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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...