- Manufacturer & Model:
- Outlaw Audio Model 976 Pre-Pro
- 7.2 Processor with up-to-date video switching, intuitive interface, generous manual EQ, top-notch build and sound.
- The Outlaw Audio Model 976 offers nearly every feature one could ask for in a surround processor, with the exception of immersive audio. It has the best manual EQ capability of any processor in its class, better build and parts quality than its peers, an intuitive interface, and most importantly, flawless sound.
The Outlaw Audio Model 976 processor is an exciting and feature-packed home theater processor from a company known for no-nonsense high-value offerings. The 976 is a 7.1 channel surround processor offering high-quality sound, flexible implementation offerings, and a modest price. While it doesn’t offer immersive surround formats such as Atmos, for those not interested in adding this feature, you get a processor that does everything else extremely well.
When discussing the Model 976 with Peter Tribeman, a founder of Outlaw Audio, he frequently relayed the notion that Outlaw Audio would never release a product they couldn’t afford to buy themselves. You will never see needlessly expensive luxury audio gear, and the features they include are the ones they most want themselves. That has allowed them to put together a product that, once set up properly, works as expected. This philosophy aligns with my top requirements for any piece of audio gear, but especially highly complex products such as surround processors. It needs to work reliably and perform as intended 100-percent of the time.
During my time with the Outlaw 976, I can happily say it worked flawlessly, with no operational problems or sound quality issues (at least none that I can blame on Outlaw). Watching movies or listening to music was immensely enjoyable, and the sound quality improvement it afforded over my current Onkyo surround processor was immediately evident. To learn more about the 976 and why I liked it so much, continue below.
Outlaw Audio Model 976 Unboxing and Features
Opening the 976 was reminiscent of experiencing old-school American muscle. I knew this product was safe because it was double boxed in heavy cardboard with large molded foam inserts, the same way the best gear has been packaged for decades. I must be honest, while I like the new packaging techniques, I don’t like having to find all the accessories in the hidden compartments. With the Model 976, it was refreshing to see all the accessories clearly laid out in the box.
As for the feature set, this is both a highly complex and yet intuitively simple device. It’s not perfect, which I will discuss, but for most buyers this has the exact features they’ll need. The Model 976 includes HDMI inputs and outputs that support the most current 4K and HDR formats (HDMI 2.0b with HDCP 2.2 compliance), fully balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs for a full 7.1 system (Some call this a 7.2 processor, but the subwoofer channels are not individually addressable, so I say it is a .1 not .2 product), and decoding for all current surround formats with the exception of Atmos, DTS-X, and the like.
Around back you find a much more complex device. As with any surround processor, one look at the back of this product can feel intimidating. Yet it is very well laid out and easy to connect. Given that it’s a state of the art 7.1 processor, the fact there aren’t more connections is a miracle. What you find are 7.1 channels of balanced outputs across the bottom (two subwoofer outs), 7.1 channels of single-ended outputs above them, four analogue inputs simply labeled 1 through 4, a 7.1 channel input, two optical and two coaxial digital inputs, an RS-232 input for firmware updates, antennae inputs, a Bluetooth input which allows for the addition of an optional Bluetooth module (and future upgrades to the module as technology changes), six HDMI inputs (five on the back, four of which are HDCP2.2 compliant, and one on the front), two HDMI outputs (one is HDCP 2.2 compliant), a set of IR inputs and outputs, trigger controls, and two USB power ports (they are not used to input sound, just power).
This kind of connectivity set is great for custom installers or consumers looking to add greater integration, while not being too complex for the target buyer. Outlaw Ben Brewer (Product Manager) tells me that the inclusion of an older non-HDCP 2.2 compliant HDMI input was targeted toward older HDMI gear that sometimes doesn’t play nice with the newest standards. All in all, I find this a very well thought out package, clearly, the Outlaws know what they are doing.
Now all of these nice inputs, outputs, and decoding capabilities would be nothing if not for the software that brings it all together. This is where I need to give you my opinion of this product both from the standpoint of its target buyer and my own personal preferences. I also need to mention a quirk in the software, but as we will discuss, this quirk is not the fault of Outlaw and, in fact, likely exists in all products using the same chipset.
We should all petition Texas Instruments!
