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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
My Marantz: Sorta Kinda Synergy
My Marantz doesn't need a moon in the sky. My Marantz doesn't need a blue lagoon standing by. My Marantz surround sound CD player (SACD 8260) and THX Ultra 2-certified surround receiver (SR 9200) have been the heart of my surround sound rig these past five or six months. I've gotten to know them slowly, like savoring a case of fine wine, some bottles with soft cheese and fruit, others with soup and salad, still others with meatrack of lamb, or maybe poultry. Similarly, I've listened to my Marantz playing music from Brother John Lee Hooker's blues to David Grisman's bluegrass, from Bach's Suites For Unaccompanied Cello to Mozart's string quartets, Haydn's chamber orchestras to full orchestras playing Beethoven's symphonies, up to Mahler's industrial-strength "Symphony For A Thousand." I've reveled in solo jazz singers doing intimate club dates and large religious chorales (with organ) singing requiem masses. I've heard my Marantz play LPs and CDs, mono and stereo, from Red Book CD to SACD multi-channel to 96 kHz/24 bit. Learning its capabilities and limitations has been like learning to drive a new sports car or, to mix a better metaphor, learning to cook with wine. What works with which, what's too much and what's just enough. When less is more, and when less is less.
My surround rig also includes a Polk Audio speaker packagea pair of LSi 9s in front, a pair of LSi 7s in surround mode, an LSi Center in the middle, each with the justly applauded Vifa ring-radiator tweeter, and Polk's PSW-550 powered subwoofer below 100 Hz. My Marantz has done nearly everything I've asked of it, just as Marantz's Kevin Zarow said it would. Kevin Zarow is a guy who, when I asked him how good the Marantz SACD 8260 player was, had the prescience to glibly pronounce (following a scatological limerick that I found endearing), "Good enough to win prizes." It has surprised me with excellent performance in my problem room, my "black hole." It has driven 8- and 4-ohm loads with nearly equal panache. In my opinion, and extrapolating from some reports, this system ranks in the high second tier, that is to say, it begins to approach the topmost class. My Monster Voltage Stabilizer (AVS 2000) and Monster Power Conditioner (HTS 5100) have also performed flawlessly, as advertised. They keep the voltage spot on for optimal functioning and strip away unwanted electronic hash and RF signals riding on the AC, lowering the noise floor while raising the bar of overall system performance. My Monster Cable M-series interconnects and speaker cables bring the music seamlessly along.
You might call such a system mid-fi, as the whole rig is built around a mere receiver, but in a double-blind test you'd be surprised how many "audiophile" systems it would outshine. You may remember my motto, engraved in granite above the door to my paloppa, my little surfer's shack of sticks: "Champagne Taste: Chardonnay Budget." This system has a sort of synergy, and is as revealing about some thingsthough not allas a true reference system. (See "My Polk System" http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue6/polk.htm) For now, it's My Marantz. No month of May, no twinkling stars, no hideaway, no soft guitars. Just My Marantz.
I might remind you that just twenty-five years ago, there were guys writing in serious audio magazines and journals that, with the exception of greater horsepower (watts per channel), all amplifiers should sound the same, and to their ears did. This was hogwash then, and remains so now. They should have had their ears de-waxed. To claim this was to say that the effects of passive parts were undetectable. A capacitor of a specific value, say 1 mf, would sound the same if its dielectric were aluminum oxide, tantalum, ceramic, mylar, polypropylene, or polystyrene. We know better now, and we know the mechanism by which some capacitors are better for audio purposes than others.
Similarly, back then, we were told that graphite powder resistors of a specific value, say 1 Ohm, would sound the same as others of the same value if it were wire-wound or metal oxide film on glass substrate (two methods of manufacture that allow for much greater accuracy). Such claims were easy to disprove by, for example, running simple pink noise through various resistors and measuring the signal-to-noise ratio, or making an RIAA compensation network out of ceramic capacitors and graphite resistors and A/B testing it in the same preamp against an RIAA network of the same values made of polystyrene caps and metal film resistors. In just a few minutes you could solder them in and out and listen. It was obvious, really obviousless noise and less distortion.
