I've been looking to upgrade my old Kenwood KM-X1 THX Ultra 6 channel x 100 Watt home theater amp for some time now. I wanted more power than the 100 watts the current amp provided as well as the ability to use 4 ohm speakers. In researching what amps would work for me, I kept coming across the same few names, particularly in the $2000 to $3000 budget range that I was looking at.
Ever since I found out about Outlaw Audio about 18 months ago I have been wanting to try out their Outlaw 7700 amp. It's a true balanced 200 watt x 7 channel design.
I really needed something to compare it to though and as luck would have it, when I went to the Beaverton Magnolia's on a Sunday, they had a closeout demo on a B&K 200.7 200 watt x 7 channel amp. As far as I can tell, it's not a true balanced design, but does have balanced XLR inputs. While not as heavily built as the Outlaw (the 7700 tops out at 93 lbs. while the 200.7 is around 75) it still got good reviews.
Both amps have the same 5 year warranty (although the B&K's is non-transferable, whereas the Outlaw's warranty is transferable to another person if you sell it within the warranty period) and both amps were costing me about $2000 ($1875 for the Outlaw, which retails for $2149, since it was B-Stock and $2000 for the B&K, which retails for $3000).
Both Outlaw and Magnolia allowed me to try the amps for 30 days.
Having bought the B&K, I went ahead and ordered the 7700 B-Stock as well as Outlaw's bundle of 7 balanced cables to hook up the amp to my pre-amp/processor (an Integra Research RDC-7.1 for those interested).
The build quality of the B&K is pretty good. It has a machined "silver" aluminum face (also comes in a version with black face for those preferring that), while the rest of the amp is black and the toroidal transformer is shielded, which is good. It has heatsinks attached to each of the 7 channel power sections. However, mostly what I noticed were how many fuses the amp has. There are 7 screw in fuses for each channel in the back and there are at least another 14 visible inside the amp itself. Kind of speaks well for how protected the amp is from power issues.
The build quality on the Outlaw, however, can only be summed up as "tank like". It's all black (not gray as it appears on the website), has two huge toroidal transformers in the front with the rest of the innards pretty much taken up by heatsinks. It wasn't easy unboxing and getting this thing into the rack, let me tell you.
In hooking up and playing with both amps, the first thing different between the two that I noticed was a noticeable humming coming from the Outlaw amp. When I first got it, I just had one power circuit (more on this later) running everything in the home theater, plus whatever lamps were connected to that circuit. Well the humming of the Outlaw amp got worse when certain things were turned on like the Xbox 360, but never totally went away regardless of what I did.
I worked with Outlaw support and got a replacement 7700 sent to my home after a bare minimum of troubleshooting.
During the 5 day wait, I played a bit more with the B&K. While it sounded very good, it was hard to tell how much better it sounded over the old amp. The old Kenwood was no slouch. With it in my system I was able to push out 110 db during the "gatling gun" scene of The Matrix, however details at or near reference level always sounded thin. Whereas the B&K with its extra power never seemed to have this issue. I started noticing details with it on certain music tracks that I hadn't heard before, but when I went back to the Kenwood I noticed the same details in every case. At any rate, the B&K will be better for 4 ohm speakers and has that one extra channel for 7.1 sound that I wanted.
The new Outlaw 7700 came in and again I had issues with humming of the transformers. At this point I have to say that yes, it was loud enough to be annoying. I could hear the humming over the whine of the Xbox 360 fans when no music was playing and this is at my listening position which is at least 7 feet from the amp. I was starting to get discouraged with the Outlaw amp. I didn't expect to spend this kind of money to have "mechanical" noise coming from the amp.
And since the B&K didn't exhibit this behavior, it made it clear that it was an issue with the amp and not my power. However, I continued to work with Outlaw support to get the issue resolved. They even sent me out a PS Audio Hum-buster to see if it would help the issue (which it didn't).
In the end, I ended up paying an electrician another $350 two install two separately grounded 20 amp power circuits for the home theater. Not something I wanted to do just then, but it's a good idea to do it anyhow when you are feeding power to 200 watt x 7 channel amps.
However, that didn't really make a difference to the Outlaw amp. It quieted it down a bit but not to the point where I couldn't hear it at the listening position.
OK, enough about the humming transformers for now. How did the Outlaw amp sound? Good. I couldn't hear any real differences between the Outlaw and the B&K. The Outlaw might have had more real power, but it never really came through during playing. Should point out that this speaks well for the Outlaw. In performance terms, it held its own with the B&K.
So for the average person, the differences between the two? The Outlaw costs less normally (although I think you can pretty easily find the B&K for the same price or similar to what I paid), is heavier (make sure you have a rack that can handle it), handles heat better because of the extra heatsinks, has what I think in general is the better amp design (aside from the transformers) but might bother you with transformer noise. The B&K weighs less, gets hotter (which long term might shorten the life span of the amp), but has a quiet transformer.
The handful of other Outlaw 7700 and 7500 (same amp just with 5 channels instead of 7) owners that responded to my query on the Outlaw forum said that their amps were dead quiet, although there was at least one person who recently purchased a used 7500 that had the same issue, so you may or may not have the same issues as me. For someone who can put their 7700 into a closed cabinet, this would not be an issue and I certainly wouldn't put the B&K into a closed cabinet because of how much heat it puts out.
In the end, I chose to keep the B&K amp, even though it was more expensive. I just couldn't live with the humming of the transformers.
Was fun to experiment with the different amps. For the record, it's just about impossible to do A/B testing with the amps since you have to recalibrate the system to reference level every time you switch amps. It also showed that, in the end, specs don't really matter much as the Outlaw has the better specs in just about every case, except for rated power for 4 ohm speakers.
Also shows why buying products with solid return policies is very important. When you are spending this kind of money, you want to make sure you are happy with the results. You are doing neither yourself nor the manufacturer any favors by keeping products that you aren't happy with.
So which amp would I ultimately recommend? For those who have a closed rack, I would go with the 7700 hands down. It's just better built for those sorts of conditions, although it's still seriously recommended to put the amp on its own power circuit. For those who can't get the B&K for $2000, I would also recommend the 7700. Also you might not be sensitive to the humming of the transformers or can otherwise live with it, in which case the Outlaw would also be for you.
I can't compare the levels of support given by both companies as I only dealt with Outlaw support, but the support that I did receive was superb. They went above and beyond to try to make things right with me.
Having said that, for all of us that don't meet any of the caveats I specified above, the B&K is the better choice, in my opinion.