Finding the audio-video receiver (AVR) that meets every requirement is a little like going to a restaurant and having to choose a combo platter from either Column A, Column B, or Column C—inevitably each mouthful ends up being a negotiated settlement that doesn’t quite satisfy the palate. “Can I get DTS 96/24 and HDCD with that?” Sorry, no DTS, just HDCD. “Seven channels or DVI or HDMI?” No substitutions, buddy.
An old hand at gauging current taste, Marantz is a keen observer of the broader AVR buffet. And its midsize SR8500 has pulled together a smorgasbord of favorites from every corner of the menu.
In the current Marantz AVR lineup the THX-Select SR8500 nestles comfortably between the well-appointed SR7500 ($1099) and the $3999 SR9600—a 140Wpc, dual-tuner THX Ultra2 mega-ceiver. Like most AVRs the SR8500 has grown a little beefier and taller. And like all premium Marantz components the chassis is reinforced by a copper-clad double bottom plate to isolate internal circuits from RF interference. The handsome front panel has been swept clean of navigation keys and extraneous buttons, which are neatly hidden behind a drop-gate panel. Only the essentials, a large volume and matching input knob, are visible.
The SR8500’s seven-channel amplifier section has been juiced up to a continuous 125W per channel. Digital-to-analog conversion is via 24- bit/192kHz DACs, with Cirrus Logic supplying the dual-chip 32-bit DSP engine. The SR8500 comes with a plethora of A/V inputs and outputs, including a pair of DVI inputs for DVIequipped DVD players or set-top boxes. Thoughtfully the Marantz manual reminds users to make sure that both the source and companion display are compliant with HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) before using the DVI connectors. Video upconversion is also provided.
With its legendary emphasis on audio quality Marantz provides a PURE DIRECT mode that bypasses all tone and bass-management controls. It also allows the user to assign unused surround-back channels to power a set of stereo speakers in a second zone or to bi-amp front L/R speakers. Another significant feature is a VOFF selector, which shuts down video circuitry—a plus for those A/V-ophiles who run their progressive-scan DVD players directly into their display devices. Also included is independent channel setup for the 7.1-channel input, and LIP SYNC for aligning audio with the picture. Finally, there are a wealth of DC triggers, assignable/auto-detect inputs for digital and analog sources, and a vigorous multiroom set-up menu. Like so many AVRs today, the SR8500 employs an auto-room-calibration system—Marantz Room Acoustic Calibration (M.R.A.C.), an automated multichannel speaker setup protocol (with signal generator and microphone) that checks speaker connections and speaker size, calibrates distance, and matches output at the listening position. The sophistication of these auto-calibration programs varies from manufacturer to manufacturer— the more advanced versions even include automated room equalization. M.R.A.C. is a fairly standard variant. It’s simple to use via Marantz’s familiar and easily navigable on-screen display, and for the most part works as advertised. After noting the results from my own “manual” setup (SPL meter and tape measure), I plugged the microphone into the front panel of the SR8500, secured it onto the base of my trusty tripod, and adjusted the tripod to listening height. The program checks for ambient noise before calibration commences. Highly sensitive (though it doesn’t check for correct polarity), it wouldn’t proceed until a couple of birds stopped singing outside a window. I also found that it was helpful to tabulate the results of the automatic calibration and run the setup a second or third time.
Like a fine musical instrument— whether it’s a priceless Strad, a Martin acoustic guitar, or a vintage Stratocaster—electronics often have a “house” sound. Of the recent Marantz AVRs I’ve evaluated—and these include the SR8200 and SR7300 OSE (Issues 43 and 50, respectively)—the SR8500 shows a “family resemblance.” It has a solid, neutral midrange, but with a slightly warmer overall character that enriches the midbass and sweetens the treble. However, unlike the SR8200, which sometimes sounded a bit passive and lacked the dynamic equivalent of spring in its step, the SR8500 is more propulsive and energized. During Nickel Creek’s “Spit on a Stranger” [This Side, Sugar Hill], notes skipped from guitar and mandolin strings and bounced off the soundboard with a liveliness that reminded me of my highend amplification. The treble was plainly more vivid and open, but never edgy. But with increased resolution there was also less forgiveness of speakers with a rising treble. The SR8500 doesn’t spec out to be appreciably more powerful, but in the symphonic world of Vaughan Williams’ Antartica [Bournemouth, Bakels, Naxos] it seemed stronger in the midbass and smoother on top with greater overall image focus. Crescendos were also livelier. It certainly stepped up to the plate convincingly enough to drive my 83dB-sensitive ATC monitors— a torture test that even Mel Gibson might admire. Two issues that have historically plagued receivers are soundstaging and transparency. To some extent a general sense of soundstage and image imprecision and a sensation of dynamic constriction cloud the sonics of many, if not most mid-priced AVRs. The subliminal “distance” these artifacts create has consistently been chipped away in recent years, and the SR8500 continues in this promising direction. On the Rutter Requiem [Reference Recordings 57], the distinct layering of voices of the Turtle Creek Chorale—harmonies distinct yet like a single overwhelming voice—the pipe organ’s sotto voce entrance, even glimmerings of the scope of the recording hall would only have been resolved by premium components a few years ago. The SR8500 reproduces such subtleties with a sophistication that hasn’t been surpassed by any AVR I’ve reviewed under $2000.
Multichannel Intimate and Grand
On the grand cinematic scale of The Aviator, the sound designers clearly relished the challenge of recreating the brief flight of Howard Hughes’ eightengine “Spruce Goose.” Hilariously belying any kind of logic, engine number one fires up in the right surround, two in the left surround, three in the right front, four in the left and, as the camera dollies back, the remaining engines move to the center and ultimately span the breadth of the LCRs. The surround steering was precise and the ragged sound of unmuffled internal combustion prop engines was brilliantly detailed. However, it’s the quiet moments in unpretentious movies like Vera Drake that illuminate a receiver’s performance more than the overly-engineered and pretentious sound design of Hollywood blockbusters. As the title character, Imelda Staunton’s achingly restrained acting is expertly framed by a cast (and sound mixer) that recreates the world of the postwar British working class. The Marantz captured the garbled vowels and swallowed consonants of the families’ accents with a naturalism that never crossed over into edginess. A couple of minor peeves: When you make channel-level adjustments during a movie, the SR8500 doesn’t automatically return to the memorized calibrated setting the next time the receiver is powered on; bass management could also be updated with a more flexible range of filters beyond the 80, 100, 120Hz currently offered. The remote control was also a step backward from Marantz’ hefty RC3200 I reviewed with the SR8200. I liked the blue-lit LCD screen, but the army of look-alike buttons was barely navigable.