Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Let’s go ahead and get one thing out of the way, right from the giddy-up. If you’re perfectly well-served by and happy with a wireless multiroom speaker ecosystem around your house—something like a Sonos speaker system, or even a gaggle of Amazon Echo or Google Nest smart speakers—you probably don’t need an amp like AudioControl’s The Director Model M4800. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a truly audiophile-quality distributed-audio solution that can be used with practically any speakers you can imagine, let’s talk. Because the M4800 may be exactly the amp you didn’t know you needed. And shockingly enough, it’s not stupid expensive.

AudioControl doesn’t specify pricing for the Model M4800 because this isn’t a product you’re going to bop into Best Buy or load up Crutchfield to purchase. It’s a custom-installation amp, available only through authorized installers. As such, the company recommends a “suggested client price” of $2700 (all prices USD).

AudioControl

For that, you get a four-zone, eight-channel network-controllable DSP matrix audio amp with class-D topology delivering 8×100Wpc into 8 ohms, 8×200Wpc into 4 ohms, or 4×400Wpc bridged into 8 ohms.

That in itself would be incredibly noteworthy. But when you add the Model M4800’s customization and control capabilities, you end up with something truly bizarre and special. Yes, the AudioControl amp has brawn, but it also has brains. It’s like Smart Hulk. So smart, in fact, that it’ll email you (or, more likely, your installer) if the unit exceeds any defined thresholds for temperature, voltage, volume, or bass output.

In addition to six-band graphic and eight-band parametric EQ functionality, the amp also supports premade DSP profiles for a number of different speakers. When I downloaded the latest speaker profiles from AudioControl’s website, I counted 127 different models from manufacturers like Dynaudio, Monitor Audio, James Loudspeaker, Origin Acoustics, Stealth Acoustics, Triad, and the list goes on and on.

Of course, you don’t have to use those profiles, nor are you limited to those speakers. Between the EQ settings and crossover functionality, you can dial the Model M4800 in to sound great with any speaker.

Setting up and configuring the Model M4800

As I mentioned in my unboxing blog post, in addition to its four zones of highly configurable output, the Model M4800 also has a wealth of inputs and control connections. There are a total of four stereo line-level inputs (RCA), four digital audio inputs (your choice of optical TosLink or coaxial RCA, either of which can accept up to a 24-bit/96kHz PCM signal), 12V trigger inputs for each of the output zones, master 12V triggers (one each input and output), a pair of coaxial RCA digital outputs, and of course the all-important Ethernet port for UPnP connectivity and control.

AudioControl

Broadly speaking, there are probably two typical use cases for an amp like this. On the one hand, I imagine a lot of end users have a quartet of Sonos Port stereo receivers plugged into the RCA inputs, and for the most part rely on the Sonos ecosystem for control and source/zone switching. That’s almost certainly the easiest option, because you get the control and connectivity smarts of Sonos combined with the sheer power and fidelity of the AudioControl amp.

On the other hand, I also imagine a lot of users are employing the Model M4800 in a completely custom control and automation system. AudioControl provides drivers for Crestron, Crestron Home, Elan, RTI, Savant, and Control4, and while I can speak only to the latter for now (although I am in the process of installing a Crestron Home system as well), the control possibilities are nigh infinite. So, needless to say, I won’t be touching on all possible use cases in this review. That’s not the point. This isn’t a smart-home review publication. Our focus here is on audio.

Truth be told, it would be nearly impossible to list all possible use cases anyway, but just to throw one more out there, you Roon users could use rooUPnP and control the Model M4800 entirely via the network. Or, if you’re old-school, you could control source selection, output, and volume entirely from your browser.

AudioControl

So, although I can vouch for the control and automation chops of the system, using it as I did with my Control4 system, when I sat down to do my critical listening and evaluation, I kept things simple. I largely relied on the line-level outputs of a Sony UDA-1 DAC-media streamer-integrated amp, being fed a steady stream of audio from Qobuz. I also tinkered around with running the aux output from an Amazon Echo 4 into the AudioControl by way of a 3.5mm-to-RCA splitter, and I played with UPnP to a degree. But all of my listening notes below assume the Sony UDA-1 and Qobuz as sources.

