Marantz SR4500 A/V Receiver
Most human beings have 10 fingers and 10 toes. Therefore the number 10 is a big deal to us. We use a base-10 number system, bestow honors in top-10 lists, and think in multiples of 10. So it's inevitable that makers of surround receivers have fixated on the number 100, or 10 times 10. For some of them it's the minimum power-output number allowed on any spec sheet, whether the amplifiers measure anywhere near that level of performance or not. Anything beyond that is likely to be in multiples of five (the fingers of one hand): 105 watts, 110 watts, 125 watts, etc. The more you become aware of this compulsion to express everything as a function of our physical form, the more comic it gets—humans are so self-absorbed. Or am I just projecting?
It takes moxie to come out with a receiver rated any less than 100 watts per channel, but that's what Marantz has done with the SR4500. Somewhere in the primordial mists of the human subconscious, this budget receiver's power rating of 80 watts per channel summons up the image of two mutilated hands, each missing a finger and dripping gore. The ultimate in nonconformity would be 79 or 81 watts per channel—numbers not divisible by 10—but the public may not be ready for that.
Marantz also insists that their 80 watts times seven, rated one channel at a time, drops to a not-too-shabby 56 watts per channel with five channels driven over its full frequency range. If our lab confirms that, it would mean that you'd get about 70 percent of rated power under real-world conditions when a movie soundtrack is pumping effects out of every channel. By stipulating five channels, as opposed to seven, Marantz may also be suggesting that five is the new 10. I expect to see a story about this in Cosmo any day now.
Set Me Up, Bartender
There are two setup routines (let's not even get into the significance of the number two). Simple setup allows the setup-challenged user to select any configuration from two to seven speakers, with or without the .1 that indicates a subwoofer (decimals—a swamp full of scary monsters). In lieu of speaker distances, there's a choice of small, medium, or large room sizes.
The regular setup routine includes a few niceties. One is an economy standby mode that saves power by shutting down a few more circuits than regular standby. The full complement of Dolby Pro Logic II(x) controls is present, so you can select the panorama mode and adjust front-to-back or side-to-side balances. SRS Circle Surround II is also adjustable, and you have a choice between manual and auto test tones.
Available crossover settings are 80, 100, and 120 hertz. I always use 80 Hz with my Paradigm Studio/20s. The back panel includes only one sub output—a minor inconvenience, since I use two subs, but I keep a Y-adapter around for that purpose. Only two S-video inputs are provided; but, if you add up all of the video interfaces, you can still connect eight different A/V source components, which should be plenty for any budget-receiver user. Not surprisingly, this receiver is a creature of the pre-HDMI and -1394 era.
The one serious ergonomic limitation is the lack of an onscreen user interface. Only the front panel confirms control settings during setup. It includes a full set of navigation keys, so you can stand before it and punch your way through; however, if you want to use the remote to access the setup menu, you'll find yourself squinting at the white fluorescent display from across the room.
Straight Down the Middle
When receivers drop into the three-figure range, especially below $500, what they do wrong is usually easier to describe than what they do right. Reduced dynamics and decreased subtlety are givens—you get what you pay for. The main question becomes: How much detail is the manufacturer willing to give up to avoid discomfort?
Here's the answer: not much. The SR4500 may not be perfectly neutral, but it comes closer than any other budget receiver I've ever heard. The midrange is just slightly warm; compared with the $1,699 Marantz receiver I reviewed two years ago, it has a little less extension in the highest audible frequencies—not a meat-cleaver chopping-off of highs, just a subtle reduction in air. The soundstage is not humongous but is well defined, and you can use the HT-EQ circuit to trade off some detail for size.
What's remarkable, though, is how strongly the SR4500 retains the family resemblance. I never felt the need to avoid violins. In fact, the receiver stood up well to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with its massed strings and brass delivering storms of dissonance. Hearing this surround mix on Telarc's SACD release with Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was thrilling, not irritating. While my system's 12- and 8-inch subs were in charge of the thundering tympani—ah, the joys of biamplification—a lot of the percussive information fell above the 80-Hz crossover, and the receiver handled the transition with aplomb.
Drums, Bass, More Drums
The most violent thing I auditioned was the Van Helsing DVD. The Dolby Digital soundtrack accompanied vampire attacks with steady, unrelenting waves of broad-frequency pounding, and again a lot of it fell just above the crossover point. This time, more compression was audible; but, even with five channels delivering heavy amounts of wide-bandwidth effects, clipping didn't take a harsh, ear-shredding form. The SR4500 is capable of moments of power, if not brute force.
To get a firmer fix on bass performance, I used two tracks recommended by Hsu Research, maker of formidable budget subwoofers. I ran each track full-range with the subs off, then with the crossover and subs on, in both stereo and Dolby Pro Logic II's Music mode. The title track of Bela Fleck's "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo" includes a slightly rasping bass. Because basses are generally tuned no lower than 42 Hz, this isn't the best test for bass extension, but Hsu recommends it for low-frequency detail. Run full-range, the Marantz and the Paradigms did bring the rasp into finer focus. Reactivating the subs and the 80-Hz crossover lost a little of the focus—apparently the Paradigms have the advantage there—but brought more overall impact and depth.
"Poem of the Chinese Drum," from Yim Hok-Man's Naxos CD Poem of Thunder, is a 10-minute orgy of woofer pounding and an excellent test of both bass extension and bass reverb. Switched back to full-range output, the receiver actually delivered both impact and reverb in reasonably satisfying amounts, although the impact was stronger in stereo than in surround, and the reverb was more vivid in surround than in stereo. Turning the subs back on delivered the best of everything.
My recent Beatles jag continued with back-to-back play-throughs of Help, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. With these three records, the Fab Four evolved from confident chart-toppers to exploratory mavericks. The CD releases of the late 1990s sound way better than my American-made vinyl ever did; while playing them on any equipment brings me inexpressible happiness, the Marantz did full justice to their rich vocal arrangements and bright, electric tone colors.
Dolby Pro Logic II is my almost-invariable choice for listening to stereo source material. However, the SR4500 also offers the option of Circle Surround II. Both formats extract matrixed surround from videocassettes and analog television broadcasts. I find CS II to be less neutral and a little brighter.
Not Just a Necessary Evil
The Marantz SR4500 has changed my attitude toward the budget receiver. Until now, I've seen it as a necessary evil—the self-imposed hell that people dive into because they can't believe a higher-end product is worth four figures. Now that I've heard one I like, though, I see it as a viable alternative for people who can't afford to spend more, as well as an attractive step-up option for those graduating from home-theater-in-a-box systems to something higher-performing and more flexible.
That old axiom "you get what you pay for" is still in force, and I think that people who can afford more performance should make the investment. Even so, the next time someone asks for a budget-receiver recommendation, instead of mumbling vaguely about which manufacturer might do the least damage, I'll come up with a make and model number. This one.
* Mark Fleischmann's book, Practical Home Theater, is now in its fourth edition (www.quietriverpress.com).
• More neutrality and better dynamics than most budget receivers muster
• Sounds more powerful than you might expect
• Simple setup removes some calculations