I have no idea why giant electronics companies like Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, or Samsung never really tried to enter the audiophile market in the U.S.
Sure, Sony's very first SACD player, the $5,000 SCD-1 was a spectacularly good-sounding component; Sharp made an exotic, very high-end digital amplifier a few years ago; and back in the 1970s Panasonic's Technics gear was pretty impressive. I'm sure those companies are still producing no-holds-barred audio for their home markets. So the know-how is there, but apparently little interest in sending it here.
The first-generation Marantz audio products were designed and built by Saul B. Marantz in his home in Kew Gardens, New York, in the 1950s. The company truly advanced the state of the art, and those early Marantz designs now fetch big bucks on eBay. By the 1960s Marantz started building gear in Japan, and the company was sold and resold over the intervening decades. But through good times and bad, Marantz stayed true to its roots and always made above-average-sounding products, bettering the offerings from larger companies like Sony and Panasonic sold in the U.S.
Robert J. Reina's enthusiastic Marantz PM5003 integrated amplifier review in the January 2010 issue of Stereophile started me thinking about affordable high-quality gear from mainstream manufacturers. Yes, it can happen.
The Marantz PM5003 ($450) is a stereo integrated amplifier; it puts out 40 watts per channel. It was designed in Japan and made in China.
Do you have a turntable? Great, you can plug it directly into the PM5003; it has a rather sophisticated moving-magnet phono stage that'll bring out the very best sound from your records. The PM5003 also has five line-level inputs, two record outputs, a balance control, a headphone amplifier, treble, bass, and loudness controls.
Reina found the sound to be clear and dynamic. He also had nice things to say about the bass, "The opening plucked bass on 'River of Orchids,' from XTC's 'Apple Venus, Vol. 1' CD, almost startled me--the notes seemed to jump out of thin air with realistic bottom-end weight and effortless dynamics." With his Epos and Monitor Audio speakers, the 40-watt-per-channel PM5003 played loud without straining.
So if you're thinking about putting together a hi-fi or stereo home theater on a budget, the Marantz PM5003 amp would make a nice start.