Fate pushed me into taking the first step towards a complete home theater renovation recently. While the changes are planned for this summer, I suddenly found myself without front left and right channels. My Magnepan 1.6Q’s suddenly just stopped in the middle of a late night, drunken, music fest with my wife. Once the initial shock had passed, I tracked the culprit down to the demise of the front channel amps in my Kenwood Sovereign receiver.
The history of the receiver has been one of love/hate for years. Priced with the most expensive receivers when I bought it in 2001, it was a high quality unit with all of the current bells and whistles. I have brought in flagship receivers from Denon, Onkyo, Yamaha, Sunfire, and more, all in an attempt to bring the newer technologies, like HDMI, into my theater. Sadly the sound quality of these other receivers left me flat and the Kenwood always found itself back in the rack.
My wife and I agreed that we should rebuild the system as part of a larger home remodeling. It was then that I decided separates were the way to go. While almost all of the receivers I have tested were adequate (not perfect) for home theater, I was finding myself listening to considerably more music than in the past. This is where the receivers, several costing upwards of $5,000, left me wanting. Even my prized Kenwood (The Sovereign series was an acclaimed product in its day) was never up to the task of serious stereo listening.
I had already started researching options for a pre/pro and amplifiers before the demise of the front amps. I had even brought a few home from a local shop to test and I found a few I really liked. The prices however started around $3,000 for 2 channels, which meant I would have to wait until the summer renovation when it was financially feasible.
I decided to take my own advice from an earlier article and look at the direct online manufacturers. Having already tested the Outlaw Audio 7500, a 5 channel amp with 200W per channel, I knew it wasn’t for me. While the additional power to the Magnepans was welcome, the sound was chaotic, the amp simply wasn’t going to take control of these speakers the way the more expensive amps did.
I jumped over to the Emotiva Audio website and after careful deliberation, selected their XPA-3 amp. This amp offers 200W into 8 ohm and 300W into 4 ohm. I expected a repeat of my experience with the Outlaw amp and made sure the box was ready for a return trip…Boy was I surprised. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, so I will walk you through the entire setup.
When I placed my order, late in the evening, I didn’t expect more than a quick “We received your order” email. I in fact received several emails and they were automated. This isn’t unusual in itself, what was unusual was that they came from the email addresses of real, living, breathing Emotiva employees. This really gave me a good feeling about Emotiva as a company and backed up everything I had heard about their amazing service.
After placing my order, I spent the next few days tearing my system apart to make room for the new amp. I built a flexy rack a few years ago and being as I am not a carpenter; my placement of the supporting rods limited the width of usable space on each shelf more than I had anticipated. After taking careful measurements, I rearranged the components and prayed. I was also worried about the racks ability to house this beast, at 57lbs, without collapsing and making me cry.
When the red faced, FedEx driver kicked at my door (I have no idea why he didn’t use a dolly) I answered and let him quickly unburden himself. Everything I ordered was there in separate boxes. In addition to the amp, I ordered the Emotiva ET-3 trigger module as the Kenwood’s triggers were unreliable with non-Kenwood products. The third box contained the Emotiva X-Series RCA cables, which were offered at 20% off.
I opened the trigger first, mostly because the size of the boxed amp scared me. I was expecting a plastic, light toy inside… it wasn’t. I was immediately impressed with the solid metal heft of this little item. If they build a trigger module like this, what the hell is the amp going to be like?
Next came the cables. They looked fancy and all on the website but they are even more impressive in your hand. I learned a long time ago not to make a determination of cable quality based on looks. These are sure pretty though and I will talk more about them later in the article.
Now it was time, everything was set in place and I spent a few minutes ensuring I had a clear path to the rack, cables handy, and picked up the amp. I should mention that I failed in my first attempt, it seems I am getting old, yet still believe I can toss linemen aside like swatting flies. I can’t. I was ready on the second attempt and waddled through the house to the theater. This thing is heavy!
I generally could care less when a reviewer describes the packaging but in this instance, it is noteworthy. The amp was double boxed and not like every other component I have had delivered over the years. The inner box is designed to fit perfectly into the outer box, no ghost turds (packing peanuts) used in the hope that everything will be alright. There is no chance of movement at all. The inner box opens up to what appears to be a third box, it is however a heavy cardboard cover attached to the molded Styrofoam container. Another nice touch is the inclusion of 2 notches in the base of the packaging, designed to allow your hands to slide under the amp and pull it out. No shaking the component to release it from the package, no swearing, no broken back, I simply bent my knees (highly recommended) and lifted the amp out.
Because of its weight I headed right for the rack and wiggled it into place before looking at it. After a sigh of relief that the rack never even groaned and patting myself on the back for building such a sturdy piece of furniture, I stood back and admired the unit. If nothing else its build quality is breathtaking and in my opinion, so is its understated looks. The traditional Emotiva black with silver trim is elegant and also screams power. I would be proud to display a rack filled with these products based on looks alone.
I unplugged the Kenwood (which will be my temporary pre/pro) and began searching the amp box for the manual. It only took a few seconds to determine, it didn’t come with one. It seems that Emotiva is currently revising their manuals and current editions are available online. This wasn’t a problem but I really like to have a hardcopy of my manuals stored in my very organized manual file. OK, it isn’t organized as much as it is a haphazard stack in the box, but I can always find what I am looking for.
Emotiva did include something I never expected though, an Emotiva T-shirt and even if I wasn’t a sucker for a free T, which I am, it is a very nice touch.
