Review: Emotiva USP-1 Preamplifier

Category: Preamps

One of the genuine breakthroughs in affordable stereo preamplifiers comes from start up Emotiva with their second preamp the USP-1. Their first preamp was the RSP-1 now discontinued.

To be quite candid I was not expecting much from a preamp whose opening price of $399.00 now $449.00 could accurately compete with like preamps in the marketplace.

It is clear from the onset that the USP-1 was designed for real world listening applications in the two channel domain. In many ways it harkens back to the day when all stereo preamps had a headphone jack and a phono section that can handle Moving Magnet and Moving Coil phono cartridges. While adding the touches to bring the USP-1 into the modern stream, by adding a remote, doing away with balance and tone controls. To that substanial case work and thick aluminium face plate. In keeping with the updated modern approach the controls are halo lit in blue as well as blue LED above the function. Overall I find nothing to really fault cosmetic wise, allthough the faux rack handles in silver I could do with out, but that is only a minor quibble I have. The back panel is finished nicely with gold finish RCA connectors and a two prong IEC connector, nice touch there. As long as the amp is grounded you do not need to ground the preamp as it will be grounded through the interconnects, solves a lot of potential ground loop hum situations.

Obligatory Specifications:

•Phono Input:
Moving Coil - 240 Ohm
Moving Magnet - 47kOhm
•Input Impedance Line In: 47K Ohm +/-5%
•Signal-to-Noise Ratio (rel 2V out): >116dB (ref 2V)
•Distortion: < 0.005% 20Hz - 20kHz with 80kHz measurement bandwidth
•Frequency Response: 5Hz - 80kHz, with less than 0.05dB of deviation
•Line Out Freq. Response: 5Hz - 80kHz, with less than 0.05dB of deviation
•Maximum Line Out Level: 9V RMS
•Ground Floor Noise Level: > 20uV
•Channel Separation @ 1kHz: > 80dB (same as line)
•Built In Filters:
High Pass = Variable 50Hz - 250 Hz @ 12dB/Octave
Low Pass = Variable 50Hz o- 250 Hz @ 12dB/Octave, Summed L+R Mono
•Other Details:
Trigger Output: 12 VDC, 3.5mm jack, Center Pin is Positive / Current Load <120mA
Electrical Power Requirement: 115VAC, 60Hz or 230VAC, 50-60Hz User Selectable
•Raw Weight: 14 lbs
Unboxed: 17" wide x 3.75" high (4.25 including feet) x 14" deep
Boxed: 18" wide x 7" high x 23" deep


•Precision low noise phono input with moving magnet or moving coil capability
•Seven stereo inputs with precision instrumentation grade relay switching
•Microprocessor controlled pure analog signal path
•Gold plated discrete RCA connectors for all inputs and outputs
•Variable Low Pass / High Pass filters - 12dB /Octave slope
•Tape monitor loop
•2.1 Channel Home Theater Bypass
•Stereo / Mono switching
•Large format precision film volume potentiometer with motorized control
•Headphone output
•Illuminated input indicators (Halo Backlit)
•12V trigger output
•IEC power inlet, 120/230 VAC user configurable
•AVR/Processor Integration
•2.1 Bass Management System

These specifications from Emotiva Website.

Music Used For Evaluation:

LP Playback:

Bob James - Hands Down (Columbia FC 38067)
Hiroshima - Self Titled - (Arista MFSL1-525)
John Coltrane - Blue Train - (Blue Note BST 81577)
Wes Montgomery - Bumpin' - (Verve V6-8625)
Rickie Lee Jones - Self Titled - (Warner BSK 3296)
Wynton Marsalis - Live Blues Alley - (Columbia PC2-40675)
Eric Gale - Forecast - (KUDU Records KU 11)(CTI Records)
Kenny Burrell & Grover Washington Jr - (Blue Note BT 85106)
Earl Klugh - Finger Painting - (Blue Note MFSL 1-025)
Larry Carlton - Friends - (Warner 23834-1)
Sadao Watanabe - Autumn Blow - (Inner City IC 6064)
Doobie Brothers - Minute by Minute - (Warner BSK 3193)
Santana - Zebop - (Columbia FC37158)
Pat Metheny Group - American Garage - (ECM 1-1155)
Frederick Fennel - Cleveland Symphonic Winds - (Telarc 5038)
Paul Desmond/Jim Hall - Complete Recordings - Mosaic(MR6-120)
Time Out - Dave Brubeck Quartet (Columbia CS 8192)
Paul Desmond - Self Titled (Artist House AH - 2)
Ahmad Jamal - But Not For Me - Argo LPS 628
Bill Evans - At The Montreux Jazz Festival - Verve V6-8762
Bill Evans - At Montreux II - CTI 6004
Sunken Cathedral - American Gramophone - AG 361
No Bass Hit - Concord Jazz Label - CJ-97
Oscar Peterson - Night Train - Verve V-6 8538
Gerry Mulligan Reunion Chet Baket - Pacific Jazz ST 90061
Bill Charlap - New York Trio Stardust - Venus VHJD 22
Michael Garson - Serendipty - Reference Recording RR20
Bill Charlap - Things We Did Last Summer - Venus TKJV19111
Ahmad Jamal - Extensions - Argo 758
Tommy Flanagan - Plays Harold Arlen - Inner City IC 1071
Jazz At The Pawnshop - Proprius - 7778-79
Barry Harris - At The Jazz Workshop - Riverside RLP-1177
Adam Makowicz - The Name Is Makowicz - Sheffield Labs 21

