Emotiva XMC-1 7.2-Channel AV Pre/Pro Reviewed

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Emotiva XMC-1 7.2-Channel AV Pre/Pro Reviewed

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Emotiva-XMC1-thumb.jpgLove the company or hate it, there's no denying that Emotiva is one of the most fascinating companies in the audio electronics world. Its two-channel products represent not just a lot of bang for the buck, but also a level of technical excellence that's generally prohibitively expensive to most consumers. Its history with multichannel home theater, on the other hand, has been a little rockier, which Emotiva CEO Dan Laufman would be the first to admit. However, recent efforts have gone a long way to make up for that...so much so that the company's latest flagship AV preamp/processor, the XMC-1, found itself in the enviable position of being one of the most hotly debated, highly anticipated, and (most importantly) most talked-about AV products in the sorts of circles that discuss such things, for a good two years before it actually saw the light of day.

So, what's all the hubbub? Well, for one thing, Emotiva took all that it had learned with previous home theater processors and started over completely from scratch with the XMC-1. And I do mean completely from scratch. The preamp was designed from the ground up so that Emotiva's engineers would have absolute control over every component--not only in terms of the hardware, but the software as well. In essence, you could describe it as a modular Linux computer with a custom OS, running dual Texas Instrument dual-core processors, all powering some truly sexy audiophile hardware, including Burr-Brown analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog circuitry and (one of my favorite touches) hardware-based sample rate converters between its DSPs that reduce jitter to the point of negligibility.

But wait (he says, channeling the ghost of Don Pardo), there's more. The XMC-1 also serves double duty as a USB DAC with 24/192 decoding capabilities. In addition to Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, it also decodes DSD (via HDMI only). And if that weren't enough, it offers three (technically, four) avenues for room correction: channel-independent or global parametric EQ that you can tweak yourself; support for filters uploaded from Room EQ Wizard; and a custom version of Dirac Live dubbed Dirac LE (Direct Live for Emotiva), which can be upgraded to Dirac Full for an additional $99.

I could go on. The point is that the XMC-1 is a righteously feature-packed 7.2-channel AV processor that, in almost every way, has the potential to be both the audiophile's and the home tech tinkerer's dream come true. But to be frank, I'm not sure that's enough to explain the insane amount of pre-release hype surrounding it. To wrap our minds around that, I think we need to look at the XMC-1 in more abstract terms. Essentially, it represents a new beginning for Emotiva. On the one hand, it's the poster child for the company's shift from Chinese to American manufacturing. More importantly, though, it's the foundation upon which all of Emotiva's upcoming surround sound products will be built for quite some time.

Oh, and did I mention that it sells for $2,499?

The Hookup
For an American-made hi-fi product that sells for such a price, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect to see some corners cut somewhere. That somewhere definitely isn't in the build quality of the XMC-1, nor in its presentation. It's a beautifully packaged, rock-solid piece of kit that makes a good impression straight out of the box. Subjectively speaking, the front panel is a weensy bit too testosterone-heavy for my tastes, with its stygian faceplate and NASA control panel panoply of blinding blue LEDs (which can thankfully be dimmed). But objectively speaking, it's exceptionally well constructed. Not to mention the fact that its volume knob is high in the running as my favorite in the history of ever. I seriously want to name it George and hug it and pet it and squeeze it. As is the case with most Emotiva products, it's an analog resistor ladder volume control (in this case, dual Cirrus Logic CS3318 chips), but what I love most about it is just the tactile feel of it. The slight little "bump" at each 0.5dB step. I'm getting giddy just writing about it.

Emotiva-XMC1-back.jpgAround back, the XMC-1 is just as well built and, in my opinion, a lot lovelier. However, if I have any legitimate nits to pick with the design, it's here. Although well laid out in terms of connectivity--with the XLR and RCA outputs lined up beautifully along the bottom, the all-important HDMI inputs and outputs lined up across the top, and all of the other analog and digital connections positioned intuitively and logically in between--sometimes the connections themselves get in the way of their own labels, especially if you're installing the XMC-1 low in your rack as I did. A very minor nit, indeed.

I also noticed some very, very slight issues with tolerances on the RCA outputs when I was connecting my custom Straight Wire Encore II interconnects between the preamp and my Anthem Statement A5 amp. So, if you're looking for any cut corners, there you go. A couple of the RCA outputs seem to be a fraction of a millimeter smaller than the others, leading to what I wouldn't necessarily describe as a loose fit, but not quite as snug as the rest.

Whether or not the XMC-1 has enough in terms of connectivity is, of course, based on your own gear rack. After connecting my Dish Network Hopper DVR, OPPO BDP-103 Blu-ray player, Sony PS3 gaming console, and Control4 HC-250 home controller to four of its HDMI inputs, my Autonomic MMS-2 Mirage music server to its primary stereo analog input, and my Samsung TV to one of its two HDMI outputs, I had plenty of space left over: two (unbalanced) stereo analog inputs, three coaxial/optical digital inputs, an AES/EBU in, and the USB input (which was simply too far from my home office to make use of).

