Andrew Robinson began his career as an art director in entertainment advertising in 2003, after graduating from Art Center College of Design. In 2006, he became a creative director at Crew Creative Advertising, and oversaw the agency's Television Division, where he worked for clients such as TNT, TBS, History, FX, and Bravo to name a few. He now has one of the most popular AV-related channels on YouTube.
AV preamps, or surround sound processors, are always a hot ticket among home theater enthusiasts. Over the years, AV preamps have gone from being simple analog multi-channel versions of their two-channel counterparts to big, full-featured testaments to our ever-changing technology. Modern AV preamps must now make sense of everything, whether it's HD (or UltraHD) video, the latest surround sound codecs or even the Internet, thanks to popular music streaming services like Pandora. In truth, today's AV preamp has more in common with your desktop computer than it does an audio preamplifier, a fact some enthusiasts revel in while others, present company included, are left wondering why. The AV preamp, in my opinion, has become needlessly complicated in its efforts to stay ahead of the curve and, in doing so, is now rife with redundancy that many enthusiasts don't even realize they have elsewhere in their system and therefore are paying twice or three times for the same functionality. It begs the question: what does an AV preamp truly need or need to do? I ask myself that same question all the time. With the introduction of Outlaw Audio's new Model 975 (Model 975), I believe someone has finally stepped up to the proverbial microphone and offered an answer. What is it? Let's find out.
• Read more AV preamp reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com's writers.
• Explore more reviews in our HDTV Review section.
• Search for sources in our Blu-ray Player Review section.
The Model Model 975 is Outlaw Audio's latest (and greatest) AV preamp in a storied lineup of great, affordable AV pre-pros. However, unlike its predecessors, the Model 975 isn't a massive slab of matte plastic. Instead, it is a svelte piece of kit, one that measures just under three inches tall by 16.9 inches wide and nine-and-a-half inches deep. It isn't even heavy at a hair over eight pounds. A quick glance upon its semi-gloss aluminum faceplate reveals no vast array of buttons or knobs, but instead a long rectangular display center mass, flanked by an unassuming dial with five small buttons below it. In other words, there is nothing about the Model 975's visual appearance that screams AV preamp. In fact, it looks more like a tuner than it does a modern AV control unit.
Around back, the simplicity theme continues, as all of the Model 975's input/output options are neatly laid out. Working my way from left to right, I first noticed its AM and FM antenna inputs, followed by three component input/output options - one out, two in. To the right of the component inputs, you'll find a pair of composite and S-Video inputs, again mated to a single pair of composite and S-Video outs; why these are needed is beyond me, but nevertheless, they're present. Running across the center of the Model 975's back panel rest its analog input and output options. There are five inputs (RCA), as well as a record out and a full 7.1 complement of analog outputs (RCA). Moving further right reveals a pair of coaxial digital inputs, as well as two optical digital inputs. Across the top of the Model 975 rest four HDMI inputs, as well as a single HDMI out, complete with ARC (Audio Return Channel). An RS-232C port and a DC trigger output round out the Model 975's connectivity options. It should be noted, however, that the Model 975's RS-232C port is for updates and/or service needs only and cannot be used for control purposes.
Under the hood, the Model 975 boasts the ability to upscale all legacy sources to 1080p via its HDMI output. Although the internal scaler is not named, it can be defeated -more on that in a moment. The Model 975 utilizes 192kHz 24-bit DACs for all channels, as well as a 32-bit CS-497024 Crystal Processor. The Model 975 is capable of decoding and playing back all of the latest surround sound codecs, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as most other surround sound and matrix sound formats like Pro Logic II and DTS NEO 6. Other notable features include what Outlaw refers to as a Quadruple Crossover Control, whereby the user can implement different crossover points for one set of loudspeakers independently from the others, meaning you can cross your mains over at, say, 50Hz while your center and rears can be crossed over at 80 or 100Hz respectively. This crossover configuration should help with subwoofer integration in a multi-channel setup.
Which brings me to the remote. Early adopters of the Model 975 will be receiving what Outlaw is labeling their "temp" remote, which is not the final remote design that will ultimately accompany the unit. The temporary remote is rather basic but functional, though it is also rather small and cluttered. Thankfully, Outlaw is aware that a better control experience is necessary and will be sending all early adopters the final remote when it is ready in January at no charge. Those who receive their units after the New Year will not have to suffer with the temp remote, which is to say they will enjoy back-lighting, better button spacing and greater non-directional range. I'd like to add that it's refreshing to see a company willing to right its wrong at no cost to its customers - something Outlaw has a track record for doing, which is more than I can say for many of its competitors.