CD Playback:

Ben Webster At The Renaissance (Contemporary Records OJCCD-390-2)
The Royal Ballet Gala Performances (Classic Compact Discs CDSCD 6065)
Jurassic Park Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCAD 10859)
We Get Requests - The Oscar Peterson Trio (Verve 810047-2)
You Won't Forget Me - Shirley Horn (Verve 847482-2)
On Every Street - Dire Straits (Warner Brothers 26680-2)
Trio Jeepy - Branford Marsalis (Columbia CK44199)
Paris Jazz Concert - Louis Armstrong (RTE 1001-2)
Braveheart Motion Picture Soundtrack - London Symphony Orchestra (London LC0171)
Patriot Games Motion Picture Soundtrack (RCA 07863 66051-2)
Highlights From The Plugged Nickel - Miles Davis (Columbia CK 67377)
Private Investigations Best Of Dire Straits (HDCD) - Dire Straits (Warner Bros 49891-2)
Straight Up - Bob James Trio (Warner Bros 945956-2)
Land Of Giants - McCoy Tyner (Telarc 83576)
New York Reunion - McCoy Tyner (Chesky 5173324)
Gladiator Motion Picture Soundtrack(Decca 2894670942)
Copland - Appalachian Spring (Telarc CD 80078)
Frederick Fennell - Holst Suites (Telarc 80038)
Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture (Telarc 80041)
John Williams - American Journey (Sony 89364)
Bizet - Carmen (Telarc 80048)
Live At Sweet Basil - McCoy Tyner Trio (Evidence ECD 22106-2)
Paul Desmond & The Modern Jazz Quartet - Red Baron JK57337
Jimmy Smith - The Unpredictable - Verve 8230308-2
Dexter Gordon - Our Man In Paris - Blue Note 7 46394 2
Mike Garson - Jazz Hat - Reference Recording RR 114
Bill Evans - Live In 1975 Switzerland - Gambit 69232
Bud Powell - Essen Jazz Festival - 1201Music-1QGN9
Cannonball Adderley - Know What I Mean - Riverside OJCCD105
Bill Evans - Ronnie Scotts 1980 - Gambit 69242
Tommy Flanagan - Over C,s - Prestige - OJCCD 1033-2
Ahmad Jamal - Chicago Revisited - Telarc CD 83327

Set up is about as straight forward as one would expect. The Emotiva USP-1 using the full range pre outs is connected to a Muse 100 amplifier with Discovery Signature Interconnects. The Audio Analogue Paganini CDP is connected with Musical Design SuperConnect IV intercconects as is the Polk XM Satellite Tuner. The Sony MDP is connected via Audioquest Interconnects to the tape loop section. The VPI HW19 MKIV turntable with AQ PT 6 tonearm with Denon 301 MKII is connected via Discovery Plus 4 interconnect phono cables. Phono section on USP-1 set to MC.

Note that the RCA inputs are fairly spaced close together vertically and some interconnects with large jacks or those with locking barrel connectors may not work due to close spacing. The Discovery Interconnects have the barrel locking RCA's and are just barely able to fit, there is about 1mm spacing between the left and right channel when using the Discovery Interconnects. I can see that some other interconnects such as Harmonic Technolgy, MIT and others that have large connectors, will not be able to be used with the Emotiva USP-1. This is something that Emotiva should address in the next model.

A nice feature of the USP-1 is that the power switch is on the back of the unit and automatically senses either 115 or 220 operation and a red LED indicates voltage being used. That is not often found at any price point, let alone a preamp of this price/performance ratio.

