Love 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?
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.
Around 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.
With all that done, I kicked back to do some critical listening with the first Blu-ray I always pop in when evaluating a new AV processor: the second disc of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Extended Edition (New Line). The first thing I noticed, pretty much immediately, is that Dirac Full oopsed just a little bit when setting the output levels of my subs. Everything else was dialed in perfectly, and thankfully (as I said above) the XMC-1's setup menus are brilliantly laid out, so it was short work (with an SPL meter) to bring the subs up to the level of the other speakers.
With that fixed, I skipped forward to chapter 32, "The Pass of Caradhras," and let the next two chapters play. I'm not exaggerating or being in any way figurative when I say that my jaw dropped as the camera swooped through the caverns beneath Isengard; the triumphantly evil refrains of Howard Shore's score rang through with a level of clarity, authority, and controlled bombast that genuinely shocked me at first. The bass was simply...well, there's no other way to put it...perfect. But more than that, the XMC-1, with this scene, completely reset my standard for dialogue clarity. Sir Christopher Lee's voice sliced through the cacophony like hot Numenorean steel through aerogel.
Here's the thing, though. Said voice didn't sound in any way enhanced or manipulated. Timbre was flawless. And it's not as if the clanking, booming chaos of malevolent Middle-earth industry was diminished to give the dialogue more room to breathe. All of the expansive background noises in this scene were perfectly intact. It's simply that the XMC-1's processing is so precise, so transparent, and its bass is so controlled despite its forcefulness, that there was nothing to muddy the mix.
All of this became even more evident in chapter 34, "A Journey in the Dark." This is normally the scene I rely on to help pinpoint the flaws in a preamp's processing. With the XMC-1, I simply heard no flaws. Instead, the sequence became a perfect demonstration of all of its strengths. Again, dialogue clarity was exquisite here. In stark contrast with the Integra DHC-60.5 I reviewed last year, I didn't struggle in the slightest to make out any of the lines. Simply saying that the XMC-1 rendered the dialogue in this notoriously difficult scene with sheer effortlessness doesn't do it justice. It wasn't merely that the voices were crystal clear; it's the way they reverberated and decayed in the air with flawless precision that lent a level of verisimilitude to the sequence and made it so utterly captivating. Meet me on the street, any day, any time, and I can recite every line of dialogue for the next six minutes' worth of film without even thinking about it. And yet, I'm not sure I've ever been quite so drawn into the Mines of Moria, so utterly convinced of the reality of it all.
Some of the thanks for that is surely due to the Dirac room correction, but I think more kudos are actually owed to the exceptional re-clocking capabilities of the processor itself. When I mentioned the XMC-1's ultra-low jitter in the intro, I was speaking theoretically. Here I'm speaking in terms of actual practice. If there's any appreciable amount of jitter here, it's below the threshold of my brain's ability to detect. If that weren't the case, there's just no way the near-tactile bubble of three-dimensional sound concocted by the XMC-1 could be anywhere near as coherent or precise.
Honestly, I could spend another 3,000 words waxing enthusiastically about all of the sonic revelations unlocked in The Fellowship of the Ring by the XMC-1. But for the sake of variety, let's take a listen at another Blu-ray disc I'm sure you're all tired of hearing me talk about: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal).
I'll skip over my normal demo scenes here: Scott's epic bass battle in chapter 13 and the showdown with the Katayanagi Twins in chapter 15. Both of those are great bass show-offs, but the scene that really shines a light on the most of the XMC-1's strengths is Scott and Ramona's throw-down with Roxy Richter in chapter 13. Like most of the movie, this scene is no slouch in the bass department. Between the thumping electronica music in the background and the sheer weight of Romona's obscenely large battle hammer, there's enough thunderous kick here to leave your subwoofers huffing and panting for hours afterward. But what made this scene stand out for me, when auditioned via the XMC-1, was its incredible high-end sparkle, mostly courtesy of Roxy's shimmering metallic whip-sword, which slices through the air (shattering disco balls, rupturing windows) with such knife-edged precision that I came out the other end feeling like I'd had a close shave. Again, it's the sense of real, actual, honest-to-goodness space that won me over here. My notes are full of cliched tripe like, "It's like I'm actually in the room with the characters."
To test out the XMC-1's DSD decoding capabilities, I popped my SACD copy of Steely Dan's Gaucho (MCA) into my OPPO BDP-103 and settled back into my seat for a bit of the stereo mix of "Hey Nineteen." Everything I've said about my experience with movies above rings true here, but what impressed me most about this track, in particular, via the XMC-1 was the way the notes of Walter Becker's rhythm guitar decayed in the air. The way they seemed to punch out into the room and slam on the brakes just shy of my face. The way the mélange of instruments and vocals in the chorus outright exploded not only in width, but also depth. The sheer intricacy of the soundstage. It's all just so utterly glorious, and to be frank the XMC-1's delivery of the song stood toe-to-toe with the best two-channel gear I've had the pleasure of auditioning.
I wish I could go on. I could go on and on and on talking about all of the things I adore about the XMC-1's stereo performance. But we do still need to cover...
