Music in the Round #59 Page 2

So, after a week without EQ, I dragged out my trusty tripod, affixed to it the provided Audyssey mike, and proceeded with the now-familiar Audyssey MultEQ XT32 process (footnote 2). First, Audyssey's Sub EQ HT prompted me to set the output of each of my two Paradigm subwoofers to 75dB, though they were off by only 1dB or so, and even that varied as I walked between subs to make the adjustments. Beginning the main measurement sequence, Audyssey correctly detected the speakers present and accounted for their levels and distance from my main listening position. A total of eight mike positions is possible, after which Audyssey makes its calculations and stores the results in the AV8801.

The entire process went smoothly, and the results were mostly unsurprising. The measured distances and levels for the Left, Center, and Right speakers were nearly identical to previous results with Audyssey Pro with other equipment, and again, the recommendations were for all main-channel speakers to be treated as Large; ie, full-range. I'm used to that. However, this run of Audyssey set the right and left surround speakers some 3dB higher than usual, and the subwoofers about 6dB lower than before. I did reset the crossovers to 40Hz for the L/C/R, and to 80Hz for L/R surrounds, but left the rest intact. Aside from DynamicEQ and DynamicVolume, both of which I defeated, the AV8801's Audyssey options are: the standard Audyssey target curve with its gently sloped treble, Audyssey Flat, and Audyssey Byp. L/R, with which all speakers except the front L/R are EQ'd. The normal Audyssey option was my clear preference. I also did not experiment with Audyssey's new LFC option, which is intended to limit the leakage of low frequencies into adjacent rooms, where they might disturb others.

Contrary to expectations from the setup, my listening impression was that the surrounds seemed no more prominent than with other room-EQ settings and, if anything, the subs seemed more powerful than usual. Voices, speaking or singing, occupied well-defined positions and had pleasant, natural timbres. Instruments, too, were clearly delineated, and the soundstage of the aggregate was wide and deep. Bass was not only deep, clean, and powerful, it was also properly localized in the soundstage, and not to the site of either subwoofer. Overall, the balance seemed quite natural, and long-term music listening was very satisfying.

However, to put this in perspective, I have had similar satisfaction from other pre-pros, particularly the Integra DHC-80.2 that has occupied my rack for almost two years now. A more critical assessment would require the ability to switch quickly from pre-pro to pre-pro and not rely on audio memory for even the 15 minutes it would take to reconnect the eight output cables and the HDMI input/output cables.

So out came my trusty Zektor MAS7.1 switching box, which allows me to choose among three HDMI and three multichannel RCA sources, independently or in synchrony. It would have been nice to use the Marantz's balanced outputs, but that wasn't possible with the equipment I have on hand. I connected the Marantz to the Zektor's Input 2 and the Integra to Input 1 with matched sets of HDMI and RCA cables, and ran the switch's outputs to my plasma display and Bryston 9BST power amp. For sources, I used the Oppo BDP-95 and BDP-103 Blu-ray players (footnote 3).

However, for my audio comparisons I chose not to switch video signals; the HDMI handshake inserts variable delays and interruptions in the changeover, and besides, the video information on the display was the same from both pre-pros. Audio-only switching took less than a second, which permitted quick A/B comparisons. The differing sensitivities and gains of the Marantz and Integra made it necessary to correct the levels to ensure a fair comparison.

With Audyssey engaged—XT32 in the Marantz, XT32/Pro in the Integra—the differences between pre-pros were elusively small. Listening to a range of recordings, I felt that the Marantz had slightly better clarity in the midrange but the Integra a more open soundstage, albeit accompanied by some brightness in the upper treble. To address this, I also tried both processors first with only Audyssey bypassed then in their Direct modes, which bypass most processing. I didn't prefer these modes for general music listening; through both pre-pros, the multichannel soundstage was smaller and the overall balance thinner—except in the bass, where there was too much bloom, presumably due to my room's uncorrected-for acoustic.

What these uncorrected and unprocessed modes did make possible effect was a more explicit, almost magnified distinction between the two pre-pros. The Integra's minor treble edge contrasted with the Marantz's smoother treble. This was easily heard with soprano Renée Fleming in a collection of Strauss lieder with Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic (BD, Opus Arte OA BD 7101D)—her voice had a remarkable bell-like purity via the AV8801—and similarly with Julia Fischer's violin in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with Yakov Kreizberg and the Russian National Orchestra (SACD/CD, Pentatone 5186 095): There seemed to be a bit more air and space around the soloists and orchestra with the Integra, but at the expense of the smoothness and transparency with which the Marantz reproduced individual voices and instruments.