The front panel from left to right has a headphone jack, followed by nine push buttons all with Blue LED indicator as well as a halo around the buttons. The functions are CD,Phono,Tuner,Aux1,Aux2,Mono,Tape,HT,and Mute and to the right of that is the volume control with Blue LED indicator and is halo lit as well. In the middle of the USP-1 is the power switch, which puts the USP-1 into standby operation when not being used. This has a blue halo as well, but in standby the halo turns a light yellow to indicate standby mode. All of these function have a solid feel to them, nothing flimsy at all and I regard as form follows function, nicely done.

The remote is somewhat pedestrian when compared to the likes of the milled aluminium remotes, however I now read that future units from Emotiva will now have milled aluminium remotes. Nonetheless this first generation remote works very well and is simple to use. Has a power and range that most do not. I was in the den answering a phone call and playing around with the remote and lo and behold it was working the USP-1 going through solid walls. Captain Kirk would have been impressed with that.I know I was!

For me I find the inclusion of a mono function as essential as I listen to a lot of jazz from the 50's and 60's that was recorded in mono, thats a plus for me. Also being able to put the USP-1 into standby mode is another plus for me, preamps should be powered on at all times for best possible signature. Of least interest to me is the HT bypass feature, as HT is not of interest to me, but may be of interest to others with HT systems.

This is a lot of preamp for the money, make no mistake about that. The only reason this preamp has only a price of $449.00 is that Emotiva is sold factory direct. No distribution and dealer network to add a mark up. If the Emotiva USP-1 was sold by conventional distribution methods, the retail price would have to be a minimum of $895.00. So in my opinion what we really have here is a high end preamp, that can be had for a real world price. In the years to come, this may be the business model of high end. The cost savings to the end user is quite significant, plus the customer only has to deal with one source should service become an issue.

To be further candid, there is nothing and I mean nothing in the current marketplace for preamps that offer this type of performance for the dollars spent. It is an over the top value.

With all that being said the USP-1 would have zero value if it did not perform. Well it does perform and at a plane far and away above its price point. To get this level of sophistication one has to dig very deep into their resources to obtain the performance of the USP-1. I am impressed beyond my somewhat jaded expectations.

Don't get me wrong the USP-1 cannot compete on level ground with the likes of Pass Labs,Spectral,Krell,Levinson or Klyne, so not a wolf in sheeps clothing here. But then again in some cases those preamps are three to five times the price of the USP-1. However in like company such as NAD,Rotel,Parasound,Denon,B&K,Adcom,Cambridge etc.,it is on par and in my opinion has a superior sonic signature, period. Oh and by the way costs less as well and has a better warranty. A five year transferable warranty. Plus they are there to address any issues or concerns you may have. Very friendly and yes they do answer the phone with a real live person. Now that is different for a change.

Sonically the USP-1 has an air of transparency and delicate signature that is just not found at this level. Its abilty retrieve the musical nuances, plus the ability to discovery the various layers of musical signature. The separation, depth and soundstage is something I wasn't expecting. The Emotiva USP-1 paints a very wide picture, the music envelops the entire room. I was particular amazed at the back to front imaging and being able to place each instrument that was being played. This is a realm of sophistication rarely found at any price point. Piano music and vibraphone are the most difficult instruments for any component to get right. This is due to the wide ranging harmonics and in case of the vibraphone the cycles of frequency. Happy to report that the Emotiva USP-1 is no slouch in this area of reproduction. It handles both of these instruments with ease, I was astonished given its price out the door. Usually only the esoteric high end preamps are capable of superb piano and vibe play back. In particular I remain impressed with the CD and analog playback that totally belies its entry into affordable preamps. While not the last word in preamps, there is very little to carp on and when one considers the price of admission, there is nothing to complain about.

One of the outright joys of this evaluation was the listening experience of the Paul Desmond/Jim Hall Complete Recordings on the Mosaic Label. This is a LP set. So life like it literally transported you into the studio. So light and airy the playback, it was indeed mesmerizing. Desmond always the master of alto sax, and the like guitar work by Jim Hall. Great detail without being over analytical, free of grain or harshness. The shimmer on the cymbals with brushes and solid bass work not only on drums but acoustic bass as well. This is what analog playback through a great preamp should be and is with the USP-1.

