Serious home theater fans and audiophiles have long extolled the benefits of buying separates--that is, two separate, dedicated components to manage the processing and amplification rather than housing both functions in one box (as in a home theater receiver or an integrated amplifier). Sonically, some of the benefits include having more space for high-performance designs, better heat management, and generally more power for amplification. That's not to say there aren't high-end receivers with very beefy amplifier sections. But many consumers just like the convenience that separates can offer, of being able to change the preamp section at will to keep up with all the latest sound and video formats like DTS:X or 4K Ultra HD without having to change out the amplifier section along with it.
The main problem with separates is that, most of the time, buying a separate preamp and amplifier is much more costly than the one-box solution. While there are at least a few modestly priced stereo amplifiers out there, there just aren't very many choices for someone looking for a budget-priced multichannel amplifier.
In standard "outlaw" fashion comes the new $599 Model 5000 amplifier from Outlaw Audio to disrupt the status quo in the marketplace. Readers of this publication should be very familiar with this Internet-direct retailer that has been selling high-quality amplifiers and other gear at outrageously competitive prices. Low-priced gear is a dime a dozen in today's world, but it's Outlaw's dedication to bringing true reference-quality performance to the masses that has set it apart. Just a few years ago, the Model 7900 won the honors of best multi-channel amplifier here.
So, when Outlaw told me they "hit a new low" so to speak, and were now launching a new amp at the sub-$600 price point, I was all but foaming at the mouth to get my hands on one.
The Model 5000 is a five-channel, Class AB design rated at 120 watts per channel, with all channels driven at a nominal impedance of eight-ohms, across the audible frequency range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz at less than 0.02 percent Total Harmonic Distortion. Manufacturers publish amplifier ratings in wildly varying ways, and sometimes it is really hard to determine what it all means. This spec that Outlaw provides is about as conservative of a standard as it gets. It means Outlaw guarantees that, if you connect five speakers with a standard impedance of eight-ohms (which many speakers have) to the amp, each speaker gets at least 120 watts, even if all speakers are blasting at the same time--and no matter what audible frequency the source material is playing through. And the signal will come out pretty much exactly as it went into the inputs. Oh, by the way, this is an RMS rating, meaning continuous sustained power, not the power measured at a peak. Any one of those line items is an area where many manufacturers cheat a little in order to publish a higher power rating, with the consumer being none the wiser. As they say, caveat emptor, right?
While there are certainly more powerful dedicated amplifiers out there, 120 watts is more than a match for the amplifier sections of even the most powerful receivers out there, including those from longstanding high-end audio names like Anthem and Cambridge Audio. There are more goodies in the design that show how Outlaw didn't skimp on performance just to make the budget. The company built in a differential-sensing RCA input circuit to reject input hum (in other words, it's quieter). Each of the five channels has four bi-polar output transistors sharing current, meaning it runs efficiently with less heat. Each channel is also designed with its own power-supply rectification; this way, the amp can isolate each channel's power supply, and you can max out on power on each channel with every channel driven.
Transitioning to a smaller home has me on the lookout lately for components that make more sense from both a budget and space standpoint. The amp is six inches tall by 17 inches wide by 16.75 inches deep and weighs in at 50 pounds. It wasn't tiny, but it was definitely manageable for me to get out of its packaging and move onto my standard-sized Sanus component rack. The chassis was all black and metallic, machined with excellent precision. A single on/off button with blue LED lighting surrounding it adorns the front panel. Honestly, you wouldn't be able to tell it was a $599 amplifier just by looking at it.
Outlaw also sent me its Model 975 processor for testing so that I could use a preamp of similar build quality and price to what a consumer interested in the Model 5000 would use. (Outlaw has a package deal that includes the 5000 and the 975 for $999, which represents a $200 discount.) For speakers, I mainly used the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 system that I still had on hand, but I experimented with few others for reference. For sources, I toggled between streaming sources on my HP Envy laptop, a Roku streaming stick connected through the Outlaw 975, and the Sony Playstation 3 as my Blu-ray transport. All cables and interconnects were from Wireworld. I should note that the Model 5000 only has unbalanced RCA inputs.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
Starting with music, I queued up Taylor Swift's most recent album 1989 (CD, Big Machine/Universal). The 5000 made the small SVS satellite speakers sing like they were much larger bookshelves. In the opening track "Welcome to New York," Swift sounded airy and open, and I could make out the slightly nasally character in her voice. The amp's quick dynamics were even more apparent when I swapped out the SVs speakers for my B&W CM6 S2 speakers. Swift is one of those singers with a great grasp of punctuation, which is especially hard for some entry-level amplifiers to control, due to the sudden stops and starts.
