Generally, when you're buying an AV receiver it comes down to features and performance, with aesthetics being a wash--there's little difference between 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 rackmount 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 Marantz NR1601 is the most stylish AV receiver we've seen this year, by far.
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.
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. The same goes for browsing a connected iPod; you won't get to see cover art like on the Pioneer VSX-1020-K. On the upside, you'll probably only use the menus to set up the NR1601, although if you use the iPod functionality you'll see them on a more regular basis.
|Key AV receiver features|
|Channels||7.1||Analog video upconversion||Yes|
|Graphical user interface||Text-based||Automatic speaker calibration||Yes|
The Marantz hits most of the features you'd expect at this price range, including analog video upconversion and automatic speaker calibration. As mentioned before, the onscreen display is limited to shaky white text on a black background, whereas competitors like the Sony STR-DN1010 and the Yamaha RX-V667 feature more-impressive GUIs. On the upside, Marantz's three-year warranty is a full year more than most competitors, especially welcome on a product like an AV receiver that you're likely to hold onto for a while.
|HDMI version||1.4a||3D pass-through||Yes|
|Audio return channel||Yes||Standby pass-through||Yes|
Like most midrange receivers this year, the NR1601 comes with a full suite of the new HDMI features offered this year. It supports 3D pass-through, which means it can pass a 3D video signal from a 3D video source to a 3D HDTV. The Marantz also supports audio return channel functionality, as well as standby pass-through. Those features give it the edge over the Pioneer VSX-1020-K in that department.
|Audio decoding features|
|Dolby TrueHD||Yes||DTS-HD Master Audio||Yes|
|Dolby ProLogic IIz||Yes|
|Other: Audyssey Dynamic Volume, Dynamic EQ and MultEQ|
Onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby ProLogic IIz is included, as is expected at this price level. The NR1601 also comes with a full suite of Audyssey sound modes, such as Dynamic Volume for limiting volume spikes during, say, loud commercials. It's worth pointing out that many competitors offer their own proprietary versions of these types of sound modes (read more on how Audyssey sounded on the Marantz in the performance section).
|HDMI inputs||4||Component video inputs||3|
|Composite video inputs||3||Max connected HD devices||6|
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 between six HD devices at a time, but we still wish it featured more HDMI ports.
|Optical inputs||2||Coaxial inputs||1|
|Stereo analog audio inputs||5||Multichannel analog inputs||No|
The NR1601 is also a little light on audio connections. Nearly every other midrange AV receiver offers four total digital audio inputs, but the Marantz is limited to three. Analog multichannel inputs and a phono input are both missing, but that's pretty much standard these days. (Check out the Yamaha RX-V667 if you need analog multichannel inputs.) We were pleased to see a minijack input conveniently located on the front panel.
|iPod connectivity||via USB||Satellite radio||No|
|USB port||1||IR input/output||Yes|
|Other: Bluetooth connectivity with $100 adapter|
The rest of the Marantz's features are solid. Direct iPod/iPhone connectivity is convenient, although the Pioneer VSX-1020-K still gets an edge for including a cable in the box and better graphics for navigation. We also appreciated the ability to add Bluetooth connectivity by purchasing a separate dongle.
|Line level second-zone outputs||No||Powered second-zone outputs||No|
Despite the wide array of speaker jacks on the back panel, the NR1601 does not offer second-zone functionality, like many competing receivers, including the Pioneer VSX-1020-K, the Yamaha RX-V667, and the Onkyo HT-RC260. The NR1601 can power a set of "B" speakers, but they'll be limited to playing back the same content as the "A" speakers. (True second-zone functionality lets you play a different source in a second zone.)
Marantz now uses Audyssey's MultEQ auto setup system to determine speaker sizes and speaker-to-listener distances; set the volume levels of all of the speakers and the sub; and calculate the subwoofer crossover point.
We placed the mic on a small speaker stand in the center of the CNET listening room couch, and raised the mic to the ear height of a seated listener. Plugging the mic into the receiver automatically brings up the Audyssey MultEQ auto setup onscreen display, which can be a little confusing at first. It lists options for "F. Height" (front height speakers for Dolby Pro Logic IIz users); "Front Sp A," meaning you can assign the front left and right speakers to be either the "A" or "B" speakers; and "Amp Assign," which allows the owner to bi-amplify the front left and right speakers. Marantz isn't the only brand to present the user with a list of confusing setup options (which are only partially explained in the owner's manual), but if you're using a standard 5.1-, 6.1-, or 7.1-channel speaker-subwoofer system, you can just click on the "Start" onscreen button to commence the setup.
