Want an AVR that doesn't take over your lounge? Marantz can help
AV receivers are too big, too complicated and too damn old school. That’s the unspoken truth for a generation weaned on portable devices and wireless widgets. While home cinephiles will rightfully defend an opposing view, the fact is that for many, AVRs have simply become an irrelevance.
It’s a situation that the Marantz NR line of receivers seeks to address. Adopting a slim-line form factor and shorn of extraneous legacy embellishments, the emphasis here is on multimedia entertainment rather than hardcore theatre. THX? Thanks but no thx…
The NR1603 looks ostensibly similar to last year’s NR1602, but sports a number of significant upgrades. The fascia has been de-cluttered and the display made larger. It also comes with proper speaker binding posts for every channel and sensible connectivity. There are six HDMI inputs in total, one front-mounted. There’s still only a single HDMI output, but at least it’s ARC compliant.
Crucially, the NR1603 offers both AirPlay and Spotify, alongside Last.FM, Flickr and internet radio. There’s no integrated Bluetooth, but you can invest in an optional receiver which plugs into the M-XPort (Marantz-eXtension) port on the rear.
Ripsters will be pleased to hear that file playback is first-class, with extensive support from both local (front-mounted) USB and across a network (via rear-placed Ethernet). MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV, FLAC and FLAC 96/24 all unspool. While video playback isn’t offered, you can render JPEGs.
Despite all this cutting-edge functionality, the receiver still features a vestigial AM/FM radio. This seems quite superfluous given the provision of internet radio, but I suppose someone, somewhere, might have need of it.
To simplify installation, the NR1603 offers a hand-holding setup wizard. While this is fine for most components, adding a Sky box proves unnecessarily complicated. Because Sky doesn’t (yet) deliver 5.1 over HDMI on its PVRs you need to assign a digital optical feed alongside the HDMI input. On the Marantz this is complicated by the fact that simply assigning the input isn’t enough, you must navigate a separate menu to prioritise said input. This additional complexity caused all manner of head-scratching...
Helpfully, the receiver can be configured via a web browser interface when networked. This route opens the door to some sophisticated adjustment and is by far the best way to dig deep.
The user interface itself has also been revised from last year’s model, and now offers an HDMI overlay – still something of a rarity at this price point. HDMI pass-through is offered as long as HDMI Control is activated within the menus. Wi-Fi capability, however, is MIA, which somewhat undermines the NR1603's modern feel.
The remote control, simplified from last year’s button-strewn effort, proves easy to live with, offering colour-coded access to the various surround configurations available (Music, Movies, Game and Pure). All the familiar Dolby and DTS codecs are resident.
Sound tuning is via Audyssey MultEQ; up to six listening positions can be measured and calculated with the bundled microphone.
Beneath the bonnet is a relatively modest power section offering 50W per channel, but this seven-channel design has more poke than the numbers imply. Speaker configuration can be either classic 7.1 with side and back surround channels, or surrounds plus additional front heights. 5.1 users have the option of running a second stereo zone; this can serve either the same content as the main room, or a separate source. For this audition, I ran the system in a standard 7.1 layout.
In home theatre mode, the NR1603 has undeniable heart. Avengers Assemble is packed with popcorn highs and not even a full-blown alien invasion is enough to make the Marantz falter. The AVR is equally at home with less wrought theatrics. The opening of Rise of the Planet of the Apes features a dramatic flurry of jungle birds from the rear soundstage as poachers entrap a troop of apes. As nets fly skyward, the soundstage jumps accordingly. Fast-forward a smidgeon, and when Bright Eyes breaks free in the laboratory, glass shatters and the score pumps in unison. The audio is clean, deep and exciting.
The receiver displays simian agility with stereo sources, too; a welcome consequence of discrete circuit configuration, no doubt. Its demeanour is more party animal than po-faced critic, though. A few cuts from Kiss’s Monster, in multichannel Dolby PL2 Music, will have even the humpiest dowager breaking out the air guitar.
Overall, the NR1603 should be considered a successful revamp of an already attractive, forward-looking receiver. Marantz is trying something different here, and largely getting things bang on. Well-built and generously equipped, the NR1603 is proof that there’s life left in the old AVR dog yet.
Highs: Tight, dynamic sound quality; versatile media streaming; Spotify and AirPlay compatible
Lows: Single HDMI output; no Wi-Fi capability; setup could be smoother
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