Other parts had characteristic problems. For example, certain diodes whistled and were slow. Some manufacturers (damned few) worked it out so their diodes were fast-settling and didn't whistle. The same was true for other important parts in the signal paththere were some that were "audio appropriate" and others that were not. The list of things that were winnowed out got long, and then there got to be a series of preferred "audio appropriate" parts. Not only capacitors and resistors, diodes, and such, but transformers, rectifiers, op-amp chips, voltage regulators, certain output devices, input jacks, material for printed circuit cards, speaker cable output connectors, hookup wire, indeed, insulation for hookup wire, and even insulation on RCA jacks and plugs. All managed to select themselves into (or out of) audio applications. From soup to nuts, there were a set of parts that might be good enough for computers but not for audio gear. If you hung out at the meetings of the Audio Engineering Society, you could get a range of opinions, sometimes formal papers, discussing the theoretical reasons why some parts outperformed others.
After a while, the topology of certain circuits became more or less standard practice, and the use of better performing parts in their appropriate spots also became more or less standard practice. If you opted for an audiophile-quality solid state amp, you got a variation on one of the standard time-tested circuit topologies using better parts. Usually, what set them apart were subtleties in the power supply, or how high the bias current was set. And, within certain parameters (Class A or AB), audiophile-quality solid state amps did start to sound somewhat alike, though some were a tad sweeter, more relaxed handling crescendi, or cast a more three-dimensional image. However, very few of them sounded like a Single Ended Triode tube amp, unless (as was sometimes the case) that was a design goal.
Enter multi-channel! This new format changed the rules of the game. The goal was no longer to match the two channels (phase and gain) as well as possible, but to get seven channels and a well-designed, audio-appropriate power supply, all on one chassis, to work together as well as possible and, if a receiver, with all the options. With improvement in the design and manufacture (hence performance) of chips for audio-appropriate applications, like the front end or input section of amplifiers, circuit density became possible in the amplifier sections of big, multi-channel pieces. Some very good headphone amps are built around op-amp chips, Grado being one with which I am familiar. If you want to hear how flat, clean, and dynamic a chip can be, listen to the Grado headphone amplifier. Using a similar chip in an amplifier section of a multi-channel receiver becomes a designer's choice. Which of the many will work best in a particular application?
Another example of circuit density is the digital-to-analog converter, or DAC. If this miniaturized circuit, containing a high degree of circuit density, had to be built in the old style of point-to-point, soldered, discrete parts, it would be as large as a pinball machine. I exaggerate, but you get the point. In the Marantz SR9200, each of the seven channels has its own Crystal® DAC to go with its own 140-watt amplifier. That is mind-boggling to me in a quantitative way. Qualitatively, how good it has been made to sound is beyond mind-boggling!!
What can I say of the Marantz SACD 8260 surround sound player? In the Recommended Components section of the April 2003 issue of Stereophile, the editors rate the 8260 in their "A" class. I agree. They said, in part, "Its (Redbook) CD playback was so good that only pure DSD SACDs could make a slam-dunk case for the new medium." That is, it plays regular old CDs real well, and SACDs a little weller. Its resolution is so good, it reveals SACDs of mediocre engineering as mediocre, well-engineered SACDs as better, and superbly engineered SACDs as gloria in excelcis. The 8260 can show us why the best of the new SACD multi-channel recordings are worth having around the house. I guess it could be said of the SACD 8260 that it is a reference tool in the sense that it can resolve the subtle differences between good, better, best in either Redbook CDs or SACDs. That's what I get from the Stereophile reviewer's comments. I'd add that it can resolve subtle masking or smearing of instruments in recordings, as opposed to masking or smearing created by a listening room.