In many ways this reminds me of the late seventies when NAD released their 3020 amplifier at an unheard of price of $175.00 and stood the audio world on its proverbial ear. Thats the feeling I get with the Emotiva USP-1 as a world class preamp that is so undervalued as to be absurd.
The Emotiva USP-1 should be on anyones short list of preamplifiers, for no other reason than the musicality of the USP-1. A thoroughly modern preamp, with enough flexibilty to satisfy the most jaded mavens among us and I am one of those jaded mavens. This is my kind of preamp, I have zero use for linestage preamps, to me they are a rip off and damn near all passives which are linestage as well are a joke. It doesn't take much skill or engineering to produce linestage preamps, they are just money makers for the manufacturers and nothing less.

Let's say if you have $500.00 to $1,000.00 or so to spend on a two channel preamp, then get this one and save your cash for something else, like a wild night on the town, or invest in some great interconnects, or build your music library or a new or newer CDP. Or add to your IRA saving cash is a good thing in this economy.

So if you have the resources to have Stan Klyne to build you one of his state of the art preamps, then go for it, its only about four grand or so. For those audiophiles who want a great preamp for a real world price the Emotiva USP-1 could be just what your looking for. For the 54 years I have been involved with this hobby and seldom does anything really float my boat now, the Emotiva USP-1 is far more than just a pleasant surprise. Over those years have spent a ton more and have received far less in return.

Having heard the latest offerings from its competition, trust me the Emotiva USP-1 is a hands down winner.

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System

Similar products
Parasound, Rotel, NAD, Bryston, Cambridge,etc
Great review, very well done, you are clearly a professional audiophile, one who knows how to make sense of a great product. Watch out, the competition will need to kill Emotiva off, and that will be done by buying it up.
Many thanks for the kind words. Never considered myself a professional reviewer or audiophile for that matter. I considered this product needed some candid commentary. Sure it will be maligned by the elitist, whose basic input if it doesn't require a second mortgage on your home, then it is of little value in the audiophile community. However having owned some of that ultra high end over the years, it is important to remember lofty prices sometimes just do not always deliver the promise. Been there, done that.

My hats off to Emotiva for this product and it is hoped they continue to flourish. Products such as this tend to dispel the myth of ultra high end.
Thanks for the quality review, it's nice to read confirmation of what my ears have told me. I'm by no means an audiophile but I frequent the high-end room of my local shop. I own a USP-1 w/a pair of Emotiva's monoblocks. For my ears, I would need to spend 3-5x the $ to hear a marked improvement in SQ. Like the OP, I couldn't be happier with Emotiva's feature set, price point, build quality...and, oh that's right--sound quality.
Just pulled out the headphones to try the headphone input. One of the nice features is once the headphone jack is inserted the speakers are automatically disconnected. No having to switch off the amp or use a speaker selector box or switch. That is handled for you. Nice touch there.
Hi Ferrari

I'm still breaking in my Emotiva USP-1 but so far it is sounding good to me. I've used the phono section, CD and Tuner inputs now and am enjoying what I'm hearing. I concur with your assessment about the closeness of the rca jacks in the back. Even with Monster THX cables the space back there is tight. Also your assessment here is dead on.

"Emotiva USP-1 paints a very wide picture, the music envelops the entire room"

I had issues with a Pioneer receiver I was using as a preamp before the USP-1. The soundstage seemed low and quite narrow. I thought it was my CD player or speakers but now I find it really was the preamp.

Now did the blue lights of the USP-1 ever bother you? Since I'm sitting about 6 to 7 ft away from the USP-1 which is in an open rack the blue lights of the knob and buttons is noticeable. I guess I'm not used to it yet. My wish list as of now is that the blue leds were defeatable.

Well Thank you again for putting this comprehensive and informative review together.
Yeah at first the blue halo lights were a little bothersome, wish they had added a dimmer switch to lower the intensity a bit. But now have come to live with it and is not as distracting as before.

Many thanks for the kind words.
A lot of good info, but not too much about the actual level of soundquality.

btw; it`s a bit too obviuos to claim it`s "good for it`s price"
Love you thoughts
I have a pre problem, my Songraphe sc25 (ConradJonson solid state market value $400-$500) has a power supply issue that's going to run between $300-$500 to repair. So I'm considering The USP-1 as a better place to put my money. Current price $349

Where would you put you $$
The rest of the system is below


Pre Amp - ConradJohnson Sonographe SC25 - solid state
Amp - Rotel RB 991
Tuner - NAD 4155
Source - white 24" iMac
DAC - HRT music streamer 2
Speaker cables (Bi Wired) Zentara and Kimber Kable, Audio quest,
Speakers - Snell EII owned since 1988 (smaller towers)
Snell THX music & Cinema (big towers and sub) recent Craig's list buy