Do separate components sound better than AV receivers?

We compare the sound of the Outlaw Audio 975 Surround Processor and seven-channel 7125 Power Amp with a Denon receiver, and the winner is?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
The Outlaw Audio Model 975 (top) and Model 7125 (bottom) Outlaw Audio

There's no doubt that the best of today's receivers sound great and come jam-packed with a vast range of features. Even entry-level models paired with a decent 5.1 speaker/subwoofer system can do a fine job, but some buyers aim higher. They may have invested in a 65-inch or larger display, or maybe a video projector and a 120-inch screen. They crave a sound that matches the grandeur of the picture, and they can get that only with separate components like the Outlaw Audio Model 975 Surround Processor and Model 7125 Power Amp.

The Model 975 Surround Processor's feature set is fairly minimalist, which makes it a nice alternative to today's increasingly hard-to-use receivers. The Model 975 was designed to sound good, but if you need USB inputs, 4K upscaling, Audyssey Auto Calibration, Wi-Fi, Air Play, HD Radio, Internet radio, Ethernet, or Bluetooth, the Model 975 won't cut it. True, there are just four HDMI inputs and that might be a deal-breaker for some potential customers, but I love everything else about the surround processor, including its uncluttered front panel. It's a joy to use.

I listened to the 975 with Outlaw's Model 7125 amp, and if you look under the top cover you'll see why no receiver, including lots of $2,000 or $3,000 ones, can match the sound of a well designed dedicated amp. The receivers don't have enough space to house the massive power transformers, power supply capacitors, and heat sinks for the output transistors you see in power amps like the Model 7125.

I auditioned the Model 975/7125 combo with the Pioneer SP-PK52speaker system, along with a Hsu Research VTF-1 Mk2 subwoofer. I started with a few multichannel DVD-Audio discs, and the sound was far and away the best I've heard in the CNET listening room. The first thing I noticed was the newfound clarity, so my already positive feelings about the Pioneer speakers shot up a few notches! They sounded bigger and more powerful than before, and the better multichannel recordings generated a remarkably seamless, room-filling soundstage. That is, the gap between the front and rear speakers disappeared; the entire room was energized with sound. I could play the system louder, without strain, than I could with the 90-watt-per-channel Denon AVR-1912 receiver. The Model 7125 is rated at 125 watts per channel, but it sounded considerably more powerful than the wattage numbers would indicate. The 51-pound Model 7125 has power reserves that receivers like the 22.4 pound Denon can never hope to muster. For example, the Model 7125 can deliver 190 watts into all seven channels with 4-ohm-rated speakers! Denon's higher-end $1,200 AVR-3313Ci receiver can deliver 165 watts per channel into easier-to-drive 6 ohm speakers, but it weighs just 26.45 pounds. There's no way the Denon could deliver close to the same power.

Under the covers: the Outlaw Model 7125 (left) and Denon AVR-1912 (right) Steve Guttenberg/CNET

If you have a receiver with 5.1 or 7.1 channel outputs on its rear panel, you may not have to buy Outlaw's Model 975 Surround Processor. You can run your receiver (bypassing its internal amps) with the 7125 and radically upgrade your sound. Outlaw also offers a range of more powerful amps, topping out with the 7x300 watt $3,499 Model 7900.

Comparing the Outlaw 975/7125 combo with a Denon AVR-1912 receiver I was surprised by the magnitude of the difference in sound quality. The Denon was fine, but the Outlaws were a lot more transparent, vivid, clear, and powerful.

Outlaw sells direct with a 30-day return policy. If you order the Model 975 ($575) and Model 7125 ($999) together, the discounted price is $1,398.