I've owned a Sony SCD777ES SACD stereo-only player (not to be confused with its successor, the SCD-XA777ES) for a few years, and it is good enough (hi-rez enough) to still be on some recommended gear lists although it is now a four- or five-year-old design. It is well built. It plays regular CDs and SACDs wonderfully well in two-channel. It creates a great three-dimensional image. It has a characteristic sound that is really lovely and delicate when that is called for, as in Gershwin's "Lullaby" (George Gershwin, Cleveland Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, Decca 30 063 2), or it can knock you out with lots of zotz when great dynamic range is called for, as in the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands' collaborative version of "Jumpin' At The Woodside" (Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, Columbia CK 65571). It handles difficult music with ease. My Sony 777ES gets goin' when the goin' gets tough, so I had pretty high expectations. The Sony had a MSRP of $3500 when new. I got mine for less than half when the models got updated, from the J&R Music mail-order house.
My Marantz, with a build quality that is admittedly not in the Sony's class, manages to deliver sound quality that is in that class, in 6 channels, and for $1090 MSRP. It plays all the regular stuff: standard CD, CD-R, CD-RW, SACD stereo, and SACD multi-channel. I hear very clear and clean reproduction of every type of music. I hear spatial information in all its degrees of refinement. The subtleties I've written about in my Polk review are actually generated by my Marantz 8260. Everything I've so far written about my speakers and my Marantz 9200 receiver, and the comparison of the system in stereo as opposed to surround sound, all the small details of time smearing and masking, begin with my Marantz's delivering the information from the software. How good is it? Good enough to serve as the front end of a system I feel has enough resolving power to be considered a reference tool. That is to say, the Marantz 8260 SACD surround sound player can deliver the goods, and will only be restrained by the gear you team it up with.
For example, my Polks don't make humongous bass, so I can't expect the system to be an analytical tool regarding bass. I still think the 8260 can hold its own, maybe not claim a spot in the highest of the highest category, but in very fast company. It won't get blown away until you get to SACD players at many times its price, and maybe not even quite then. As a stereo-only SACD player, the 8260 is about the equal of my big Sony. My Marantz sounds similar and, additionally, will play surround sound. Both play standard CDs very well, but I think the Marantz gets the nod due to advances in design that have come about in the four years between the introduction of the two piecesbetter and less expensive DACs, better and less expensive clocks reducing jitter, for two important ones. This is a superior CD player, and at a price that is a fraction of the pieces with which it is compared. In alphabetical order, according to Stereophile, other Class "A" CD players are the Balanced Audio Technology VK-D55E at $6000, the Linn Sondek CD12 at $20,000, the Naim CD5 at $2250, the Oracle CD 2500 at $9845. The Marantz 8260 is an outstanding value at $1090, an opinion that, I feel, will come to be shared by those who appreciated the Marantz CD63SE, a CD player that debuted in 1993 and became a favorite over a (relatively, for this industry) long period of time.
Even if used as a stereo-only CD or SACD player, the 8260 gives exceptional performance at its price. It is the sonic equivalent of a truly fine Chardonnay at the bargain rack. Everybody loves a bargain. If you've been waiting for SACD to secure its place in the market, there are many, many more hundreds of titles available now than there were a year ago. It looks like SACD has carved out its place in the non-existent "software war," and maybe now's the time for you. If you want to hear what's happening in the world of SACD without committing yourself to springing for a new multi-channel amp plus a six-pack of new speakers, this might be a way to keep your old stereo system up to date and anticipate the move to multi-channel. If you are still playing your vinyl and lovin' those old black discs, and haven't gotten into CD because it is a new and untested technology, but recently dropped a small bundle on a high-class phono cartridge, right now is definitely the time for you, sleepy head. And if you are ready, been sniffin' around the ads, been diggin' the recommended components columns, have the itch (and the bread) to make your move on a whole system, you can't go wrong with these two Marantz pieces.
