Outlaw LCR Speaker System

Woofer, tweeter, woofer, curve ball.

Outlaw Audio has tenaciously earned a reputation as a maker of well-thought-out surround electronics, speakers, subwoofers, and other products. The company offers a favorable performance/price ratio by selling directly to the consumer via the Internet. And once in a while, it gets downright iconoclastic, dramatically rethinking flawed product genres and pushing them unexpectedly forward. The Outlaw LCR loudspeaker is one of those.

Surround sound, the stage upon which this speaker has arrived, is a mixture of inspired innovations and bad old habits. Going from two channels to 5.1 solves several longtime problems. The center channel eliminates stereo’s potential for a “hole in the middle” and firms up movie dialogue—which, as I never tire of pointing out, is often murmured at low levels. When you combine the front and surround channels, the soundstage becomes a soundfield, adding depth to cinematic storytelling as well as music. And the sub not only extends bass response—it also allows the other speakers to be smaller, a major revolution in itself. That’s something else I never tire of pointing out.

How unfortunate, then, that implementation of this almost divinely inspired scheme must be left to mere humans. Among the many weaknesses they introduce, the worst is the non-matching horizontal center speaker, which purports to do a better job of handling dialogue but often just ends up collapsing the soundfield. Compounding this error is the use of overly simplistic woofer-tweeter-woofer designs in both center and left/center/right speaker designs. Dual woofers that operate over the same frequency range sum and cancel each other differently at varying angles, creating a lobing effect that’s audible as uneven frequency response when you move your head from side to side.

With the LCR loudspeaker, Outlaw Audio reconsiders the whole concept of this problematic genre. How can a speaker incorporate dual woofers while avoiding this design’s characteristic weakness? Outlaw’s solution is a crossover switch. In one position, it crosses over both woofers at 2,200 hertz. Toggle it into the other position, and it gives each woofer a different crossover, 2,200 Hz for one and 300 Hz for the other. While three-way left/center/right speakers are not unprecedented, they usually add a midrange driver. Outlaw’s selectable 2.5-way design effectively plays the game by a different set of rules.

Two More Toggles
The LCR is 19 inches tall and fairly slender. Its metal grille fits into narrow slots at the sides. Behind the grille is a pair of 5.25-inch treated-paper-cone woofers—with cast-magnesium baskets and rubber surrounds—and a custom 1-inch silk-dome tweeter that speaks with a charming Scandinavian accent. The machined MDF baffle is thick, slightly rounded, and ribbed at the sides. On the back are a pair of metal-nut brass binding posts with satin nickel plating that gives them an eye-catchingly unorthodox gray finish.

Outlaw offers 12-, 10-, and 8-inch subwoofers. The LFM-1 Compact subwoofer is the man in the middle with a 10-inch down-firing woofer in a small-footprint box with rounded edges and corners. Designed for modest-sized rooms, it’s rated down to 25 Hz within 2 decibels.

Back to the LCR: The aforementioned crossover switch is labeled Configuration. As Outlaw explains it, the switch optimizes each speaker for either horizontal or vertical placement. For horizontal placement, Outlaw recommends the center setting, which varies the crossover going to each woofer, lessening horizontal lobing. For vertical placement, Outlaw recommends the LR setting, in which both woofers operate at the same crossover point. This narrows vertical dispersion, reducing reflections off of floor and ceiling.

Outlaw assumes that you’ll want a horizontal center and vertical left/right speakers because that’s how most people arrange their speakers relative to their display (no matter how often I tell them not to). But these recommendations are not set in stone. There’s no reason why you couldn’t use the dual-crossover center setting for vertical placement, as I did. The only caveat is that the 2.5-way crossover slightly biases dispersion toward one end—whichever woofer is delivering a higher slice of midrange. So if you flip the speaker upside down, you’ll change its dispersion pattern and the proportions of its floor and ceiling reflections.

In addition to configuration, there are two other toggles. One is a three-way boundary compensation switch, which reduces the 250-to-400-Hz region by 0, 2, or 4 dB, providing some leeway in speaker placement. If you find that the lower midrange or upper bass gets muddy when you place the speaker close to a wall, you can notch out the objectionable frequency range. And you needn’t use the same setting for every speaker. If they are different distances from the wall, you can adjust each one separately.

The third toggle switch is a three-position high-frequency adjustment. This time, the middle position is the neutral one, and you can increase or decrease the high frequencies by 2 dB above 3 kilohertz. The manual suggests that you adjust this control “for bright or heavily dampened listening environments.” It might also come in useful for rooms that are just plain incoherent, like a suburban great room combining numerous broad, reflective surfaces—bare walls, French doors, high ceilings—with open-plan voids. In that situation, less high-frequency energy can be a good thing.

I decided to set up the Outlaw LCRs in a uniform fashion for movies and save the experimentation for more familiar music material. In both cases, the speakers sat vertically on stands. The initial settings were, configuration, center; boundary compensation, 0 dB; high frequency, 0 dB. The configuration-center setting evoked the 2.5-way crossover. Because I always use long-wall placement, with the front speakers only 7 or 8 feet from the sofa, the effect was not extreme. The other two toggles got neutral settings because I like the sound of my room as it is.

Associated gear included a Rotel RSX-1065 A/V receiver, Integra DPS-10.5 universal disc player, Rega Planar 25 turntable, Shure V97xE cartridge, and NAD PP-1 phono preamp.

Black Hat, Good Manners
Despite their black hats, the Outlaws sounded surprisingly self-effacing—that was the first thing I noticed about them. They had a chameleon-like way of disappearing into a good surround mix, taking on whatever characteristics the material demanded. That made the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Brave One (DVD) wonderfully confusing, as it tracked the moods of Jodie Foster’s traumatized radio talk show host and her evolution into a trigger-happy revenge machine. From moment to moment, I felt as though someone were swapping out the speakers with different speakers—and remember, I wasn’t fiddling with the toggles at this point.

