AudioControl Maestro M4 – Audiophile 7.1 AV Preamp SRP: $6000
Published on May 17, 2012
AudioControl Maestro M4
Audiophile 7.1 AV Preamp
AudioControl is not a household name for most people but they have been in business for over 30 years. They produce equipment for the car, home and professional markets and their products are distributed worldwide. The office is outside Seattle, WA. An increasing amount of their business is custom AV systems and multi-room systems. They produce professional audio test equipment, AV distribution systems, and home AV equipment, including AV amps, preamps, receivers and processors. I first read about them in a CES report. After researching them, I became interested in trying out their preamp/processor. Past models have received very positive reviews.
I have been waiting for a new AV preamp for about four years now. There have been mostly two price ranges in AV preamps in the past: under $3000 and over $9000. In the under $3000 range were the Marantz, Integra, Adcom, Onkyo, and Emotiva. Outlaw has been promising a new AV preamp for at least four years. A couple of years ago I was hoping the Outlaw with the Trinnov processing would become a reality, but no such luck. Emotiva has offered a cheaper $700 preamp, but from comments on their site it has been somewhat problematic. Denon has an AV preamp at about $7500. In the over-$9000 area there are the McIntosh, Mark Levinson, Classe, Krell, Lexicon, Cary, Meridan, and Anthem products. Some of these audiophile AV preamps are over $30,000. Limitations of money and space require that I combine my video and audio systems into one system. It would have been much easier for me to find an AV preamp if it was just for video. I am first of all an audiophile, so any preamp must be able to produce audiophile sound on music to be considered.
In the stores I have heard the Marantz, Onkyo, Integra, McIntosh and Anthem preamps. The Anthem and McIntosh were in systems in excess of $50,000. None of them gave me a feeling that they had promise that they could produce audiophile sound. For me to take them home to try, I needed at least some sense that there was audiophile sound there. To me they all seemed to have more theatre sound than musical sound. They all sounded a bit sluggish and undetailed in their sound. I would think that these components should sound far better than they did. I will admit that a store situation is not a good way to judge the sound of a component. At home, my system is in a highly-treated room with a highly-tweaked system. In a store situation I have only heard 10 or 12 systems in stores that sound good in 35 years. Stores have problems with using lots of tweaks. A customer who bought a component in a store that had a highly tweaked system would probably be very disappointed with the sound when he got home with the component and put it into a non-tweaked system. There is also the cost of the tweaks and the fact that many of the tweaks don’t look that good. Most dealers do not like admitting that tweaks can be very cost effective improvements in sound.
I have been very pleased with the sound of my system using a heavily-modified Outlaw 950 AV preamp. But I wanted video switching, newer digital chips and more flexibility. One audiophile friend questioned replacing my old preamp because I had such good sound with my old one. I must admit that I had concerns myself. First of all would running my video signals through a preamp reduce the quality of the video? The second was whether it would sound as good as the old preamp. To be fair, I will say that most of the good sound of the old system was using a Jena Labs-modified Oppo 83SE with multi-channel bypass on the Outlaw.
Appearance and Build Quality
The unit came in a large fairly heavy box (by today’s standards). The unit is fairly big and weighs 27 pounds. I was pleasantly surprised by the looks. It actually looks quite nice. The face plate is surrounded by black glossy metal raised metal with a clear plastic covered black plate over most of the front panel. On this panel is a large display with blue data display, 11 small buttons and a large volume control knob. The buttons have a small blue light description over each, and is readable from a distance. The unit is 1.5 inches taller and deeper than my Outlaw 950. It is designed for either rack or non-rack mounting needs and has both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs. It also weighs about twice as much. Build quality is very good and it looks much better than the other AV preamps I have seen.
One strong point of the AudioControl Maestro M4 is its many choices of inputs and outputs. It has 5 video inputs. These are AV, DVD, DVR VCR, and satellite. Each of these has four possible video inputs. This is very useful for users that have older video equipment. Most modern preamps have eliminated the composite and S-video inputs and have limited component inputs. It has 3 audio-only inputs, although any of the unused video inputs also have audio inputs. They are CD, Tape and Phono. It has 7.1 analog inputs. It has 3 coax and 4 optical digital audio inputs. Some preamps now are not including phono inputs any longer. It also has Ethernet and USB inputs. The Ethernet connection is used for updates and for Internet radio. The USB connection is for updates and playing musical files. It has programing and control RS232 inputs, along with a mike/AUX input. It has zone 1, 2, and 3 IR and trigger inputs, plus 2 HDMI outputs. It also has zone 2 and 3 S-video and composite outputs, with zone two shared video on zone 3. There are also VCR, DVR, and Main composite and S-video outputs, and it has a component video output also. On the audio side it has 7.3 RCA and balanced main outputs. That’s right: there are 3 separate subwoofer outputs. There are also optical and SPDIF digital audio outputs. It has RCA analog outputs to Tape, VCR and DVR. plus a headphone output. All of these inputs and outputs are the reason for the large chassis.
Unless you are familiar with AV setup, you may need to have help from your dealer. The connections are somewhat straight forward. Care must be taken to not hook up two different audio or video connections to the same input. With 4 different ways to hook up to each of the 5 video inputs, it can happen. Audio can be input to any of the video inputs in 3 ways. HDMI, optical or SPDIF digital, and coax analog. The tape and CD inputs can have either digital or analog connections. The phono input has an analog input. The Maestro only has a basic room setup for audio, doing speaker distance and volume. This can either be done automatically with a supplied mike or manually with test tones, tape measure and a sound meter. I preferred the manual method. The designation screens for the inputs can be a bit daunting. The remote (which costs $115 extra) is on the large size, but fairly easy to use. It is definitely not your usual cheapie remote. The backlighting for the keys is very useful. The manual covers only the basics. A thorough manual for this unit would be more than a hundred pages. I am a scientific procedure writer, so I have some idea about what that would take.