You may have noticed that I left something out when describing the Model 975: its price. I'm doing this for an important reason - I want you to have an open mind and neither accept nor discount anything I'm about to say based on price, for it would be too easy to draw conclusions on whether or not you believe the Model 975 to be a high-end product or merely an entry-level one with what you think you know about how AV pricing works. Remember, Outlaw is challenging the status quo and, in order to hear the company out, we must be willing to approach the problems objectively. Too often, a product's price can skew our objectivity. Let's continue.
Setting up the Model 975 in my system was an exercise in simplicity from start to finish. First, as it is but a single rack space (1U) tall, integrating it into my Sanus Component Series rack was a cinch. From there, I connected it to my Crown XLS 2000 DriveCore amplifiers via one-meter runs of Transparent Ultra interconnects (RCA). It should be noted that I used the Transparent interconnects to test the robustness of the Model 975's inputs, as well as their spacing, as the Ultra interconnects are quite large, something the Model 975 didn't seem to mind. Next, I connected both my Oppo BDP-103 universal Blu-ray player and Dune HD Max media player to the Model 975 via one-meter runs of Monoprice high-speed HDMI cables. I then ran a 50-foot Monoprice HDMI cable with RedMere Technology out of the Model 975's HDMI output to my SIM2 Nero single-chip DLP projector. The rest of my system consisted of my reference Tekton Design Pendragon loudspeakers and a single f110 subwoofer from JL Audio. More on subwoofers in a moment.
Once everything was connected and the Model 975 fully integrated into the signal chain, it was time to configure the piece to my needs, beginning with speaker setup. The Model 975 has no automated room EQ software or easy speaker setup protocol of any kind, which I didn't mind, as I prefer not to use such things. Believe it or not, most automated EQs do little more than try to match a target curve or curves, based on a room that obviously isn't anything like your room by averaging what it hears and creating a filter set that at best adjusts your speakers to those curves. In doing so, the automated EQs often change the tonal quality of your chosen loudspeakers and affect what it was that you liked about your speakers in the first place, i.e., their sound. While some would argue that sound is but a flat response, many, myself included, have noted this simply isn't the case, for neither the curve nor the resulting sound is flat. The Model 975 has neither auto nor manual EQ, meaning you will be reliant upon proper speaker placement techniques and analog room acoustics for best results. This is a good thing.
Before I go any further, let's talk about subwoofers for a moment. Bass frequencies are slow-moving and fatter than their midrange or high-frequency counterparts, and therefore must be dealt with so as not to drown out the remaining frequencies. While the Model 975 lacks any form of bass EQ, parametric or otherwise, it is possible to add one in after the fact, which is what I did. I employed a Behringer Feedback Destroyer, which possesses a very robust parametric EQ that, when used in conjunction with a free program such as Room EQ Wizard, allows you to better dial in your subwoofer's performance. It also allows you greater freedom to incorporate multiple subs from an AV preamp - such as the Model 975 - that may only have a single subwoofer output, which is something I've also done in the past. Furthermore, it has been my experience that if you can effectively take your subwoofer out of the equation, i.e., EQ it and cross it over at the appropriate frequency, you will immediately notice an increase in midrange and treble fidelity that may not require further adjustment, provided of course that you've set up your speakers properly. This is a way in which you can get around needing to rely on a rather invasive program such as Audyssey when tuning your room.
With my sub situated and EQ'ed via the Behringer, I was able to set its volume, along with the rest of my speakers, within the Model 975's menu, using a SPL meter. I experimented with my crossover points, ultimately deciding upon 50Hz. From there, I set the distances to my speakers to the nearest half-foot, as the Model 975 allows for half-foot increments, and was done. Since the inputs themselves cannot be renamed, the only other thing I adjusted from the Model 975's stock configuration was its stereo subwoofer setting, which I set at -2dB, as I wanted a little less bass when listening to two-channel content. Think of it as having less cowbell. The whole process, from un-boxing to pushing play on my first CD, took less than 30 minutes. Simple.
I began my evaluation of the Model 975 with Moby's album Play (V2) and my go-to track "Everloving." At first blush, coming off of, say, a mass-market AV preamp or receiver, you may jump to conclusions and classify the Model 975 as lush or maybe even dark. I argue that it is not, but rather that many of these components instead favor high frequencies and thus skew forward or lean. It is my opinion that the Model 975 is largely neutral in comparison, with maybe a slight emphasis on the lower mid-bass, something I was able to adjust ever so slightly with the Stereo+Sub Trim feature in its menu. Setting its stereo subwoofer interaction to less 2dB in my room brought the performance to a neutral footing and allowed for one of the more convincing two-channel performances I've heard from an AV preamp. The high frequencies were smooth, grain-free and delicately extended, not at all digital-sounding; instead, they possessed a palpable sense of dimension and air. Midrange was nicely textured and very natural in its tone, though it did seem a touch warm at times, but nothing that was either distracting or fatiguing. Bass was taut and layered with solid impact and decay that fleshed out the sonic canvas brilliantly. Though I've heard and experienced faster bass, there was nothing the Model 975 left me wanting.
