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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Home Theater Dynamic Duo Review!
Marantz AV8003 Preamp/Processor,
Marantz MM8003 7.1 Channel Amplifier

Performance Belies Modest Price


by John Gatski

There are a number of really good home theater processors and amplifiers on the market. Based on retail price, the build quality and feature set, I figured the Marantz AV8003 Preamp/Processor ($2,599) and the MM8003 eight-channel amplifier ($2,399) would be a good performance package in the world of multichannel playback — but nothing special. It turns out that the package is not merely good, but outstanding; the AV8003’s audio performance, in particular, is incredible!

Features
The THX Ultra-2 certified AV8003 is a full-featured pre/pro with all the latest audio decoding technologies, including DTS Master HD and Dolby Tru-HD; it is also compatible with HDMI-equipped SACD players that bitstream multichannel DSD digital signals. For non-BD sources, the AV8003 features a number of built-in processing modes to bring out multichannel ambiance from mono and stereo signals.
Since most buyers will use the Marantz as a home theater unit, it sports plenty of connection options for multichannel and, of course, stereo. It contains 7.1 preamp inputs and outputs via RCA jacks, and balanced XLR I/O for connection to high-end amplifiers — stereo and multichannel. There are four version 1.3 HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs. Stereo audio inputs include TV, VCR (x2), CD, and Aux. Both VCR inputs and Tape and CD also have fixed audio output jacks. The unit has two stereo zone outputs.
It turns out that the package is not merely good, but outstanding; the AV8003’s audio performance, in particular, is incredible!
The AV8003 has six digital audio inputs (three coaxial RCA and three optical, up to 96 kHz), and two digital audio outputs. Sadly, there are no AES/EBU balanced XLR digital audio inputs or outputs.
The audio connection architecture also includes the two back surround channel jacks for input and outputs via RCA and balanced XLR. If you don’t have the back channels, the processor can be set to down-mix the two back channels into the left and right surrounds, which is exactly how I ran the AV8003.
For audiophile listening, the AV8003 includes a headphone amp and a “Direct Mode” that is said to reduce measured noise by turning off video and other internal electrical circuits that can degrade audio quality.
Internally, the AV8003 has high-quality components including Cirrus Logic 24/192 kHz D/A converters and a high-quality power supply with a shielded toroidal transformer. The chassis also is electrically shielded to reduce the chance of RFI.
**Video-wise the Marantz is well equipped with the highly regarded Anchor Bay video processor chip, which offers excellent 1080P native video and superb up conversion of DVDs. The HD video connectivity includes four sets of component inputs and two sets of component outputs. The HDMI section includes the four inputs and the two HDMI outputs. The AV8003 does not slight the non-HD source video component owner — with plenty of composite and S-video inputs for TV, DSS/VCR, DVD, and VCR.
The rear panel includes a Network “Ethernet” connection to allow the AV8003 to be a bona fide distributor for network audio and video from a server — or even the Internet. The back panel also contains an RS232 port and a switch that allows the unit to offer bi-amped stereo audio output. The AV 8003’s dimensions will allow it to fit into most racks. It is just over 17-inches wide, 11-inches deep and nearly 7 inches tall. It weights in at 25.5 pounds. The cabinet saves some weight through plastic on the front panel, but it looks good.

Front Panel
With full control and function via the remote, the AV8003 front panel is not overwhelmed by buttons and knobs. It looks tidy and undaunting. Underneath the foldout door are selector buttons for input, surround modes, processing, zone, and 7.1 multichannel. Volume is controlled by a large rotary knob, as is the input selector. Headphone fans get a quality headphone jack to listen to stereo music through their favorite cans, and radio listeners get their FM/AM tuner, as well as XM/Sirrius satellite radio option. For those of us who seldom use the front panel buttons and knobs, the nicely laid out, mini-display remote RM-2001 contains all essential controls and setup. A separate remote operates the zone functions.

MM8003 Amplifier
The MM8003 is a high-quality, eight-channel amplifier said to deliver 140 WPC, though the specs say that the .08 percent distortion is for driving two channels simultaneously at that power rating (we did not measure this amp). It is likely that the amp produces 90-100 clean watts — with all channels driven at low distortion levels. Plenty of power for most home theater applications. The Current Drive Technology amp contains audiophile quality parts and signal path, including a 6,000 volt toroidal transformer in the power supply and high-grade capacitors and resistors. The amp’s internal parts are well shielded to prevent noise and because of its ample current, an internal fan keeps things cool with fairly quiet air intake operation.
The attractive, black-finished amp is well equipped with connectors, including XLRs and unbalanced RCA inputs for each of its eight channels. The speaker outputs consist of five-way binding posts. The XLR/RCA input switch enables the desired set of input jacks. The amp is also smartly equipped with inputs for external remote control and key pad control. The MM8003 measures 17 3/8 inches wide, 7 5/16 inches high and 15 1/8 inches deep (shallow enough for just about any equipment cabinet or rack); the unit weighs in at 41 pounds. Its dimensions are very similar to the AV8003, and the pair make for an attractive package for the cinema room.

Setup
Since most customers for the Marantz AV8003 will use the pre/pro for home cinema, that is the way I set it up, though I did connect several audiophile sources to see how it fared strictly as a music player.
The AV8003 was placed in my home cinema rack and connected to a Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD BD player. I linked the BD player via a WireWorld HDMI cable for the straight digital connection. Since the Pioneer is one of the best sounding players via its internal converters, I also connected the player to the analog RCA inputs, using premium Alpha Core solid-silver interconnects.
Since my Westlake/NHT speaker system is 5.1, I connected the AV8003 to the Marantz MA8003 via another set of Alpha Core solid-silver cables. MIT cables were used to link the amp to the speakers, which included Westlake LC 8.1n (L/R), Westlake LC2.65 (center) and a set of NHT Ones for the surrounds. All components were plugged into Essential Sound Products’ MusicCord Pro ES power strip.
Via the AV8003’s easy set up menus, I set the speaker size, level and distance parameters, measuring the channel levels with an Audio-Control RTA-3050 Real Time Analyzer. The AV8003 comes with the automated setup Audyssey EQ System (including a measurement microphone), but my room is already set up for my Westlake/NHT speakers and was not in need of any additional EQ. I have used the Audyssey in other rooms; its ease of use and ability to dial in a good EQ setting for most speaker locations can be helpful for those who don’t want to delve into room treatment.

