The Marantz SR9600 THX Ultra 2 AV Surround Receiver

DVD players have become so "commoditized" that it's typical today for players to sell for less than $100. And you know what? Some of these inexpensive players feature progressive scan output and perform quite well overall. I saw one such player advertised in my local paper today selling for $18! It wasn't too long ago that de-interlacing meant adding a $10,000 Faroudja scaler to an already expensive DVD player.

If you don't think the same thing hasn't happened to AV Receivers, consider that I recently bought a Dolby Digital/DTS-equipped Pez dispenser (not really, but probably soon).

Full processing suites from Dolby and DTS can be found in AV receivers costing as little as $500. You can also find AVRs with seven channels of amplification, microphone-based auto calibration, adjustable crossover frequencies and even HDMI switching for well under $1,000.

Major companies can afford to produce such inexpensive, feature-laden, high performance products due to economies of scale. Dolby Digital/DTS/DSP processing and D/A converter chips, once exotic and expensive, have themselves become commoditized, especially when purchased in bulk. Power ratings are often fudged, or only apply with two channels driven. Sound quality at best may be merely acceptable, and build quality is cheap. Still, these receivers are remarkable values.

At the other end of the scale are the AV receiver heavyweights. Marantz's THX Ultra 2-Certified $4,199 flagship receiver includes all of the features described above, of course, plus seven discrete 140-Watt,"current feedback" amplifiers, eight channels of 24-bit/192k "audiophile grade" D/A converters, dual 32-bit surround sound/DSP microprocessors, two IEEE 1394 audio interfaces, a nine-band equalizer separately adjustable for each of the seven channels, HDCD decoding ("what's that?" say the youngsters), multi-zone capabilities, and more.

So, as you would expect, this "top shelf" design is (over) loaded with features, but most of them are available on name-brand models costing far less. So what is Marantz offering here to provide sufficient incentive for a buyer to part with $4,199? That's what I hoped to find out when I asked to review this big, chunky, handsome AV receiver.

Out of the Box
With some other top of the line AV receivers beginning to resemble office buildings in scale, with a maze-of-buttons-and-knobs to rival the original Moog synthesizer, the elegantly styled SR9600 is refreshingly compact (relatively speaking) and uncluttered.

Thanks to a rear panel layout that, given the unit's complexity and flexibility (not to mention its relative compactness), can only be described as a miraculous model of anally-retentive organizational clarity, getting inputs and outputs connected was easy and painless. With four component and two HDMI video inputs (version 1.1 HDMI, which means 1080p video and hi-res PCM from Blu-ray and HD DVD players are a go), plus four each coaxial and Toslink optical digital audio inputs, the SR9600 has sufficient flexibility to handle practically any AV eventuality.

The engineering challenge in offering such a simplified presentation is to do it without embedding functionality so deeply within a nested hierarchy that accomplishing the most basic of AV tasks becomes a combination of treasure hunt and brain teaser. There's nothing more frustrating than carefully following instructions in a dictionary-sized manual, getting everything set up perfectly and then, a day later, forgetting how to access a basic function because it's "nested" within some other control. As I've previously written, "nests" are for birds, not AV receivers.

So let me begin by saying that out of the box, despite its complex functionality and elegant surface simplicity, the SR9600 was the first AV receiver I have ever reviewed that I was able to set up and configure to perfection without cracking the instruction manual. So instinctive is the operating system, not once did I hit a dead end.

Now, that is a major event, and it's something to which a buyer willing to part with more than $4,000 for an AV receiver is entitled. What's more, once I had settled in to enjoy some SACD-based surround sound music, I perused the instruction manual and found it to be well written in jargon-free, plain English, and exceedingly well organized and easy to understand. That is a good thing because I am sure I have more experience in setting up an AV receiver than 99% of the potential buyers of the SR-9600's or any other luxury receiver. While it's true that many retailers will provide in home setup service for buyers of an expensive receiver like this, that is hardly an excuse for shoddy instructions.

Compare that to the frustrating experience I had recently trying to help a friend's son set up a Denon AVR-1907 receiver. At $550 this is a phenomenal bargain of a 7.1-channel receiver, but I pity any home theater novice attempting to set up and configure it, with or without the instruction manual. I had trouble doing it and even more trouble trying to make sense of the pathetic instruction manual. I took Denon to task years ago over its poorly written manuals (in Japan-speak English), and clearly they haven't changed.

But thanks to a combination of ergonomically efficient setup software, a visually appealing on-screen display and the best touch-screen remote control I've yet used, configuring the SR9600 was not just free of hair pulling dead ends, it was actually pleasurable. Even if you don't like touch-screen remotes, this one will change your mind. It does what you tell it to do, not what the "button" adjacent to the one you're trying to push commands. The user interface alone is worth an extra $1,000 in my book.

Using the SR9600 day-to-day was equally pleasurable, in part because of the remote, but also because of the front panel's uncluttered layout, and the large, easy to read and logically laid-out fluorescent display. Even from a good distance away, it's easy to monitor everything the receiver is doing. You'll know the input, the surround mode, which speakers are active, and even when an analog input is overloading the A/D converter. Lowering the front panel door gains access to the seldom-used controls, including a full function circular cursor system used for initial setup and tuner programming.

I'll spare you the minute setup details because by now these should be more or less familiar to anyone who's ever set up a home theater receiver, except to say that using the MRAC (Marantz Room Acoustic Calibration—I said the instructions were jargon-free; they are not acronym free) proved to be both accurate and easy. I set the microphone up on a tripod and at the push of a button, the tones detect how many speakers you're using (5.1 or 7.1), whether or not their response extends below 80Hz, how far each is from the listening position, and even the in-room response of each, which is then compensated to achieve "flat" performance. I found the auto setup results to be mostly accurate, though the distance settings were slightly off, which is something the manual warns can be the case, but says to ignore. While I did listen with the system so adjusted, I mostly listened with the speaker response un-equalized because I was in the midst of a speaker review at the same time.