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 clich�d 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 m�lange 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.