Okay, let’s say you’ve finally got a place of your own. Those iPod earbuds are great on long jogs but murder when you just want to kick back with the Arctic Monkeys and a glass of pinot. You were seduced by the siren song of the high end a long time ago but a stereo-centric rig— like the one your father pampers—won’t work for you because your tastes encompass music, multichannel, and movies. The question is: Can a set of inexpensive, multichannel separates satisfy all cravings? Or is this goal too ambitious?
A little Web-based outfit called Outlaw Audio has been listening. With a sterling reputation for terrific blue-plate A/V, Outlaw second foray into the “separates” market with the same intentions it brought to the audio-video-receiver world—to provide rock-solid performance at real world prices. Which brings us to the Model 990 controller ($1090) and Model 7125 ($990) multichannel amplifier.
The 990 is a fully featured 7.1-channel controller that includes primary stereo preamplifier functions (including a phonostage), an assortment of Dolby Digital and DTS surround- sound decoding formats, and 24- bit/192kHz DACs for all channels. There are speaker and bass-management functions (including dual subwoofer outputs), advanced audio and DVI-video switching, and second-room audio connectivity. In essence, everything an enthusiast needs for up to seven channels of music and the occasional romp in the home theater with King Kong. And all at the touch of a lighted remote control—actually two remotes, since a smaller second-zone wand is included.
As controllers go, the Model 990’s big-box profile won’t turn any heads— the look is more Acme than Armani. But to be fair, it’s oversized for a reason. A considerable amount of rear-panel space is dedicated to eight channels of balanced audio outputs—nice for long, noise-free runs or driving active loudspeakers. Connectivity is extensive and will come as a shock to the less-is-more philosophy that audiophiles subscribe to. There are DC triggers for poweringon a projector or lowering a screen, IR inputs for Zone 2 control, and RS232 for software updates or to connect aftermarket touchscreen remote controls.
The well-appointed bass management features a quartet of selectable crossovers that operates independently for the front L/Rs, the center-channel, and the side and back surrounds. A prosaic auto-set-up program (with microphone) is included. When activated it will determine speaker configuration and set delay and balance levels at the microphone/listening position. Though it is best run in concert with the 990’s on-screen display, I got a more accurate result by grabbing my SPL meter and setting these parameters myself.
The 7125 is a 125Wpc seven-channel amplifier. The only inputs are unbalanced RCAs, so potential Model 990 owners who want balanced inputs should look to Outlaw’s Model 7700, a 200Wpc seven-channel amp.  Throughout the period I spent with this amp it never met a speaker that it couldn’t drive cleanly to its tonal and dynamic redlines. Even the Sonus Faber Concerto Domus or the Revel Performa F52, speakers that demand quality amplification, were at or near their best with the Model 7125.
Throughout my evaluations I ran the Model 990 in audiophile-friendly Bypass mode, whereby DSP, video circuitry, and tone controls are circumvented. By a long shot, this mode was more transparent and dynamic than the default Stereo setting.  For SACD multichannel playback (or DVD-Audio) the rear panel houses a set of multichannel analog inputs.
The 990 and 7125 share a sonic character that emphasizes midrange balance and a sense of musicality that eases the soul—rather than makes you feel you’ve had one too many double espressos. Where some components “flavor” the sound to appeal to the sensational, the Outlaw’s personality is benignly subtractive, with an inclination toward the darker and warmer range of the sonic spectrum. Treble frequencies are refined and grain-free, although not extravagantly extended. The sibilance range is appropriately assertive, although the leading and trailing edges of hard consonants are not as tidy as they might be. The last thing these components project is any sense of etchiness or leanness. This balance does especially well with male voices, imparting full chest resonance and additional gravity to vocals.
The bass is rich and punchy—traits shown to good advantage on the soundtrack to Good Night, and Good Luck [Concord Jazz]. It took only a couple of bars of the acoustic bass intro to “One For My Baby” to hear and feel the weight and bloom. While I’ve heard this riff reproduced with better control, the Outlaw’s extension rivaled every amplifier I had on hand at the time.
Depending on your listening bias and loudspeakers, you’ll either fall in love with the darker shadings of the Outlaw tandem or you’ll feel a tinge of light-deprivation. On a recording like Joni Mitchell’s luminous Hits [Reprise], the song “Chelsea Morning” shows a diminution of transient energy and bloom from the guitar, with a glint of sparkle missing from the snap of her Pictures At An Exhibition [RCA], suggests a golden hue—a mellowness verging on the ethereal. Upper octave keyboard flourishes could be more stirring.
Regretfully, soundstaging and imaging are unexceptional. The stage placement of the actor/musicians in the latest Broadway version of Sweeney Todd [Nonesuch] seems constricted, almost pinched between the speakers. On the SACD multichannel recording of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 [Dmitriev/St. Petersburg, Water Lily], the impression of string layering from front to back is reduced. The spread of images across the stage seems constrained in width, as well—giving the impression that the ceiling over the orchestra has descended a few feet.
In multichannel mode these reservations became less significant. This is all part of the magic and the mischief of current multichannel technology. When recordings gain the support of surround channels, the factors that define great stereo imaging are less audible. The added ambience retrieval generates a fresh soundspace mix and one reality (stereo) gets exchanged for another (multichannel). For example, in stereo the Warren Bernhardt jazz trio’s version of “I Mean You,” from So Real [DMP], seemed more subdued when it came to rim shots and snappy bass lines. The attack of these transients was dulled. Yet the envelopment and energy that the multichannel mix created reduced the emotional distance that I’d experienced with the stereo presentation. It led me to focus on new and different elements of the performance. This was the format where the Outlaw combination put it all together. The shortcomings that were revealed in a purist two-channel configuration were much less provocative within the more immersive multichannel experience.
Was our original goal too ambitious? On the one hand the multichannel performance of the Model 990/7125 places it comfortably in the neighborhood of some sophisticated high-performance AVRs but with the flexibility of separates. On an absolute scale, however, a dedicated two-channel integrated amplifier (offerings from Musical Fidelity and Plinius come to mind) will have the edge, with superior resolution and transparency. Can you have it all? Maybe not yet—but thanks to Outlaw Audio the gap is closing fast.
 Price: $1999 or $1499 in a five-channel version.
 There’s also an Upsample mode whereby 24-bit/192kHz DACs upsample stereo PCM from either a CD or stereo DVD for improved resolution.