Using the UDA-1 did create an interesting problem at first—or so I thought. When I first fired it up, it was pretty obvious that I was overdriving the Zone 1 input of the Model M4800. But when I dug into the settings of the amp to set a max volume limit for that input, I also noticed that you can set the input sensitivity for each source independently. The default is set to 1Vrms, and when I reached out to AudioControl to ask why, this is what they told me:

Often, consumer goods are about -10dBv, or a little less than 1V of output, so our default setting matches beautifully with those devices in most cases. For sources that are hotter and set to fixed output and/or volume control is done at the amp via a control system, generally these are more “sophisticated” system designs where input sensitivity and source specification details are known variables, which are then properly calibrated to optimize system performance.

Sensitivity for each input can be set between 0.5Vrms and 4Vrms, in 0.25V increments. So I was quickly and easily able to set the sensitivity of the Zone 1 line-level input to 2Vrms, to match the output of the UDA-1.

Other tweakable options worth mentioning include the fact that you can define SDS (Signal Detecting Switch) behavior for each input zone. For the most part, though, as I said, I kept things simple here: For the Zone 1 output, I connected a pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v.5 towers run full-range. For Zone 2, I connected a pair of RSL CG3 bookshelf speakers with an 80Hz high-pass filter engaged. I did not connect speakers to Zones 3 and 4 for this review.

AudioControl

Speaker-level outputs come in the form of Phoenix connectors, which means I had to suck it up and use bare-wire connections. (The struggle is real, y’all.) Since I had a spool of Monoprice Choice Series 12AWG cable lying around collecting dust, I cut some lengths of that and found that as long as I had the ends tidily stripped and twisted, the Phoenix connectors accommodated their girth just fine. I wouldn’t go with wires any thicker than that, though. I honestly don’t think there’s room for 10AWG wire no matter how much you twist and cram.

So how does the AudioControl M4800 sound?

Let’s pause for a second and talk about expectations, because they can have a massive effect on perception. And that goes two ways for me. On the one hand, I think most of us have some preconceived notions about distributed audio systems and their performance capabilities. On the other hand, this is—I think—the fourth AudioControl distributed-audio amp I’ve reviewed, following The Director Model D3200, the Rialto 600, and the Bijou 600. And all of them have sounded way better than they had any right to.

So you’d think by now I would have shaken that first preconception—that notion that matrix amps can be great for what they are, but they’re not proper audiophile amps.

AudioControl

Well, the Model M4800 once again dispenses with that sort of foolishness. It is, by any metric, a fantastic-sounding amp, fully capable of driving any speaker like a stolen Corvette Z06 (assuming, of course, said speaker doesn’t require more than 100W of amplification or have crazy-low impedance).

I started off my critical listening by giving the AudioControl amp an easy task: “Mr. Cab Driver” from Lenny Kravitz’s Let Love Rule: 20th Anniversary Edition (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Virgin Records/Qobuz). A couple of observations came to the forefront of consciousness immediately. Firstly, the Model M4800 is an incredibly dynamic amp, with oodles of the sort of pop and punch you would expect from a well-thought-out class-D design. Secondly, this thing has a great soundstage and wonderful image specificity. “Mr. Cab Driver” is a deceptively simple mix, in that it sounds like there’s not much going on other than the rhythm section, guitar, and vocals. It takes a good stereo setup to hear all of the textures and nuances locked within, and indeed, even some of the little flaws in the recording that give it a bit more character.

The Model M4800 unlocked all of that, and it gave the disparate elements of the mix enough room to breathe that I could hear the difference between clean and saturated instruments. I also loved the way it handled the double-tracked vocals in the chorus starting right at 1:06. There was just a fantastic sense of space and sufficient channel separation to make those vocals sound positively gigantic in both width and depth.

AudioControl

Fast-forward to the next verse, and I could really hear how Kravitz over-pronounces the K at the end of “Mr. Cab Driver don’t like the way I looK.” That may seem like such a minor detail. I’ve never heard of anyone walking into a hi-fi shop and demanding an amp that could render Lenny Kravitz’s overemphatic voiceless velar plosives perfectly. But I have heard otherwise-fine amps that smeared or muddied or swallowed that K. The Model M4800 simply rendered it with all the transient response and dynamics you would expect from a seriously fine high-end piece of kit.