To get a sense of the Marantz 9200, the first important variable is THX certification. My Marantz THX ULTRA 2the first, I'm told, to reach the publicis capable of driving a full eight channels, and indeed it has, from 20Hz through 20 kHz, at levels that can cause nosebleed. That's front, side, and rear pairs, plus center channel with a line-level output to a self-powered summing subwoofer. If you're keeping score, the piece is a 7.1, and it amounts to a fully discrete 7-channel amplifier capable of delivering 140 watts per channel into seven 8-ohm loads. That's 980 freakin' watts! This is definitely not your father's Marantz! Each channel has a Crystal® 192kHz/24 bit D/A converter. The Marantz guys tell me, "When reproducing 2-channel stereo, these DACs are automatically switched in dual differential mode, to perform the highest quality D/A conversion." To me, that means the piece has the bandwidth to up-sample the regular Redbook data bit-stream and reconstitute it as if it were SACD before converting back to analog for playback. To the consumer, this means outstanding playback of regular CDs. Some reviewers recognize this ability as a strength of the piece. Plus, of course, the capability to play exquisitely the new SACD stereo and multi-channel releases.
The SR 9200 has so many features it takes a thick owner's manual booklet to describe them all, and to instruct the novice on how to set them up. It has so much circuit density that it can actually compute the amount of reverb and decay that would be correct for your room once you've entered its dimensions. It can match up with a home theater system and/or a computer, and there are provisions for software updating. It has an AM/FM section that, like all FM sections, shows good specs but is antenna dependent, and it can simulate smaller and larger halls. It comes with a smart remote that can be linked to a computer via an RS232C connection to update its software. That little doobie is called a "Programmable Touch-Screen, 2-Way, Learning Remote Control." Similarly, it has features I haven't examined yet because I'm not using it for home theater, but it seems to have everything I've ever heard or dreamed of. It is the flagship, the top-of-the-line Marantz home theater receiver, after all. And, if a bit trendy, it attempts to be in the tradition of excellence in design and build initiated by Saul Marantz and Sid Smith during the early days of audio. That translates to all audio-appropriate parts in the right places, whenever possible.
As Positive Feedback Online is dedicated to music playback, I guess I'll have to restrain myself to considering only the performance of music. Oh, well, if I must, I must. What are the criteria for evaluating an amplifier? I guess you know the checklist as well as I. How does it do with highs? Lows? Middles? Are they all seamlessly integrated? And if the amp passes these preliminary basic requirements, how does it do with soft, softer, softest? Does it retain its sparkle and shimmer? Does it maintain its soundstage? How does it handle loud, louder, LOUDEST? Does it break up? Does the soundfield collapse? Does the amplifier, under stress, begin to get harsh or shrill? Do human voices take on an edge the louder they get? Does the amp clip? Shut down? And if it clips, does it clip gracefully, or does it blow up in a cloud of smoke?
Without trying to do a high-tech analysis, I think we all understand what I mean when I say that the Marantz 9200 multi-channel receiver's amp section performs admirably in nearly all situations. The timbre is fine, as the highs, lows, and midrange seem well balanced. It is neither forgiving nor analytical. It is pretty damn neutral. If it sparkles luminously at medium listening levels, it still twinkles when played softly. It doesn't fall apart as the music gets louder; rather, it stays under amazingly good control. When I took it ever upward, ever louder ("Party On, Dude!"), it finally sent me a warning that I was in the danger zone. It didn't blow up. It didn't grossly clip. It didn't even "soft clip." It just went silent, in the middle of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, when the laughing bomber blew up London. I'm not sure how the Marantz engineers managed to do this trick, but it is welcome. The various protective circuits worked fine, and the big brute just sat there and cooled off for thirty seconds or a minute (maybe more) until it was ready to resume playing. Think of that. You can go out for the evening knowing the kids will blast away, secure in the knowledge that they can't really hurt anything. If the learning theorists are correct, sooner or later the kids will catch on and turn the volume down, that is, if they don't want their music interrupted every few minutes. A smart amp!?! Able to teach the kids proper audio etiquette? Whodah Thunket?