Throughout the album, Swift belts out high notes, then abruptly moves into a vibrato or a speaking-tone whisper. The Model 5000 handled the shifting dynamics deftly, as one would expect from a far more expensive amp. And the amp was quiet enough that I could distinctly hear every breath between her punctuations. On the final tracks, where Swift shares with the audience a glimpse into her songwriting process, we are treated to some unprocessed demos of sessions of where she is practicing with a piano or acoustic guitar accompaniment. Here the Model 5000 does a great job of embracing all the natural qualities of Swift's voice and the acoustic instruments--the rich, deep tones from the piano and hefty resonance of the guitars.
The final thing I am going to say about the Swift album is that it really gave me a better understanding of the character of the Model 5000. With a pretty heavily techno backdrop and quite a few passages with minor key themes, this album tends to sound a little gloomy with amps (and any other equipment in the signal chain, for that matter) that have a cooler, more surgical presentation. I would place the Outlaw Model 5000 as neutral, but with an ever-so-slight bent toward warmth. Smooth and neutral, the 5000 never came across as too cold or sterile, keeping just enough warmth to make the presentation of the album sound very musical.�
As I contemplated the title of the Swift album 1989, I grew a little nostalgic for the music of yesteryear. So, next I queued up the Affirmation album from Savage Garden (CD, Columbia/Sony). At risk of irking some of my neighbors, I cranked up the title track to full tilt. The Model 5000 exhibited superb control over dynamics and volume. I swapped out multiple pairs of speakers--using the SVS Prime Satellites, then moving to the B&W CM6 S2s, then moving to a pair of Sonus Faber Chameleon bookshelves, and finally to the Thiel TM3s I recently reviewed. Each speaker pair had its own individual characteristics, of course, but I found a couple things in common. The Model 5000 allowed each speaker pair to come across with the best clarity and resolution I've seen from any amplifier I've come across and tested. And no matter the volume, I could not get the amp to tap out. I was impressed. Especially with the lower-sensitivity THIELs, most entry-level amplifiers I tested couldn't give them quite the power they needed or at least started showing signs of strain very early on. Not the Outlaw. It was like the Energizer bunny, it kept going ... and going ... and going. Not only did the Outlaw play at any level I asked it to, it was able to keep the tonal character of the early 2000s' grunge-pop-style distortion on the band's electric guitars very much intact at every volume level. Scale was also kept intact--meaning that, even at pretty low volume levels, it just sounded less loud, not smaller. I will say that, while the Outlaw was more than adequate when feeding the THIELs, it didn't sound quite as effortless as my usual Crown i-Tech 5000HD amplifier. This would be expected, though, given that the Crowns are about 12 times the cost of the Model 5000.
Equally powerful was the Model 5000's ability to control the separation of elements, such as the guitar, drum beat, and other background with Darren Hayes' vocals, which always resonated smoothly.
While I loved listening to two-channel music through the Outlaw, I knew the true test of its abilities would come with multichannel source material. It was, after all, a multichannel amplifier. Not having an HBO subscription, I am resigned to wait for a few of my favorite shows to show up in shiny disc format on Netflix. I finally got around to picking up the final season of True Blood (Blu-ray, HBO). With exception to a few sporadic scenes of violence, True Blood is at its heart a character drama, so there is plenty of dialogue. Consistent with its music performance, the Model 5000 performed admirably with dialogue, handling all the subtleties of the various characters' voices. The main heroine, Sookie Stackhouse (played by Anna Paquin), is part human and part fae (more commonly known as a fairy). When Sookie uses her main power of reading people's thoughts, it is presented as a full surround-sound voiceover of what other characters are thinking, meshed with echoes and reverbs. All the subtleties of the reverb sequences were handled masterfully, allowing me to feel as if someone was really in the back of my mind, speaking.