Let’s start by discussing one of the major selling points of this processor, its EQ features. Each channel is said to have 10 channels of PEQ. However, I need to explain what that means in practice and what the Outlaws have said is technically true (I personally find it a little misleading). In fact, the processor has ten channels of processing that’s applied to each channel prior to bass management, each with eight bands of traditional parametric EQ (amplitude, Q, and center frequency), and two shelf filters, one high and one low. Shelf filters are handy for adjusting the overall tonal balance of a system. They allow you to shelve down the treble a few dB’s and shelve up the bass a few dB’s creating a pleasant house curve. Accessing and adjusting the bands is cumbersome, I have to admit longing for another means to make such adjustments. If Outlaw would release a software app that allowed you to connect via RS-232 to upload the EQ bands, that would make setup easier. Nonetheless, it was doable using the remote and didn’t take very long. It’s also no more difficult to set up than any competing product with manual EQ facilities; my complaint is more general: the industry should embrace better ways to set up its hardware (and certainly some have). Smartphone apps, web interfaces, or computer programs would all be appreciated options in my opinion.
Next, we have the bass management and level setting portion of the 976. For this, the Model 976 threw me for a loop, but in its defense, Outlaw is clear in their instructions and FAQ (I am a typical guy however and did not read the directions). I plugged in an included measurement microphone, set it in my primary listening position, and ran the tests.
“Huh, that’s strange,” I thought, it doesn’t seem to recognize what speakers I have hooked up?
Well, that would be because I was supposed to tell it that ahead of time. I went back into the menu and established which speakers I had hooked up and their size/crossover point. I re-ran the measurements and it established the level and distance for me. Outlaw Audio made a conscious choice to limit the setup flexibility of the bass management in a way that I didn’t personally like. My preference is to run the mains full range with subwoofers such that there is no crossover between the mains and subs. They both operate at LF’s at the same time, overlapping in response in a critical zone. I prefer this because it increases the number of low-frequency sources in a critical area of modal behavior and helps improve bass smoothness and spatial consistency. However, this is achieved through careful set up, often aided by measurements and some knowledge of the concept and how it works. Otherwise, it tends to just make things worse. This is a common experience shared by some past Outlaw users, and to avoid this problem Outlaw decided not to include this bass management approach. As such, if you run the speakers as large or full range, the subs will not operate except for LFE duty. This being the case, I ran the speakers as small, set to 60Hz. The main purpose of the microphone and automatic setup was to establish the distance and relative levels between speakers. In the end, using measurements, I made some adjustments. My highly unusual and complex LF setup caused some confusion for the algorithm that sets subwoofer distance, and so I needed to manually adjust this until the time delay between the subwoofers and mains was minimized. Since I use a four subwoofer setup with digital signal processing in my external amplifiers, the fact that my system threw off the automatic distance settings is not a knock on the device, none have ever gotten it right. In the end, while I was left wishing for more setup flexibility in the bass management, I do understand the decisions made by the Outlaw Audio team. This product was intended to be easy to set up and use, adding extra flexibility for more complex or advanced setups would have made the product harder to use, harder for Outlaw to support, and ultimately more expensive. Given a choice of one or the other, I too would pick the simpler route.
The remote is a nice looking aluminum bar with white buttons that glow blue. Anyone with a complex home theater may integrate it with a universal control system and ditch the remote, but I’d guess most users will use it (and it worked great).
Outlaw also sells a Bluetooth module (not reviewed) for $49.99. The module is removable and likely upgradeable as technologies change.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that that the processor has unusually good parts for its price class (Burr Brown PCM1794a DAC and OPA1652). These parts are similar to those found in high-end 2-channel gear.
Earlier, I referenced a certain quirk inherent in the TI DA808 chipset. The problem is the signal flow path that TI has chosen and what this does to the final product. The way in which the chip operates, the PEQ is applied to the discrete 7.1 channels before bass management. After EQ is applied, bass management is applied, which redirects a portion of the signal to other speakers. Here in lies the problem: you are EQ-ing the source, not the speaker, and that isn’t intuitive since the EQ’s purpose is to correct the speaker and room. This is problematic because if you are trying to remove the effects of room modes in the low frequencies, intuitively you would select the subwoofer or LFE channel to apply EQ. However, problematic low frequencies are likely coming from the main channels and being redirected to the subwoofer. Consequently, you need to apply that cut to the main left and right channel. This process can be a bit confusing at first, but once you understand how it works, applying EQ is very simple and very effective. This quirk would certainly not keep me from recommending this product (or owning it myself).
Once I identified the problem, I was able to make great use of the EQ, but I can absolutely see this non-sensical signal path causing problems for other end users. While talking with Ben, he indicated he was working on an EQ instruction document for owners, designed to ensure they make better decisions than I initially did. In my case, it turned out to be an invaluable tool. I only wish that TI would move the EQ filters after the bass management so that the EQ is being applied to the speaker, not the incoming signal.
Before and after EQ (Left, Center, and Left Surround)
Note, before EQ there were some differences in the response shape, poor subwoofer integration between channels, and a prominent peak in the treble of the main speakers caused by the B&C DE250 at 18kHz.
