The Power of One: Five Soundbar Speaker Systems Marantz ES7001

Marantz ES7001 ($1,400)

Like the Philips model, Marantz’s ES7001 is an active soundbar that contains its own amplification and input panel. On the audio side, inputs include three optical digital and two stereo analog. It would’ve been nice if one of those digital inputs was coaxial, but at least there are three of them to accommodate more sources. Marantz adds HDMI switching in the form of two HDMI 1.1 inputs and one HDMI output. The inputs are passthrough only, providing no upconversion or deinterlacing, and they will pass 1080p/24 or 1080p/60. You can’t reassign the inputs; if you want to use HDMI for video, you must use it for audio, too. The side-facing HDMI connections are recessed in a rather small cabinet, so I had trouble feeding a bulky, hard-to-bend Monster HDMI cable into the HDMI output.

The ES7001 doesn’t come with its own proprietary subwoofer, but you can connect an optional subwoofer using the preout located on the side panel. Three of the soundbars in this Face Off require that you bring your own subwoofer, and I used the same model with all three: the $350 Polk PSW111, which has an 8-inch woofer, a 150-watt amplifier, and LFE, line-level, and speaker-level inputs. With the press of a button on the remote, you can tell the ES7001 that you’ve connected a subwoofer so that it redirects the lower frequencies. Either my review sample’s preout connector didn’t function properly or Marantz doesn’t think the ES7001 needs much bass support, because the LFE level that this unit sent to the Polk subwoofer was fairly low compared with the other systems. The connection panel also includes a control port for use with Marantz’s own SW7001 subwoofer, plus a remote output jack to control other Marantz equipment, like the $200 IS201 iPod dock.

While not the longest soundbar in the group, the ES7001 was the heaviest, and neither a wall-mount nor a tabletop base is included. Participants used words like “boxy” and “large” to describe its appearance, and Johnny thought the combination of silver, black, and a fabric grille was too much. The front panel includes a simple two-digit LCD that shows the volume level and special codes to describe various setup parameters. You’ll want to have the short, easy-to-follow manual on hand to learn what the codes mean during the setup process, which is quick and easy. Configuring Marantz’s Optimal Source Distribution (OPSODIS) surround technology involves setting the general distance and height for the speaker and indicating whether one or several people will be listening. These settings are easy to change via direct buttons on the remote, which has a clean, intuitive button layout and can control three additional devices, but it lacks backlighting.

Sound-mode options include the ones most of us want—Dolby Digital, DTS, PCM, AAC, and Dolby Pro Logic II Music and Movie—and omits any special DSP modes, like sports or news. There are few audio adjustments at your disposal. Night and Binaural modes are available, but you can’t fine-tune individual channel levels or even make basic treble and bass adjustments. Obviously, you can manually adjust bass level on the subwoofer; but, within the ES7001 itself, you get what you get.

And what you get is great dynamic ability and a fuller midrange than the other systems could produce. One of the reasons for the larger cabinet is that Marantz went with a three-way speaker design with slightly larger woofers and midrange drivers. I found the high frequencies to be smoother at louder volume levels, and musical instruments in the Immortal Beloved track had more air behind them; they didn’t sound as constrained. Johnny enjoyed the ES7001’s dynamics and commented several times on the system’s solid midbass performance.

The use of larger drivers also mandates the use of fewer drivers; the ES7001 must divvy up all of the various sound elements amongst two tweeters, two mids, and two woofers, and the OPSODIS technology makes processing choices that don’t always work. Dano and I, who are more familiar with how the two-channel music demos should sound, felt that vocals and instruments often had an echoey, processed quality. Scott had the same observation about male vocals in the Underworld track. The more dense and complex the demo material was, the more processing we heard. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t quite right, either. It distracted Dano and Scott more than Johnny, who made no mention of it in his notes.

The system’s dynamic ability helps it create a large soundstage, but it didn’t produce a thorough sense of envelopment, even to the sides. Johnny said that the Lord of the Rings demo sounded like it was coming solely from the front of the room. When I placed the soundbar low on the TV stand, Scott felt that effects often sounded like they were coming from behind the speaker, while the higher, against-the-wall placement yielded better results. Dano observed that the multichannel imaging wasn’t as precise as he would like.

When it came to ranking each system’s audio performance, the Marantz, Yamaha, and Denon models were all very close. Had one person switched two rankings, it would have been a three-way tie. Ultimately, each system had strengths and weaknesses that affected each listener differently. The ES7001 isn’t the most convincing soundbar and makes some odd processing choices, but its ability to produce a fuller, less bright, more dynamic sound appealed to our panelists, earning it second place in audio performance. Ultimately, however, the unit’s higher price tag and bulky design dropped it to fourth place overall.