Last Friday I replaced my Outlaw 950 pre/pro with a brand new Lexicon MC-8 unit in my home theater (a 61st birthday present to myself). I’ve mentioned this to a few people and the inevitable, “Why did you do this?” question has come up several times already. Therefore, to address these inquiries (especially in light of the fact that I was the infamous “950 Beta Tester #1)” here’s the story so far. When I first received the Outlaw 950 for testing I was very pleased with the quality of its performance and still am to this day. It was my first serious venture into total separates, having previously added some outboard amplification to my DENON 5700 receiver, which opened up the sound considerably. There were some speed bumps and growing pains along the way as the 950 “matured” (some hiss issues which I never personally experienced, and a couple of coding issues that were resolved before final production or in subsequent hardware modifications) but this is not too unusual in a product as electronically complex as a surround processor. The biggest obstacle in all my testing was unplugging and plugging in a huge number of cables each time the product was updated to the next version. But once stabilized, the 950 worked and sounded very good to me – especially when one considers that it is now available for under $800. I never got overly involved with some of what I consider non-issues (the color of the power button for example or the design of the Outlaw logo) and lived with the few things that I wished could be better. And what were a couple of my minor annoyances? Probably the biggest annoyance was the delay in the time that it takes for the 950 to lock onto a digital signal – specifically from my Echostar DISH network receiver. Locking on to other digital source signals (like DVDs) was addressed in early software changes during the Beta testing and is sufficiently fast to be practically unnoticeable. However, something about the 950/Echostar digital connection was never really totally satisfying to me. True, you can “force” the 950 to use the analog signal and the delay disappears, but then you also lose any DD 5.1 soundtracks, especially on HDTV broadcasts, etc. I should also note that I was using TWO Echostar receivers, an HDTV Model 6000 and a PVR 501 so this problem occurred on two sources. What it basically came down to was this: whenever I would channel surf there would always be a several second delay before the sound locked in and that became very noticeable – especially in contrast with my upstairs system, which also uses a DISH receiver coupled to my old DENON 5700. The almost instantaneous lock onto a DISH signal upstairs was in sharp contrast to what was happening in my HT. In fact I found myself avoiding watching normal television (except for HDTV) in the HT because of the delay. A second item that I had adapted to was the inability of the 950 to adjust the volume for different sources and retain these settings. Not all sources provide the same volume. For example, I usually use a volume setting of around –20dB on the 950 for watching DVDs (all volumes relative, of course, to initial settings on your amps, etc.) and a volume of about –40 for Echostar. Imagine what happens if you finish a DVD and then start watching TV! If you don’t quickly drop the volume ~20dB your ears (and your neighbors) are in for a sonic shock. Ironically, the lock-on delay of the 950 actually helped here since you had a several second “window of opportunity” to turn down the volume (some would probably call this a feature!). But I didn’t always win the race until, like Pavlov’s Dogs, the 950 rang my bells a few times. Granted, these are things that one can live with and I have to say that once the 950 was locked in to a signal, with the volume adjusted to my liking, the sound it produced was very, very nice indeed. In fact, it’s still among the best sound I’ve heard in my theater, especially in the surround modes. That is, until I heard Lexicon’s Logic 7. Now I’m not going to try to tell you that Logic 7 is vastly superior to the surround modes on the 950, but there are some subtle differences. Some have termed it a bit smoother transition from speaker to speaker during sound pans. The term “clarity” crops up in some descriptions. Others have suggested that the 950 almost seems to have a subset of the processing capabilities of the Lexicon. I’m sure all of this contributes to the delicate difference in the sound field. The quality, quantity (greater processing capability) and the design of the circuitry also plays a role. And a lot of this translates into dollars. Logic 7 is something that has to be experienced to be understood. No words can substitute for actual listening. It is a sound technology that has developed over a long period of time. Of course, Lexicon’s advantage is that Dr. David Griesinger, the architect of Logic 7, has a head start of almost two decades on Outlaw and the others, and is intimately involved in the design and direction of the technology. There is a fascinating interview with Dr. Griesinger at http://www.smr-home-theatre.org/Lexicon/dg_qa1.html which explains some of the philosophy of surround processing and also provides links to other relevant information. Another Beta Tester for the Outlaw 950, Gene Lockaby, owned an MC-12 and when he made the statement that the 950 came very close in sonic ability to his Lexicon there were a lot of people who questioned him on this. Now that I have personally experienced a Lexicon in the exact environment (same connectors, components, etc.) as the 950 I know what Gene was talking about. There is a slight difference, to be sure, but I find it quite interesting how well the Outlaw 950 holds up when compared to the MC-8 in sonic quality. Don’t get me wrong. If you gave me a choice between the Lexicon and the Outlaw I would choose the Lexicon every time. Aside from the ability to lock onto all signals quicker and to set individual volumes for different sources – two things that I found lacking on the 950, the MC-8 just has so much more flexibility. Much more control over inputs (you can configure the analog inputs as 8 pairs Stereo, or 5 pairs Stereo and one set of 5.1 analogs, or 2 pairs Stereo, and 2 sets of 5.1 analogs), direct access to the processor via RS-232 and software updates, slots for future modules as new technologies emerge, tremendous build quality, an upgrade and support structure that allows Lexicon owners to move up to new models when they are released – the list is almost endless. And with so much control I am finding the menus to be extremely intuitive and quite logical. Once I was pointed in the right direction by an excellent manual I was able to set out on my own and, so far, everything has fallen into place. I chose to treat myself to the MC-8. But if budget is the primary consideration, then the Outlaw 950 walks very, very proud. While it never did set out to compete with a unit that lists for over 7 times its cost, the 950 does provide some very nice sound with a little less of the convenience and upgradeability. As an aside, I ran into a similar situation when purchasing my first front projector. I finally settled on a (then) $5,800 Sony VW10HT LCD unit. The flagship Sony projector – the G90 CRT – was also about 7 times the cost of my Sony and, while superior, it didn’t produce a picture 7 times better. Of course, I never would have been able to make the jump from a VW10HT to a G90 because, while the multiplier is about the same, my pockets are not that big! Luckily, a Runco CL-710 DLP projector landed on my doorstep (see my HT website for details) so I now have a new “crown jewel” for my home theater. And if the Runco is my video gem, then the MC-8 is the audio equivalent. In my opinion the Outlaw 950 competes very well with other pre/pros in its general vicinity (under $2,000) and is still a watershed product for those wishing to get into separates. And knowing the Outlaws, I would suspect that they have plans in the works for a follow-up product to the 950. Those who followed all this from the beginning recall that Outlaw initially planned to produce two pre/pros – an “entry” model, which evolved into the 950, and a “deluxe” model, which fell by the wayside as the 950 went through some growing pains. Now that the 950 has settled in I would be very surprised if Outlaw doesn’t take aim at the pre/pro market that starts at $4,000 and up in the not-to-distant future. In the meantime, I now know what all of those who kept mentioning two words to me were talking about – “Logic 7.” There’s still a lot for me to learn and I’m sure I’ll be tweaking the sound even more as I learn more. At this point I would estimate that I’m at the 90% comfort level with understanding the MC-8’s operation and 110% satisfied with my investment. So that averages out to 100% and is perfect in my book. For now.