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Product Review - Marantz AV-550 Preamplifier/Surround Sound Processor - September, 1998

Ralph Calabria

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Marantz AV-550 Preamplifier/Surround Sound Processor

Dual DSP Processing for Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby Digital

Optical, Coaxial, and RF Inputs; Built-In RF Demodulator; Lucasfilm Cinema Re-EQ

Includes RC2000 Mark II Programmable Remote Control

Size: 4"H x 16 3/4"W x 13 1/4"D

Weight: 8 Pounds

MSRP: $1,000 USA

 

Marantz America Inc., 440 Medinah Road, Roselle, Illinois 60172; Phone 630-307-3100; Fax 630-307-2687; Web http://www.marantzamerica.com.

Introduction

Mass-market audio/video components just keep getting less expensive every year. When Dolby Surround, and then Dolby Pro Logic (DPL) were first made available for home use, buying a receiver that decoded surround sound movies was quite expensive. Now you can buy a Pro Logic receiver for a song and a dance (and $199). Then came Dolby Digital (DD). Receivers and stand-alone DD decoders were also quite expensive when first introduced not too long ago. I think everyone was amazed at how quickly DD became very affordable. DD receivers are now available for about $500. You can even buy a DVD player with a built-in DD decoder for under $500 street price. By early 1999, receivers will have DD and DTS. So, why even bother to review a Dolby Digital preamp/processor that costs $1,000?! I could sum up the answer to that question in three words: quality, flexibility, and great sound (O.K. four words). You'll soon get my point.

Product Features

The AV-550 is a preamp/processor that uses a Yamaha dual-DSP decoding chip: one to decode Dolby Pro Logic (YSS-241) and another for Dolby Digital (YSS-243). It is supplied with both coaxial and optical digital inputs for connecting a DVD player or satellite dish (for Dolby Digital signals). There is also a RF demodulator for playing DD laserdiscs from a DD compatible laserdisc player (players with AC-3 RF output). Other surround modes include 3-stereo, Hall, Movie, and Matrix. Cutoff and slope for use with small speakers and a subwoofer are given as 100 Hz with 24 db/octave low pass, and 12 db/octave high pass.

All THX certified receivers and preamp/processors are equipped with Re-EQ, plus timbre matching and decorrelation. Although the AV-550 is not THX certified, it does come with Lucasfilm Cinema Re-EQ technology. This feature can be used during Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital playback. The circuitry essentially rolls off the "beefed up" high frequencies that are added to movie soundtracks, to compensate for theater acoustics, as well as having to send high frequency sound through the movie screen (a movie screen has little holes in it, so the sound from the main front speakers behind the screen can pass through to the audience).

The AV-550 is supplied with a full complement of composite and S-video inputs, and video/audio dubbing from multiple sources is possible using the on-screen menus shown on your TV screen. Marantz AV550 Rear PanelAudio inputs include CD, one tape loop, one VCR loop, DSS (or TV), LD, DVD, and a front panel AUX. There is no phono preamp, so if you're into vinyl, you have to purchase one separately. The AV-550 also has multi-room capability. A second set of preamp outputs are supplied for independent control of a second room audio system. To take full advantage of the multi-room feature, Marantz recommends purchasing their multi-room control unit and signal receiver. Both rooms may be run simultaneously. Also supplied is a 30 station preset AM/FM tuner. Two unswitched AC outlets are included on the back panel for convenience.

All this is commanded by Marantz' RC2000 Mark II Remote Control. I own the original RC2000 (see complete review in Volume_4_# 2, 1997) and still love it. The Mark II is the second-generation product that has some added benefits over the first version. Most importantly, the Mark II stores ALL programmed commands as permanent memory (EPROM), so if the batteries run down (and they run down quickly), you won't lose all that hard work you've done in programming all your other remotes into the Mark II. The ergonomics are slightly better as well. The transport keys are now located in the middle of the remote, making them easier to access. Also added are channel up/down buttons, and the TAPE 2 direct button is replaced with a DVD button. Marantz claims the MARK II uses less power than the RC2000. I haven't had the remote long enough to tell.

