[SoundStage!]Multichannel Audio
Equipment Review
December 2001

Outlaw Audio ICBM Bass-Management Processor

by Jeff Fritz

Reviewers' Choice Logo
"If you are going to implement
multichannel-audio capability into your
system, then get the Outlaw Audio ICBM."




Review Summary
Sound "A bit hard to discern because it can change so much with adjustments to the various controls," but " the ICBM adds virtually no noise to the signal" and "seems as quiet as the better preamps you will find."
Features "The ability to set up a real-world system using one of the high-resolution multichannel music formats," or "an upgrade in certain home-theater systems where bass management is not as flexible as one would like," or "a high-quality crossover for those utilizing subwoofers in a standard stereo configuration."
Use Goes between preamp/processor and amp, so you'll need extra interconnects for up to six channels; provides crossover adjustment for each "set" of speakers.
Value "Worth the price just for the increased flexibility it would add to your system, even if your multichannel player has basic bass-management functions."

Have you ever asked for directions while on vacation and gotten this response from the guy at the gas station, "Oh no buddy, you can’t get there from here, no doubt about it." You just want to say, "But you can get anywhere from here; it just may not be easy!" That’s how the early adopters of both DVD-Audio and multichannel SACD felt when they were told by the industry that "You have this wonderful new format to enjoy music with, but we have engineered in some functional inadequacies that will yield the actual implementation in your system an impossibility." Or in other words, "You can’t get there from here."

Maybe we need a new map

The folks at Outlaw Audio saw this coming. It was one of those prophetic announcements that foretold of a problem many did not know existed and with the same fell swoop gave us a solution. Being an early adopter of multichannel music, I simply could not wait. Talk about the right product at the right time.

You can really look at the $249 USD Outlaw Audio Integrated Controlled Bass Manager, ICBM for short, in three ways. First, it can simply be a means to an end -- the bridge that gives us some real functionality in a system where it did not exist before, namely the ability to set up a real-world system using one of the high-resolution multichannel music formats. Or the ICBM can be an upgrade in certain home-theater systems where bass management is not as flexible as one would like. The ICBM can also be used as a high-quality crossover for those utilizing subwoofers in a standard stereo configuration. And in some systems, all of the above apply.

The winding road

You must be asking, "What exactly does the ICBM do to help me get from point A to point B?" Well, we first must discuss why you need to make that trip. Multichannel SACD and DVD-A players are not connected to a playback system the way we have come to expect from the typical home-theater system. With Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, the digital bitstream is sent to a home-theater processor from the DVD player via a digital output on the player. The processor then decodes the signal and manipulates it while in the digital domain. This manipulation, among other things, is for the purpose of routing bass information to the most appropriate speakers in the system, based on the user's supplied information. This processing is called bass management.

Both SACD and DVD-A lack any sort of digital output for the high-resolution multichannel tracks; there may be a digital output available for the CD layer of a hybrid SACD or the DVD-V programming on a DVD-A, however. Processors would lack any sort of input capable of handling the digital signal anyway, even if it existed (theoretically a processor could handle the PCM format used by DVD-A, only if the available processing power were available. This is not an available feature on even the most forward-thinking processors on the market).

Therein lies the problem. The interface from either multichannel player to a component that can control the output level to the amplifiers is made via six-channel (5 plus the .1, or six-channel variants) analog connections. The problem with this approach is that all that nifty digital processing available to Dolby Digital and DTS is bypassed, as is all the digital circuitry, hence no bass management. The result of this omission would be simply not hearing all that is on the recording. If your speakers can’t reproduce low bass all the way around, and you route them a low-bass signal, you miss out on the reproduction.

The Outlaw Audio ICBM addresses this shortcoming by providing the necessary analog inputs to accept the signal from multichannel SACD or DVD-A (six-channel inputs). The bass-management functions are then performed in the analog domain by the ICBM, and then sent along to the processor/preamp via an additional set of six-channel analog outputs. No digital conversion is used. Analog in and analog out -- simple stuff.

