Since Outlaw Audio’s products are only available factory-direct, they can be sold for less than if they went through a distribution channel. For some, the substantial cost savings will be worth the tradeoff of not having a dealer nearby. But although the Outlaw provides a boatload of features at a modest price, how does its sound stack up against the Rotel?
Comparing these two receivers may seem a bit unfair, like a welterweight fighting a middleweight. For many, a $300 savings can mean the difference between being able to afford an audio component or not. Yet the Outlaw is good enough to move up in weight class and compete toe-to-toe with the Rotel. The Outlaw’s sound is smooth, big and bold, dimensional, and engaging, whereas the Rotel’s is more refined, neutral, and detailed, with better pace, rhythm, and timing.
Yet, despite these differences, these units have a lot in common musically. I tried them with the Eben X-3 speakers, which cost over $17,000, and was surprised at how musical they sounded. While neither receiver is reference quality, each possesses sonic attributes associated with high-end gear. Both have reasonable dynamic range, with good timbre, detail, and imaging. In stark contrast to most AVRs in this price segment (and many far beyond), these receivers do not sound electronic, bright, flat, or anemic. Yes, each can lose its composure on some dynamic peaks, but so do several more-costly units.
Each of these receivers reproduces massed strings and voices more naturally than most integrated amplifiers in this price class, and you can listen to either for hours without feeling like a dentist is taking a drill to your ears. The Outlaw’s harmonic richness at times had me thinking I was listening to tubes, but this smoothness comes at the expense of blunting the leading edges of transients on instruments like piano and drums. This is much better, in my opinion, than the lean, hard sound one often hears with modestly priced transistor gear. It also masks some of the faults of many less expensive sources and speakers. The Rotel is more neutral and transparent, and has slightly less distortion than the Outlaw on dynamic peaks.
On phono, while the Outlaw had enough gain to drive my Koetsu quietly, this combo had enough warmth to melt ice. However, the Outlaw really seemed to come into its own with the higheroutput Sumiko Blackbird cartridge. Compared to the Rotel, the Outlaw had a fuller, richer sound from the lower midrange down, but the Rotel was superior from the midrange through the highs. Cymbals had more shimmer and I preferred some of my favorite female singers, like Ella Fitzgerald or Mirella Freni, on the Rotel. Still, it was pretty close. Both of these phonostages easily outpoint many of the inexpensive separate phonostages I’ve auditioned.
While the Outlaw’s tuner has slightly better specs, which may make a difference if you live in the boondocks, the tuner competition was essentially a draw, with both units performing well and sucking in my favorite regional stations. Substituting a better antenna arguably makes more of a difference than can be found between these two tuner sections. Voices were natural, without excess sibilance, and I found myself enjoying the wide range of repertoire offered on the FM dial. But those blasted commercials made me seriously think about a satellite subscription.
Soundstaging is likely to be an area of disagreement among those moving into the hobby. Both receivers spread the soundstage nicely between the speakers, but the Outlaw throws the image somewhat forward which creates the sensation of more depth. Although instruments and voices are somewhat “supersized” by the Outlaw, the presentation is more dramatic, particularly when coupled with its richer lower registers. I can see many saying, “Yeah, baby!” However, images are more accurate and stable with the Rotel, and its better pace, rhythm, and transient speed produces a different brand of excitement. While I found my toes tapping more with the Rotel, you may prefer the somewhat bigger presentation of the Outlaw.
I would be remiss if I did not report my first Outlaw review sample, an early production unit, failed after a week, but no harm was done to the speakers. Unfortunately, it took several months to get another unit as the production issues had to be resolved and demand for the unit was high. The second unit has performed flawlessly. For those of us who must get their hands on new audio components as soon as they start to ship, my advice is that it often pays to wait a few months. And wait I did. The Rotel was not without fault either. It occasionally had an audible transformer hum if I left it on for awhile with no music playing, rather than in standby mode. However, after inserting a Chang Lightspeed power conditioner, the problem disappeared and hasn’t returned. Better still, there was less grain and blacker backgrounds when both receivers were plugged into the Chang.