Outlaw Audio Model 990 AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Matthew Evert   
Tuesday, 01 May 2007

A growing trend in high-value audio video retail sales is to actually remove the physical retail store from the buying process. In recent years, speaker companies like Aperion and Orb Audio have made headway against the brick and mortar entrenched brands, leaving their customers with a glowing feeling when they open the boxes to realize just how much speaker they got for the money. On the electronics side, Outlaw Audio has become an AVRev.com staff favorite, with their powerful yet affordable amps, truly competitive subwoofers, feature-packed receivers and, in the case of this review, a $999 flagship AV preamp that comes loaded with many of the latest bells and whistles found on state of the art AV preamps, at one-tenth the price. Among factors tempting consumers to buy are an in-home 30-day guarantee, a five-year warranty, 800-number tech support and beyond.

When I first unboxed the 990, I noticed the rather large height of the unit. At nearly eight inches tall by 17-and-a-half inches wide and just under 18 inches deep, the 990 clearly offers some real estate for plugging in your various audio and video components. The brushed black aluminum front panel has a matte finish to it with rounded corners for a less blocky appearance. A modest-sized display with a dozen silver buttons allows for menu navigation and accessing common settings without having to use the 990’s remote. The silver volume knob has a pleasing resistive feel to it. It is located off to the right of the front face, along with the aforementioned buttons and display. The power switch and headphone jack are conveniently located in the lower left corner of the unit, and the front A/V ports are covered by matching plastic caps to keep the overall look of the 990 very simple and clean.

The 990 comes loaded with inputs, including two DVI for HD sources like Blu-ray and HD DVD (which requires a DVI to HDMI adaptor), as well as a whopping array of component, composite and S-Video inputs on the back. The Outlaw AV preamp can convert all of its standard video inputs to component video, which are capable of accepting and passing full HD signals. The Outlaw 990 will not convert a video signal from analog to digital through its DVI output, resulting in the user having to potentially run two sets of video cables to the display. However, if you have two HD sources that use either DVI or HDMI connections, the 990 will switch between the two and output them digitally through its DVI output. The Outlaw 990 also comes with 7.1 analog inputs for audio, as well as a matching output. There is an FM tuner, a useful synch feature if you are using a video screen, RS232 ports for Crestron control, a phono input and even a sleep timer. The 990 has a USB port that can be used for easy software upgrades and can also be used to transmit audio signals from iTunes or similar programs on your PC. That is a lot of goodies for a new price of $999 AV preamp.

Under the hood, the Outlaw Audio 990 boasts a 32-bit CS-49400 crystal processor enables that a full spectrum of digital processing formats, including the Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES and Dolby Headphone. Pure analog and pure digital modes allow for improved listening for any given source. 192 kHz 24-bit DACs are provided for all channels and can up-sample PCM audio up to 192 kHz 24-bit output resolution. Crossover control for each of the three speaker pairs and the center channel allow for adjustment from 40 to 200Hz. The audiophile goodies were not spared when designing this preamp – just the audiophile price.

The universal remote reminds me of ones I have used with products from Lexicon and Anthem processors. It is in most cases easier to configure the 990 with the remote than the few front panel navigation buttons so make sure to keep it handy. There is a second zone output, which gets its own 12-volt remote triggers, allowing you to run other speakers around or outside of your house. In addition to the main remote, a more simplified secondary remote is provided to keep things simple for the wife, nanny, kids or in-laws. An AM/FM tuner with 30 programmable presets completes the features of the 990.

Set-up was pretty easy once I figured out that you must use the onscreen display (OSD). Making the physical audio connections to my Anthem P5 amplifier was easy, allowing me to use my reference MartinLogan Summit speaker system for the review. Inputs were systematically added and programmed, including my HD satellite receiver, my 1080p-scaling DVD player and a DVI output to my 1080i-capable Panasonic video projector.

Audio calibration was yet another wonderful surprise from the Outlaw 990. It didn’t take me more than three minutes to figure out how to plug the mic into the front of the preamp and get to calibrating the levels for my speakers automatically, right in the preamp. I expect this level of ease of use from preamps costing many times more than $1,099.

I noticed that when I went to re-label the AUX input to be an iPod input, I was unable to do so. I went to the very helpful Outlaw Audio website and found a software update and easy to follow instructions to fix the issue. To my pleasant surprise, I was able to use a USB cable to download the update to my 990 from my laptop, instead of having to buy a serial cable, as I did for my Anthem D2. I found that remote was nearly identical to my D2 remote, so the programming of the remote and subsequently my Marantz 9500 Universal Remote was very easy. I let the 990 burn-in for a couple days before really scrutinizing the video and audio performance with all of my attention.

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.

The Downside
The lack of HDMI switching in the Outlaw 990 was a conscious decision by Outlaw and, for anticipating the nightmare of HDCP copy protection in HDMI, they deserve the Nostradamus award for AV technology. At the same time, the need for an HDMI to DVI connecting cable is a pain compared to simply being able to plug HDMI right into the back of an AV preamp, as I can do with my more expensive reference Anthem D2 AV preamp. I will warn people, however, that many of the cheaper AV receivers that have HDMI switching are the cause of great frustration when using HDCP sources like HD DVD and Blu-ray. The best results come from companies that pay bigger money for dedicated chips for each HDMI input. This goes for AV preamps and outboard HDMI switchers alike. In my testing, the reliability of HDMI switching with the DVI input was perfect as long as I started my evaluation session with the HD input selected straight away. My problem, and the problem many reviewers with various systems have recently suffered through, is when attempting to switch to and from an HDCP source like Blu-ray or HD DVD, there is no guarantee that the switch will be made. To be fair, this is more of a player and copy protection issue than a preamp issue, but it is an issue nonetheless.

In terms of value, the Outlaw 990 AV preamp is an unquestioned winner. For $1,090, you get an audiophile-grade AV preamp that comes with thoughtful customer support, robust reliability and excellent video switching. On so many levels, this AV preamp is better than many receivers on the market and it paves the path for future upgrades.

If you love your music and want to hear it like the recording engineer intended it to sound, but don’t have the money to invest in mastering studio grade equipment, the Outlaw 990 is for you. If you love the drama of sweeping surround sound effects and demand high-quality video pass-through, the Outlaw 990 is a home theater enthusiast’s dream.

Like finding that $15 Chardonnay that truly competes with the $50 and $60 contenders, the Outlaw Audio 990 is the very definition of value in the AV preamp marketplace.
Manufacturer Outlaw Audio
Model Model 990 AV Preamplifier
Reviewer Matthew Evert

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