Think of any consumer technology product in your home, and then envision its physical transformation over the past 10 or 15 years. Cell phones went from little flip models to spacious handheld touchscreen slabs; laptops went from heavy beasts to wispy thin-and-lights; and TVs went from monstrous and pudgy CRTs to giant wall-mounted flat panels. In the same time frame, AV receivers went from big black rectangular boxes to... well, nowhere. They somehow still look exactly the same.
For the most part, that is. AV receivers from Marantz are still black rectangles, to some degree, but they're only half as tall, and offer a nice retro stereo look. It's a slimline design the company pioneered half a decade ago with the likes of the NR1501 and NR1601 . While the features have improved and the styling has changed slightly, the idea behind the new-for-2015 NR1506 is the same: all the functionality of a large home theater receiver in a friendlier, more compact housing.
AV receiver functionality, thankfully, has ramped up in the past decade: these boxes are the nerve center of a home theater, handling source switching from cable box to game console to Blu-ray player, surround sound or stereo amplification, and even streaming audio from services like Spotify or via Bluetooth from smartphones and tablets.
The $500 NR1506 reviewed here is a slightly cut-down version of the $700 NR1606 receiver with fewer amplified channels (5.1 versus 7.2) and inputs but with the same robust Wi-Fi streaming functionality and, as we found, almost identical sound quality to NR1605 , which debuted in 2014 at the $700 price point.
While the NR1506 offers excellent musical performance and and top-notch home cinema sound, be aware there are more muscular cinema performers, such as the Onkyo TX-NR646 , for a little more money. However if you're not looking to run oversized towers or power a Beverly Hills mansion, the NR1506 is a great choice for most living rooms -- and the fact that it actually looks good gives it a big edge over all those other black boxes.
Like all modern Marantz receivers, the NR1506 features an aluminum front panel with rounded resin edges. At either side of the fascia there are two knobs: one for volume and another for source selection. We would have preferred shortcut buttons though, especially as sister-brand Denon has started including them.
The design is squat at only 4.1 inches high, but still manages to fit a large blue LED display onboard, while the other dimensions are more familiar at 17.3 inches wide and 14.4 inches deep.
While Marantz has made some headway recently with updated onscreen displays, the NR1506 menu you'll see on your TV screen is only 720p and doesn't feature any illustrations, nor is there any onscreen info when a track is playing via Spotify Connect or other streaming services. Paying extra for the NR1606 or NR1605 gets you a full-color interface that's formatted for 1080p televisions.
The remote control is kind of cute and looks very similar to other Marantz remotes -- all of the receiver's main functions are easily accessible from the handset.
The NR1506 replaces the two-year-old NR1504 , a model that didn't even have Wi-Fi. The new receiver brings Wi-Fi to the $500 price point (though Ethernet is still included for hardwiring fans), and includes support for Internet radio, Pandora, SiriusXM and AirPlay. It will also play back digital files stored on the network with support for most formats up to 24-bit/192kHz.
The Marantz is also one of a growing number of devices embedded with Spotify Connect. This competitor to Apple AirPlay enables limited control of the receiver via the Spotify smartphone app: users can power the receiver on and start playing music straight away without having to use a remote -- especially handy for continuing an on-the-go playlist when you get home. While the NR1504 had Spotify embedded, it didn't have Connect, meaning you need to use the slower combination of the remote control and the onscreen display.
If all of that wasn't enough, the NR1506 also offers Bluetooth connectivity, so you can play any smartphone or tablet-based audio app to your big speakers. A front-mounted USB port lets you play music files from a flash drive, or charge your phone.
The receiver offers five channels at 50W each, in addition to dual subwoofer outputs. If you trade up to the 1606 you'll get an extra two channels or the option for a second powered zone. While the 1506 supports most surround standards including DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD, it does lack playback for height-channel standards Atmos and DTS:X. (Hint: the vast majority of you won't miss them.)
One of the biggest changes to the new model is support for next-gen video standards -- something even last year's 1605 lacked. The NR1506 offers six HDMI inputs with HDMI 2.0a compatibility, which also includes HDCP 2.2 for playback of 4K media. In addition, the Marantz offers one optical and one coaxial digital plus three analog inputs.
Starting with the brand-new high-resolution, 5.1-channel surround remix of Roger Waters' "Amused to Death" Blu-ray, soundstage depth and spaciousness were impressive, the pounding drums, frenetic guitars, and Waters' snarling vocals completely energized the CNET listening room. Between songs we heard the mix's quiet sounds of birds and insects fan out across the perimeter of the room. The Marantz NR1506's layered soundstage had plenty of depth and spaciousness.
Listening to the scene in "Master & Commander" where a small group of British naval officers are playing chamber music below decks, the NR1506 not only did a fine job with the sound of their string instruments, every creak and groan of the wooden ship, and the pounding surf outside provided an atmospheric backdrop for the music. Later, when the crew practices loading and firing the ship's cannons the NR1506 power reserves were put to the test. Would its 50 watts per channel provide the necessary oomph? Yes, up to a point: the NR1506 played the cannon blasts loud, but when we pushed the volume control louder than we normally would listen the NR1506 sounded a little strained.
The more expensive Onkyo TX-NR646 receiver did a better job unleashing those ferocious blasts, but otherwise the two receivers sounded similar. The TX-NR646's bass definition was a tad better, and the midrange was clearer, but the two receivers were more alike than different sounding.
Continuing with the ocean-going theme we watched a bit of "Titanic," focusing on the scenes where the water crashes down the stairs and hallways; the powerful roar of the flood and screams of panicked passengers sounded eerily realistic.
After that, we settled down with a few acoustic jazz CDs in stereo, and the NR1506's refinement and warmth were on full display. It's much more accomplished than the Onkyo when it comes to playing music.
When it came to streaming we compared the NR1506 against the more expensive (and one year older) NR1605 using both Bluetooth and DLNA streaming via the Marantz control app. Any concerns that the cheaper amp lacked the authority of the NR1605 was immediately dispelled: we were able to crank the dynamic track Yulunga (Spirit Dance) by Dead Can Dance to over 100dB in our listening room without the NR1506 breaking a sweat. When compared with the same volume levels on the dials both amps produced identical sound levels and sound quality.
Switching to Bluetooth on the NR1506 and the weaknesses in the wireless standard became immediately apparent: using Jason Isbell's 24 Frames as a reference the singer's voice appeared to retreat back into the hall and the guitars lost sparkle compared against a DLNA stream. If you can go Wi-Fi with this receiver -- whether by DLNA or Spotify Connect -- it's worth the extra effort and the system can easily show you the benefits.
We really liked last year's NR1605, as it offered great features and great sound, and now Marantz's NR1506 rushes up to meet it on both counts. If you don't need a second zone, 7.2 channels or eight HDMI inputs, there is no real reason to upgrade to the 1606.
The Marantz NR1506 exudes confidence; we liked its low-slung design, mostly up-to-date features set and sound quality -- as long as we didn't play movies and music at annoy the neighbors volume levels. True, it lacks Dolby Atmos and DTS:X height channel surround capabilities, but we doubt those small omissions will be deal breakers for most potential NR1506 buyers. This receiver is a very strong contender in its price class, and a "best of both worlds" solution for anyone who wants all the latest audio streaming options along with the old-school surround sound and video switching chops.