I began my evaluation of the UPA-700 with some two-channel music. First up was Tori Amos' "Caught a Light Sneeze" from her box set anthology A Piano (Atlantic/Wea). Right away, I was struck by the UPA-700's tight, controlled sound that bared traits not dissimilar to higher-powered amplifiers. There was a cleanliness to the sound that I suppose I wasn't expecting, which isn't to suggest that the sound was in some way clinical or cold, just very resolute and composed. The midrange was (largely) neutral and free of coloration when played at reasonable volumes. When pushed, especially with regard to vocals, it was possible to get the midrange to flatten ever so slightly, but this isn't a knock against the UPA-700 exclusively, as many amps, even ones costing multiples more, can be found guilty of this trait.
Still, with regards to the UPA-700's vocal performance, its presence was startling. Throughout the frequency range, the UPA-700 proved very agile and dynamic, though I did sense it had an easier time resolving minute details that fell within the midrange on up through the treble, rather than in the midbass and bass regions. Again, I'm not saying the midbass or bass performance of the UPA-700 somehow stuck out inappropriately, just that it was maybe a touch less resolute. In truth, it didn't really bother me much, as the UPA-700 managed to get so many of the broad strokes correct that, unless you were listening specifically for errors (i.e. looking to find faults), you probably wouldn't notice. While some may take that last statement as a condemnation, it is my job as a reviewer to find fault with a product where faults exist. Please keep in mind that I am also a lover of music and the UPA-700 didn't stop me from enjoying one of my favorite tracks at any point.
Moving on, I cued up "Something Like Olivia" off John Mayer's latest album Born and Raised (Columbia). Again, Mayer's vocals were presented with incredible focus, though it was the surprising amount of inflection within the vocal track that impressed me most of all. The subtlety and ambiance the UPA-700 managed to grab hold of and put forth was surprising. Was it as good as my reference Parasound Halo amplifiers? Not exactly, though I wasn't expecting to hear much, if any, of the nuance I heard, and yet there it was, and for under $500, no less. The bass, which this track has a great deal of, was taut and tuneful, exhibiting solid control, though admittedly the heavy lifting was being done by the SVS sub. The soundstage was nicely appointed and appropriately spaced between the left and right mains. Its width didn't seem to venture too far from the speakers' outer baffles, maybe a foot at most, though it did extend back several feet, which was nice.
Moving on to some live music, I cued up Barenaked Ladies' Rock Spectacle (Reprise/Wea) and the track "When I Fall," which I love dearly. Right off the bat, the cymbals struck me as just a touch two-dimensional. They possessed plenty of detail and clarity, though they lacked that touch of air that would've otherwise brought out a greater sense of organic space and shimmer. This isn't wholly uncommon among budget components, especially AV receivers, which the UPA-700 competes against, but nevertheless, it's worth noting. Was it unbearable or worse? No, not at all, just an area in terms of performance where more power (and possibly money) may yield better results. Dynamics weren't quite as sharp as I've grown used to hearing, but for a sub-$500 amp, the slight omission isn't a deal-breaker here. Where the UPA-700 shined was in its ability to capture the essence of the performance and present it in a wholly convincing way.
Overall, with music, the UPA-700 proved to be an amp focused on the sum of its parts, rather than putting too much emphasis on one aspect of its performance versus another. It's not as if any of the musical tracks sounded bad (they didn't) or even wrong (they weren't), it's just that UPA-700's focus is clearly upon the overall picture, trying to put as much of it into focus for the listener as possible while keeping the omissions to a minimum so as not to detract. Tonally, some may believe the UPA-700 to skew ever so slightly lean, and on certain recordings, I may have to agree, but I'd hesitate to take the description a step further and call it forward or harsh, for it's neither of those things. UPA-700 definitely likes having a bit of pressure put on it in terms of volume to come alive, but even at above-average levels (peaks tickling 100dB), it doesn't lose its composure. You'll know when you've pushed it too hard, as its detail, mid-bass and bass definition will become less resolved and its top end will exhibit some sibilance at the extreme.
Moving onto movies, I cued up Moulin Rouge! on Blu-ray disc (20th Century Fox). I love this movie and use it regularly in my demos, as it is a treat for the senses. Despite only having 80 watts at its disposal, the UPA-700 proved quite capable of recreating true cinematic scale without distortion. Dialog, like the music vocals I had explored earlier, was rife with nuance and inflection and, despite stemming from a small two-way bookshelf speaker in the Intimus 5Bs, the actors' voices felt grounded and true to life in their scale. Dynamics improved with the addition of the lossless audio track, as did soundstage depth and width, though width was undoubtedly also assisted by the addition of surround channels. Speaking of surround channels, there was positively zero tonal difference between all five speakers, meaning the sound didn't change as more of the amp was called into service. Even when driven hard, the UPA-700 didn't break down and cry uncle. In fact, with multiple channels now being utilized, its prior omissions seemed to be lessened - imagine that. The quality of the source material obviously played a role, but it's nice to know that the UPA-700 will maintain its composure under pressure and under a multi-channel load.
