Emotiva UMC-1 Processor-REVIEW
Review-UMC-1 Processor by Emotiva
Was a fully featured stand-alone processor for 700 dollars too good to be true? The answer is yes. And finally the answer is no.
Why this Review?
A few angry people out there seem bent on bashing gear they don't own and basing their comments on dated issues and bugs. It has no bearing on the UMC-1's current status. Below is my review. It is based on my use of the unit and the others I compare it to in my own theater room. I've invested a lot of time and money in my theater. The UMC-1 is one of many processors and will hardly be the last. I expect to update my processors every 2 years or so.
In the Beginning.....
Emotiva released the UMC-1 with many eager fans waiting in the wings. The company had already established itself with some very respectable amplifiers, pre-amp and even a sweet little CD player that was a solid entry on it's own. But a processor is complicated stuff and the market was already flooded with very good receivers that got the job done along with expensive stand-alone units from Marantz, Onkyo and some higher end companies. Outlaw, a previous bargain in this segment bowed out and started selling other brands to support their amps.
The UMC-1 had BUGS! BUGS and more bugs. The poor thing had trouble switching sources, handshaking, holding signal lock, dropping channel audio and worse. It stumbled out of the gates like a wounded Rhino in heat laying waste to much of the hard work Emotiva had done with their customers. People were angry. People downloaded incomplete firmware and stayed angry. People sold or returned their UMC-1's and spent many times more money on Anthems, Denon, Onkyo, Marantz and even some supposedly higher end processors that still sounded suspiciously hard edged and harsh.
But some of us read between the lines amid the complaints. The UMC-1 "sounded sweet like a good pre-amp" and "made movies sound less like pulling fingernails out." The unit, according to most owners, was a sonic killer, besting their previous and current units. Many people bought one (like me) for a second system and could compare it directly to more expensive units.
So what did Emotiva do? They took a LOT of calls and entered their own forums to help owners out. You can still read all of those posts as they released many firmware versions, knocking out sets of bugs upon bugs. Finally, by mid summer, the UMC-1 was acting (almost) like an adult and I ordered one for myself. I did this after a long discussion with the folks at Emotiva and discussing the sources I would be using. They expected I'd be thrilled.
On the First Day....
The UMC-1 came a few days after I ordered it well boxed and in perfect shape. Unlike my much more expensive Onkyo and Marantz units, this thing looks great, slim and minimal. My other processors look awful, like 90's Best Buy Receivers on steroids. I pull out the Onkyo and quickly install the UMC-1, set everything up quickly and....it works. At first it seems about the same as the Onkyo.
On the Second Day....
I started tweaking and adjusting, setting levels and EQ for the room, which is a dedicated theater. After about 3 hours I was roughly where I wanted to be and I put on a few test Blu-Ray discs. I started to feel that the UMC-1 was less edgy and created more depth for the center channel (which is a Def Tech 2003 with built in powered sub). The rears also sounded...dare I say it?....more musically satisfying on some material.
And so it went.....
I continued to tweak and refine the system. I had some friends come by and help me dial in the subs and chip in their own 2 cents. Everyone was very impressed. A few bugs did show up. The pass thru was not 100% passive and it took adjustment of the video settings before I was happy. Once the unit would not power down until I unplugged it and once the thing screamed static when it met a mad cable signal via my Comcast DVR box. All of the events happened once and never happened again with the firmware update I installed a few weeks later.
UMC-1 vs. Onkyo 9.9 (886 in other markets)
It would be a lie to say that the UMC-1 blows away the Onkyo. In truth they often sound the same on a lot movie material. Both do what you expect, though Onkyo's so-so room EQ system certainly works better. If you plan to rely heavily on automated room EQ you can stop reading. Other brands have this feature more refined than Emotiva. Having a serious theater room and good experience I set up my systems carefully. I found that automated EQ only got me half of what I could do on my own.
Enter from stage left....a seriously good set of speakers in a new pair of Merlin TSM-MXr monitors. These are 4500 monitors considered to be among the best in the world. Processors are absolutely mid-fi with music. If you paid 5K for a processor I have bad new for you because you still won't have a good pre-amp for music. Still, I wanted to compare the Onkyo to the UMC-1 and see who could get the music right. For this test I also used the modded Odyssey Stratos for power, Oppo BDP83, Cardas cable and the speakers sat on sand-mass loaded 4 post Skylan stands.
The Onkyo is awful. If you own a good pre or integrated you know already. The Onkyo had no dimensional presentation. It's soundstage was balanced on a razors edge with a good image, but the Merlins could not give much of themselves. Even worse was the edgy character of the higher frequencies. Using several of my best demo discs didn't help. Complex passages had detail, yet still sounded mashed together.
The UMC-1 was better, much better. Gone was the harsh quality and I heard a very musical presentation. Sadly soundstaging was still lacking. It was improved, with a bit more dimension, but nowhere near what my Stingray or Rogue gear could pull off. But I could listen to music on the UMC-1!
The upshot of all of this was that the sonic deficiencies of the Onkyo are audible on some movie material. Older films can be quite grating on the ears. I whipped out my copy of Cabaret, which sounded far better on the UMC-1. More modern recordings were a mixed bag. Some were better on the UMC-1 and some were about the same. But not once did I really prefer the Onkyo. I'd like to add that I also briefly owned the Marantz processor, but made no direct comparisons. It was my "impression" that the Marantz was a better sounding unit than the Onkyo, but still not as good as the UMC-1.
What are you missing?
The truth here is that processors are not high end audio. That's why I own several systems. If you own one of the other brands they certainly get the job done. And if you need the automated EQ there are better models to buy. Those of us who trust our ears and experience need not pay more and get less with the big name brands. Should you dump your Onkyo for a UMC-1? Nah, wait for something better than both at this point. But if you can't wait then certainly go with the UMC-1 and get the upgrade certificate. Their new "big" processor will be released soon.
How awful! The tiny plastic remote was easy to use, but looked like something you'd find included with a Barbie CD player. Emotiva had an answer and promised a heavy, big metal remote that looked like something from The Terminator. It's a cool looking remote, but let's be honest: Most of us use centralized all-in-on remotes anyway. Kudos to Emotiva for sending out these very pretty metal remotes though.
Perhaps the worst manual I've ever seen! Emotiva now has a better one, but I saved the original because after you read it you may actually know less about the UMC-1 than when you started!
Today the UMC-1 is a solid processor. I use mine with the following sources with zero issues: Oppo Blu-Ray, Comcast HD DVR, PS3, and Apple TV. I recently removed the Apple TV and put in a new Xbox....no problems with it either. Anyone who seeks current info on the Emotiva UMC-1 should go over to their website and take a peak at the forums. Their are a few bad apples out there who attack companies like Emotiva. They paid more and get angry that something better might cost much less. They'll support such an argument by using dated issues as evidence and ignore the facts. When I got my UMC-1 was surprised at how good it was. A couple of firmware updates later and I think it's a giant killer....assuming you consider ANY processor a giant to begin with.
Let's hope that Emotiva is smarter with their new processor and keeps the bugs to a minimum. But even if that seems like the case, I won't be an early adopter. I'll wait a few months. And good things come to those who wait.
Some of my system can be seen here.....and details of my entire audio/video system are on Agon as well!