Whoa Nelly! There I leave the door to my listening room open and look who walked in - twin Outlaws! Like characters out of a Louis L'Amour western, these lanky and muscular amps sized me up with their beady green LEDs. Because these amplifiers stem from Easton/Massachusetts, the Outlaw Audio website displays a more learned definition of an outlaw as "a person who rebels against established rules or practices - a nonconformist". Stand these amps on their sides and you'll see how non-conformist they are. In fact, you'll see just about everything through their perforated casing, including the large "pancake-style" toroidal transformer, the internal wiring and circuitry. Apparently, these amps have nothing to hide. I suspect the real reason why the M-200s are labeled "Outlaws" is their price. Because Outlaw products are manufactured to the firm's specifications by offshore vendors and then distributed directly through the Internet, Outlaw Audio can pass on the savings to their customers. But the M-200s don't look cheap, and they certainly don't sound cheap. But I'll discuss the nonconformist price of these amplifiers later in the review.

What I need to handle right away is the modified nature of the amps under review - they benefitted from the by now well-known machinations of modmen Walter Liederman of Underwood HiFi and Chris Johnson of the PartsConneXion. As Walter explained, the stock M-200s already sport completely balanced circuitry but are not configured to be actually run balanced. His mod offers both balanced/XLR and unbalanced/RCA versions and otherwise includes the following:
  • 8 large EAR brand Sorbothane isolation feet
  • 4 sheets of SoundCoat chassis damping material cut & applied where applicable
  • 1 pair of Vampire CM-1F/CB copper body, direct gold-plated RCA input jacks
  • 1 pair of optional Neutrik XLR input connectors, as well as then conversion to run in balanced mode
  • 4 Auricap signal path, metallized polypropylene coupling capacitors
  • 10 Black Gate coupling, bypass and power supply capacitors
  • 12 Audio Note Tantalum 0.5 and 1-watt signal path film resistors
  • DH LABS Revelation Series pure 99.99% silver Teflon-insulated input wire
  • 8 IR Hexfred ultra-fast soft recovery diodes
  • TRT WonderSolder used throughout
  • A 12-month warranty for modified monoblocks

Not having stock amps for comparison, I will only report on the Level-1 units, and only in balanced mode.

You see, when the M-200s first arrived, I didn't yet have anything to connect them to; no preamp, no interconnects, nothing. My integrated amplifier doesn't sport pre-outs, so the M-200s were high and dry until the chuck wagon arrived. Ivo of BVAudio sent the fully balanced P-1 preamp, and a pending review of John MacDonald's entry-level Audience Cables netted Conductor interconnects (both balanced and unbalanced) and a pair of Power Chord power cables - all I had to do was write a comprehensive review of each following my review of the M-200s. Sounds easy, no? Just throw a bunch of fancy audio gear together and it should all sound swell, right? Well, it wasn't that easy, not by a long shot. But as far as system synergy is concerned, the polished P-1 preamp and the classically trained Conductors and Power Chords made a gentlemen's agreement with the Outlaw M-200s. In return for the favor, the Outlaws didn't give anyone a black eye.

By nature, monoblock design takes channel separation to the extreme to improve soundstaging. The discrete left/right-channel power supplies can't get loaded down by their counter part while sending current to the loudspeakers - think of the difference between hiring twin sharpshooters (monoblock amps) or a lone assassin with a double-barrel shotgun (stereo amp). While the double-barrel shotgun can certainly get the job done, it might not be as neat and discrete as the two sharp shooters. For the sake of our pacifist readers, let's skip the menacing metaphors and get straight to the technical details.

According to the Outlaw Audio website, their idea behind the M-200s was to offer greater flexibility in a 200-watt amp. Audiophiles so inclined could purchase a separate monoblock for each speaker or passive subwoofer, and since each amp is merely 1.75" tall and weighs less than 20lbs, multiple units even for Home Theater can be conveniently stacked to conserve space. I stacked them on a single shelf of my StudioTech equipment rack. As you can see, their appearance was discrete and powerful. The front panel of each M-200 is basic black with a tiny Outlaw logo and an LED that indicates standby/amber, on/green or overload protection/red. The back panel of each amp includes: Balanced and unbalanced inputs; trigger input/output jacks to connect the amps for efficient relay switching between standby and on; a trigger mode selector switch; a pair of plastic-shrouded copper 5-way binding posts; an input voltage switch for international conversion (it's red - I didn't touch it); a nifty concave power mains switch; a fuse to protect the power supply; and an IEC power inlet. The M-200 amplifiers are rated at 200/300 watts into 8/4 ohms. I really appreciated the extra electronic muscle whether connected to my 6-ohm Vienna Acoustics Haydn bookshelf loudspeakers or the new second-generation 8-ohm Soliloquy 5.0s on review loan. The M-200s' open-air casings ensured that the amps never felt too hot to touch. See the manufacturer website for the full specs. It's also worth mentioning that Outlaw Audio offers a 30-day satisfaction guarantee and a 5-year limited warranty (1-year on modified units and, since sold exclusively through Underwood Hifi, no home trials).

