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.