Mapping it out

So what happens when you send six channels of unprocessed information to the ICBM? That depends on how you wish to map out the route. You have numerous options available to you, starting with the crossover points. Each speaker "set" has an adjustable crossover. You can choose a high-pass crossover for the mains, surrounds, center, and the center surround (that’s right, it will actually accommodate 6.1, if ever needed!) in increments of 20Hz, variable from 40Hz to 120Hz. The low-pass is set using these values as well, sending the low frequencies below the crossover point to the subwoofer. You also have the option of bypassing the crossover for a given speaker set altogether. And there’s more! The option of a 12dB-per-octave slope, or a steeper 36dB-per-octave slope for the low-pass signal, is available, the choice of which is dependent on the system. This could greatly aid in integrating a subwoofer seamlessly into a system.

Front-panel control doesn’t end there. Also included is an adjustment for low-frequency-effects mix. This control is not used for bass information routed from the other speakers into the subwoofer, but simply for the .1-channel signal alone. This gives you control of the LFE level relative to the redirected bass information contained in the other channels. The ICBM also lets you run stereo subwoofers. This is accomplished by combining the left-front, left-rear, and half of the center channel into the left subwoofer (same with the right side too, of course), giving you stereo bass for all channels.

A subwoofer level control is separate and is used to attenuate all the information going to the subwoofer, both the .1 track and the redirected bass from the other speakers. This is simply an output-level adjustment used for balancing the sound of all bass information being reproduced by the subwoofer, relative to the other speakers in the system.

Finally, we have the Left/Right Recombine switch, which is probably the most confusing feature of the ICBM. This function allows you to remove bass information from the main speakers, send it to the subwoofer, and then send it back to the main speakers again. In other words, you can route bass information to the subwoofer based on your selected crossover setting, with the main speakers still getting a full-range signal.

The ICBM was used in my system between a Technics DVD-A10 DVD-Audio player and a Sony TA-P9000ES multichannel preamp. A slew of Nordost Red Dawn II interconnects were used for the analog connections. The outputs on the Sony then fed the Anthem PVA 7 multichannel amplifier, which in turn drove an array of Von Schweikert Audio Virtual Reality 3.5 loudspeakers. The VR-S/3 subwoofer was set to bypass so that the only crossover used was that of the ICBM. Installation was easy and painless, and did not produce any system hum.

The ICBM's interior is clean and appears to be put together with care. The unit is not a mass-produced conglomeration of cheap parts. In plain view are metal-film resistors, film capacitors, and dual op-amps. In a word, this is impressive stuff. I’m just waiting on someone to introduce an after-market power supply as an upgrade to the wall-wart unit that comes standard.

The feel of the ICBM is of a well-made component that was built with attention to detail worthy of a high-end component. Expect more than $249 would suggest, a lot more. The case is made of heavy-gauge steel, not flimsy sheet metal, The RCA jacks are locked to the chassis, not surface-mounted to the circuit board only, which will lead to eventual loosening or detachment altogether. The ICBM is small, which aids placement. The size is spaced somewhere between a mini-component and a full-size chassis at 1 3/4"H x 17 1/2"W x 7"D. Signal-to-noise ratio is specified at 105dB with less than one degree of phase shift.

Was it worth the trip?

The sound of this component is a bit hard to discern because it can change so much with adjustments to the various controls. When assessing its sonic capabilities, you must be sure you are not experiencing some type of room anomaly or speaker incompatibility. Of course, you have to do that with any component, but when you are fiddling with the crossover points in your system, there is simply more room for error. The crossover points and available slopes are not easily duplicated by other means, so a level-matched comparison with all other variables being equal is next to impossible. However, some conclusions are attainable, especially the areas in which adopters of high-resolution multichannel music are going to be interested.

Running the main channels through the ICBM’s circuitry using the bypass setting (to avoid the crossover), I was able to get a good handle on the transparency of the circuitry and added interconnects. I can tell you that the ICBM adds virtually no noise to the signal. It seems as quiet as the better preamps you will find, with a black background and a low noise floor. The addition of increased circuitry and multiple interconnects would surely be cause for alarm to some, but I can calm your fears somewhat by telling you that the signal is not degraded from a sonic standpoint to any significant degree. Listening to The Eagles' Hell Freezes Over DVD using the internal DTS processor in my Technics DVD-A10, the tonal characteristics were intact, both of the multiple vocalists and the various guitars.

