the same circuitry, the same menu system and remote, and the same room correction capabilities (not to mention the same HDMI input labeled "VCR"). The two do rely on different DAC chipsets and different power supplies. The AV860 also adds Spotify Connect capabilities, offers XLR outs for all twelve of its channels, and sells for significantly less at $5,500. On the other hand, the AudioControl M9 is backed up by a five-year warranty, as opposed to Arcam's two-year warranty.
There's also the Anthem AVM 60 to consider, which also delivers 11.2 channels of processing and adds DTS Play-Fi to the mix for $2,999. Its Anthem Room Correction software does differ from Dirac in that it doesn't work in the time domain (which really isn't a factor if you, like I, only apply EQ to the lowest frequencies), and it's a little easier to operate. The AVM 60 also features XLR outputs for all twelve of its channels, but it doesn't match the AudioControl in terms of aesthetics, ergonomics, or fit-and-finish.
More affordable still is Marantz's new AV7703, which at $2,199 offers XLR outs for all of its channels, adds HEOS multiroom music streaming to the mix, and offers an Auro3D upgrade path. It does rely on Audyssey MultEQ XT32 for room correction, though, which doesn't rise to the quality of Anthem Room Correction or Dirac.
Other object-based preamps close to the Maestro M9's price range include the recently reviewed Indy Audio Labs Acurus ACT 4 ($9,499), which ups the channel count to 16 and is one of the easiest-to-operate (not to mention best-sounding) preamps I've auditioned in quite some time. As yet, though, the ACT 4 lacks any form of auto room correction or speaker setup.
We have a broad spectrum of readers here at HomeTheaterReview.com--some are purely in the DIY camp, and some embrace the custom side of things. Some value audio performance and care little for any other aspect of a piece of gear, while others nitpick about firmware update procedures and the ergonomics of remote controls. Some berate me for not using enough classical music in my reviews, while others believe that, if a product doesn't sound great with Hendrix, it can sod right off.
Needless to say, the AudioControl Maestro M9 isn't going to please all of these disparate masters. But if you're an audiophile who values precision and accuracy above all else, and if you're looking to have your gear installed and calibrated by a licensed pro, this preamp belongs on your short list of gear to audition. It's a gorgeous and bulletproof preamp that delivers the Nth degree in terms of fidelity and dynamics, even if it does have its share of quirks.
• Visit the AudioControl website for more product information.
• Check out our AV Preamps category page to read similar reviews.
• AudioControl Introduces P Series Multichannel Amps at HomeTheaterReview.com.