This has been the single weirdest product review I've ever been part of. Weird not because of the product itself, but rather the process. I've had the opportunity to watch Emotiva's flagship RMC-1 16-Channel Reference Cinema Processor ($4,999) grow from a promising beta platform in late 2018 to a fully functioning product in mid-2019, by way of one of the biggest and most transparent crowdsourced beta testing programs I've seen in the specialty AV world to date. And yeah, that's unusual, but it's not the weird part.
Most of the time, when I review a product, I don't really hear from readers until the thing is published and the comments section opens. During this past year or so, though, I've been overwhelmed by readers asking me when my evaluation of the RMC-1 would be done (including one particularly creepy message back in January from a reader who ended his demand for a review with a stalker-ish, "I KNOW YOU HAVE ONE," just like that, in all capital letters). My answer has been the same, to both the kind messages and the creepy ones alike: "When it's done."
But here's the thing: I'm not really sure the RMC-1 will ever be "done." And if you read that as a slight against Emotiva, I assure you that it isn't. It's simply that the RMC-1 represents a further evolution of the "design it from the ground up and keep developing it" ethos employed on the XMC-1 from a few years back. That product was notable for the fact that it used a third-party HDMI board, which ended up causing some problems for Emotiva in terms of being able to keep up with changes in digital connectivity and standards. With the RMC-1, though, Emotiva controls every element and every line of code crunched by it, to the best of my knowledge, except for its room correction, which still isn't enabled just yet. Given all of the work the company has done whipping this new platform up from scratch, though, it stands to reason that the RMC-1 will serve as the basis for most if not all of Emotiva's home theater gear going forward, and will likely see further development and improvements throughout its natural life cycle.
That alone makes it interesting and worth following, even if you don't need a sixteen-channel AV preamp with expansion capabilities up to a reported 28 channels down the road. And let's be honest for a minute: that's practically all of us. Yes, I'm including myself in that "us." It's a stretch for me to set up a 7.1.4-channel system in my main media room, which measures a relatively modest 17 feet deep by 19 feet wide, with merely one row of seating (aka a sofa and an Elite HTS home theater recliner) positioned 6.5 feet away from a 75-inch screen.
9.1.4 would be overkill. 9.1.6 is just silly talk.
And yet, like the most vocal amongst HomeTheaterReview.com's readers, I find the RMC-1 entirely fascinating, mostly for the reasons mentioned above: its status as the foundation from which future Emotiva AV products will be built. We've already seen the first inklings of this in the RMC-1L, which runs $3,999 and replicates the functionality, performance, and connectivity of the $4,999 RMC-1 in every way except for its three expansion bays (which will, eventually, expand the RMC-1's output capabilities to the aforementioned 28 channels). The RMC-1L also stands a little shorter at 5.75 versus 7.525 inches.
But to understand what the RMC-1L is, we need to discuss the RMC-1 on its own terms. So, let's dig into that. As I mentioned above, and as all of you already know, it's a 16-channel fully differential preamp that includes three expansion bays for future use, all designed and assembled in Franklin, Tennessee. It features eight HDMI 2.0b inputs with HDCP 2.2 compliance, and two HDMI 2.0b outputs, one featuring CEC and ARC support. All current forms of HDR are passed through just fine, and the unit can pass along 3,840 x 2,160 video at up to 60Hz (though no upscaling is available for lower-resolution video).
In addition, its gorgeous back panel includes four digital audio inputs, each with your choice of optical or coaxial, and one digital audio output, also with your choice of optical or coaxial. There's also an AES/EBU digital audio input, three stereo analog audio ins (RCA), a zone-two preamp output (RCA), a USB Type B digital audio input with support for sampling rates and word lengths up to 384/32, an Ethernet connection, four highly configurable 12-volt trigger outputs, an IR output, and an IR input (both 3.5mm). The preamp also includes inputs for AM and FM terrestrial radio antennas. Native DSD decoding is also supported via HDMI, and DSD over PCM is available via the USB input.
Unsurprisingly, the RMC-1 supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the former in configurations up to 9.1.6 (for now), and the latter up to 7.1.4. The processor is incredibly flexible in terms of setup to accommodate these object-based audio formats, though, so let's dive right into that.
Along the bottom of the RMC-1's rear panel, you'll find sixteen XLR audio output broken into two groups. These, by the way, are the only main-channel audio outputs; there is no unbalanced option. The thirteen outputs on the left side are locked in terms of their channel configuration, with connections for the front left, right, and center, as well as left and right surround, left and right back surround, left and right front height, left and right rear height, and left and right front wide channels.
The three balanced outputs to the right require a little more explanation. These are labeled RSub/Ht, Csub, and LSub/Ht. If you opt for a setup with six overhead speakers, the RSub/Ht and LSub/Ht serve to output the left and right center height speakers and the Csub carries signal to your sub (or subs, with a little signal splitting). If you're not installing six overhead speakers... well, you've got some options. The CSub can be set to LFE, Mono, or None. If you opt for LFE, then that sub and only that sub receives the LFE content from surround sound or object-based sound mixes, while other low-frequency information (e.g. sounds below, say, 80Hz that would normally be sent to your satellite channels, if not for your crossover settings) get delivered to the other sub or subs, which can be set to Mono, Dual Mono, Height Channels, or None.
