Generally, when you're buying an AV receiver it comes down to features and performance, with aesthetics being a wash; there's little difference among all the bulky, black boxes. But in the case of the Marantz NR1601, the main appeal is its slimline design; its 4.19-inch height is substantially smaller than a traditional AV receiver.
Even better, the Marantz's slender dimensions don't have a negative impact on its sound quality; it's one of the better-sounding midrange receivers we've tested this year.
The main trade-offs are HDMI inputs and price. The NR1601 only features four HDMI inputs, whereas many competitors have six, and its $600 price tag is notably more than, say, the $450 Pioneer VSX-1020-K. However, if you don't need tons of HDMI connectivity and are willing to pay for its good looks, the Marantz NR1601 is the way to go.
The NR1601's slimline design makes it unique in the AV receiver market. At just 4.19 inches high, it's much smaller than your typical AV receiver, looking more like a high-end Blu-ray player than any of its competitors. It's also a tad shallower than a traditional AV receiver at 14.5 inches. In fact, it's possible to rack-mount the NR1601 with the optional RMK1501NR rack-mount kit.
Aside from the smaller size, it also has a symmetrical look that we liked, with large knobs on both sides and a large LCD display in the center. Front-panel buttons are kept to a minimum, and we appreciate the selection of front-panel ports, including headphones, setup mic input, a USB port, and a minijack input. The bottom line is that the Marantz NR1601 is the most stylish AV receiver we've seen this year, by far.
If you press the menu button, it will bring up the NR1601's graphical user interface. It quickly becomes clear that the Marantz's good looks are limited to the exterior, as the menus are limited to blocky white text on a black background.
Four HDMI inputs are the minimum we expect at this price level, although many competitors offer six, including the Pioneer VSX-1020-K, the Onkyo TX-SR608, and the Yamaha RX-V667. The NR1601's three component video inputs are better than average, but that's less of a concern to us now that nearly every home theater gadget features HDMI. Altogether the Marantz can switch among six HD devices at a time, but we still wish it featured more HDMI ports.
The receiver will then send a series of tones through all the speakers and the subwoofer, which takes a minute or so to complete. But the Audyssey system works best when you repeat the routine six times, moving the calibration mic to six different locations in the main listening area (for our test, on and directly in front of the couch in the CNET listening room). After the sixth measurement is completed, the NR1601 takes a few more minutes to calculate the final results and store the Audyssey settings. If you'd rather not deal with six mic positions, you can do fewer and achieve possibly less accurate results.
The include remote is decent, although like virtually all AV receiver remotes, it's overwhelming. The remote is packed with buttons, and many of them have similar sizes, which makes navigating by feel difficult. The good news is that volume and input button rockers are centrally located, as is the directional pad. We also appreciated that the remote is fully backlit, which makes it much easier to use in a darkened home theater. Still, as we often suggest, it's wise to consider a quality universal remote to control all your gear.