Read more about the performance of the Outlaw Audio Model 975 on Page 2.
The soundstage was very nicely composed and appropriate to the material, as it didn't try to bowl me over with excessive width or depth. Instead, it stayed within the music and presented a soundscape that felt more harmonious than outright impressive. This isn't to say that the presentation was closed in or somewhat dynamically constipated. No, it just felt more or less right, as opposed to some other AV preamps' renditions of the same recording and soundstage.
Moving on, I fired up Jason Mraz's album We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things and the track "The Dynamo of Volition." The first thing I noted about the Model 975's performance in this acoustic-only track was the natural timbre, weight and inflection that were conveyed via the Outlaw. Believe it or not, on this track, Mraz's vocal performance via the Model 975 had more in common with a much higher-end AV preamp that I recently had on hand than that of my Integra, which was shocking, to say the least. The way in which the Model 975 resolved the minutest of details was awe-inspiring, if I'm honest, for I've heard many products, budget and cost-no-object, miss the mark with this track. The whole performance was just so silky smooth and analog-like that I found it difficult to reconcile at times. Bass, especially acoustic bass, was plucky, punchy and fun, with terrific natural reverberation and body. Since this was a close mic'ed performance, the soundstage was appropriate to the event, in that it felt live but also intimate at the same time.
Moving on to movies, I began my evaluation with Battleship on Blu-ray (Universal). With the Model 975's scaling defeated, I could detect no difference in the image quality than with Battleship playing directly from my Oppo to my SIM2. This is a very good thing, as my Oppo BDP-103 is a far better scalar than almost any AV preamp, including the Model 975. In terms of sound, the same traits that I found so alluring about the Model 975's two-channel performance were present again in its multi-channel one. For starters, dialog felt wholly natural, possessing proper scale, weight and body-appropriate to the actors themselves. There was a noticeable lack of sibilance present with the Model 975 in the mix versus with it out, evident in several scenes aboard the battleship, the USS Missouri. Because of this, the high frequencies were obviously smooth and extended with round, natural edges, as opposed to being in your face or overtly edgy. When the Missouri took the fight to the alien craft in the final battle, the resulting gunshots were scary good in their scale, texture and impact. There was a sort of mechanical, old-school crunch present that I hadn't really picked up on via other AV preamps that I reveled in with the Model 975. Extreme low bass was deep and taut, but again, I was applying some outboard EQ. Dynamics were not at all compressed; instead, they felt as if they had greater volume, like a full-fisted punch as opposed to a slap across the face.
Moving onto another Blu-ray favorite, I cued up Burlesque (Screen Gems) and chaptered ahead to the musical number "Express." This isn't the most well-mixed movie, which is partially the reason why I use it so much for demo material, as it can be torture on gear - and one's ears. Well, no torture was experienced this time, as the Model 975's smooth, grain-free demeanor took some of the hotter moments of the recording and cooled them down, making them palpable. The level of inflection the Model 975 captured was incredible, as were the air and decay that seemed to precede and follow every note and syllable. Bass was again strong and tuneful, mixing brilliantly with the midrange, which was again largely natural in its tone. Dynamics were appropriately bombastic, if not a little seductive, as dictated by the track; it was all wholly involving and enjoyable. Also, as with Battleship, the video was passed unmolested through the Model 975's video circuitry.
I ended my evaluation of the Model 975 with Iron Man 2 (Paramount) on Blu-ray and the scene featuring the Monaco Grand Prix. What stood out in this demo was the sheer violence of Ivan Vanko's whips as they sliced through my room with reckless abandon. These over-the-top dynamic snaps proved to me that any dynamic litheness that I may have attributed to the Model 975 was unfounded, for there was none present during this particular sequence. Seriously, I jumped from my chair. And it's not as if the cracks were one-dimensional, either. Sure, they cracked with vigor, but there was a lot of associated texture that brought not only a three-dimensional sense to their movement on screen, but also to the sound's movement throughout the room. Even amidst chaos, the Model 975 proved to be resolute in its ability to retrieve and present many of the scene's finer sounds and nuances, such as Iron Man's ever-shifting mechanical hide, as well as Vanko's electrically-charged whips. It was truly incredible.
