Music in the Round #73

Most new preamplifier-processors now fall into one of two categories. First are the fully featured models, with ever-growing numbers of channels to support such immersive surround-sound formats as Dolby Atmos, Aureo3D, and DTS-X. An example is Marantz's 13.2-channel AV-8802, which replaces the 11.2-channel AV-8801—a sample of which I've owned for barely a year and use only in 5.2! The second category is that of such high-end models as Classé's Sigma and NAD's M17, which offer only 7.1 or 7.2 channels, and from which nonessential features have been trimmed in favor of audiophile-grade circuit components and construction. But if money is no object, there is a third class of pre-pro, exemplified by Trinnov's Altitude32 and Datasat's RS20i, in which no compromise is made in any of these parameters.

Then there's the Emotiva XMC-1, a 7.2-channel, US-made pre-pro that, to appeal to a wide range of music listeners, offers all bells and whistles—and, at the time of writing, costs only $1999 (footnote 1). Unfortunately, by the time you read this, the price will have risen to $2499—but considering what the XMC-1 offers, that's still pretty good. Many readers may recall the release of Emotiva's first pre-pro, the UMC-1, which was fraught with bugs and quirks, although current users seem to be okay with it. Worried that the launch of the XMC-1 may have been similarly premature, I waited until there were many units in the field, and Emotiva's promise of inclusion of Dirac Live room acoustics correction had been fulfilled, before requesting a review sample. Now, all that can be put aside: Early adopters of the XMC-1 have been picky but pleased, and my sample has proved devoid of significant problems.

715mitr.closeup.jpg

When I unpacked the XMC-1, its general construction reminded me of Emotiva's XPA-5 multichannel power amp in more mature and formal guise. At 21 lbs and 17" wide by 5.75" high by 15.5" deep, the XMC-1 is substantial, if not as trim as the NAD M-17 or the Classé Sigma, or as imposing a presence in the rack as the Marantz AV-8801. The front panel is dominated by a large (5.5"), clear, detailed digital display, flanked left and right by groups of controls, with more controls below—again, more buttons than the NAD or Classé, but many fewer than the Marantz. Goldilocks would judge the Emotiva to be "just right," but I'm not sure how she'd respond to the intense glow of the XMC-1 when powered up. All of its controls shine a bright blue—ultramarine, my wife says—though the display itself is somewhat less bright: a shade of turquoise, I'm told. Even I see the mismatch, which is not resolved by any of the XMC-1's range of brightness settings.

715mitr.rem.jpgThe 256x64 OLED screen itself is exemplary. It displays three lines of information, each readable from a reasonable distance, depending on the brightness setting and the ambient light. The top line shows the name of the source and sound mode selected, and the volume level. The middle line, prefixed with A (for Audio) shows the audio connector, the audio format of the input, and its sampling frequency and bit depth. The bottom line, prefixed with a V (for Video), shows the video connector, resolution, frame rate, video format, and bit depth. I can't recall having seen a more comprehensive or useful front-panel display.

To the right of the display is a large volume knob; to the left, a five-button navigation array. Below the display are nine input-selector buttons; below these is a large, central On/Standby button flanked by pairs of more buttons: on the left, Menu (opens main menu for navigation by the five-button array) and Dim (controls front-panel brightness); on the right, Audio (selects available audio modes) and Info (sends information displayed on the screen to the OSD). Tucked into the lower left corner of the faceplate are a 1/8" headphone jack, a USB Type A port, and a 1/8" jack for audio input from a portable device.

All of these functions and more can be controlled through the remote handset, which grants direct access to features that otherwise demand multiple navigation steps. Most notable of these are the remote buttons that let you: trim levels for all channels except the front L/R; change speaker presets (Dirac Live, Config 1 or Config 2); manage power, level, and input for Zone 2; and control the AM/FM tuner. The last function is useful, but hardly as crucial as in the past, and its placement at the bottom of the remote is a reasonable convenience that contrasts with Emotiva's unfortunate choice to devote to this option the first input button on the remote and on the front panel, and to actually print its name under both—every input other than Tuner is assignable and nameable. The result is that whatever source is assigned to input 1 (in my case, cable TV) is linked to the second button, and all subsequent assignments are offset to the right by the tuner place-holder. In this day and age, the tuner selector button should be assignable like the others—or, if Emotiva has a good reason to make it a fixed assignment, it should be the last.

