GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published June 1, 2006

 

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. We’ve come full circle -- once again, a tuner added to an integrated amplifier feels like an unneeded appendage.

However, Outlaw Audio’s 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 movie.

Description

Modeled on the art deco table radios of the 1930s and ’40s, the RR2150’s 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 section’s 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.

200606_outlaw_rr2150r.jpg (15874 bytes)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.

Setup

Including all of these features makes for a good-sized receiver. While the RR2150 retains the standard width of a rack component (17"), it’s 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 Cable’s Double Run speaker cable, terminated with banana plugs. But based on the RR2150’s performance, I was glad to have had a pair of larger bookshelf speakers, Athena’s AS-B2.2s, in for audition; if the NAD C320BEE is underrated at 50Wpc, the RR2150’s 100Wpc is equally unbelievable. When it came to power, the Outlaw was a beast.

Sound

Buddy Miller began his career as a session musician and gradually gained more attention as a sideman for Emmylou Harris. Miller’s solo records are characterized by the guitarist’s 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], Miller’s 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 Miller’s hotly recorded vocal, and deftly handled his range from secretive speech to banshee wail. For "Shelter Me," Miller’s 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 RR2150’s clean power and facility for articulation next led me to Free’s 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 track’s steady foundation with impressive punch and emphatic slam through the Athenas. On the upper end, Kossoff’s guitar stung with pure electricity on "I’m 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 I’ve 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 world’s 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. What’s usually only implied by Murray’s playing here was given voice by the RR2150, as the strings commented on and reinforced the tenor’s statements with engaging clarity and sweetness. The receiver was able to relay all the virtuosity inherent in Murray’s quartet: Lafayette Gilchrist’s flowing touch on piano, the attack and natural decay of bassist Jaribu Shahid’s notes, and Hamid Drake’s 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 Murray’s compositions.

While the recordings discussed above were auditioned on CD, I wanted to take advantage of the RR2150’s front-mounted auxiliary jack. I cued up the Band’s Rock of Ages [Capitol C2-46617], a two-disc set in its original incarnation, subsequently reissued as one. Having imported both discs in Apple’s 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 RR2150’s 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 Danko’s pulsating bass and Levon Helm’s pleading vocals on "Don’t Do It" might have sounded like that New Year’s Eve in New York’s Academy of Music. Garth Hudson’s organ pulled as Richard Manuel’s 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 Johnson’s effervescent tuba.

Comparison

In addition to facilitating CD and iPod listening, the Outlaw RR2150 receiver can do things my reference NAD C320BEE ($399) integrated can’t. The Outlaw tuner, hooked up to a basic dipole FM antenna and the supplied AM loop, effortlessly pulled in the expected range of Chicago’s 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, analog’s wonderful simplicity will come full circle, if it hasn’t already. With the RR2150, I wouldn’t 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 don’t follow Outlaw’s 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 NAD’s 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 Outlaw’s 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.

Conclusion

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. It’s 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.

...Jeff Stockton

Prices of equipment reviewed


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