For many reading this, I'm sure the Model 975's lack of features may be perceived as its greatest downside, but I'd argue otherwise, for many of the so-called features crammed into today's modern AV preamps are nothing if not completely redundant. For instance, my reference preamp, the Integra DHC 80.2, does virtually everything short of making me coffee and walking the dog, and yet I utilize its supreme functionality almost never. Internet radio, upscaling, automated EQ, etc. - these are all features that either a) are found elsewhere in my system or b) are done better by other components and thus are merely superfluous add-ons in my Integra. Think about it. I don't need my AV preamp to scale my video to HD, though the Model Model 975 does, nor do I need it to connect to Internet streaming services, such as Pandora or Netflix, for my Oppo does both and a makes a better job of it to boot, though an Ethernet port for firmware updates would be nice. So, with all that said, there are a few issues or drawbacks that I see with the Model 975.
First, I believe the Model 975 should have at least one more HDMI input, preferably two or three more; four would be cutting things close. I would also love to see an additional HDMI out, though I understand that I may be in the minority on this point. Also, I do wish the Model 975 had a USB input for computer audio or portable devices.
Despite my earlier explanation and objections to it, some may still want an onboard auto EQ solution, which the Model 975 isn't going to have nor offer any time in the future. This may or may not be a deal-breaker. I know it isn't for me, but it is still worth mentioning.
Competition and Comparison
At its Internet-direct price the Model 975's chief competition is, without question, Emotiva and its "soon to be released" UMC-200. I use quotation marks in this instance, because the UMC-200, prior to the Model 975's announcement, was something of rumor and shown only in prototype form at this year's Emofest. Now that the Model 975 exists, the UMC-200 is supposedly ready for primetime. Coincidence? No. I also use quotes because Emotiva, not unlike Outlaw, has had some difficulties in the past (and arguably the present) in getting a) its preamps to market and b) ensuring reliability once it has. Outlaw faced this same dilemma with their now-defunct Model 997, which the company opted not to sell, rather than send a faulty unit out into the world. I give Outlaw high marks for this, for the UMC-1, the Model 975's existing would-be competitor, has not fared so well in the reliability category. Hopefully Emotiva, like Outlaw, has solved its respective issues and the UMC-200 is more reliable and better than its predecessor, which would make it a worthy competitor to the Model 975.
In my tests, I found the Model 975 to produce a different but equally pleasing surround sound and two-channel performance when compared to my Integra DHC 80.2. Maybe it is my current crop of components, my new room or simply a change in my personal tastes, but I do believe I prefer the Model 975's sound to that of my Integra, though I still believe the Integra to be a phenomenal piece in its own right.
In all truthfulness, I found the Model 975's sound to have sonic traits not unlike what can be heard from some Harman and Meridian products. Both Harman and Meridian possess an analog-like sound, which despite the Meridian being largely digital in nature, is very pleasing, natural and inviting, qualities I also associate with the Model 975. Is the Model 975 better? That's not for me to decide for everyone's system - tastes and needs differ. I'm merely suggesting that in terms of overall sound, there are more similarities than I would've believed possible, given the preamps' different markets and pedigrees.
For more on these AV preamps and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's AV Preamp page.
What Outlaw Audio has done with the Model Model 975 AV preamp is re-introduced a bit of the K.I.S.S. methodology back into the realm of home theater. For those of you who may not know what K.I.S.S. stands for, it's Keep It Simple Stupid, and that is precisely what the Model 975 and Outlaw have done. On top of that the company has managed to keep it supremely affordable, with the Model 975 selling direct to the consumer for $549. That's right: the Model 975 is a full 7.1 AV preamp, which while not littered with superfluous features, manages to sound better than many AV preamps that are so cluttered for a fraction of the cost. Maybe it's too barren for some, but I argue that minus the addition of an HDMI input or two and perhaps parametric EQ, the Model 975 is all the AV preamp one truly needs if you're honest with yourself.
I'm not certain at which point AV preamps grew out of control and entered the realm of absurdity, but I do appreciate Outlaw and the Model 975 for re-introducing some sanity back into the conversation. Even if some don't flock to the Model 975 out of a perceived lack of something, its presence (and price) will no doubt open the door for real conversation to be had and, let's hope, out that conversation, we'll begin to see change.
Regardless, as special as the Model 997 would've been, I believe the Model 975 to be the better product, for it's the right preamp, sold at the right price and at the right time. In other words, the Model 975 is worth all the money you would've spent buying something else.
Read more AV preamp reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com's writers.
Explore more reviews in our HDTV Review section.
Search for sources in our Blu-ray Player Review section.