Finally, the remote's clear layout and comprehensive range of controls is compromised by its heaviness and complete lack of illumination. But all in all, the range of control afforded by the XMC-1's front panel and remote control is outstanding.

715mitr.rear.jpg

On the nicely arranged rear panel, Emotiva has eliminated all legacy video connections by including only HDMI inputs and outputs. On the other hand, the XMC-1 has been made friendly to audiophiles with the retention of a reasonable selection of analog and digital inputs. The topmost of the three tiers of connectors includes, from left to right when viewed from the rear: AM/FM antenna inputs (first again), eight HDMI inputs, and two HDMI outputs. The middle tier begins at the left with a row of 7.1-channel analog inputs, pairs of jacks for analog stereo Inputs 2 and 3, stereo Record ins/outs, and stereo outputs for Zones 1 and 2—all on RCA jacks. Then come three TosLink inputs, one TosLink output, and an AES/EBU (XLR) input. The right portion of the middle tier comprises a USB Type B input for streaming audio (a WASAPI driver can be downloaded), an Ethernet jack, a USB Type A input for firmware updates via a thumb drive, an IR in/out pair, and four trigger outputs.

Finally, the bottom tier has pairs of single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) jacks for analog stereo Input 1, two sets of 7.2-channel analog jacks (RCA and XLR), and, finally, an IEC power-cord inlet and main Power switch. All analog inputs other than the 7.1 set can be passed through the XMC-1 without being digitized, or digitized and processed to be output by the XMC-1's TI/Burr-Brown DSD-1796 DAC chips. The 7.1 inputs are always directly output as analog.

I connected the XMC-1 to my cable box (HDMI 1), Oppo BDP-103 universal Blu-ray player (HDMI 2 and 7.1 analog input), Mac mini (Windows 7) server (HDMI 3 and USB), and a Korg DS-DAC-100m mobile D/A processor. Power amps were a Classé Amp5 (via RCA) or a Bryston 9BSST (XLR), connected to my Paradigm Studio60 v3 and Studio20 v2 speakers. The XMC-1 took nearly a minute to fully power up from turn-on—in this it was more like a PC than an A/V component—but that process can be significantly accelerated by leaving the HDMI ins/outs active while in standby. I inserted the nominal settings for speaker setup and set to work.



Footnote 1: Emotiva Audio Corporation, 135 SE Parkway Court, Franklin, TN 37064. Tel: (877) 366-8324, (615) 790-6754. Web: emotiva.com.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
John Lang's picture

Can you comment on the quality of the XMC-1 DAC implementation versus analog input from a high quality source similar to the OPPO 105? For best sound quality, if I were to upgrade my system with the XMC-1 should I use the analog inputs from something like the OPPO 105 or save my money and use a device like the OPPO 103?

Kal Rubinson's picture

I used it with the 103 as I didn't have a 105 on hand and I used it with HDMI, so that means I used the Emotiva's DACs. Of course, that means I could take advantage of Dirac and I wasn't tempted to bring up the 105 from the city. Not very helpful, I am afraid.

Mike M's picture

Mr rubinson,
having reviewed both units could you please share your preference between the two?I need a new pre pro for 5.1 and possibly 7.1 in the future. I,m not interested in the new immersive sounds, only sound quality.
respectfully,
Mike

Kal Rubinson's picture

Tough call. The XMC is a little more transparent with multichannel analog bypass but not enough for me to replace the 8801. The Marantz is more consistent and easier to use. The DiracLE vs. Audyssey XT32 is a toss-up.

AustinJerry's picture

Since you already have the 8801 and you expressed a like for Dirac Live, why not favor us with a review of the DDRC-88A? It would certainly fit in nicely with your current set-up. The 88A's ability to store up to four unique Dirac calibrations makes it so easy to use the Dirac target editor to tailor the results and run quick A/B comparisons, unlike the XMC-1. The ease of tailoring targets makes Dirac Live a clear winner over Audyssey XT32.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I had no plans to review the DDRC-88A. Although it is an interesting product for many people, the use of analog input deters me. If you want to know if I find full-blown DiracLive superior to XT32 (or the Emotiva DL implementation), the answer is yes but I determined that by using it on my PC server.