Outlaw Audio RR2150 Receiver
It used to be
that an integrated amplifier was thought to be missing something: basically, it was a
receiver without a tuner. Thirty-some years ago, audio manufacturers put their efforts
into receivers or separates; very few devoted much attention to the middle ground of
integrated amplifiers. Then, as radio listening became less a province of the home and
more an activity of the car or Walkman, "integrateds" began to take hold among
fledgling audiophiles looking to upgrade their mass-market systems, and who were attracted
by simplicity and the commensurate savings in cost.
Today, terrestrial radio has never been under greater siege
-- from subscription satellite service and shuffling MP3 players -- nor, arguably, has it
ever been as irrelevant. Weve come full circle -- once again, a tuner added to an
integrated amplifier feels like an unneeded appendage.
However, Outlaw Audios RR2150 ($599 USD) -- the RR
stands for Retro Receiver -- is loaded with extras (the designers have included every
feature you can think of) to rival what might be included with a high-end home-theater
receiver, but does it all with two channels, in a case that looks like the Chrysler
building, or a train that Cary Grant might have taken across the country in a Hitchcock
Modeled on the art deco table radios of the 1930s and
40s, the RR2150s modern, dark-gray aluminum chassis and brushed-aluminum
faceplate give the impression that it has been produced for those who like a touch of
extravagance. The central focal point of the faceplate is a large display that indicates
in big blue letters what function mode the RR2150 is currently in. Shooting out from the
left of the display are engraved lines that give the impression of an object in motion.
Stepped down from the display, in relief, are the Bass, Treble, and Balance knobs, and a
Tone Defeat button that illuminates in blue when these fine tunings are bypassed. On the
third step below the display are the Standby power button (which also lights up in blue),
a headphone jack with level control, the speaker selector knob, and two features that
deserve highlighting: a Speaker EQ switch that lets you compensate for a lack of bass in
the manner of an old Loudness Contour, and a 1/8" Aux jack perfectly convenient for
connecting an MP3 player.
To the right of the display are the radio sections up
and down tuning buttons; to the right of these, a sweeping curve comes to a point to form
what looks like a slice of gray plastic pie. Within this slice are knobs for selecting the
main and recording sources (for recording one while listening to another), buttons to
control the radio functions and program stations (as many as 39), a Mute button (it
flashes blue when engaged), and the Volume knob.
Around back are two sets of five-way speaker binding posts and a
multitude of jacks: preamp outputs, main amp inputs, subwoofer output, tape loop, and five
analog inputs. Among the five analog inputs is a phono stage (moving-coil or
moving-magnet). Even the finest low-cost integrated amplifiers tend to cut their phono
stage along with their price point. By including a phono stage, the Aux input on the
front, and a rear USB port for direct connection to a computer, Outlaw has engineered a
piece of gear that is nearly unheard of.
Including all of these features makes for a good-sized
receiver. While the RR2150 retains the standard width of a rack component (17"),
its taller (5.75") and several inches deeper (15") than the average
integrated amplifier. It also weights a beefy 27 pounds, and is rated by Outlaw to put out
100Wpc at 8 ohms. It replaced the reference amp in my system, an NAD C320BEE, which is
conservatively rated at 50Wpc. I tested the RR2150 with a Pioneer DVD-353 DVD player and
Monster Cable interconnects, and a pair of Epos ELS-3 minimonitor speakers connected with
9 runs of Element Cables Double Run speaker cable, terminated with banana
plugs. But based on the RR2150s performance, I was glad to have had a pair of larger
bookshelf speakers, Athenas AS-B2.2s, in for audition; if the NAD C320BEE is
underrated at 50Wpc, the RR2150s 100Wpc is equally unbelievable. When it came to
power, the Outlaw was a beast.
Buddy Miller began his career as a session musician and
gradually gained more attention as a sideman for Emmylou Harris. Millers solo
records are characterized by the guitarists own crystalline production style, which
includes an entrancing depth of field and clear separation of instruments. On Universal
United House of Prayer [New West 6063], Millers vocals come to the fore as he
leads a band filled with gospel fervor. On "Worry Too Much," the RR2150
accurately conveyed the ominously predatory Hammond B-3 and the nightmarish squeal of
Tammy Rogers fiddle, which surround Millers hotly recorded vocal, and deftly
handled his range from secretive speech to banshee wail. For "Shelter Me,"
Millers voice cried out in the foreground of the Epos ELS-3s, while his backup
singers held their ground in back, then darted to the front and in from the sides like
wind rushing through cracks in an old house. "Wide River to Cross," a duet with
Emmylou Harris, was filled with authentic world-weariness and stark honesty.
