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Marantz NR1403 review: A slim, simple receiver without frills

Setup: Accurate and easy
The NR1403 features Audyssey's MultEQ automatic speaker calibration, which helps adjust the sound to suit your listening room. Plugging the supplied measurement mic into the receiver automatically brings up the Audyssey MultEQ onscreen display. Then it's simply a matter of starting the program, which sends a short series of tones through all the speakers and subwoofer. Once the initial series of tones are run, the display indicates Audyssey's findings, but for best results Audyssey recommends taking up to six measurement rounds, moving the mic to different positions near the main listening location, which takes around 10 minutes to complete.

Marantz NR1403
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Unlike some recent receivers we've reviewed, we found that the results were accurate. Audyssey onscreen does ask if you'd like the Dynamic Volume feature turned on, which reduces abrupt soft-to-loud volume changes, such as those that happen with commercial breaks between television programs or special effects in movies. We recommend leaving it off to hear the NR1403 sound at its best, and you can always toggle it back on using a single button on the remote when you need it for late-night listening.

Sound quality: Huge sound in a small package
Sound-quality evaluations of AV receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon.

What we can say is that AV receiver sound quality has much, much less effect on overall sound quality than speakers or room acoustics, so you're better off spending your home theater budget there. CNET's sound quality evaluations are strictly subjective, with resident golden ear Steve Guttenberg comparing similarly priced models in an identical listening environment using the same speakers.

The NR1403 may "only" be a 50-watt-per-channel receiver, but it's one of the best-sounding models we've tested of late. We showed it no mercy and played the train crash scene from the "Super 8" Blu-ray at a healthy volume, and the NR1403 didn't hold anything back. Even compared with one of the best-sounding receivers, the 165-watt-per-channel Sony STR-DN1040, the two receivers sounded about the same. The low bass impact of the crash was visceral with both receivers, though we should point out that most of that oomph was supplied by our Hsu Research VTF-1 subwoofer.

Marantz NR1403
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It was much the same story with music. Pat Metheny's "Stranger in Town" on Dolby's "The Sound of HD3" Blu-ray sampler features the jazz guitarist playing off a battery of percussion instruments. Metheny's guitar seemed to float above the dense array of sounds spread out over the front and surround channels. The two receivers were closely matched, but the STR-DN1040 brought out a little more shimmer and sparkle from the cymbals and bells, while individual bass drum beats were easier to hear on the NR1403.

We next tested the Audyssey Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ features that promise to minimize abrupt soft-to-loud volume changes for late-night listening sessions. In the past we've sometimes felt that while Dynamic EQ and Dynamic Volume did the job, they also blunted the sound and sucked the life out of soundtracks, but that was less of a problem with the NR1403. The two features hushed the loudest parts of the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray without losing too much of the mayhem's sonic detail.

We finished up with sultry jazz singer Patricia Barber's high-resolution, audio-only Blu-ray of her classic album, "Modern Cool," to put the NR1403's musical talents to the test. This 1998 album was remixed in surround for the Blu-ray, with spectacular results. The bass, drums, percussion, piano, and guitar supporting Barber were reproduced with vivid accuracy, and the vocals sounded utterly natural. This is one of the best-sounding audio-only Blu rays we've heard to date, and the NR1403 didn't hold anything back. The stand-up bass' timbre was perfect, there was no thickening or bloat, and the instrument sounded like it was in the room. The NR1403's two-channel soundstage was broad and deep, so listening to CDs in stereo was hardly a letdown.

What are the alternatives?
If you like the Marantz NR1403's slimline look, but think it makes too many sacrifices features-wise, Marantz offers two step-up models: the NR1504 ($500) and the NR1604 ($650). The NR1504 adds networking and AirPlay, whereas the NR1604 steps up to 7.1 channels, seven HDMI inputs, and analog video upconversion. The NR1403 still sticks out as the best value for our tastes, but the other two models may work better depending on your needs. Harman-Kardon has also recently released a new line of somewhat slimmer AV receivers, and the AVR 1610 ($400) adds both networking and built-in Bluetooth for the same price.

If you're willing to consider a full-size receiver, the best value this year is the Sony STR-DN840, which packs built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AirPlay for $450. If you care about wireless features and don't mind the bulky look, you can't beat the STR-DN840 this year for value.

Finally, it's worth considering whether you even need a full-fledged AV receiver in the first place. If you're willing to downsize your home audio system to stereo, you might be able to use a compact integrated amplifier. They sound great, take up even less room than the Marantz, and can make your home theater simpler.

Conclusion: Excellent slimline value
The Marantz NR1403 ultimately comes down to its unique form factor. You'll be giving up networking features, but that strikes us as a fair compromise if you're going to use other devices for streaming anyway. Overall, if you're into the design, it's an excellent value that sounds great and has plenty of HDMI ports for all your gear.

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