I ended my evaluation of the UPA-700 with the recently re-released and re-mastered edition of Titanic on Blu-ray (20th Century Fox). Without wanting to be repetitive, I was again struck by the scale and grandeur the UPA-700 was capable of portraying, despite its "measly" 80 watts on tap. The sound was simply captivating and wholly enjoyable. Only when pushed (or punished) beyond comfortable limits was I able to get the UPA-700 to misbehave, at which point, it didn't completely fall apart but rather backed down.
I was continually amazed that, for an 80-watt, seven-channel amp, faced with putting forth convincing sound to match my 10-foot screen, the UPA-700 wasn't just adequate, it was exceptional. Personally, there were moments where I would've preferred more power, or at least could've pointed out areas where an extra fifty or even hundred watts would've been useful, but for the vast majority, especially those who would otherwise be shopping for an AV receiver, the UPA-700 is quite possibly all the amp they'll need. I'm just being honest. If products like Emotiva's own UMC-200 (and Outlaw Model 975) set the budget performance benchmark for AV preamps, then the UPA-700 reviewed here is the amplifier equivalent. Welcome to the jumping-off point. Does it get better? Sure, but for just under $500, the UPA-700 is mighty impressive.
Finding downsides to amplifiers that simply perform as advertised and beyond is a bit like trying to find fault with a Victoria's Secret supermodel - you're just gonna look silly. About the only drawback that I see with the UPA-700 has to do with its power and whether or not it is ultimately enough for you, your system and your needs. That doesn't mean the UPA-700 is crap if you need more, it just means you need more, in which case, provided you wish to keep things in the Emotiva family, you'd be looking at either the XPA-5 ($899) or the XPR-5 ($1,999). Of course, neither of those options affords you seven channels, as the UPA-700 is the only seven-channel amp Emotiva offers at present, but you see my point.
I suppose I could complain about the garish blue lights, but they're defeatable, so that criticism is pretty much out. The binding posts and RCA inputs are a little cheap, but then again, the amp is priced under $500, so there are bound to be a few tradeoffs. I'm willing to endure cheap binding posts in exchange for better sound quality and I believe that is what Dan and his Emotiva team thought too when designing the UPA-700.
Competition and Comparisons
For better or worse, the only company that anyone seems to want to compare Emotiva to is Outlaw, for good reason. They're both Internet-direct competitors with arguably the same focus. Which company is better is a matter of personal taste. That said, the amp most like the UPA-700 would have to be Outlaw Audio's Model 7075, which packs seven channels of amplification, each rated at 75 watts into eight ohms and 115 watts into four, all for $699 direct. The Model 7075 does cost a bit more, but then again, it also has a few added perks, like more power into four ohms when compared to the UPA-700. Does that make the Model 7075 a better amplifier? That's up to you to decide. I've spent considerable time with it (7075) and have found it to be a phenomenal performer, not wholly unlike the UPA-700, though the two do sound different. The 7075 exhibits a bit more low-end control and emphasis, whereas the UPA-700 has a little more mid- and top-end energy. Neither is necessarily right nor wrong, just different, with both being worthy of your consideration.
Where I believe Outlaw succeeds or at least differentiates themselves from Emotiva is in their offering of a slightly more powerful, seven-channel amplifier in the form of the Model 7125. If either the Model 7075 or the UPA-700 proves not enough for your needs, then you'll have an easier time in my opinion, moving up-market in terms of power within the Outlaw lineup of products, as opposed to through Emotiva. Emotiva currently does not offer another seven-channel amplifier whereas Outlaw has five, with the Model 7125, the next model up from the Model 7075, retailing for $999. Again, to each his own, but the most logical competitor for Emotiva has to be Outlaw.
For more on these amplifiers, as well as others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Multi-Channel Amplifier page.
As this is but my second go-round with Emotiva, my first being the UMC-200 AV preamp, I'm hesitant to heap praise upon the UPA-700 for fear of sounding like a broken record, except anything less would simply be dishonest. The truth is, I enjoyed the UPA-700 immensely, more than I thought I would, and I'm glad Dan sent me this rather than one of his larger, costlier amplifiers, for I had more fun and headshaking moments with the 700 on account of just how cheap it is. It, paired with a UMC-200, is one hell of a one-two-punch for those looking to build a system without going to debtor's prison to do it. It's incredible.
My reference AV receivers, in terms of performance, are NAD's T 757 ($1,599) and Sony's STR-DA5800ES ($2,000), both of which the UPA-700 easily matched and in some instances bested when paired with the UMC-200 at a far more advantageous price point. Not to mention you can grow into costlier gear with separates more easily than you can with AV receivers, even if those receivers have dedicated preamp outputs. Taking into account everything I've described and/or said above, and regardless of the brand, how can you not be anything but excited by the prospect of an amp such as the UPA-700? It's a beautiful thing.
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