The AV-550 on-screen display (OSD) is pretty detailed and intuitive. However, the six display screens exist in multi-layers, so this makes it rather difficult to control the AV-550 without the OSD. If you memorize the sequences of the OSD, you can use the big LED front display on the 550 (a nice feature) to guide you through the screens, but it's not easy. It takes practice.

The AV-550 uses a unique way of telling you what the status of your DD program is. The processor uses a logical numbering system that clearly shows this status. For example, if a DVD is recorded in DD 5.1, the LED readout will show 3 / 2.1, indicating that it is recorded in DD (3 fronts, 2 rears, and the .1 indicating the LFE channel is present). If, for example the program material is recorded in DD but has no LFE channel (as in the 1812 Overture on Delos' DVD Spectacular), the LED indicates 3/2. There has been a lot of confusion as to what movies are encoded in true 5.1 DD, and what movies are two channel stereo, or even mono (like "The Terminator"). DD can use all 5.1 channels or it can use just one, but it is still DD. If a DD bitstream is fed to the AV-550, and it is in mono (for example, the special features section of the "Contact" DVD), the LED will display 1/0. Dolby Pro Logic is indicated as 3/1, and stereo is indicated as 2/0. I particularly liked this feature.

Listening Evaluation

Setting up the AV-550 was pretty straightforward. I used the OSD menus to get into the test tone generator. Unfortunately, there was no test tone signal for the subwoofer channel. (Why am I not surprised? Marantz' DP-870 DD processor also lacks a sub test tone.) Adjusting the volumes using a SPL meter was easy. Separate surround delay settings are supplied for Pro Logic and DD. There is also an adjustable center-channel delay. All sound evaluations were performed with the treble and bass knobs set at the center detent position.

Associated equipment:

B&K AV5000 5-channel amp
Pioneer CLD-D703 laserdisc player; AC-3 modified
Panasonic A310 DVD player
ACI Titan powered Sub
DIY Audax A652 mains
Paradigm CC-350 center speaker
Paradigm ADP-150 surround speakers
Audioquest and Nordost Flatline cables

I tested the AV-550 using several CDs, laserdiscs and DVDs. First came the music. I find a lot of "digital" receivers to be on the bright side. This, in part, comes from the digital processing and the amplifier system found in receivers. In the case of the Marantz digital processing, the sound was very neutral when playing CDs from the laserdisc player. I still preferred the analog sound of the B&K preamp in my reference system, however, which is very laid back. The sound was still as harsh as ever when I played CDs from the DVD player, but this was clearly the DVD player's fault. Musically, this preamp is a cut above most receivers I've heard, although it's difficult to determine in my evaluation whether this was attributed to the amplifier used or the actual circuitry in the AV-550. All in all, however, the sound coming from the combination of the Marantz and the B&K was very clean.

On movie playback, the AV-550 really shined. Dolby Digital movies had as much punch and detail as I have heard. The steering in Dolby Pro Logic was excellent as well, providing good balance and channel separation. The Cinema Re-EQ did a good job of softening the program material, but to my ears, there wasn't much softening to be done. This feature's performance really depends on how the program material was recorded. Some movies sound brighter than others. "Jurassic Park" has a fairly bright soundtrack, which sounded softer when the Re-EQ circuitry was turned on. The processor is very quiet (background noise) as well. My B&K always produces a little hum, not enough to really complain about, but nonetheless a hum. The AV-550 was "humless", emitting an ever-so-slight hiss from the front speakers. In DD, the hiss disappeared.

The other surround modes are getting to be superfluous. The MATRIX surround mode is designed to be used when watching sports or outdoor live concerts, and it did an OK job of accomplishing the ambiance of the "great outdoors". The HALL and MOVIE SURROUND modes were totally useless to me.

Summary

Marantz has constructed this processor with quality in mind. It's a very handsome design in a nice little bundle, providing DPL and DD decoding. In terms of flexibility, any preamp, in general, will give you that. It enables you to choose the power amplifier(s) to suit your needs and budget concerns. Add to that multi-room capability, a great programmable remote, and video/audio switching, and the AV-550 becomes very attractive. If you're looking to upgrade your preamp to DD, or if you're looking into going the separates route, take a gander at the AV-550. You may like what you see and hear.

Ralph Calabria


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