What the Unit Doesn’t Include
As already mentioned the Maestro itself does not have room correction for frequency response like Audyssey room correction in the under-$3000 units or the proprietary room correction of the more expensive unit. AudioControl offers this in a separate unit called the Diva. McIntosh is coming out with a cheaper unit at about $6000. One of the main differences in this unit and their $13,000 unit is the lack of their proprietary room treatment. I know several people that do not use the Audyssey because they feel that it hurts the sound. I would like to have heard the Trinnov processor, which corrects for frequency, speaker angle, distance, sound level and phase of each speaker. No one has truly got it to fully work in an affordably-priced unit. The Maestro M4 doesn’t have an AM/FM tuner. [I would find that an odd omission…Ed.] The under-$3000 units and the Anthem have this. I have never used the AM/FM tuner in my Outlaw.
What It Has Extra
First, it has a five year guarantee, Dolby volume control, the newest HDMI 1.4 with 3D pass-through, and Wolfson 24/192 DACs. It converts all modern AV audio formats and converts legacy video formats to maximum video quality via the HDMI outputs. There are extensive automation integration capabilities and Internet radio capability.
It would have been nice to have
DVD-Audio and SACD conversion in the preamp would be nice. More information on the display of what digital audio and video signals was being input. I do not mean the audio surround formats. I mean audio signal sample rate and digital video data transfer rate. But no preamp I have seen has this. A couple of more analog-only inputs could also be useful.
My concerns about putting video signals through the preamp were quickly eliminated. It put through a great video signal and I found it virtually the same as a direct video feed from my Oppo via HDMI. The digital conversion of CDs was slightly better than the Oppo digital conversion via analog output. It had the added bonus of being able to synthesize surround from the CD. On Cyndi Lauper’s great album At Last, Cyndi’s voice rings out clear and strong. Both the recording and performance are on the edge and the Maestro lets you hear it all. On the digital conversion from surround formats via HDMI versus the analog outputs of the Oppo, it was a little mixed. The Oppo had a lighter more airy sound with slightly more small detail. The bass and dynamics were definitely better on the Maestro and it also had slightly stronger image focus. On Patricia Barber’s Companion album The Maestro had tighter bass, better dynamics and a more solid image. The Oppo was a little bigger sounding, but a little less focused. On the Arts Audio 96/24 DVD Percussion XX the Maestro proved to have better bass, dynamics, and imaging, but the Oppo had slightly more air. The Maestro is probably going to get even better as it further breaks in. I have about 40 hours on the Maestro. It usually takes from 100 to 200 hours before a component is at its best. The next question is how the multi-channel output of the Oppo through the Maestro and my old heavily-modified Outlaw 950 compared. They are both on audio bypass mode. This is mostly for SACD and DVD-audio. On the Runnicles Telarc Carmina Burana, the voices are better separated and clearer with the Maestro. The bass and dynamics of the Maestro brought my sound to a new level. The Internet radio is a bit cumbersome to work with. I have spent only several hours with it. It would take many hours to go through the hundreds of stations available and put them into your favorites, so you can more easily find them. Most of the stations are 128 kbps MP3. The sound that I have heard is like mediocre CD sound. [But there are some at higher sampling rates that sound fine. My Integra provides a list of the highest quality ones…Ed.]
To say the least the Maestro M4 has met and exceeded my expectations. Its video processing and bypass are both excellent. The audio bypass sound is the best I have heard. It beats out my heavily-modified Outlaw, which I had previously considered one of the best preamps I have heard—and that includes stereo preamps. Its digital decoding matches or beats the Jena Labs modified Oppo. (The modified Oppo is one of the best sound sources I know of.) The unit looks better than most AV units. The Maestro has as good or better input and output sets than I have seen on any preamp. It has ability for automation and multi-room setups and gives the listener a variety of sound options. If you have a problematic room you might consider adding their Diva room processor or another unit. The Diva is $10,000 and is a professional quality component. Unfortunately I can’t compare its performance with the other high end AV preamps, because I have not had them in my system. I however do not feel I need to, since I am very happy with the Maestro and am going to add it to my system. I am very glad they put the money into audio quality rather than extras which I do not need.
Preamp: Outlaw modified 950 and Maestro M4
Main amp: Crown Macro Reference
Surround amps: Sumo, Parasound and Adcom
Main speakers: Eminent Technology LFE-8 ribbons with AV-123 super tweeters
Subwoofers: Thorough Bass Magellan VIII SU with MDG-200 amp and crossover
Center and rear surround speakers: Linaeum
Side speakers: Chapman Mini monitors
TV: Sony 65 HX292 XBR
Disc Players: Marantz 5000 blu-ray, Samsung BD-UP5000 blu-ray/HD-DVD player, Jena Labs Oppo BDP 83SE
Video: 3 Direct TV HDVRs and JVC Super VHS player
Cables: Cardas, Kimber Silver and Jena Labs interconnect, digital and speaker cables
Power Cables: Marigo, API and Kimber
Power: 2 20 amp dedicated power lines with separate ground from main house and custom- built power conditioners.
Room: 20’ by 20’ by 9’
Tweaks: Bright Star Big Feet; mpingo, Avalon, and Marigo isolation feet; Shatki Onlines, Stones and Sonic Hallographs; Corner Tunes; Tube Traps; TeknaSonic speaker dampeners; lead sheets and bricks; and 5-step disc treatment.