The RR2150s clean power and facility for articulation
next led me to Frees Millennium Collection [Universal 490735]. Bad Company
may have had the hits, but Free had bassist Andy Fraser, and Paul Rodgers vocals
were never again as strong and soulful as they were out in front of Fraser, guitarist Paul
Kossoff, and drummer Simon Kirke. "Fire and Water" has a tremendous drum sound,
and the RR2150 established this tracks steady foundation with impressive punch and
emphatic slam through the Athenas. On the upper end, Kossoffs guitar stung with pure
electricity on "Im a Mover," yet the RR2150 was able to deal with the more
subtle dynamics of Rodgers piano on "Catch a Train." The receiver was even
able to refresh and resuscitate "All Right Now," a song Ive heard a
thousand times. The RR2150 reminded me of what makes this track great: full, bubbling bass
(improved slightly with a boost from the EQ switch), guitar jabs that seem to float, and a
snappy British blues beat, all presented with transparent realism.
As long as Sonny Rollins is around, David Murray will be
the worlds second-greatest tenor saxophonist, but recording with strings is as much
a rite of passage for a tenor player as is recording "Body & Soul." Waltz
Again [Justin Time 193] opens with the sprawling, 26-minute "Pushkin Suite,"
a track that carries a lot of information, all of which the RR2150 organized coherently.
Whats usually only implied by Murrays playing here was given voice by the
RR2150, as the strings commented on and reinforced the tenors statements with
engaging clarity and sweetness. The receiver was able to relay all the virtuosity inherent
in Murrays quartet: Lafayette Gilchrists flowing touch on piano, the attack
and natural decay of bassist Jaribu Shahids notes, and Hamid Drakes
well-crafted polyrhythmic drumming. The Epos speakers are small but mighty; in tandem with
the RR2150, they relayed the emotional drama and musical architecture of Murrays
While the recordings discussed above were auditioned on CD,
I wanted to take advantage of the RR2150s front-mounted auxiliary jack. I cued up
the Bands Rock of Ages [Capitol C2-46617], a two-disc set in its original
incarnation, subsequently reissued as one. Having imported both discs in Apples AAC
format and loaded them to my iPod, I accomplished the same feat of consolidation. I
connected the iPod to the Aux input via a basic RadioShack 1/8"-to-1/8" patch
cord ($6) and, absent the iPod Dock, turned the volume all the way up to approximate a
typical line-level output. Under these circumstances, the RR2150s power reserves
came in handy. I needed a little extra gain to bring the amplified iPod up to a satisfying
listening level through the Athenas -- only an incremental increase, but I was happy to
have the wattage.
Rock of Ages has a relatively raw sound, and the
RR2150 gave the spatial sense of what Rick Dankos pulsating bass and Levon
Helms pleading vocals on "Dont Do It" might have sounded like that
New Years Eve in New Yorks Academy of Music. Garth Hudsons organ pulled
as Richard Manuels voice pushed on "King Harvest," and Helm swung
"Rag Mama Rag" like a member of the Basie Band, his voice and drums riding
alongside Howard Johnsons effervescent tuba.
In addition to facilitating CD and iPod listening, the
Outlaw RR2150 receiver can do things my reference NAD C320BEE ($399) integrated
cant. The Outlaw tuner, hooked up to a basic dipole FM antenna and the supplied AM
loop, effortlessly pulled in the expected range of Chicagos more powerful stations,
but was also sensitive enough to tune in 88.7 WLUW, whose signal sometimes seems to be
shot straight up. And while I gave up on LPs a long time ago, I have the nagging feeling
that as the world goes digital, with greater and greater restrictions, analogs
wonderful simplicity will come full circle, if it hasnt already. With the RR2150, I
wouldnt need an outboard phono stage, and although I can connect an iPod to the NAD
around back, the option of connecting an MP3 player to the front is convenient, and
connecting a computer directly to the RR2150 via USB demonstrates vision. Manufacturers
who dont follow Outlaws lead here are foolish. Outlaw nods to the past while
simultaneously looking to the future.
Integrated amplifiers such as my NAD C320BEE are designed
for the sole purpose of reproducing music. The NADs 50Wpc gives the user a little
more control over microdynamics than the RR2150, whose 100Wpc are quickly tapped by its
sensitive volume knob (the knob on my sample had a little play). Most of my listening was
done at low levels, and any adjustment upward I tried to make with the Outlaws fully
functional, programmable remote control was usually too much -- I got used to barely
tapping it to get the desired effect. With its dedicated level control for the headphone
jack, the RR2150 does allow for microadjustment when listening to headphones, but I
preferred to use the main volume control to get instant gratification from my Sennheiser
HD 580 'phones. Selecting the source was also best performed from the remote. By
hand, the smallish knob tended to scroll faster than the inputs could follow, making it
easy to miss the one I was aiming for.
Outlaw Audio established its reputation as an Internet-only
maker of well-made home-theater gear at honest prices. The Retro Receiver 2150
acknowledges the existence of home theater in such features as its subwoofer output jack,
but its two channels are an overt endorsement of music-only listening. Its price puts it
in the category of home-theater receivers (many of which have lesser build quality and a
harder, less organic sound) and as a step up from integrateds such as the NAD C320BEE,
while including some features found in neither class. The RR2150 is full-featured for a
purpose. Its a smart choice as an upgrade from shabby mass-market receivers, and as
a solid system centerpiece whose adaptability promises continuing technological relevance.
In this case, more might actually be better.
Prices of equipment reviewed