The M-200s did exhibit transformer hum that was noticeable whenever I turned on the amps. For some audiophiles, this may be a problem, but upon closing the door of the equipment rack, the hum didn't bother me. Even my integrated amp hums a little if I have to switch it on/off a lot.

For this review, I listened to the Outlaw Audio M-200s connected to the BVAudio P-1 preamp (review forthcoming). Because the PA-1 is a balanced-only design, I was not able to test the M-200s in unbalanced mode. Amplifiers for comparison included my Audio Refinement Complete 50-watt integrated and the BVAudio PA-300 110-watt stereo amplifier. I used a Radio Shack sound level meter to match the adjustable gain on the PA-300 to that of the fixed M-200s. Source components were a 20-year-old Technics turntable with a Grado ZF3E+ cartridge (go ahead and laugh), and my Audio Refinement CD Complete as transport for the Bel Canto Design DAC-2. Components were placed on either the 5-shelf Studio Tech Ultra Audio Rack in Maple or the 4-shelf Home Essentials entertainment rack in black ash and silver plastic (attention, K-Mart shoppers).

I switched between the Soliloquy 5.0 loudspeakers on Soliloquy stands (review forthcoming) and my Haydn loudspeakers on Sumiko Standards. Cables included the Analysis Plus Digital Oval, Oval 12 loudspeaker cables, and Oval One interconnects (unbalanced); Audience Conductor interconnects (balanced and unbalanced) and Power Chords (yet another forthcoming review); Shunyata Research DiamondBack power cables and Guardian 4-HT power unit; and Audio Magic Xstream power cables. As you will notice in the pictures, I reconfigured my listening room to clear out the corners behind the speakers and center the rack between them. This minor reconfiguration removed a major amount of sonic clutter while also allowing me more room to get behind the rack and switch out equipment.

Soliloquy 5.0 Note

While the Haydns are still my personal reference speakers, the home-town Soliloquys on loan offered a different point of view on the amplifiers. Because they dip lower than the Haydns, I could get a better picture of how these amps handle the lower frequencies. Also, I had plenty of time to get used to the 5.0s' sound before the review. They are the latest version with hybrid soft dome tweeters sputtered with aluminum alloy to increase rigidity without sonic hardness like some poorly implemented metal dome tweeters. They retail for $1,600/pair with stands, $500 less without, but their matching stands are more than worth the extra investment; they are heavy and rigid, the wood plinths on the base match the finish on the loudspeakers, and they have the best locking spikes I have ever used.

O Fledermaus

I really enjoyed the combination of the M-200 monoblocks with the P-1 amplifier. And there were areas where I thought the sound bettered my Complete integrated - especially the improved power, bass and dynamic thrust. I didn't pull any punches with the Outlaws and started them off with Classical music. For my birthday last November, I was given a copy of the highlights from Die Fledermaus [Philips 4385032 1993], with Andre Previn conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and lovely singing by Kiri Te Kanawa. When the full chorus whipped up, the M-200s kept the whole affair under control. The soundstage seemed larger and deeper than with my integrated, lacking any signs of compression. I was also surprised by how solid Te Kanawa's voice sounded. Hers is a somewhat light and breathy voice, to my ears, but on this recording, the M-200s allowed me to hear more of the physical presence inherent in her voice.

One recording that really benefited from this meatier midrange was Bob Dylan's "If Dogs Run Free" [New Morning, Sony 30290, 1989]. I love the songs on this disc, but the recording has always sounded thin in the bass and cloudy in the highs. The Outlaw monoblocks offered a big surprise - finally, this album didn't sound like a radio broadcast from the 1930s! The piano and bass guitar were more substantial, with Bob's speaking voice and Maretha Stewart's singing occupying a larger soundstage than previously cast by my integrated amp. It sounded so good, my wife and I spent the rest of the evening playing Dylan CDs for the sheer enjoyment of indulging in the improved sound.

After listening to these amplifiers extendedly, I realized that for some listeners, the bass might sound a little artificial and the midrange puffed up. Maybe the extra heft in Kiri Te Kanawa's singing voice shouldn't have been there at all. Maybe New Morning should sound awfully thin and reedy. However, the fact that the M-200s gave new life to these recordings was commendable to these ears. It was only when I played some of my better recordings that the M-200s' additive gifts proved too much of a good thing.