Outlaw Audio Model 1050 Digital Surround Receiver

Outlaw Audio is an aptly named new company. You won’t be able to track down any of its products in so public a place as a dealer showroom. Instead, you’ll have to hunt for them on the Internet, where the company does its direct marketing to consumers at www.outlawaudio.com (not www.outlaw.com, a Web site selling duck-hunting decoys and bird-shaped kites). At the moment there are two Outlaw Audio products, a well-regarded multichannel power amplifier and the new Model 1050 “6.1-channel” receiver. Don’t let the newness of the company or the receiver’s low, $600 price mislead you. The 1050 ain’t no decoy, bubba.

What audio decoy would provide that most trendy of new receiver features, 6.1-channel decoding, which extracts a back surround signal from a 5.1-channel or Surround EX-encoded 6.1-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack (see “Home Theater,” page 43)? The 1050 even has a power amplifier for its sixth channel, equivalent in performance to that of the other five onboard amplifiers.

All the other key features of the receiver are listed in the box on the next page. As you can see, they represent a typical complement for a store-bought A/V receiver of around this price or higher, plus the 6.1-channel facilities. Only a few features need special comment.

While it may not win industrial-design awards, the 1050 has one of the best front panels of any receiver that I’ve reviewed. If you’re already used to an A/V receiver, the controls will be almost self-explanatory.

I especially liked the volume control, a distinctly lightweight, continuously rotating knob whose lightly detented action is enhanced by its rubberized coating. You can spin it very accurately with a fingertip, a feat not possible with most other receivers at any price.

The remote control is actually more intimidating than the front panel, mainly because many functionally related buttons that are logically grouped on the front panel are spread wide apart on the remote. For example, the front-panel button that turns on 6.1-channel decoding is right next to the surround-mode selector. But on the remote, the 6.1 button is in the lower left corner, while the surround-mode selector is way up by the menu-selector buttons.

Another thing that bugs me about the remote is the too-small and distinctly nondescript button misleadingly labeled TNR (apparently for “tuner”) at the far right near the top. The TNR button switches the remote to control the 1050 rather than some other preprogrammed device. The button is not nearly as prominent as it should be given its importance you could spend quite some time vainly trying to get the 1050 to work if you didn’t know to push TNR first. I speak from experience (admittedly, a closer reading of the manual would have saved me some time).

Setup was easy, aided by that superbly written manual, the duplication of setup controls on the front panel and the remote, and the display of setup options in the readout (the 1050 produces no onscreen menus or indicators). I employed two large tower speakers for the front left/right channels, a small monopole speaker for the front center, and small dipoles for the three surround channels.

The Outlaw 1050 is the first 6.1-channel receiver we’ve tested using some new Dolby Digital test tones I designed for evaluating 6.1-channel decoding both by listening and by measurement. In one of them, Dolby Digital-encoded wideband pink noise slowly pans back and forth among all three surround speakers. In about 10 seconds of listening this one tone told me almost everything I needed to know about the operation of the 1050’s back surround output, specifically:

1) The panning “logic” followed by the 1050’s 6.1-channel decoder was correct. A sound encoded to appear somewhere between the left, center, and right surround speakers will come out at its proper location and level (provided your speakers are balanced and properly positioned). This is good.

2) The 1050’s back surround channel did not participate in the receiver’s otherwise versatile bass-management system. This is not so good.

My pink-noise test tone lost its deep bass when it panned through the single, small, back surround speaker I used, leading to a distinct change in sound quality. Since the Outlaw did not redirect the back surround bass to the system’s large tower speakers instead of the small back surround speaker, it ended up not being reproduced anywhere. In other words, for the most accurate reproduction of the 1050’s back surround signal, you need a “large” or full-range speaker, something that is unlikely to be practical in a typical home setup.

To be sure, the 1050 sounded absolutely terrific in 6.1-channel operation with official Surround EX soundtracks on DVD. The action sequences of such releases as The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc and The Bone Collector sounded just as exciting as they have with other, far more expensive 6.1-channel receivers. The lack of back surround bass redirection didn’t produce any audible glitches with the official 6.1-channel titles I tried – probably because there are so few of these to choose from yet. But it was noticeable in a “forced” 6.1-channel decoding of the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, a passage that also poses other 6.1 problems, and eventually there’ll be a 6.1-channel movie where it’s distinctly audible.

In contrast, the 1050 always sounded just fine in 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS or stereo playback of soundtracks as well as with multichannel and stereo music. The background noise levels were low enough and the power reserves adequate for loud playback in a small to medium-size listening room.

There were a couple of other minor loose ends, which are only to be expected in a product from a new company entering what is for it a new product area. The most bothersome of these loose ends concerned wouldn’t you know it? 6.1-channel operation. The 6.1 processing can’t be turned on during DTS decoding. Outlaw suggests decoding a DTS signal externally and feeding the 5.1 decoded channels to the 1050’s multichannel analog input so that 6.1-channel processing can then be applied (but no bass management, which doesn’t work with that analog input).

More significant to more people is what happens when you “drop down” from 6.1-channel decoding to, say, Dolby Digital 2.0 (stereo/Dolby Pro Logic) or 1.0 (mono). This would commonly happen when you play a DVD’s supplementary material, like an actor interview, immediately after playing the multichannel movie in 6.1-channel mode. With the Outlaw 1050, you’ll hear nothing at all during the 2.0/1.0 featurette the receiver simply mutes. One work around sanctioned by the manufacturer is to manually switch 6.1-channel decoding off before playing the 2.0/1.0 material.

Finally, the receiver’s ambience-enhancement modes operate only on analog stereo inputs. This is no big thing, but it does impose a very slight sonic penalty of one analog-to-digital conversion cycle. Also, the ambience modes all sounded rather tame, which can be a good thing depending on the music. But they also all sounded identical for example, the Jazz Club setting sounded just like Stadium. That’s probably because they all seem to be stuck in Dolby Pro Logic mode! Outlaw Audio is looking into this problem.

Indeed, once we pointed out this and the back surround bass-management glitch to Outlaw, the company immediately started to revise the programming of the signal-processing and system-control microcomputers. Outlaw promised that, at a minimum, the back surround fix will be installed in receivers shipped when this review comes out Sound & Vision Oct. 2000.

If Outlaw Audio can pull off this feat, it will fall right in line with the best of the Internet-to-consumer high-technology manufacturers. This is what will make them outlaws in the audio industry: a quick redesign in response to a customer or reviewer’s discovery of a fault is quite uncharacteristic of your normal audio company that sells at retail. Usually they get very defensive. But even if Outlaw Audio can’t make the deadline, or doesn’t make any changes at all, none of the minor problems I found can belie that the Model 1050 A/V receiver is a fairly priced, ably performing, and easy to use 5.1-channel unit. The 6.1-channel features are simply duck sauce. S&V