To see how soundstages were rendered by these pre-pros, I chose the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet's Rupa-khandha (BD/CD, Sono Luminus DSL-92150), which has a fascinatingly immersive multichannel mix. The microphones were surrounded by the performers; in playback, the instruments were securely and precisely positioned in the four corners of my room, via both the Integra and the Marantz. With the Integra, however, I was more aware of the discrete placement of each instrument; the Marantz provided more acoustical continuity among them. The Integra seemed to bring the performers into my room, while the Marantz transported me to theirs. Bass power, extension, and integration with the rest of the audioband were toss-ups.

I also did a bit of listening with the Oppo BDP-95's analog outputs directly feeding the two processors, and again slightly preferred the Marantz. My reasons were much as described above.

Overall, the Marantz AV8801 is the best-sounding preamplifier-processor I have heard at or below its price. I'm not saying that you need to chuck your present pre-pro, but I wouldn't buy a new one without seriously considering the AV8801. It offers a combination of transparency and harmonic balance that challenges the very best, while incorporating more cutting-edge facilities than most of those high-end processors support. The impending implementation of MultEQ Pro might wring even more from it, to make the Marantz AV8801 a real giant killer.

Marantz MM8077 seven-channel power amplifier
Given its circumscribed task, describing a new power amplifier is relatively easy—but given the general level of performance of analog power amps, describing its sound is not. The configuration of the Marantz MM8077 ($2399) is not revolutionary. It has seven channels, each with selectable unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR inputs, driven by a common power supply equipped with a huge transformer and a generous capacitor reservoir. The outputs are from discrete, complementary push-pull amplifiers incorporated into a current-feedback circuit. Remote-control and triggering facilities are provided.

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The MM8077's front panel resembles that of the AV8801 and other Marantz products, with a porthole display and few controls to obscure a clean appearance. Indeed, the only controls are buttons for On/Standby and Display On/Off. You can use the latter to put the MM8077 into auto-standby mode by holding it down for five seconds. Clean and neat.

I inserted the MM8077 in my system, connected to the AV8801 and replacing the Bryston 9BST, and tried it with both RCA and XLR 1m interconnects. I heard no difference; balanced connection should offer an advantage only with long cable runs.

The most impressive part of the MM8077's performance was that I didn't miss my reference Bryston amp. Overall balance and imaging were much the same as through the Bryston, and the MM8077 seemed to have all the power and transient response demanded by my all-Paradigm speaker array. I particularly relished the sounds I got from the Oehms Classics recordings of the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra. Both the Mahler series, under Markus Stenz (eg, Symphony 5; SACD/CD, OC653), and the Tchaikovsky series, under Dmitri Kitayenko (eg, Manfred; SACD/CD, OC665), are characterized by a rich tonal balance with very ample mid- and deep bass but no loss of midrange or treble detail. The soundstage is deep and wide, with precise but not highlighted placements of instruments thereon.

It wasn't that the MM8077 did anything better than the Bryston 9BST so much as that it was fully competitive with an amp costing several times as much, and with fewer channels. Of course, I used only five of the Marantz's seven channels, but as I came up against no limits of power or reproduction of transients, the MM8077 should perform as well with all cylinders clicking. If there was any difference, I noted it mostly in the very deepest bass, such as the organ-pedal tones in Saint-Saëns's Symphony 3, with Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra (SACD/CD, Ondine ODE-1094-5), where I felt the Bryston had greater definition and control. But I had to bypass the subwoofers and run the speakers full-range to hear this.

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In sum, Marantz's MM8077 is an excellent multichannel power amplifier, and a worthy partner to the AV8801. At a combined price of $5998.99, the two cost more (footnote 4) than almost any AVR I can think of, but they're well worth it—you'd probably have to spend nearly twice that to realize any significant advance in overall performance.



Footnote 2: When I received my review sample of the Marantz AV8801, support for Audyssey MultEQ Pro was not yet available, but it has just been released. I will report on it soon.

Footnote 3: The Oppo BDP-95 can simultaneously output stereo DSD via both of its HDMI outputs, but only HDMI 2 will support multichannel. On the other hand, the BDP-103 can simultaneously output multichannel sound via both of its HDMI outputs, but DSD only through HDMI 2.

Footnote 4: Marantz is offering an "ongoing bundle price" to buyers who purchase both the AV8801 and MM8077 at the same time. The $1000 discount makes the pairing especially attractive.

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