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.
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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.
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 Classé'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.
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.
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.
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.
Moving on, but remaining somewhat in the same genre, I cued up Dave Matthews Band's breakout album Under the Table and Dreaming (RCA) and skipped ahead to the track "Dancing Nancy." I use "Dancing Nancy" a lot, as it features a very powerful kick drum in the opening seconds of the song, not to mention some rather sharp dynamic swings. At high volume, the UMC-200's bass prowess proved as taut and resolute as its midrange and treble. The kick drum was not only palpable, but also quite nuanced. I could not only hear the skins flexing, but I could sense the recoil of the mallet itself. While some may chalk this level of detail up to either my amplifiers or speakers, the truth remains that the UMC-200 passed along the information, whereas with other components, specifically AV preamps, they often miss the mark. In terms of dynamics, however, I have heard more snap from this track, but nothing that would lead me to suggest the UMC-200's dynamic prowess was somehow less than good.
Moving on, I went with the Dixie Chicks' "Easy Silence" from their album Taking the Long Way (Sony). I love this track and use it a lot, not because of front-woman Natalie Maines' vocals, but instead for the harmonies that come courtesy of Martie Maguire and Emily Erwin Robison. Believe it or not, I've demoed preamps, AV or two-channel, which largely miss the delicate harmonies on this track. Not only did the UMC-200 not miss them, it managed to give the vocalists a greater sense of physical being, instead of turning them into mere ethereal, floating entities. This is a big deal for me, as I'm always amazed by which components get this track right and which ones get it wrong. In my opinion, the UMC-200 finds itself among very good, very prestigious company. Once again, the UMC-200's treble performance was articulate, nuanced and also very delicate; its front-to-back soundstaging was a thing of beauty.
I ended my two-channel demos with Michael Jackson's album Dangerous (Sony) and the track "Who Is It." The driving bass notes were textural and dimensional, rather than coming across as one-note or plodding. The UMC-200 exhibited terrific natural rhythm, and while I may have felt a touch let down by its dynamic performance earlier, I wasn't here. The inflection captured in every note and verse was again staggering. While some may chastise the UMC-200 as being a bit lean or perhaps forward, I'd argue what they're hearing is neutrality and almost everything else in its class is either veiled or dark in comparison. The UMC-200's clarity throughout its range is impressive. More impressive was the truly three-dimensional soundstage that I was treated to during this particular track via the UMC-200.
Moving on to movies, I kicked things off with The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray (Warner Bros.). As with two-channel vocals, the UMC-200's way with dialogue proved to be very natural. Having also found the UMC-200 to be extremely musical, it should come as no surprise that the film's orchestral moments, of which there are many, were presented with precision and balance. There was a delicacy to the UMC-200's sound when it came to the film's quieter moments that I also appreciated, as too often AV preamps get the bombastic cues right but gloss over the pensive ones. But make no mistake, when the action turned to chaos and the visuals became epic, the UMC-200 took the challenge totally in stride. Dynamics, such as those featured in the infamous breaking of the bat sequence, were so raw and violent that I thought my speakers' drivers, especially my subwoofer, were simply going to burst from their respective cabinets. This is a good thing. Yet even in the face of such sonic adversity, dialogue and ambient sounds remained intelligible and resolute.
I ended my evaluation of the UMC-200 with another summer blockbuster, Len Wiseman's remake of Total Recall (Columbia Pictures) starring Colin Farrell. I chaptered ahead to the chase scene on the suspended freeway and was treated to one hell of a wild ride. For starters, it should be noted that the UMC-200 does nothing to impact the visuals when it's in the signal chain. On the flip side, it doesn't improve the visuals, either. In terms of sound, the UMC-200's performance was simply relentless, leaving nothing to my imagination as to what could've been missing. Every futuristic bullet fly-by, car crash and slam on the breaks was rendered with such force and conviction that I jumped in my chair several times. Even when I throttled down the volume to arguably more agreeable levels, the grandness of scale and impact remained, albeit just not as forcefully. Still, even at volume, with peaks clearing 105dB, the UMC-200's sound wasn't sharp or fatiguing. Its multi-channel performance, spread over two different types of loudspeakers from two very different manufacturers, proved seamless, even if the tone wasn't exactly the same, which isn't the fault of the UMC-200, but rather the result of my temporary setup.
Overall, color me very, very impressed by the UMC-200's performance.