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 took 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.
Audyssey works best when the "sizes" of all the speakers in a system are set to "Small" (if you have a subwoofer), which is what the NR1601 did. The setup accurately measured the distances to all the speakers, but not the subwoofer (Audyssey acknowledges the sub measurement may be off, but advises against correcting the subwoofer distance in the manual setup). In fact, the NR1601's measurements were duplicated by the Denon AVR-1911 receiver's Audyssey MultEQ auto setup we were testing on the same day.
Audyssey also applied equalization to the speakers and subwoofer. We haven't always been happy with how Audyssey's equalization changed the sound of our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD reference speaker system, but this time we thought Audyssey's EQ definitely improved the sound. We used the EQ for all of our listening tests.
The NR1601 may be rated at 50 watts per channel, but it had the poise of a more powerful receiver. The sound balance was slightly on the rich and warm side.
We started out listening with a high-resolution DVD-Audio disc from King Crimson, "In the Court of the Crimson King." The surround mix was exceptionally good, with precisely focused imaging of instruments and vocals spread across the front and rear channels, and the NR1601's three-dimensional solidity made for a more realistic presentation. The drums' effect and power on "Epitaph" were shockingly strong, and the detailing of the acoustic instruments in the quieter tunes like "I Talk to the Wind" was superb. We just wish more DVD-A discs were as good as this; the NR1601 was definitely up to the job of revealing the subtleties of the high-resolution sound.
The "Master and Commander" Blu-ray's quiet opening sequence, where we heard the ship's creaking planks, the surf churning outside, and the wind sweeping across the decks, were all deftly mixed in surround sound. When the ship's captain is below deck and hears the men running from above, we could have sworn the sound was coming from height speakers. (It wasn't; we were listening to a 5.1-channel speaker-subwoofer system.) Again, the NR1601's resolution of fine detail was excellent.
Any lingering concerns about the N1601's 50-watt-per-channel power rating were put to rest when we played the grenade explosions and the intense gunfire episodes from the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray. In fact, we played the scene at louder than normal (for us) levels to try to uncover any power limitations, but we gave up before the NR1601 did. Since most home theater speakers are run as "Small" speakers, the receiver doesn't have to supply full-range signals, so the actual power requirements are reduced when we played music or movies at high volume levels. Fifty high-quality watts, like the NR1601's, will likely be more than enough for most home theaters.
At this point we compared the NR1601 with a Pioneer VSX-1020-K receiver, which had a brighter, more detailed sound. Front-to-rear imaging was a tad clearer, but the NR1601 delivered a bigger wallop with the grenade explosions in the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray. Dialogue sounded more naturally balanced over the NR1601; the VSX-1020-K's leaner sound wasn't worse, just different. The Denon AVR-1911 receiver's sound balance fit midway between the Pioneer and the Marantz; the Denon was fuller than the Pioneer, and leaner than the Marantz receiver. But we also felt, literally, the Denon's bass control and power was the best of the three receivers.
Audyssey's Dynamic Volume processing can be used to reduce sudden, soft-to-loud volume shifts. We thought that it did a good job, without adversely affecting sound quality.
Next, we put on "John Gorka: The Gypsy Life," a high-resolution audio Blu-ray disc. Gorka and his small, mostly acoustic band sounded remarkably lifelike. The music was recorded without any dynamic range compression, and the NR1601 excelled at revealing the smallest nuance in the musicians' performances. Our reference Aperion speakers sounded bigger and fuller than we're used to. The speakers all feature 4-inch woofers, but teamed up with the NR1601, they now sounded like larger, 5- or 6-inch woofers. We attribute that to the seamless blend the NR1601 achieved with the Aperion Bravus 8D subwoofer, and all five Aperion speakers.
CD sound was also stellar. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' hard-hitting soul workout "I Learned the Hard Way" sounded big and spacious in stereo. The CD's funky bass lines, brassy horn arrangements, and Jones' oh-so soulful vocals had the sort of full-bodied presence few receivers can muster.