Why on earth would you want to do that? One potential scenario: say you use your home cinema system for both movies and music, and you've got a beast of a ported subwoofer that you only want to use for movies and not for music listening. But you've also got a pair of pretty musicals subs that you want engaged when you're listening to two channel music and movies alike, without having to fiddle with sound modes and setup on a daily basis. That's just one hypothetical, but it's the sort of setup that the RMC-1 accommodates. For what it's worth, you can also connect three subs, set the Center sub to Mono and the other two to Dual Mono, and all three will receive both LFE content as well as low-frequency information that your other speakers can't handle (with a default crossover point of 80Hz for any speaker set to Small, but which can be adjusted in 10Hz increments for each speaker pair). Unless, that is, your turn on Enhanced Bass, in which case each sub receives all of the above, in addition to any low-frequency information already being sent to any speakers in your system that are configured for full-range playback.
If you haven't already gotten the picture here, the RMC-1 can be incredibly in-depth in terms of configuration, depending on your specific needs, and I really only have room to scratch the surface of what's possible in terms of unique setups. So, instead of digging through every feature of that sort one by one, I would instead like to talk a bit about the physical process of configuring the preamp, because it's pretty cool.
The RMC-1 includes a dual-screen front panel, which in its default configuration splits puts setup menus and playback info (source, incoming signal, outgoing signal, etc.) on the left screen and a volume readout on the right. The nifty thing is, you can completely configure the preamp without ever connecting it to (or turning on) a display. Or even without touching the remote control. The big volume knob between the two screens also serves as a joystick of sorts. You can boop it to mute the audio, or long-press it to enter setup menus, then bump the volume knob left, right, up, or down to navigate all of the available options.
Or, you know, you can sit back on your sofa and navigate everything by remote control via the OSD, if that's your preference. Much as I like the front-panel display of the RMC-1, and much as I dig the multi-function knob, the couch-and-screen route was my preferred method of dialing in the RMC-1, mostly because any tweaks you make to the setup are updated in real time. So, you can instantly hear the differences (if any) your choices make.
That's especially handy when it comes to adjusting the RMC-1's 11-band-per-channel parametric EQ, which for now is a necessary element of the setup process, as Dirac 2 isn't available yet as I write this, although the unit does come with a very nice microphone for Dirac. Given the rate of progress I've seen in the development of the RMC-1 since December of 2018, though, the software could very well be available by the time this review is published. If not, though, just know that for now you'll need to use something like Room EQ Wizard to analyze your room on a speaker-by-speaker basis and apply filters accordingly. For my room, I only need a few high-Q-value cuts applied to my front mains and subwoofers below 300Hz or so and a relatively low-Q-value cut to my right surround speaker centered on 100Hz to compensate for some corner loading.
Would Dirac do a better and more precise job with those adjustments? It would. Is this a deal breaker for me? It's not, though your mileage may vary. The only real frustrating part of this process for me was the fact that the RMC-1 does lag a little when you're changing setup options. This goes back to what I mentioned before about all of these minute changes being updated in real time, so I understand it on an intellectual level, and I appreciate the feedback. It's still somewhat frustrating in the moment.
The good news is, given the extensiveness of the RMC-1's setup features and functionality, I almost never have to make treks back into the setup menus. The preamp is designed such that you can set preferences for pretty much any incoming audio signal and decide what kind of processing you'd like applied to those diverse signals. Want HDMI 1 to process a stereo signal with full Atmos upmixing by default, while HDMI 2 engages Reference Stereo in the presence of a two-channel signal? Totally easy and intuitive to do ahead of time. So, on a day-to-day basis, all you really need to do is select inputs, adjust volume, and power the unit on and off.
In terms of more advanced control, I know that an IP driver for Control4 and other automation systems is in the works, but it's not quite ready yet (as of this writing). So, for now, IR it is. As mentioned above, there is a rear-panel 3.5mm IR input, so you don't have to worry about sticking blasters on the front of the unit. And the same IR codes that worked for the XMC-1 work for the RMC-1--mostly. I have stumbled across some issues trying to send a standby code to the unit via the rear-panel port (it simply powers the unit off, resulting in longer startup times). But for the most part, I was able to simply modify the Control4 driver that I wrote for the XMC-1 to handle a few new functions that I wanted to use on the RMC-1.
As for the rest of the system: as some of you may know, I tend to configure preamps and receivers in a few different ways during the review process. I have to admit: at no point during my evaluation of the RMC-1 have I maxed out its channel outputs, simply because my room can't accommodate such. I tried a configuration with front-width channels for a day or so and found that it really impeded the flow of traffic in and out of the room. I also at one point hung six height channels from the ceiling in a 5.2.6 configuration, but I really couldn't tell any difference between six overheads and four, mostly because I only have one row of seating. Add a few rows of recliners behind me and I'm sure the folks at the back of the room would have appreciated the more expansive overhead coverage.
I also tinkered with a 7.2.4 setup, but due to the layout of my room, 7.1 on the ground doesn't really make much sense, either. So, the bulk of my testing was done in a 5.2.4 configuration, with GoldenEar's Triton One.R towers at the front, Triton Ones in the rear, a SuperCenter Reference Center below my 75-inch Vizio display, four GoldenEar SuperSat 3s overhead, and a pair of SVS PB-4000 subs at the front of the room.
Amplification for this system consisted of my reference Anthem A5, along with a B&K Reference 200.7 S2, and sources for all setups included a Kaleidescape Strato, my trusty Roku Ultra media streamer, PlayStation 4, and an Oppo UDP-205 universal disc player. I also briefly added an RSL Speedwoofer 10S to the mix, assigned to the Center Sub output, not really for performance reasons but merely to test out the sub configuration and wrap my brain around how the various bass management modes work.
After a good bit of Atmos/DTS:X testing, I scaled the system back to 5.2 so I could better evaluate the RMC-1 purely from the perspective of sound quality. (As I've mentioned numerous times in the past, I find most Atmos movie mixes to be distracting, and distraction isn't a state of mind one wants to be in when evaluating the finer nuances of audio performance.)
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...