Outlaw Model 990 Preamp/Processor Page 2

The 990 also provides a 7.1-channel output for a second zone with its own amplifiers and speakers. This is highly unusual; most products with second-zone capabilities provide only 2-channel outputs. And, amazingly, the company provides a second, stripped-down remote for the second zone. But, like the primary remote, it is IR, not RF, which means you will have to buy an RF system that carries the remote's signal to a receiver plugged into the processor.

I found the setup process to be pleasantly easy, similar in its simplicity to the Lexicon's. I have reviewed other processors for which the setup was so needlessly complex that buyers felt compelled to hire a professional. After that, they are afraid to change anything.

Assigning inputs is the first task, easily accomplished with a straightforward, onscreen menu system. One quandary is how to deal with the analog signal from a SACD or DVD-Audio player. Even now, more than five years after the introduction of these formats, there is no commonly accepted digital connection that would obviate the need for this primitive workaround. Maybe that is because the sale of players and music for these high-end formats remains so anemic that no one is motivated to solve this problem.

In any case, the Outlaw allows you to send the audio signal into a 7.1-channel analog input. But using that input means you get no bass management, which is a problem for anyone (like me) with a separate subwoofer or two. (The unit does offer two subwoofer outputs.) I find this odd because, more than four years ago, Outlaw offered the first outboard bass-management system for SACD and DVD-Audio, the ICBM, which I reviewed quite favorably in 2001.

The instructions note that you can convert the signal to digital, at which point the processor can apply bass management—without pointing out that doing so adds an extra layer of analog-to-digital conversion that adversely affects the signal. Over the years, I have tried this with several processors and concluded that conversion dulls the pristine sound of SACD or DVD-Audio. That conclusion was no different with the Outlaw. I simply would not recommend it. In any case, many SACD/DVD-Audio players, including my Sony DVP-NS999ES, provide internal bass management. So that removes the problem.

Outlaw notes that a tentative decision was made to use IEEE 1394 (FireWire) connectors for SACD/DVD-Audio, but also that it seems likely HDMI will emerge as the connector of choice in the months ahead. As a result, the company says, "to include 1394 on the Model 990 would cost-penalize the vast majority of customers by adding expensive parts that would be used by a small percentage of users." In truth, only a handful of players offer a 1394 output, and most or all of those (such as Denon's) are proprietary connections that are guaranteed to work only with the same company's receivers.

For SACD playback I used my Sony player's internal signal processing and the analog input in the Outlaw so that it became a passive purveyor of the audio signal. In that situation, it should not add or subtract anything from the signal, and the Outlaw did not.

As I mentioned earlier, the 990 can be set up either manually or automatically. I tried it both ways. The Outlaw is unusually flexible here. It lets you choose one of seven crossover points for the subwoofer(s) between 40 Hz and 200 Hz. What's more, you can chose different crossover points for different speakers. The Outlaw's calibration tone is full-range, even the one it sends to the sub output, so be careful to enable your subwoofer's internal lowpass filter before you start. The full-range signal may confuse your sound meter (or the Outlaw's setup microphone) when coming from a subwoofer.

I am happy to report that the automatic calibration was little different than the manual version. The numerical setup numbers were similar for both, and they sounded the same. Note that if you use the unit's DVI output as the only input to your display, you will not see the onscreen menus. You must provide another connection to the display, either composite, S-video or component, to see them.

A pre-pro ought to be equally adept at both music and video soundtracks. As I mentioned earlier, the analog input for SACD/DVD-Audio signals worked just as it should, turning the Outlaw into a wire switcher. It should have no effect on the sound, and it didn't. Listening to CDs through the analog bypass, as I normally do in my own system, produced the same result.

But using a digital input, I could hear the Outlaw at last. I am not a big fan of CDs these days; to me, the strident midrange of most of them is grating. The Outlaw did not increase or reduce that; it was transparent. But I did notice a slight loss of bass definition in the CD soundtrack for the film U-571, which is a bass-fest, and U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb CD compared to what I hear from my reference processor, the Lexicon MC-12. Apart from that, I could detect no difference between the two pre-pros. The Outlaw was largely transparent.

I also watched parts of Air Force One, with its heavy-handed musical soundtrack, and the Thin Red Line, which is extraordinarily subtle. The Outlaw handled both with aplomb. I had nothing to complain about with either the clarity or the ability to be audacious when the score called for it. The minute drop in bass articulation noted above was recognizable only in an A/B comparison.

The 990 also offers an option that lets you upsample a standard CD to 24-bit/192kHz. I tried this and found the result similar to the basic video upscalers that come with some DVD players and other equipment, saying they are able to upgrade a 480i signal to high definition. With those, I can generally detect little if any difference from the original 480i source. And with the audio signal here, there was little if any detectable difference. It's a nice idea, in theory, but in practice the change does not amount to much.

I tried the component-video switching and I did not see any apparent drop in video quality. (JB was not able to check out the DVI switching, but I now have his review sample and will follow up with a Take Two report on this feature in the near future—TJN) It is possible there was a hair more background video noise compared to a direct connection between the source and display, but I am not certain of that. If there was a difference, it was so minor as to be barely worth mentioning. (In terms of audio noise, the Outlaw itself is deathly quiet. When nothing is playing, nothing comes out of the speakers—no hiss, no hum.)

I have to note that in the process of making all the changes in wiring for this review, the unit crashed and froze once. I am 99% certain I turned the unit off whenever I made a change, but I could be to blame. I followed the instructions for a soft reset, but it did not work; I had to perform a hard reset. That erased all my settings, which I had not written down. Thankfully, I was virtually finished with the review, so I did not need to reset it. Every microprocessor-based electronic product is capable of freezing at one point or another. It has happened to my Lexicon. You are not likely to subject your unit to the torture I gave the review unit. My only point in telling you this is to caution that you should be certain to write down your settings just in case. Outlaw provides a convenient place to do that in the instruction booklet.

In the complaint department, I have nothing but quibbles. And for the price, I have to say the Outlaw offers quite a lot and performs admirably. It's well worth the price, and more.

Highs and Lows

- Unbeatable price
- Rich array of inputs, outputs, and options
- Largely transparent

- Choice of DVI over more prevalent HDMI
- No analog bass management for multichannel analog input