Moving on to something a little more delicate, there’s one track in particular that I always throw at class-D amps, even if I don’t mention it in the course of any given review: “It Doesn’t Matter” from Alison Krauss & Union Station’s So Long So Wrong (16/44.1 FLAC, New Rounder/Qobuz). Granted, instances in which I’ve heard a switching amplifier stumble with this track are rare and getting rarer every year, but older and/or lesser implementations of the topology have, in my experience, exhibited a tendency to render the arpeggiated acoustic guitars with a bit of an edge. Starting at around the 0:52 mark, there’s also one particular vocal passage that I’ve heard some implementations of class-D struggle with. As Krauss sings, “You’ve been on a road / Don’t know where it goes or where it leads,” there are two potential rough spots. In the first clause, she holds the notes, and her voice quavers ever so slightly. I’ve heard class-D amps in the bygone days render those ripples with a bit of roughness. In the second line, I’ve also heard some amps add an artificial edge to the D in “don’t.”

AudioControl

But absolutely none of that applied to the Model M4800. It took this open, airy, delicate song and delivered it with all the natural warmth and detail I could have hoped for. It didn’t editorialize even a little bit. Its presentation was open, spacious, nuanced, and effortless. At 2:15, when the bass kicked in, the M4800 also proved itself more than capable of delivering a rich, robust, but controlled bottom-end.

Given that the amp had proven to me by this point that it could sing sweetly just as ably as it rocked, I decided to try and push it to its limits with music and see if it cracked. I fired up the eponymous track from Skrillex’s Bangarang EP (16/44.1 FLAC, Big Beat Records/Atlantic/Qobuz) and cranked the volume as high as I could tolerate it. Then I pushed some more. Don’t @ me. This was for science.

Truth be told, the aggressive brostep beats and weird EDM sound effects proved more than my ears could take long before the Model M4800 showed any signs of struggle. It maintained its composure at loudness levels that had my Apple Watch pitching an absolute hissy about unsafe noise conditions. So I stepped out of the room and did some dishes while I left the Skrillex playing.

AudioControl

When I finally came back, it was still delivering the album with utter composure in the face of such abuse, and the chassis wasn’t overly toasty to the touch. I did notice, when I shut down Qobuz, that the amp’s active cooling fans had kicked in. So I turned off my ceiling fan and measured the loudness of the Model M4800’s fans with my old RadioShack SPL meter.

From right at three feet away, I measured 39dB of noise, C-weighted. By contrast, the ceiling fan in the room—which is absolutely essential for survival in Alabama during the summertime—measured 45dB, C-weighted.

Mind you, this probably isn’t even a relevant test, since the Model M4800 will be rack-mounted in most installations, but in the event that your racks are in the room with you, I figured at least some of you would find that interesting.

TL;DR: Should you buy the AudioControl The Director Model M4800?

If you’re an eagle-eyed reader, you may have noticed that I skipped right over the section where I compare a product to its competition in the same general price range. That’s because the Model M4800 is a bit of a unicorn, made by a company that dances to the beat of its own hurdy-gurdy. You can find plenty of other amps that sound this good. You can find other amps this powerful, compact, and efficient. You can even find some amps that have smarts of this sort, although generally only with the help of an automation system. But you won’t find many amps that can claim all three of those things at the same time, at least not outside of AudioControl’s M Series lineup.

AudioControl

The real question, of course, is whether you need all of that in one chassis, and whether you’re willing to go through a custom installer to get it. But if you’re looking for a better distributed-audio solution—whether you’re pairing it with a Sonos system or a full-blown automation solution—and want or need a metric crap-ton of customizability, look no further. The M4800 is one heck of an amp, and one heck of a good value, at that.

. . . Dennis Burger
dennisb@soundstagenetwork.com

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v.5; RSL Speakers CG3.
  • Speaker-level connections: Monoprice Choice Series 12AWG speaker cable.
  • Line-level connections: Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects.
  • Sources: Sony UDA-1; Maingear Vybe PC; Amazon Echo 4.
  • Power protection: SurgeX XR115 surge eliminator.

AudioControl The Director Model M4800 Eight-Channel Network DSP Matrix Amplifier
Price: $2700 (suggested client price).
Warranty: Five years if installed by an authorized AudioControl dealer; one year, otherwise.

AudioControl
22410 70th Avenue West
Mountlake Terrace, WA 98043
USA
Phone: (425) 775-8461

Website: www.audiocontrol.com