Careful response shaping allowed for better subwoofer integration with the different speaker channels such that the match between channels was much improved. The peak in the treble was removed from the mains with a small bit of EQ, which helped provide a response balance more similar to that of the surrounds. Further, a shelf filter was added to ensure a similar response shape across all the speakers.
Model 976 Sound
I often think of myself as being a very pragmatic audiophile. That is, I recognize the differences in sound quality between good and bad gear, I recognize why some gear costs more, and I will spend more money to get better sound. On the other hand, I tend to use average quality signal cables, inexpensive bulk speaker cable, and I don’t buy into a lot of the more unusual ideas around how to get better sound. Some of this comes from experience. I’ve tried expensive cables and I didn’t find the difference to be notable or clearly better. I’ve also tried various tweaks, isolation platforms, built amplifiers and speaker crossovers with high-end capacitors and resistors, etc. In the end, I’ve found some parts make a difference to a point, while others do not (for example, in crossovers the better poly film capacitors tend to sound better in crossover series components than do electrolytic, but Teflon film and oil don’t necessarily sound better than a more basic film and foil type). I tell you this story to explain that I went into this review expecting the surround processor to sound no different than my current Onkyo receiver, but to offer more flexibility. Instead, I was absolutely shocked by the change in sound I heard once the Model 976 was installed. In order to allow an A/B comparison, I connected the processor through my receiver, using the amplifiers in the receiver to power my system. This way I could quickly switch back and forth for a more instantaneous and accurate evaluation. While I did eventually bypass the receiver using external amps, this was a good test. With the Outlaw 976 in the signal path and the receiver in bypass mode (essentially a direct connection to the amplifier), I found the sound brighter (but not unnaturally so) and a bit more transparent. Now, bright sometimes comes off as transparent, so I wasn’t sure of what I was hearing. I shared this finding with a fellow reviewer who was highly skeptical and suggested I quantify my impressions with measurements. I did, finding the Onkyo’ s own processing caused a more rolled off response as compared to the Outlaw. The Onkyo also had an order of magnitude higher distortion, such that I could easily read it above the distortion of the measurement interface. The Outlaw had the same residual distortion as the measurement interface, suggesting I was just measuring the distortion and noise of the device itself. In other words, the Outlaw was both more extended in the high frequencies and of lower distortion. My ears did not lie, I wasn’t nuts, the Outlaw really did sound different, and the measurements sure suggested that this difference was due to objectively better performance.
As for sound, it’s always hard for me to describe my experience with something like a surround processor. I certainly put it through its paces, playing a variety of music and movies. All were always enjoyable. Did I enjoy it more than before? Yes, I think I did. I really didn’t want to send the Outlaw Model 976 back and would have been happy to keep it in my system long term. The differences between the new processor and my old setup were subtle enough that it wasn’t always obvious what I was hearing. Some of the things I liked weren’t even related to its sound. For example, I preferred its PEQ on each channel and general setup flexibility. While the bass management didn’t suit me, I could easily bypass it and perform external bass management that met my needs. The system worked well and sounded great when set up this way. The perception of more extended highs and greater transparency wasn’t immediately obvious in listening tests, more of an impression left with me after I listened for a while, switching back and forth.
To start off my music listening, I queued up one of my favorite albums by Lewis Nash, which I described as follows in my NAD C368 review:
“One of my all-time favorite test albums for drums and soundstage is by a wonderful bebop jazz drummer named Lewis Nash. The album, entitled It Don’t Mean a Thing, a reference to Duke Ellington’s hit song, is one of the best bebop jazz albums I’ve ever heard (and he’s even better life). It’s clearly a fully improvised jazz set, as it should be, but is often not the case in studio albums. Nobody was worried about getting the performance just so, everyone just grooved together, and the chemistry and magic of a great improvised jazz piece are obvious.”
“Caravan” has a great rhythmic drum beat that is both audibly impressive and revealing of lesser systems. Through the 976 I found a perfectly accurate portrayal of the sound. Lewis Nash uses a close-up multi-mic setup on the drum that is produced into a larger than life drum set with substantial width and depth. As Nash plays on the toms (his set is depicted as having two) you can hear a clear left and right channel separation, with what I would describe as a dry jazzy sound. He experiments with the portion of the head he plays and the change in sound is subtle but clear. On lesser systems this can go unnoticed. In fact, I first heard it on headphones, later noticing it more clearly on better quality playback systems. With the Model 976, the change in timbre as different parts of the head are played was clear. The visceral component, as well as the leading edge of the beat to the bass drum, came through clearly. On lesser systems, the bass drum tends to just sound boomy.