The audition
I first set up the Marantz AV8003 with my Carver amps to get a baseline sonic reading on the pre/pro. I popped in the animated feature Blu-ray Bolt to showcase its 10-minute action sequences. In my setup, the best audio playback of this DTS Master 5.1 soundtrack BD has come from the Pioneer BDP-09FD’s analog outputs through various preamps’ input/output stages, including my Onkyo Professional pre/pro. The soundtrack is tremendously dynamic with a great width and depth.
When hearing the soundtrack through the BDP-09FD’s HDMI output to the Onkyo’s HDMI input and decoding via the preamp, the sound is dynamic enough, but some of the width and depth within the multichannel image shrinks a bit — compared to the analog input/output of the Pioneer and Onkyo. I have sampled other preamps and high-end receivers, and the result usually is the same; the Pioneer’s analog output-to-preamp analog input usually bests the HDMI input/internally preamp decoded audio.
But to my surprise, the Marantz AV8003’s internal HDMI digital audio decoding playback was virtually indistinguishable from the Pioneer analog output. The music soundtrack, the spatial dimension and the deep bass were relayed with absolute precision. Not a hint of harshness and wide dynamic range. This is one pre/pro whose internal decoding rivals the best of the separate players decoders — especially for high-resolution movie soundtracks.
On the latest Star Trek movie, I came to the same conclusion. The decoding is so good that maybe you don’t need a high-end player for the audio. The HDMI audio output, for example, of my $350 Sony BDP-550 from 2009 was just as impressive — with the Marantz doing the audio decoding.
I switched to HDMI output of high-res Music BDs, such as Woodstock and the WhoLive at Isle of Wight, and the Marantz kept on delivering — superb width and smoothness and a large soundscape via the 5.1 mixes. I could not believe that a $2,500 multichannel preamp was this good.
After playing a half-dozen of BDs, I then switched to the Marantz MM8003 multichannel amplifier. The amp’s sound was a touch brighter than my 12-year old made-in-USA Carvers, but not harsh. Since I run my front speakers full range, I could hear the MM8003‘s tight bass reproduction through the L-R speakers. The amp also had plenty of steam for loud dynamics in my room, which helped busy mixes cut through the sonic haze of many action movie high-res audio soundtracks; Transformers II, for example.

I switched to HDMI output of high-res Music BDs, such as Woodstock and the Who Live at Isle of Wight, and the Marantz kept on delivering — superb width and smoothness and a large soundscape via the 5.1 mixes. I could not believe that a $2,500 multichannel preamp was this good.

If you use the AV8003 for video processing, you will not be disappointed. The Anchor Bay processor delivers exemplary 1080P performance, not quite the equal of BDP-09FD Pioneer Elite Player, but close. The AV8003‘s up-conversion from 480p to 1080P is excellent, maybe a tick better than the Pioneer. Of course, you can bypass the AV8003‘s processing and let the player’s output directly link to the TV via the HDMI if you like the straight-wire approach.
I connected an Oppo BDP-83SE universal player and Benchmark DAC1 Pre 24-bit converter to the Marantz system to test its audiophile prowess. The analog input/output of the two components made for a very good high-res system, as did the internal decoding through the Oppo. The Yes - Fragile DVD-A classical guitar cut, “Mood for a Day,” was reproduced with most of its intricate string detail intact. The Marantz combo’s music presentation sounds a touch brighter than my Pass Labs dedicated audiophile set up when using the Marantz MM8003, but folks who want to play high-quality music will still like what they hear. It’s definitely hi-fi.
The headphone amp is quite goof as well; it easily drove my AKG K701 headphone. Digital input of audiophile music up to 96 kHz, was excellent. In comparison, the Benchmark DAC was a bit more present in its stereo image, but the Marantz bass was just as tight. The AV8003 did a nice job decoding SACDs from the Sony SCD-XA5400ES player’s (review forthcoming) HDMI output.
I had no functional or sonic complaints about the AV8003; there is an abundance of plastic in the cabinet and chassis, but it fits the price point. All the functions are intuitive and easy to use. And it offers plenty of connectivity for main I/O as well as extra zones; the balanced inputs and outputs are a good choice for the end user who wants to run long, noise-free audio cables.
The AV8003 runs quite warm, but no warmer than most other multichannel pre/pros I have auditioned. There is a lot going inside these boxes, and substantial heat should be expected. Adequate ventilation in the rack is a must.
The MM8003 amp did its job without a hitch; its tight, cool presentation works for home cinema audio, and considering its power capacity, the amp never got hot, thanks to the whisper quiet fan.

The verdict
The Marantz AV8003 and MM8003 are a first-choice tandem for high-quality home cinema playback. The AV8003 preamp/processor’s sonic capability was shockingly good for $2,500, and its video reproduction is no slouch either. The eight-channel MM8003 amp with its slightly forward presentation and power aplenty for most rooms makes it an able mate. The AV8003 gets a Stellar Sound Award because of the pre/pro’s sonic attributes. Attention audio manufacturer’s: send me more of this kind of product to test.
For more information, visit the Marantz web site.

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