To give me the most in terms of flexibility with setup and calibration, Emotiva leant me a laptop computer with the full licensed version of the Dirac room correction software already installed. Before running Dirac on the laptop, though, there were steps to be taken in the setup menus of the XMC-1 itself. First, you have to dial through the setup screens (not the prettiest in the world, but certainly well organized) and tell the processor how many speakers you have connected (in my case, five plus two subwoofers), whether multiple subs should be configured as dual mono or stereo (I opted for the former), and whether your main speakers are full range or need some crossing over (I selected the latter for my quartet of Paradigm Studio 100 towers and CC-590 center speaker, with a crossover point of 80 Hz). While I was digging around in the menus, I also went ahead and set up two of the XMC-1's four trigger outputs (one for my Anthem A5 amp, the other for the Sunfire SubRosa flat-panel subwoofer that shares an LFE channel with one of my two Paradigm SUB12 subs).

I also switched the power mode from the most energy-efficient (which, as a result, makes the XMC-1 take a good nine seconds to power on) to one that leaves the video switching powered even in standby mode (and, as a result, cuts boot-up times to less than a couple of seconds).

Then the real work commenced.

Let me go ahead and be clear about this from the start: I doubt that the majority of people who buy the XMC-1 will opt for the $99 upgrade to the Dirac Full room correction suite, and I have mixed feelings about that (admittedly baseless) assumption. On the one hand, it's my opinion that Dirac Full is essential to getting the most out of the XMC-1; on the other hand, I'm a bona fide room correction junkie, and at times even I found it to be a formidable piece of software. Thankfully, Emotiva's documentation for Dirac (and for the XMC-1 as a whole) is exceptional, and the program has a handy Help tab on the right side that holds your hand through the entire setup process.

Still, though, I fought with it for a full half-hour before I could successfully run one set of frequency sweeps on my system. Before you start your measurements, you have to adjust the input gain of the included microphone to set its sensitivity, as well as the output volume of the frequency sweeps. This is critical to ensure that the frequency sweeps don't cause clipping in the measuring process. If you get past this point and any of the channels clips during measurement, you have to start all over again. I won't lie to you: I resorted to some very salty language at several points during this process, but I finally ended up with the right combination of input and output gain to allow the measuring process to proceed.

From there on out, the entire Dirac process filled me with the sort of giddy, geeky glee that few room correction systems could ever hope to inspire. Before you actually run the sweeps, you have to select your seating layout from three standard templates: single seat, sofa with the sweet spot in the center, or stadium seating with multiple rows. Despite having a sofa, I opted for the first choice since the sweet spot is actually on the far left seat, and I spend way more time in the home theater than does the missus.

From there, you're presented with a map that shows exactly where to place the mic for each measurement. (Emotiva does provide a small mic stand with the XMC-1, but I used my own, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.) Interestingly, the map includes three selectable views: one from the top, one from the front, and one at an oblique angle. Why three views? Because Dirac Full takes its nine measurements in three dimensions. Some of the required positions are at ear height, and some are above. Some are in front of the sweet spot, and some are behind.

Once you're done with that, it allows you to set your own freaking target curve, independently for the front left/right, center, surround left/right, and independently for each subwoofer, and (this is one of my favorite bits) you can set limits, on both the upper and lower ends, on the range of frequencies to be corrected. You do have to modify the default target curve manually before you can grab and drag the sliders that set the maximum EQ frequency (in other words, you can't pull the slider through the point on a curve; you have to move that point first), but having the ability to set those points on top of an actual graph of your speakers' in-room response is invaluable beyond the telling of it. After a good bit of squinting and dragging and squinting some more, I decided to set my maximum EQ frequency a little higher than I normally would in this room (right at 600 Hz or thereabouts) and settled on quite different curves for each of my subwoofers, based on their relative positions in the room and the spikes and nulls that resulted from such. In the end, despite the symmetry of my subs, the asymmetry of my room meant that it made more sense to set up the left sub to deliver more of the impactful upper bass and the right sub to crank out more than its share of deep, subsonic bass.

If all of the above sounds like way more fuss than you're willing to put into dialing in your room's sound, don't fret. You don't have to go to such extremes. Dirac Full makes what I consider to be some really intelligent default choices for suggested target curves, it does most of its work on the lower frequencies (where room correction is really needed), and it doesn't fundamentally alter the voice of your speakers the way some (okay, most) room correction systems do. The point is, if you want to put in the effort--if you want to learn more about room acoustics and put that learning to good use--Dirac Full and the XMC-1's implementation of it allow you to do so. It rewards extra effort in a way that most room correction systems don't.

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

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