by Oliver Amnuayphol
What makes a great A/V receiver? Could it be its size, heft, or weight? Maybe prodigious power reserves, enough to supply a nuclear reactor? Or perhaps the most bells 'n whistles that can be crammed into a single box? While I'm sure there are a great many folks who need a no-holds barred, top of the line A/V receiver, I suspect there are just as many enthusiasts like myself who love the thrill of the home cinema experience but whose systems, for various reasons, are much more modest in stature. Unfortunately for me, my reasons are such that I own a modestly-sized system because I have a modestly-sized space: I've got a bad case of "S.O.S.," or Short-On-Space syndrome.
For most of us, having "S.O.S" spells doom: We usually end up having to sacrifice ultimate performance in favor of compact gear. My own media center, for example, simply won't fit an A/V receiver of standard height and depth. And figuring out a new storage solution for my gear is out of the question: I like my media center. I wanna keep my media center. But I don't wanna give up any performance for the sake of size, either--which meant that, for the longest time, finding a suitable receiver proved difficult. Thank goodness then we started carrying Marantz gear last year: Their receivers have been a huge hit with our customers, perfectly matching our speakers in terms of performance and value.
This fortuitous turn of events also gave me the chance to audition the Marantz NR1601, a sleek 'n slimline, HDMI 1.4a A/V receiver whose rather inconspicuous dimensions of 17-3/8 x 4-3/16 x 14-1/2 inches meant it would fit perfectly inside the space afforded by my entertainment center. Its clean, un-cluttered and curved fascia is much to my liking, and the NR1601 is packed with enough of the latest features home theater aficionados would consider important--including on board Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD Master Audio processing, Audyssey MultiEQ/calibration, and 3D capability. And lest you think small size also means small sound, think again: The Marantz NR1601 has HUGE performance chops, producing a warm yet detailed, gutsy yet refined sound with power to spare (its 50 x 7 wpc rating really seems quite conservative; I never found myself needing any more wattage). Of course, no entry level receiver is without flaw (for example, its archaic, MS-DOS-inspired on-screen menu can't be used over HDMI), but with a retail price of only $599, the NR1601 is a great value; I liked it so much I decided to buy one for myself.
Fast-forward a year after the NR1601's debut to the present, and Marantz has released an updated version of this svelte receiver, the NR1602. Priced at $649 (only $50 higher than the 1601), its upgrades include built in Ethernet, networking, and Airplay capabilities for streaming media; DLNA compliance; internet and HD radio; and praise be to the A/V receiver gods, a much improved and modern-looking on-screen menu that's usable over HDMI. And while these improvements may seem relatively minor, they've made interacting with the NR1602 an absolute pleasure, firmly placing this receiver at the top of its price class. The only minor quibble I have with the 1602 concerns its remote control: While its functionality is a nice improvement over the 1601, it curiously lacks the previous version's backlighting feature. Not a dealbreaker once you know where the buttons are, but a strange omission nonetheless.
All of which begs the question: Have Marantz sacrificed anything in the way of performance for more features? Thankfully, the answer is not at all: The NR1602 simply builds upon the strengths of the 1601 while retaining its supremely musical and highly involving sound. It was devoid of any major timbral or tonal response errors, and its frequency spectrum was very well balanced from top to bottom. In absolute terms, the NR1602 tilts ever so slightly to the warm side of things, but by no means was this ever cloying; in fact, harsh-sounding recordings were much more enjoyable because of it. A perfect example is "Interstate Love Song" from Stone Temple Pilots' second release, Purple: Here the NR1602 seemed to add a bit more body to the DeLeo brothers' bass and lead guitars than I'm used to, but it delivered the heavily distorted cymbal crashes completely intact and without masking any detail. Turning next to "I am the Walrus" from the recent CD remaster of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, I was impressed to hear how all of the studio effects came through unscathed: This svelte receiver could rock out with the best of them when called for, all the while maintaining perfect control and composure. Also impressive was the way the NR1602 handled music of a more refined nature, such as Hilary Hahn's wonderful SACD of the Elgar violin concerto; listen to how NR1602 communicates all the richness, texture and lyricism Hahn pulls from her violin while never making it sound the least bit strident.
The NR1602 was equally adept at reproducing cinematic soundtracks, often times suprising me with its abilty to deliver a brawny sound when called for. For example, watching the opening car chase scene from Quantum of Solace on Blu-ray for the umpteenth time, I relished in the Marantz' pleasingly rich tonal character and its ability to track dynamic changes with relative ease. What's more, this little Marantz also delivered a consistently clear and reasonably detailed sonic picture regardless of volume, and its absence of any harshness or glare is rare among receivers at this price. Also noteworthy was an unexpected little bonus with the NR1602: For whatever reason, it seems to have a bit more available power, or at the very least a bit more gain, than the 1601: Used with my full Aperion Verus Forte SD 5.1 speaker system (which possess fairly average sensitivity ratings), I can keep the volume control a smidge lower than before (around -30 dB for normal listening levels and -20 dB if I really wanna tear down the walls) and get the same measured SPLs. Indeed, there's plenty of headroom on tap, and there should be more than enough usable power for most average size rooms.
If you're an iPhone/iPad owner and looking to pipe music to your A/V system, the Marantz NR1602 makes streaming music easy via its Airplay feature: I was able to wirelessly stream tunes from my iPhone to the receiver in a matter of minutes; I could also use my iPhone's remote app to control music stored on my computer's iTunes library. As for its video switching/processing capabilities, the Marantz NR1602 was excellent: I found no visible shortcomings with HD over Blu-ray or digital cable, and there were only minor processing artifacts (such as mild jaggies and contouring) when viewing SD cable. Overall I would say the video converter is on par with those in other quality receivers at this price point: It won't do anything magical to your video signals, but it won't harm them, either.
No doubt about it, I'm completely smitten by the Marantz NR1602: It's a heck of a fine receiver, perfect for today's multi-use, networked and integrated home entertainment systems. No other reasonably-priced home theater receiver that I'm aware of offers this combination of sound quality, features, ergonomics, and honestly rated power in such a decor-friendly package for such a low price. And sure, if pressed I'll tell you there are some slight sins of omission with this receiver (as there are with all budget receivers), but the NR1602's shortcomings are so minor that I couldn't imagine anyone shopping for a receiver in this price range not being perfectly happy with it. If you need an A/V receiver that's small in size but big on performance, look no further: The Marantz NR1602 is sure to please.