Emotiva XSP-1 Review

Specs

ManufacturerEmotiva
ModelXSP-1
Inputs2 pair XLR, 4 pair RCA, HT Bypass including Subwoofer (XLR or RCA), RCA Phono (MM/MC)
OutputsStereo LR, Sub Left, Right and Summed. All XLR or RCA.
Size6" x 17" x 16.5"
Weight28 lbs.
Review DateNovember 14, 2013
Price$1,199.00

Audiophiles will endlessly debate about objective vs. subjective. To the objectivists, if you can’t measure a difference with a test instrument you shouldn’t be able to hear one in life.  Subjectivists will tell you that we don’t listen with instruments, but with our ears. Given that we don’t fully understand the human hearing system, how can we possibly say that you can’t hear things that cannot be measured?

Specs
Manufacturer:Emotiva
Model:XSP-1
Inputs:2 pair XLR, 4 pair RCA, HT Bypass including Subwoofer (XLR or RCA), RCA Phono (MM/MC)
Outputs:Stereo LR, Sub Left, Right and Summed. All XLR or RCA.
Size:6" x 17" x 16.5"
Weight:28 lbs.
Review Date:November 14, 2013
Price:$1,199.00
Company Website

Buy From Amazon

Why Amazon Links?

I like to keep a toe in both camps though fall more to the objectivist side.  To me my Marantz AV7005 processor sounds subjectively good. Measured on a test bench it also measured objectively well. A pure analog preamp like the Emotiva XSP-1 measures far better objectively than the AV7005, but would I be able to hear it? This is something I wanted to find out.

The Marantz AV7005 is a nice processor but has its flaws. From a cheap volume control chip to poor RCA to XLR converters, there is a lot inside the AV7005 that can be improved. It has qualities that are nice, like the custom Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules, but the analog section isn’t one of them.

The Emotiva XSP-1 is totally analog, with none of the digital circuitry that the AV7005 has. Even the bass management is completely in the analog domain. Because the Emotiva XSP-1 also has a Home Theater Bypass mode, it is easy to integrate directly into my system after the Marantz. Even better, I can easily A/B them to see which sounded better.

The XSP-1 is a fully balanced, analog stereo preamp. It has inputs for four unbalanced sources and two balanced sources as well as processor and home theater bypass inputs. There is even a phono input that is MM and MC capable with selectable impedance. All of these connections are with high quality, gold-plated surface mount RCA jacks or mounted XLR connectors. The XSP-1 also has analog bass management capabilities as well as high frequency and low-frequency trim options available.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All of this comes in a sturdy case that feels very solid and well-built for the $900 price. Compared to other fully balanced preamps on the market, the XSP-1 price is very aggressive. The real question for me is if I can hear a difference over my Marantz.

Test Setup

To test, I use an Oppo BDP-105 and a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon as sources. The Debut Carbon has a Shure M97xE cartridge and uses a Parasound Halo JC 3 phono preamp. As these sources have balanced and unbalanced outputs I could hook them to both preamps simultaneously.

The unbalanced outputs go to the Marantz AV7005 and the balanced go to the XSP-1. The AV7005 connects with unbalanced RCAs to the Emotiva XPS-1 HT Bypass input. The XSP-1 unbalanced outputs connect to my Halo A31 amplifier. This removes the poor unbalanced to XLR converters in the Marantz AV7005 from the chain. According to the specifications the balanced to unbalanced conversion is virtually the same quality as unbalanced to unbalanced.

Both sources were level matched using a 1 kHz test tone, and pressing the HT Bypass button on the XSP-1 would toggle between the two from my seat. I togged it many times without looking at the display before testing to make sure I was going in totally blind. No subwoofer is utilized and the Mythos STS speakers run full-range.

Listening

On REM’s Automatic for the People there is clearly a difference. Through the Marantz, Michael Stipe’s vocals are distant, as if he is shouting down a tunnel. Through the XSP-1 he is singing in the room directly in front of me. The soundstage opens up using the XSP-1 and compresses when I switch to the Marantz. The kick drum on “Try Not To Breathe” is quick and clear through the XSP-1 with plenty of snap. On the Marantz the same kick drum blurs into everything else. The sound of it is audible but buried in the mix with every other instrument.

The differences are clear but it isn’t a thrashing. Without seeing the front of the XSP-1 I can always identify the two sources. The treble is more extended, the bass is more clearly defined, and the soundstage opens up through the Emotiva XSP-1. Individual instruments are isolated in the music and a subtle haze goes away. It is a distinct but subtle difference.

SACDs show the same benefit as CDs.  Bob Dylan sounds a more in the room on Blood on the Tracks with the Emotiva than with the Marantz. The sound of the recording room is more obvious than before, and instruments have a bit more realism to them. Jim Morrison’s vocals on “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” from The Doors are in the room instead of being shouted from down the hall. The solo guitar that opens “Wish You Were Here” has more clarity and definition to it thanks to the Emotiva.

The issues that the Marantz introduces, more THD+N and a higher SNR, make themselves known as they mask fine details. Was I surprised to hear such a difference with the XSP-1? Honestly, yes. I know the Marantz has some flaws, but if it is just a bit of extra noise I wonder how audible it will be. The difference is certainly there and the XSP-1 handles the music far better than the Marantz AV7005 can.

Design and Flaws

Beyond sound quality, the XSP-1 is well designed and user-friendly. It has the Emotiva look, clad in black and silver with blue lighting and a nice LED display. It has a number of adjustable parameters but remains a totally analog preamp by using digital controls for analog adjustments.

The one feature it lacks is a 12V trigger that places it into HT Bypass mode. The 12V triggers can power it on but you’ll need to set the input to HT Bypass manually. Perhaps a firmware update can make this possible so the integration into a home theater system is totally seamless.

The one question I can’t answer is if going pure analog will sound better than using a processor with room correction. A lot depends on your room and setup. I disabled room correction in this review create a level playing field. Many find room correction invaluable in fixing anomalies but many do not like it. If you have a well-treated room you might prefer the pure analog signal as those anomalies are already eliminated.

Conclusions

Time spent with the Emotiva XSP-1 has been enlightening. Everyone, including myself, raved about the Marantz AV7005 processor and its performance. Listening to the Emotiva XSP-1 I see where the Marantz clearly falls short in analog performance. I still think it sounds very good overall and in the home theater processor market represents a good value. I also think that the XSP-1 offers better analog performance that is clearly audible.

I’m also relieved to see that SNR and THD+N numbers make an audible difference. The AV7005 is no slouch on the test bench, but the XSP-1 is better and I can hear it. It isn’t a mind-blowing difference, but when you are already spending $1,700 and up I don’t expect that. It is a subtle but distinct difference that I can clearly hear. Giving up room correction for the extra bit of detail and soundstage is a compromise that I find worth it. Both the objectivists and subjectivists can agree that the Emotiva XSP-1 is a well-designed, fantastic sounding piece of equipment.

Review Summary
Product:Emotiva XSP-1
Reviewer:Chris Heinonen
Pros:Incredible clarity and detail, impeccable build quality
Cons:Remote is more style than substance
Summary:The XSP-1 produces two-channel audio beyond what virtually any receiver or processor can manage for far less money.
Value:

Performance:

Overall:

Buy From Amazon

Why Amazon Links?

Review Summary

ProductEmotiva XSP-1
ReviewerChris Heinonen
ProsIncredible clarity and detail, impeccable build quality
ConsRemote is more style than substance
SummaryThe XSP-1 produces two-channel audio beyond what virtually any receiver or processor can manage for far less money.
Value5 / 5
Performance4.5 / 5
Overall4.5 / 5