Early on, a terrible beating is enacted in waves of smooth orchestral texture rolling over a complex tumble of impacts, taunts, and cries. Following that, the dead silence of a broken life made me wonder if the speakers were simplifying or shrinking the soundfield. Then, as the character’s confidence returns, city ambience rushes in, the soundfield re-inflated, and suddenly the speakers were info-gushing overachievers. When

Foster’s character is not onscreen, the soundtrack shifts from extreme subjectivity into an objective mode, with ambience at normal background levels. After this, I settled on a higher than normal master volume level for several reasons. Low-level dialogue seemed to demand it—the vocally sensitive midrange was natural but not emphasized. The speakers thrived when all channels filled with high volume levels, without much compression, so it was possible to push watts into the often impressive soundfield without any irritating side effects. And the nominal impedance was on the low side, suggesting a desire for current.

After that intensity, it was almost a relief to return to the relatively normal urban street life of American Gangster (DVD), with the always charismatic Denzel Washington in the true-life title role and Russell Crowe as the cop who stalks him. Street-level Harlem and rustic Indochina offer contrasting ambiences, and the Outlaws made the most of their distinctive flavors. But the stunner is a church full of Gospel-drenched singing that puts “Amazing Grace” into an unexpected story context. Even in ordinary Dolby Digital 5.1, the lushness and depth of the massed voices are moving, even a bit unnerving. This was the moment when the 2.5-way arrangement really came into its own.

Rendition (DVD) uses surround sound to advance its terrorism-and-torture scenario in two dramatically critical ways. First, it turns a recurring North African outdoor market setting into a gorgeous mosaic of sound—all the more moving when a bomb shatters the peaceful scene. Second, it uses a conventional but rich worldbeat musical soundtrack—wailing soprano, keening flutes, thudding drums, all floating languorously in a generously proportioned soundfield. The score comments on and makes sense of an intricate and nebulous plot. The Outlaws pieced together the mosaic, floated the music, and served the storytelling. The sub did an exceptional job of tuning the pitches of the drums and moved considerable air when something exploded.

Flipping Switches
I experimented with the LCR’s adjustability during my music demos, especially with the configuration and high-frequency switches. The boundary-compensation switch got less attention. Let’s just say it worked as advertised. To highlight the other two adjustments, I turned to a state-of-the-art orchestral recording that’s structured in long movements and dominated by the string section. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (Paavo Järvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Telarc SACD) was perfect for this compulsive A/B-ing.

The high-frequency switch had an immediate impact on the strings, but not in the most predictable ways. When I added 2 dB, the violins didn’t get abrasive, nor did the bowing get more scrapingly mechanical. But I did hear more distinct localized ambience surrounding the instruments, and to my surprise, I preferred that. When I went in the opposite direction and set the switch at –2 dB, the strings lost definition. I settled on +2 dB as my default position.

Up to this point, I’d kept the configuration (crossover) switch at the center position, operating the LCR as a 2.5-way speaker. Now I repeatedly switched between center and LR. Either way, the image was well focused, but something got lost when both woofers operated at the same crossover frequency. There wasn’t exactly less air, but there was less openness, presumably because of the narrower dispersion. Again, strings became blander, providing further confirmation of my preference for the center setting.

Although I continued to flip switches for a couple of Herbie Hancock LPs, my focus unexpectedly shifted to surround versus stereo. And my preference depended on the material. The Head Hunters album, featuring the leader’s Fender Rhodes piano, was definitely better balanced in the Dolby Pro Logic II music mode. When I switched to stereo, the bass and lower midrange thickened excessively. DPLII lightened the tonal balance and, as an added benefit, suspended the clavinet parts between front and rear, which was great fun. Boundary-compensation and sub-volume adjustments also thinned out parts of the overweight frequencies, but not as effectively—I could have stayed up all night with this. The LFM-1 Compact sub delivered a meaty, confident drum sound. It felt bigger than it looked.

Stereo was the better choice for Hancock’s earlier Speak Like a Child LP, in a direct metal-mastered re-release. It generated a warm, dense, and perfectly focused soundstage 1 foot in front of, behind, and to the outside of each speaker. When I switched to DPLII, a more clinical and diffuse soundfield replaced this well-defined soundstage. It untethered Hancock’s piano (non-electric this time) and the band’s brass textures into a 5.1-channel void. Conclusion: With these speakers, well-recorded stereo material sounds better in stereo.

The LCRs have several qualities that asserted themselves regardless of switch position, material, or surround/stereo mode. If you like the sweetness of silk-dome tweeters, the one Outlaw uses here is ingratiatingly smooth and beneficent, if not exceptionally airy. The un-recessed tweeter reached every seat with good off-axis dispersion. Bass, predictably enough in such a slender speaker, needed subwoofer reinforcement, but it performed well down to the 80-Hz sub crossover. The sub was a lower- and midbass champ, and I never set the volume control to more than halfway up. On the whole, the system could handle lots of power, and I played it louder than normal—a positive comment on both the speaker’s dynamics and my comfort level.

If you set them up and adjust them properly, the Outlaw LCR loudspeaker and LFM-1 Compact subwoofer can offer an awesomely well-balanced and involving presentation. I spent more than the usual amount of time with them and still felt I’d only scratched the surface. Their endless versatility practically engulfed me.

Highlights
Extremely adjustable left/center/right speaker
2.5-way crossover adjusts woofer/tweeter/woofer response
Powerful compact sub

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