We know we can always go for more bigger, more expensivemore watts, bigger power supplies, separate pairs of stereo amps, a dedicated subwoofer amp, a pair of killer subwoofers, bigger and better pairs of loudspeakers. The road to perdition is paved with good intentions. You can justify it on the grounds that your wife just bought a small fortune's worth of jewelry, or redesigned and rebuilt the kitchen. (What was wrong with the old kitchen? The old jewelry?) You can take a Platonic stance and claim that you are seeking the grail, the highest of the high, the perfection of the soul in pursuit of culture. Or you can protest that you are only practicing Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, seeking to actualize potential in the pursuit of excellent, most excellent, gear that keeps you home nights. I mean, if we want to sacrifice our marriages on the alter of Great Sound, and spend ourselves into debtor's prison, I say, again, "Party On, Dude!" You know what the top-rated amps cost nowadays. Blood! If you are willing to settle for a mere receiver, albeit one that delivers 980 watts, you can get a large share of everything a cost-no-object system can do, short of blowing the windows out of their frames, with a Marantz 9200 at around $3200 MSRP. It definitely puts you in the game of chasing the grail of Great Sound, but there might be some leftover small change to take the kids to McDonald's once in a while. If you go for a surround set of high-efficiency speakers, like horns, you won't be sacrificing anything. You really will be able to blow out the windows. Most excellent!
March of the Comedian, part II
To be certain that my appraisal of the virtues of the Marantz 9200 wasn't overmuch based in prejudice for the old Marantz gear, I started dragging stuff up to my den... again. I located some speakers that I liked years back in the garage, and got the college kids next door to haul them up to my den/office, "the black hole." They were relatively big mothers compared to my Polks. Then I brought some smaller, related speakers (made with some of the same drivers) that were in my daughter's old bedroom and had them dollied to the den. And so on and so forth, until I could test the various speakers in the surround rig. I had designed the speakers and built them, and had listened to them driven by various amps and front ends. I was pretty sure I knew how they sounded. I figured if they sounded like I remembered, they would prove the Marantz amp's neutrality. They DID sound as I remembered them, only better. The improved front end probably had a lot to do with that.
My golden oldies had the same balance of timbre that I remembered, not far from the acoustic profile of the Polk LS i 9 s. They hung the same image that I remembered, and they had that palpably robust Dynaudio sound. Somehow they were now more precise and delicate as well, no doubt due to the SACD front end. If that sounds like a contradiction, it isn'tthey were robust when big sound was called for, and delicately precise when that was called for. It is as though the new technology had given these old speakers an extra dimension. I was pleasantly surprised. Moreover, at 8 ohms, the golden oldies didn't overtax (draw as much current and overheat) the Marantz as much as the Polks, at 4 ohms. My old speakers had validated the performance of the new Marantz receiver and SACD player. I wished there had been an easier way than with all the heavy lifting, but that seems to be my lot in life. I've got them old heavy lifting blues again, Mama.
What did the exercise teach me about my Marantz multi-channel amplifier/SACD player? It began to suggest the SACD player could make marginal, old CDs sound respectable, and well-engineered SACDs sound glorious. It began to suggest that the amplifier would stretch the performance of good speakers (my oldies) to very good, and very good speakers (Polks) to excellent. As they say, "There ain't no flies on my Marantz." Imagine a very slick stereo integrated amplifier designed by Bob Carver or John Curl, then imagine it in surround sound. There are such products on the market, but they are usually lacking a feature-laden front end. Well, the guys at Marantz have put all that together for us, and it meets the THX Ultra 2 level of performance.
If there was a journal that reviewed receivers and ranked them, I'm relatively sure the Marantz 9200, like the Marantz 8260, would rate an "A." Similarly, I feel the Polk LS i series of loudspeakers (adjusted for price and weight) would be very highly rated, as some are. These speakers and these electronics pieces sorta-kinda go together. They appear to have a synergy that gets better performance from each other than happens with other "mates." Admittedly, they are not the ne plus ultra in the world of sound reproduction. You can do better. You can get the last degree of performance. But not for the same amount of money. Each of the components of my system bears the tag "Good value for money." I'd make that "Great value for money." If you're in the market for surround sound, which is, let's face it, the wave of the future, you've got to check out these two Marantz pieces before you make the leap into the 21st century. You'll dig it, not later, but right now's the time!