alt

Marantz has its own dedicated Network Audio Player in the $1499 NA7004 — we reviewed it in our biannual review-fest, Best Buys Home Theatre, and you can read that full review at AVHub.com.au. But many of the NA7004’s abilities have been included in the latest range of Marantz AV receivers, even this entry-level $999 ‘slimline’ NR1602.

Now AV receivers are generally to be approached with some trepidation. Modern multichannel receivers do so very many things, their remote controls have so many buttons, their rear panels so many sockets. With the arrival of home networking and internet radio, they are no longer merely amplifiers+radio, which is the traditional definition of a receiver. No wonder everyone’s trying to find a different name, something which pithily describes amplifiers+radio+DNLA+internetradio+podcasts+photos+streaming+AirPlay+appcontrol. It’s not an easy call; we live in hope.


Equipment

One starting point for de-scarification of receivers might be their sheer physical bulk, and that’s the initial premise for Marantz’s “slimline” receivers, now in a second generation. ‘Slimline’ here is still a comparative term, by which the company means the NR1602 is not the usual double-height monstrosity that has no chance of fitting in your equipment rack, but rather a mere 11cm-high and attractively sculptured box, with two main knobs and not too many overwhelming front buttons and logos.

This has been achieved while retaining seven pretty healthy channels of 50W amplification and plenty of inputs — four HDMI, two component and three composite video inputs, three sets of assignable analogue audio inputs, plus two digital inputs, one each of optical and electrical. High-quality binding posts are provided for all seven speaker channels.

Then there’s all the new clever stuff, which here includes internet radio, networking streaming, Apple AirPlay (for free, it was a $60 upgrade option on some Marantz products last year, including the NA7004), Last.FM, and direct iPhone/iPod connection.

Performance

The ‘Getting started’ guide (the full guide comes on CD) encourages putting everything in its place, connecting the receiver to your TV via HDMI, then letting the onscreen Setup Wizard take you through the whole procedure. This uses Audyssey MultEQ auto-calibration, with its little tower microphone to be held in your seating position (or a variety of positions if, for some incomprehensible reason, you don’t want all the best sound for yourself).

Think setting up a surround system is hard? OK, so we’ve done it before just a few times, but we were up and running in 5.1 here in well under 20 minutes, though we made a few tweaks later via the easy-to-use manual speaker-level adjustments. The onscreen text and image guidelines provided by Marantz may look like they were designed on a 1970s’ 4-bit computer, but the information and procedure is solid enough, and would seem hard for even the least informed consumer to get wrong.

With seven channels of power, the NR1602 can run a full 7.1-channel surround system. But many users will opt for 5.1, which leaves two amp channels unused, of course. You can allocate these to power a pair of speakers in a second zone, or usefully to biamp the front speakers for extra headroom, particularly when listening in stereo.

First disc in was the Blu-ray of The Two Towers, with Gandalf’s bit of Balrog bashing surging and sliding around the speaker set to great effect. The first orc-squashing entry of an Ent is a slightly daft moment in the film, but Treebeard’s hoo-hooming goes entertainingly bonkers in the low-end department, and the NR1602, feeding a not enormous DefTech subwoofer, was able to palpably compress the air in our medium-sized room this way and that, with no apparent power shortage from the main speakers.

Music can be great in a well-balanced surround system, and two bargains generally snap-uppable at DVD stores are Queen’s Greatest Hits DVDs, all remixed to 5.1, and The Flaming Lips ‘Void’, suitably bananas in its 5.1-channel mixes, with Fight Test containing the musical equivalent of the man-walking-around-the-room surround system check, since it pans the drum track in a clockwise circle throughout the song. Yoshimi is fun too, with the opening acoustic guitar slashed into segments and slung from speaker to speaker.

All this the Marantz handled impeccably and with great musicality, and we spent most of a happy day sitting in the centre of the NR1602’s soundfield, cranked to the nines, with never a notion of underpowering. Large rooms may beg for more, but we can’t see the NR1602 falling short in any small-to-medium room, providing your speakers are of average sensitivity or above.

Onto the more modern side of AV receiverdom, then. The front USB socket on the Marantz can be used to connect an iPod/iPhone or a USB stick (or even hard-drive), and we were delighted to find it format-friendly enough to play all our test files except Apple Lossless, happy to go all the way to 24-bit 96kHz, including the sometimes-omitted 88.2kHz.

