Today's A/V receivers come in an extensive range of prices, from less than $200 to much more than $6,000. That said, the fertile middle ground between $500 and $1,000 is where you'll get the maximum bang for your home-theater bucks--and Marantz's SR5500 proves the point nicely. It offers every surround-processing mode under the sun, including Dolby Headphone, and sounds substantially better than its lower-cost competitors. The SR5500 lists for $650 but can be found for less online.
Editor's note: Marantz America will not honor the warranty on Marantz components purchased from unauthorized dealers or on units whose original factory serial number has been removed, defaced, or replaced. When in doubt about a particular online or brick-and-mortar retailer, call Marantz at 630/741-0300. The Marantz SR5500 is one handsome devil--at least as far as A/V receivers are concerned--and its controls have the sort of look and feel we normally associate with higher-priced models. The 28.7-pound, all-black receiver occupies 18.25 inches of shelf depth.
Setup logistics were above average, thanks in large part to the SR5500's informative onscreen displays and intuitive navigation. The receiver's front-panel cursor controls were especially useful for scanning through AM and FM radio stations; however, we were a little less enthralled with the large, black remote, which isn't backlit and has lots of tiny buttons, making it somewhat difficult to use in our dimly lit home theater. The Marantz SR5500's "current feedback" amplifiers produce 90 watts on each of the seven channels, and its onboard 32-bit processor decodes all Dolby and DTS surround-sound signals as well as those encoded in Marantz's proprietary SRS Circle Surround II format. The SR5500 is one of the few receivers we've seen that allows you to set individual levels for each channel on its SACD/DVD-Audio inputs, including the subwoofer; as a result, properly calibrating your receiver will allow you to experience your high-resolution discs' surround balances as the producers intended them.
You also get Dolby Headphone processing, which is a big plus for headphone users because it creates satisfying surround effects over conventional stereo headphones. Unfortunately, accessing the Dolby Headphone setting isn't automatic; you'll first have to pull up the menu. In contrast, Harman Kardon's Dolby Headphone-equipped receivers (such as the ) are a bit more user-friendly.
Connectivity options are fairly complete: two of the five A/V inputs accept component-video sources, but Marantz didn't include any provisions for switching HDMI-equipped components. (One of the five A/V inputs is found on the front panel.) Audio connections include three stereo inputs, a set of 7.1-channel SACD/DVD-Audio inputs, 7.1-channel preamp outputs, four digital inputs (two optical, two coaxial digital), and two digital outputs (one optical and one coaxial). One conspicuously absent feature was onboard A/B speaker switching. To get sound in another room, you'll have to buy a stereo amplifier and incorporate it into a multiroom system using the SR5500's RS-232C port. The Marantz SR5500 will upconvert composite and S-Video sources (such as VCRs, game consoles, and non-HD cable or satellite boxes) to component video; furthermore, an adjustable delay maintains lip sync for all sources and video displays.
The SR5500's price tag is modest by Marantz's lavish standards, but the company offers an even more affordable entry-level model, the SR4500, for $429 (list). It's also worth mentioning that the Marantz SR5500's three-year warranty outdoes the more common one-year or two-year policies found among the competition. The depth and the clarity of the sound on the Flight of the Phoenix DVD was a special treat. The scenes inside the doomed plane put us in the middle of the action, and the roar of the engines added to the excitement of the crash scene. Watching the movie's cast suffer through the desert heat put us in the mood to chill out with the DVD of The Day After Tomorrow. The surround mix was unusually coherent--the tornado whipping through L.A.'s streets sounded frighteningly realistic as it sent cars and debris flying around our home theater.
The old-timey music accompanying the O Brother, Where Art Thou? DVD brought the Marantz SR5500's more subtle talents to the forefront. The Soggy Bottom Boys singing "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow" in the recording studio had a wonderfully natural sound.
We were eager to see if the Marantz SR5500's extensive SACD/DVD-A-tweaking skills would translate into audible sonic gains. Telarc's rousing Stravinsky The Rite of Spring SACD displayed a rich tonality and a big-as-life soundstage. The music's visceral dynamics took on power and majesty, especially on those feel-them-in-your-chest bass-drum flourishes. We don't expect that kind of performance from midpriced receivers; those 90 watts per channel made their presence felt. String tone was smooth, without any irritating harshness or glare.
To put the SR5500's talents in perspective, we arranged a head-to-head competition with receiver, but it was no contest. On paper, the Sony has a 20-watt-per-channel advantage over the Marantz, but the DE998 couldn't keep with the SR5500 when we blasted through Metallica's St. Anger CD. The Sony blunted the band's hard edge; its bass was looser, and dynamic oomph was lacking. The Marantz even trounced the Sony on that Stravinsky SACD; the Sony flattened the music's dimensionality, rendering it less enveloping and satisfying. The Marantz just sounded better on every count.