Make no mistake: the UMC-200 is a hell of a thing, especially considering all that it brings to the table for less than $600 direct. That being said, there are some items to make note of. First, for those of you still clinging to your legacy components, be they audio or video, the UMC-200 doesn't offer you much by way of legacy support. The only video connection options available on the UMC-200 are HDMI, which means those of you with component connected devices, such as S-Video or composite, will have to utilize some form of adapter. I spoke to Emotiva's representatives directly about this issue and they said it was a conscious decision on their part not to include support for legacy devices, as this would have increased the price of the preamp dramatically (think $800 versus $600) and caused some added headaches at the HDMI level. Obviously, having legacy support isn't an impossibility; it's just something Emotiva decided to avoid this time around.
Four HDMI inputs may be cutting it close for some users and their needs, though I argue for the money I'm not sure we as consumers can reasonably expect more, at least, not without having to sacrifice elsewhere. Still, those with multiple sources, all of which rely on HDMI, may find the UMC-200 comes up a little short. Likewise, for those who may have a lot of analog devices, there are but four analog inputs.
I wish one of the UMC-200's USB inputs could be used as an input for, say, a computer or the like, as opposed to merely being for control or add-ons. USB connectivity is getting to be a must-have feature and to tease the user with two ports but not allow them the connectivity is somewhat mean. I applaud Emotiva for allowing one of the USB inputs to work in conjunction with an outboard Bluetooth adapter, rather than take up one of its precious analog inputs, even if that adapter is an optional extra.
Lastly, and this may be exclusive to my setup and my setup alone, but I experienced some very minor and infrequent audio drop-outs when streaming content off my NAS drive through my Dune-HD on into the UMC-200. I discovered the cause was, again, a setting within the Dune and not the UMC-200's fault per se, though I had never experienced the same dropouts with my Integra. Once the audio adjustments were made inside the Dune, the problem never reared its head again, but it is worth noting should you encounter similar issues when setting up the UMC-200. Don't be quick to judge the preamp (as I was), for it can easily be a small setting elsewhere in your system that is causing the error. It should also be noted that at no point during my review did I experience any dropouts, video or audio, when playing content directly from a disc in any format. This issue, prior to be resolved, occurred only when streaming content via my home network.
Competition and Comparisons
Okay, time to answer the question that's been on the forefront of everyone's mind: is the UMC-200 better than the Outlaw Audio Model 975? As many of you know, I gushed about the 975 just a few short weeks ago and, from my tone in this review, you could argue I've done the same with the UMC-200. So which is best? Well, in terms of sound quality, that decision is entirely a subjective one best left to the end user, for I can't make that call for you. I find things in both pieces that I like very, very much in terms of their sonic performance. That being said, the two are more evenly matched in many respects than I feel most are prepared to accept; people practically trade blows over features that will no doubt appeal to some whereas not so much to others. Where the UMC-200 lacks legacy support, the Model 975 offers it. On the other hand, the 975 has no EQ, auto or otherwise, whereas the UMC-200 does and it's brilliant. The UMC-200 does cost more than the 975, but that doesn't make it a bad value, as I find its EQ and real-time menus to be worth every penny of its added $50 cost. In other words, the difference between the two, in my opinion, is going to come down to personal choice. It's a Coke or Pepsi argument.
As for me, would I replace my reference Integra with the UMC-200 (or Model 975)? No, but not because I feel the Integra is hands-down better, or that I feel its sound is that superior. No, I wouldn't switch because I rely too much on its balanced outputs, not to mention its network capability, two items the UMC-200 (and 975) lacks. That said, if those two items weren't huge sticking points for me, could I be happy with the UMC-200 (or 975)? Yes, I could. Now, will I take the same stance when the XMC-1 is eventually released? That I cannot say for certain.
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Let's face it, this review was a long, long time in the making and I hope I've done it, the UMC-200 and you the readers justice. What can I say other than that the UMC-200 is a good, no, great piece. Incredible value, check. Solid build quality, check. All the requisite features and zero bloatware, check. Remarkable sound quality, check. I can't speak to the UMC-200's long-term reliability, which has been an issue for some, but so far I've found it to be nothing if not reliable, not to mention completely enjoyable.
Is the UMC-200 perfect? No, and it's not without competition either, but it is a great, affordable solution, for real everyday consumers. As for the claims that a product such as the UMC-200, or even a 975, is better than high-end counterparts for pennies on the dollar, I don't really care. It's simply a good time to be a home theater enthusiast on a budget, for if this is the level of performance consumers can expect from companies such as Emotiva, I see how it is difficult to justify spending more. But at the end of the day, if you're happy with your purchase and you made it smartly, then that is all that truly matters, high-end or not. Just enjoy the show. That's what I found the UMC-200 to do best and, now that this review is over, that's what I'm going to go do.
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