The same was true when playing via the Media Server, which picked up our wide variety of PC and NAS shares and was soon streaming 24/96 FLACs and WAV files like it was born to the task. Using Marantz’s own Wizz app for iPhone (see image) makes this even easier than following your navigation via the NR1602’s own screen display, and also allows you to select Pure Direct, which turns off the main display entirely (though this dropped the level 1dB or so, which is odd).  

The Wizz app is definitely the best way to browse internet radio, given the many options on offer, though it’s not good for finding something specific, since the ‘search by keyword’ function doesn’t work, the app returning “Please input by the device operation”, which lacks something in the syntax department. But the stations we reached by the usual location/genre browsing were delivered clean, bright and again with great musicality; the best of internet radio quality has come quite a way since its early grungy days.

alt
 

We don’t reckon you’ll miss the DAB+ that isn’t on this receiver, especially as internet radio doesn’t need any trailing aerial cables.
Other clever bits: you can add an optional Bluetooth receiver and stream from any smartphone, tablet or computer. But for Apple devices you won’t need the optional receiver, as the NR1602 has Apple AirPlay built in, which allows your music to be sent from any iDevice or Mac across the home network direct to the Marantz, and onto to your speakers and/or TV. There’s no video sending, however; the video will stay on your iPad while the audio emerges from the Marantz.

Plug your iPod into the front USB and you can also play direct from that, navigating via artist and album folders by remote or app.
A few words on that choice of control. We do reckon the NR1602’s own remote control is a nightmare which will send the casual user into despair pretty fast, unless they stick to the volume and cursor keys. Take the fundamental choice of “listening mode”.

You have four options of listening mode — ‘surround’, auto, stereo or Pure Direct. There are remote keys for each. Are they next to each other? No, one is at the top of the remote, one halfway down, and two near the bottom. Of these, ‘Surround’ gives you the choice of buggering up the surround in various ways, ‘auto’ seems to play the actual signal as delivered (which would seem wise to us), while Direct and Pure Direct “plays the audio exactly how it was recorded”, though how those differ from ‘auto’ remains unclear to us. If manufacturers really want to simplify their receivers, they could start by removing a lot of the DSP and fake surround modes and just default to maximum purity. We shudder when friends spend their whole lives in accidental stadium mode without knowing it.

Meanwhile the cool new sources — USB/iPod, Flickr, Last.FM ($3 a month account required), Napster (not available here, but still listed), Favourites, internet radio and Media Server — all get nested under a single source button which then requires secondary navigation. If you’re listening to ABC internet radio, say, how do you select Media server or your iPod? You’ll have to go left four or five times, then up and down. It’s crazy. And be prepared to be blasted by internet radio every time you toggle through these sources.
So the company’s Wizz app for iDevices should be a preferable controller, but it, too, desperately needs improvement.

It’s an iPhone-only app, so has to run at double-size on iPad; it’s flaky when moving through multiple screens, it lacks some abilities born for a touchpad (such as text search), and can’t even scroll long lists of artists or radio stations, pausing to load each page, which takes forever on long lists. This should be an easy (and urgent) fix for Marantz, and we gather an update may be coming; we’ll amend the online version of this review if and when it happens.  

Conclusion

The Marantz NR1602 gets everything right except that control. It’s a friendly-size smart receiver which supports 3D (by passing the video straight through), it has plenty of power for up to seven speakers in a medium-sized room, its audio circuits sound great. It has internet radio, Last.FM, normal FM, it can stream your music from PC and NAS drive (even a Mac with Twonky), it plays direct from your iPod. And the price is great; it just needs a more ergonomic remote control and touchscreen app to make life even easier.
Jez Ford

Marantz NR1602
AV receiver
Price: $999

Positive
A wealth of digital sources
Seven good amp channels
Great price

Negative
Needs improved control   

Amps: 7 x 50W (8 ohm, 20-20kHz, 0.08% 2-channel driven)
Radio: AM, FM, internet radio (vTuner), Last.FM
Inputs: 4 x HDMI 1.4a, 2 x component video, 3 x composite video, 3 RCA stereo audio, 1 optical digital, 1 coaxial digital, Ethernet, FM/AM antenna in, USB (front), M-Xport (for RX101 dock, remote
Outputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 component video, 1 composite video, headphone (front), subwoofer out, stereo pre outs, remote out

Dimensions: 440 x 367 x 105mm
Weight: 8.3kg
Warranty: Three years