Just to ensure I didn’t do anything stupid in my haste, I pulled up the manual on my netbook. As expected, setup for an amp is very simple and I made the connections in less than 2 minutes, including reading through the included manual for the trigger. I double checked my connections and plugged the amp and Kenwood into the wall. I sighed in relief again at the complete lack of smoke, fireworks, or electronic crackling. Standing back I took a deep breath and pressed “Listen to Music” on my Harmony 670 remote.
I watched the Kenwood light up and awaited the delayed startup of the amp. After several seconds the room filled with a blinding blue glow as the trigger powered up. I am not exaggerating when I say blinding, the LED lights on the trigger could be used for landing airplanes, far too bright for theater application by a thousand fold. When I had regained my sight I stood dumbfounded as the front of the XPA-3 continued to glow orange. I scratched my head for a moment, checked all of the wires and was about to cry when I remembered that the amp has a power button on the back.
I turned everything off and turned the power switch to on and started the process again. I had enough sense to push the trigger behind some other components this time and watched with glee as the amp face began to glow blue. The LED indicator lights for each amp flashed red in turn before all three turned blue.
I verified that the amp was working by pumping 30 seconds of music through it and was immediately amazed. I had promised myself I would do a full calibration for every component before sitting down for serious listening so I turned off the tunes and calibrated the Kenwood followed by my Sony BDP-550 and Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi. Now it was time for some dedicated listening.
I sat down next to the touch screen jukebox I had recently built using an older computer with an added Xonar Essence STX soundcard with ASIO4 drivers to bypass windows completely, providing bit perfect playback of my FLAC collection, all ripped using EAC. The GUI chosen is Ultimate Jukebox and this combination is capable of outstanding audiophile playback. I have heard few dedicated players that can match it and they all cost an arm and a leg.
David ‘Fathead’ Newman’s, Skylark, from the Diamondhead CD began. This song is full of breathy saxophone and has become a regular reference song in my collection. The soundstage was forward and wide, pleasantly so. I began to notice more of David’s raspy reed as he held onto the final note of short passages. The intake of his breath was clearly audible and his position in the room was clearly defined. The bass, drums, and other instruments all appeared across the room, separated as I have only heard with the highest quality amps.
The XPA-3 was taking control of the Maggies, and forcing them into submission. By their nature, Magnepans display an incoherence when underpowered or with lower quality amps. The Maggies need an amp that can own them; I would go as far as to say the Emotiva simply made the 1.6Q’s its bitches.
I continued being amazed as I worked my way through Il Divo’s, Hallelujah,and many others. I recently picked up Susan Boyles new CD and was less than impressed with the sound quality. I decided to give I Dreamed a Dream a try and I am glad I did. Susan’s voice swam in front of the orchestra, each note beautifully detailed, filled with life, and powerful. What I had dismissed as a lackluster recording was in fact wonderful and the Kenwood was simply unable to bring it to its full potential.
The speakers themselves had lost the shrill high end and the bass is simply fantastic. I now turned to my reference DVDs, starting with Peter Gabriel’swell recorded, Growing Up concert. I jumped to Sky Blue, which never fails to impress through quality amps. I can gauge the quality not with my ears alone, when the Blind Boys of Alabama are lifted onto the stage, it is a powerful vocal display that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. The XPA-3 sounded as good on this piece as any amp I have heard, at any price.
Moving on now, I worked through my collection and was thrilled with the quality of sound and improved detail in every scene I selected. Equally important, there was a significant improvement in the sound of the rear channels. Without the need to drive all 5 speakers, the Kenwood was able to drive the MMG rears with authority. The MCC3 center channel was also more intelligible through the Emotiva, adding weight to dialog.
Last night my wife joined me for the first full movie since installation. Inglourious Basterds is a master work in my opinion. The Blu-Ray version offers a DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack that is very dynamic. The heavy dialog that makes up most of the movie is always, eventually, punctuated by the tearing of bullets, the cracking of heads, or bombastic explosions. The XPA-3 displayed the dynamics skillfully, with surgical precision. The dialogue was clean and crisp leading up to the inevitable explosion of violence, which the Emotiva handled with ease and recreated perfectly.
The best way I can describe the difference between the dynamic differences of this amp and any receiver I have tried is to picture a rubber band. Lay the rubber band on a table and draw a series of lines across it to represent dynamic volume levels. In its static form on the table the dynamics are compressed, now stretch the rubber band. The lines spread out and this is how the addition of a high quality amp changes the sound. The range of dynamics are much greater, the changes more defined and realistic. The better definition of each dynamic point makes the soundtrack come to life.
I did some testing between the X-Series cables from Emotiva VS my Bluejean reference cables. I don’t buy into the high dollar cable market but I do know there is a difference between low end analog cables and the middle market, which is where I place these cables. I found no difference in sound between the two but based on cost and looks, I will be using the X-series cables from now on.
As far as the XPA-3 is concerned, I am keeping it. It easily bests any receiver amps I have ever heard and gives higher dollar amps a real run for their money. I won’t claim that they are as good as the Macintosh, Bryston, or other high dollar amps but unless you really want to pay 3 or 4 times as much, these amps can’t be beat. Truth be told, I would bet that damn few of us have the speakers and other equipment to notice a difference, these amps are simply fantastic and even if it was $2,000 instead of $600, it would be one hell of a bargain.
Emotiva is a solid company with a great reputation. Read their story here and take the time to look over their impressive products. Emotiva also has a forum filled with helpful owners and dreamers. I spent considerable time lurking there and found it both entertaining and insightful.
Emotiva also makes speakers and pre/pros, including the long awaited UMC-1 which began shipping this week. If their pre/pro is anything like their amps, I will be a new owner this summer however I may hold out for the XMC-1, which will be their flagship model. If Emotiva reads this, I would be happy to run the UMC-1 through its paces and offer a review. It can’t hurt to wish you know.