I spent quite a lot of time listening to TIDAL HiFi and TIDAL Masters with my laptop as a source. Here’s a sampling of the music I listened to with some brief reactions:
Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott’s Songs from the Arc of Life, “Ave Maria." This is a beautiful song and one that causes a pilomotor reflex in me (goosebumps and raised hair), a proven measure of emotional response. After listening to certain pieces enough times I find that my emotional reaction fades as I become accustomed to the piece, and while I might enjoy it, it isn’t the same as the first time. When I queued this up to playback on the Outlaw, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time. I was lost in the music. The processor did nothing to harm this great recording, with a very clear and coherent presentation.
Mozart’s “Requiem: Amen” performed by the Boston Baroque and Martin Pearlman is a classic Mozart choral piece. This piece builds with grand drama at a pace modern attention deprived audiences can barely stand. This short building fugue is a great musical test piece as it contains both a large dynamic rise and wonderful silence between the notes. The 976 delivered a beautiful reproduction of this piece, nothing added, nothing taken away.
I watched The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as part of this review. There is no denying the visual and aural effects of the Tolkien based movies, so this seemed like a fitting way to review the processor's prowess. This movie includes a great DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack and the 976 delivered an enveloping soundscape. I found, at times, that the soundtrack spooked me, causing me to pause the film and check for unexpected noises. Where some movies provide surround effects in a manner that is more a distraction than an enhancement, that was not the case here. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the 976 did anything magical here, it did exactly what it was supposed to do. It reproduced this soundtrack just as it was encoded, with nothing added or taken away. The slightly brighter presentation seemed to help with dialogue clarity. On the other hand, I don’t generally like a brighter presentation, so I found myself pausing the film and adding a few dBs of treble reduction using the shelf filter. It took just a few seconds to do this, and I was back in the action. That is one of the nice things about this processor, you can make basic adjustments like this to taste.
Thor: Ragnarök is another one of those action films where, regardless of your opinions on the acting or story, the action, visuals, and sound are undeniably spectacular. Relying upon another DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack, I found the encode’s aural effects and enveloping soundscape to be impressive. Highlighted by Hulk and Thor battle scenes that present low-frequency effects that best be described as an assault. As I explored the outer limits of this soundtrack, the 976 issued a clear and effortless sound even as pushed volume levels to the extreme. Even as my house shook, I found myself thoroughly impressed by the processor’s ability to drive a clean and enveloping presentation.
The Outlaw Audio Model 976 has been on my shortlist of processors I’d like to own and it didn’t disappoint. It’s an excellent piece of gear with a high-quality build, high-quality internal electronics, capable firmware with excellent flexible parametric EQ, and amazing sound. My quibbles with the bass management or wishing for easier set up are minor when considering how well the product worked once it was properly integrated, its reliable performance, and how wonderful it sounded. If you are in the market for a highly capable surround processor with excellent sound, the Outlaw Audio Model 976 is highly recommended. And at a price of $929, it’s an excellent value.
- Surround Formats: Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and Dolby Digital decoding; DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-HD High-Resolution Audio and DTS decoding
- Surround Upsampling: Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS NEO:6 processing
- 10 band PEQ per channel
- All Channels Stereo
- Advanced Dual Core DSP
- HDMI Standby Pass-Thru
- Quadruple Crossover control
- Lip Sync Delay
- On Screen Display
- 192kHz 24-bit Dacs for all channels (Burr Brown PCM 1794a)
- High-Quality opamp output stage (OPA1652)
- 4 HDMI 4K/HDR Inputs
- 2 HDMI 1080p inputs, 1 on the rear panel, 1 on front
- 2 HDMI outputs, 1 HDMI 2.0b/ HDCP 2.2
- 7.2 XLR/RCA Pre-amp outputs
- 4 Digital inputs (2 coaxial, 2 optical)
- 7.1 Analog Audio input
- 4 Stereo Analog Audio Inputs
- High-performance Tuner
- Direct access station tuning via remote control
- 5-volt trigger
- Advanced Config. Settings
- Discrete IR on/off and input commands
- Aluminum Front Panel & Remote
- S/N Ratio: 112 dB
Stepped Sine Distortion with all EQ turned off. Completely flat response and distortion vanishingly low, .003% or less THD. I measured a noise floor of -105 dB, but note that this is likely the limit of my sound interface and not this processor.
Stepped Sine Subwoofer channel, shows a 4th order roll-off at 200Hz and vanishingly low noise and distortion.
Onkyo vs Outlaw response difference. Note the clear evidence that the Outlaw is operating in 96kHz whereas the Onkyo is operating in 44kHz with a slow roll-off filter. The bass response of the two looks identical because my measurement interface was the limiting factor in this case.