I think I've already covered most of the concerns that buyers might have about the XMC-1. There were a few other little ones (a few pops here and there, especially when starting SACDs), but a pre-release copy of the upcoming firmware for the XMC-1 nipped those few concerns in the bud.
Anything else I have to say about downsides is mostly a matter of preference. For example, there's no way to set the behavior of the mute button. I tend to like receivers and processors that give me a choice between full-on mute and, say, a 20- or 30-dB reduction in volume. I'd like to see Emotiva add that capability in a future firmware release.
Also, the remote control, while nicely laid out and wonderfully built, is a big old non-ergonomic brick of a thing, and it's magnetic at that. I normally keep a set of Zen Magnets on my end table, right beside where I set my remote. Something to play with when I'm simply zoning out, listening to music, or watching Weather Nation. I had to move them because they kept sticking to the XMC-1's remote!
I'll say this, though: the remote gives you direct access to so much of the processor's functionality, without having to dig through the menus. You can tweak the level of the subs, or the center, or the surround or backs on the fly. And yet, it doesn't seem cluttered at all. It's just a shame that it's such an unfortunate-looking contraption.
I imagine there will be some folks who are disappointed by the fact that the XMC-1 doesn't feature HDMI 2.0 ports. They're 1.4b instead. Interestingly, though, Emotiva recently added support for 2160p/60 video via firmware update. So, really the only thing keeping the HDMI ports from meeting full 2.0 spec is that their bandwidth is limited to 6 GHz instead of 18 GHz, meaning the processor will never be capable of handling Deep Color 2160p/60 video with 32 channels of audio. [Editor's note: An Emotiva rep says that an HDMI 2.0 board with HDCP 2.2 is in the works and should be ready by the beginning of next year.]
There's also the lack of Atmos/DTS:X, which isn't surprising given that the XMC-1 was in development (in fact, was released) before either of those technologies was an actual thing in the home market. There's no doubt that a processor based on the XMC-1 will be released at some point with object-based audio capabilities. It certainly wouldn't require re-inventing the wheel. However, if those formats are important to you, you should consider another pre/pro. Also worth noting if you have a lot of legacy video devices is that there aren't any video inputs on the XMC-1 aside from HDMI.
Comparison and Competition
A couple of direct competitors to the XMC-1 spring immediately to mind, but not many more than that. Yamaha's new $3,000 CX-A5100 is an obvious choice. It boasts 11.2 channels of output (up significantly from the XMC-1's 7.2), with the extra four channels comprised of Yamaha's proprietary front and rear presence channels. Room correction comes by way of the company's own YPAO.
The Marantz AV8801 at $3,000 is another potential pick. It's also an 11.2-channel preamp, with the extra four channels dedicated to Audyssey DSX Width and Height channels (along with Dolby Pro Logic IIz heights). It also offers video upscaling to 4K, whereas the XMC-1 doesn't feature any manner of video processing.
Here's the thing: I know I'm going to get nailed to the wall for saying this, but the processor that I personally feel the XMC-1 should be compared with is my own beloved Anthem Statement D2v ($9,500). Because it's the only other AV processor I've auditioned in my home that stands on the same ground as Emotiva's offering, sonically speaking. Truth be told, with multichannel movies, I'm not sure I could pick between them in a double-blind listening test. With two-channel music, I'd give the D2v an ever-so-slight edge in terms of sweetness and detail...and I do mean ever-so-slight.
Overall, there are some things I prefer about one processor, and some things I prefer about the other. Anthem Room Correction is far, far simpler to use, and at higher frequencies (should you choose to apply correction to them) I think it does a better job (and by that I mean it does less). But the XMC-1's Dirac Full does a better, more flexible, more tweakable job of correcting for problems at the lower end of the audible spectrum. Truthfully, I could go back and forth like this all day, but I think it says something pretty spectacular about the $2,500 Emotiva XMC-1 that it's even worth mentioning in the same sentence as the D2v, much less the fact that it's such a worthy competitor in terms of sheer audio performance.
Now, if you'll excuse me I need to slip into a something a little more flame-retardant.
What else can I say? As is the case with any product I review, I honestly don't think my job is to tell you whether or not the Emotiva XMC-1 7.2-channel AV preamp/processor is a thing you should spend your money on. The goal here is to help you determine for yourself whether it's the right product for you. So, who, in my mind, is the target audience for the XMC-1? I think it's the hardcore AV enthusiast. The movie watcher and music lover who spends time chatting about gear on forums, or at least one who has such a friend to help him or her set the thing up.
If you just sort of take the XMC-1 out of the box, set it up, adjust the settings, or even calibrate it with the included Dirac LE room calibration software, I think what you'll get is a rock-solid and reliable AV preamp/processor that performs incredibly well for a $2.500 product. If, on the other hand, you take the time to dial it in, if you don't mind the extra expense of a $99 Dirac Full license upgrade, if you're willing and able to learn about room acoustics and put that leaning into practice, the XMC-1 is a product that rewards the extra effort (and expense) many times over.
On its own, the XMC-1 is a fantastic piece of gear with a few admitted quirks that easily earns its sticker price. Easily. With proper setup, though, it's truly a world-class piece of kit...price be damned.