|Outlaw Audio Model 990 AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Matthew Evert|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2007|
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Music And Movies
To kick things off, I sought the help of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble. The Real Deal: Greatest Hits 2 (Epic - CD) displays the pure magic of Vaughan’s skills with his guitar and voice. “Ain’t gone ‘N’ Give Up on Love” is a slow, bluesy track that brought out all the intricacies of Vaughan’s guitar from the sound of his Strat and Fender amp to the smooth yet barely audible slides of his hand on the neck. The 990 preserved the airiness to the notes as he held them for emphasis. Nothing seemed missing from the frequency range and, more importantly, it was pleasantly musical. “Scuttle Buttin” bumped up the pace of the drums and rhythm to a much faster-paced track. Now, instead of slow emphasized notes, Vaughan showed how rapidly he could fire off notes in a salvo of musical bliss. Lower treble and midranges were lush and full-bodied in this particular track.
In my system and living environment, I find the need for the use of headphones from time to time, so I plugged in my Shure E500PTH sound-isolating earphones. Eliminating the room from the equation also helps to get down to really hearing if the preamp colors the sound of the music. I cued up “Eminence Front” written and sung by Pete Townsend, which proved to be a guilty pleasure. With my headphones on, it was even easier to hear the accuracy of the decay of the cymbals, which sounded lively yet not bright. The bass didn’t have the extension that I get when listening in the room, but you could hear really good control during this test. It seemed to me that the high-quality DACs and processor were doing their job here.
While I normally revel in two-channel music, the Outlaw 990’s impressive performance with standard fare made putting off multi-channel music unthinkable. I decided to go for broke and cued up The Steve Huffsteter Big Band’s album Gathered Around (AIX Records) on DVD-Audio. If you are not familiar with the recordings of AIX records, do yourself a favor and pick up a few. Mark Waldrep is making what are likely the best-sounding recordings money can buy for 5.1 surround sound. “Moacir” features an active cast of trumpets, saxophones and trombones leading a full support team of piano, drums and guitars. The rich composition of so many instruments demanded a lot from the 990 to make sure all the unique sounds were vibrant and present. I found this to be no difficult task for the 990, as the soundstage was deep and detailed, a feat that rivaled the capabilities of my much more expensive Anthem D2. The midranges of the piano and trumpets were never harsh or overly fatiguing in their presentation. I did find the trumpets a little more muffled than with the D2 and more rolled off in the really high frequencies. These differences were subtle relative to the D2 and were less apparent in “Circles.” The opening performance of the bass guitar gradually dancing to lower and lower volumes while the horns steadily rose to the forefront of the presentation showed how dynamic the 990 can be. The light decay of the cymbal crashes in the background was lush and periodically sent gentle tingles to my ears.
For movies, I tuned in to an HD showing of Fantastic Four (20th Century Fox) on DirecTV. This Marvel Comics classic was packed with impressive special effects and the very sensual blonde Jessica Alba. One thing is for certain: there is something for people of all tastes in this film. The Cosmic Storm scene, where all the heroes gain their powers, was vibrant with colors and showed great contrast with white and dark images. The explosions rumbled with an obvious chestiness and punch to them. The video portion of the film was passed through the 990 strictly in the digital realm, since I used the DVI output of both the satellite receiver and the 990. Nonetheless, the video was uncolored by the 990 and remained as impressive as it was through the direct connection of my DirecTV receiver to the projector via the same DVI cable. The audio reproduction was more articulate in the scene where Doom launched a missile at the Human Torch than through other pre-amps in the 990’s class. The Torch and the missile sounded like they passed over you from the front left of the soundstage to the rear right. The rumbling burning sound of the Torch flying really showcased to me the seemingly vast size of the surround field.
Next up was the HBO HD presentation of Poseidon (Warner Home Video), which is an attempt by Wolfgang Petersen, director of The Perfect Storm, to make a Titanic-like film. I found that, throughout the film, the little details like bubbles percolating up and the sloshing of water in many of the later scenes really draw the viewer into the movie. Those details are difficult to see but, with the addition of a good sound system, they cannot be ignored. The final scene in the engine room, with the propeller sucking all the contents of the room out to sea, overloaded my senses with sounds of small debris flying around me. The desperation of the remaining survivors at that moment was well communicated by the 990. I tried something different and elected to use the component video outputs for this test and still found the 990 reproduced good saturation of the many shades of blue in this film. Dollar for dollar and preamp to preamp, I couldn’t see a video difference between the Outlaw 990 and my more expensive Anthem D2 in terms of passing HD video to my projector. In the end, the Anthem has a more rounded, more three-dimensional sound, but you have to be impressed with just how good the Outlaw 990 sounds when you consider its small price tag.
I ended my evaluation of the 990 with the HD DVD release of Constantine (Warner Home Video). With the help of a true HDMI to DVI cable (I find dongles to be problematic, especially when it comes to Toshiba’s HD DVD players), I was able to see if the 990 had any real troubles with today’s state of the art format. The 990 was able to lock onto the Toshiba’s HD signal with little trouble, a feat many AV preamps have difficulty achieving at many times the 990’s price. In fact, the only time the 990 tripped up in relation to HD DVD source was when I was switching on the fly between my standard-definition DVDs to HD DVD. However, this issue rests more with Toshiba and their first-gen players than with the 990. Back to the film, the image through the 990’s DVI inputs was stunning. The color saturation was appropriate and lifelike. Likewise, the black levels were most impressive. Constantine is the type of film that can quickly become visually unwatchable if you don’t have components capable of reproducing proper black levels. The 990’s rendering of the film’s black levels was topnotch, as it didn’t seem to add or subtract any low-level detail from the image and was relatively on par, video-wise, with my costlier D2. The image overall was extremely lifelike in its presentation, especially with skin tones, and did a good job avoiding the pitfalls that usually plague a lot of today’s budget AV preamps. Sonically, the 990 is a champ. The highs were detailed, smooth, slightly rolled off at the extremes, but still void of any digital compression at all but insane volumes. The midrange was rich and provided a subtle tinge of warmth to the film, mostly in the dialogue, that made the characters a bit easier to understand and digest. The bass performance is where the 990 shines. It is deep, visceral and packs enough impact to satisfy the God of Thunder himself. The bass through the 990 lacks that last one percent of air and extension some consumers pay big money for, but I’m willing to bet, given the 990’s stellar overall performance, most users aren’t going to miss nor care about it.