If I had to nitpick, here is where I would say some of the very best amplifiers out there can edge out the Model 5000. The Outlaw unit is one very quiet amplifier-- quiet enough that one wouldn't notice any background noise from virtually any source material. But there are some very high-end amps (usually also very expensive) where you find completely ink-black backgrounds. On voiceover and whisper sequences like the True Blood scenes, a higher-end amplifier (like Outlaw's own Model 7900 or the Anthem P5 I used to own) might show a tad more "nothingness" in the background.�
Sticking with the sci-fi/fantasy genre, I moved on to Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Blu-ray, Lionsgate). The film is set against a backdrop of a dystopian society that has replaced much of present-day North America, where a tyrannical regime reigns from "the capitol." Whenever President Snow, leader of the regime, makes announcements to the country, it is always accompanied by a grand, triumphant procession with full orchestra, led by the brass and woodwind sections. The Model 5000 was able to maintain the texture of these instruments at reference volumes, sometimes for fairly long, sustained periods. In one scene, as our heroine Katniss Everdeen hides in a hollow underground bunker with the resistance, rebel president Alma Coin gives a speech. President Coin's voice starts off front and center and is loud and microphoned. Then you hear the echoes throughout the bunker, which fan out to the surrounds. Meanwhile, Katniss and some of her close friends are having a side conversation, alternating between whispers and soft voices. The Model 5000 captured each of these separate elements and handled this beautifully. What was most impressive was when the camera pans in a 360-degree motion, and the voices, the echoes, and the audience's intermittent cheers and claps rotate in sync across all the speakers. Here I have to give some credit to the Model 975's performance as a controller and preamp, as well, but the Outlaw combo simultaneously managed all the volume changes, timing, separation of elements, and abrupt starts and stops without issue. This level of control is almost unheard of for a receiver or pre/pro-and-amplifier combo at the $1,000 price point.
One final scene I will recount for you is when the capital bombs the bunker where Katniss is hiding in an effort to kill her and stop the rebellion. This scene includes several minutes of sustained effects at high volumes, involving crowd screams, explosions, structural damage noises, rubble, etc. For most receivers I've used, this would be a torture test of sustained power output. Using the SVS speakers, the Outlaw never gave out. I replayed the scene a few times, swapping out the different sets of speakers I had on hand. With exception of my Salk Soundscape tower speakers, the Model 5000 took everything I gave it and just kept chugging along with ease. With the Salks, the Outlaw unit did struggle a little to keep up, which did not surprise me, since Salk recommends pairing with a minimum of 200 watts for solid-state amplifiers.
Honestly, there aren't really any egregious faults with the Outlaw Model 5000, especially when considering its cost. Some in the hobby consider balanced audio inputs to be a must-have for an amplifier, and the Model 5000 lacks them.
Next, the Outlaw provides plenty of power for most home theater applications, but this all depends on your setup. For exceptionally large theater rooms and very power-hungry speakers, the Model 5000 may not be quite enough.
Lastly, for those needing to eke out that very last bit of performance, there are amplifiers that are a hair's breadth quieter. Honestly, I don't really consider any of the above to be a fault, as nothing else in or near the Model 5000's price range would accomplish any meaningful improvement in those areas.
Comparison and Competition
As I said before, there really isn't anything out there at this price point that does what the Outlaw Model 5000 can do. The closest competitor may be the Emotiva XPA-5, which for $400 more gives you more power: 200 watts RMS into an eight-ohm load. The Emotiva is, on paper, a marginally quieter amp, with a published signal-to-noise ratio at 119 dB. The Emotiva unit will also provide those balanced inputs if that's important to you, but it's also a significantly larger and heavier unit--it's twice as tall, it's deeper and wider, and it weighs an extra 20 pounds. For $400 more, Outlaw will give you both the Model 5000 and the Model 975 preamp, so it really depends on what you're willing to spend and what you are looking for.
The Marantz MM7055 is another good choice to test out, as Marantz has a longstanding reputation for great circuitry and sonics. The Marantz unit does offer balanced connections and comes in a lighter package, but power output is probably similar once you discount the fact that Marantz provides power specs at two channels driven only. Plus, it's double the price of the Outlaw, so I'll leave it to you to decide whether it is worth the extra money.
If you are willing to explore the realm of pro audio with mostly Class D amplifier designs, there are probably a number of choices from brands like Crown Audio or QSC where you can piece together five channels of amplification for roughly the same cost of the Outlaw. However, level matching professional amplification with consumer home theater speakers and AV preamps may present some issues. And there are very few five-channel amplifiers out there in the professional audio world. So you will likely deal with extra channels you paid for, but are letting go to waste, and/or have to deal with multiple boxes of stereo amplifiers.
I know it's early in the year, but the Outlaw Model 5000 has my vote for HomeTheaterReview's Best of 2016 list. There just isn't anything out there that competes at this price point. If you have a mid-sized home theater and are planning to power speakers with moderate power requirements, the Outlaw Model 5000 is THE choice for you. It's truly a high-performance amplifier that meets the needs for most any home theater except for the very audacious. For $600, the Model 5000 is at the pinnacle of value for multichannel amplifiers. If there were a six-star rating for value allowed, I would give it--not because it's the cheapest five-channel amplifier out there, but because it's that good AND it's only $600.
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