There were times that I thought the ICBM was impacting the output level a bit. It states in the manual that output is unity gain -- what goes in comes out. I did not feel that the sound produced was quite as vibrant as a straight path from my preamp to the power amp, but this could be addressed by a short twist of the output level. The dynamic gradations in the drums, bass, congas, and bongos all within Telarc’s Celebrating the Music of Weather Report DVD-A [Telarc DVDA-73473] were there and clearly audible. The ICBM is about as low-loss a component as you are likely to find.

The bass routing capabilities are, of course, the most relevant aspect of the component, so I gave the subwoofer a good workout with various program material. Crossed over at 60Hz, the Von Schweikert VR-S/3 grumbled appropriately. Listening to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor from the Panasonic/Technics DVD-A Sampler [Panasonic VFV0156], the pipe organ was transferred to the subwoofer with weight and a sustained sense of drive. The room became Sumida Triphony Hall in Japan, where the piece was recorded. I was energized by this most recognizable work the way I have not been from any two-channel version. The ICBM was doing its part to create an incredible atmosphere in which the giant instrument could live and breath. You need bass for this -- lots of clean, powerful low frequencies to create the majesty of the real thing. I had it in my room, and it was sweet.

Does the ICBM preserve fine detail? One incredibly hard piece of material to pass intact is Chip Davis’ Ambience DVD-A [American Gramaphone AG 201-7] on the American Gramaphone label. The tracks are ambient sounds in nature, a forest to be exact, with the slow infusion of some musical background. The birds chirping, leaves rustling, and wind blowing are all fairly delicate and low in level coming from the surrounds. With the ICBM in the loop and extracting the bass information, you would expect there to be some loss of detail. If there is any, it is very slight, and with little bass information present anyway, I would deduce you would hear the slightest loss of resolution. The ICBM is pretty darn transparent.

Can it go deep? You betcha! Sending the super low end from Mickey Hart’s Supralingua [Rykodisc RCD 10396], especially "Umasha," to the subwoofer was undeniably a powerful experience. I could not detect any loss of power, depth, or drive. It welled up from under my house and sent a ripple of bass information repeatedly across the room. It was all there intact, and with the force needed to be realistic. This was with a two-channel CD mind you, which was fed from the main left and right outputs from the Technics player just as a DVD-A would be, sans the additional channels.

I must tell you that there are other ways to use the ICBM other than in a standard six-in/six-out configuration. One possibility I experimented with worked extremely well. Using the two outputs on my Coda 05r preamp, I was able to send a signal directly to the two channels driving my mains while sending the second output from the preamp to the ICBM main inputs. I could then set a low 40Hz crossover point and drive the subwoofer directly. If you eschew crossing over your mains but want to augment your system with a subwoofer and have an available second output on your preamp, this is a viable alternative. The other inputs/outputs would not be affected, and could then be used with other speakers. If you have a subwoofer/satellite system and want to upgrade the crossover (providing a bypass is present on the sub), the ICBM could be a dramatic improvement.

Are we there yet?

This is about the easiest recommendation I’ve ever made. If you are going to implement multichannel-audio capability into your system, then get the Outlaw Audio ICBM. At $249, it is worth the price just for the increased flexibility it would add to your system, even if your multichannel player has basic bass-management functions. If you have a home-theater or stereo system with one or more powered subwoofers, the ICBM is a fine crossover that, again, may help integrate bass into your system. If you have a multichannel player without bass management, you simply must have this component to really get the most from your music. With transparent sound, excellent build quality, flexible controls, and a well-thought-out feature set, the Outlaw Audio ICBM is squarely on target.

...Jeff Fritz

Outlaw Audio ICBM Bass-Management Processor
$249 USD.
Five years parts and labor.

Outlaw Audio
18 Denbow Road
Durham, NH 03824
Phone: (866) OUT-LAW2

E-mail: info@outlawaudio.com
Website: www.outlawaudio.com

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