Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
As the owner of Marantz's AV8003 AV processor, I was excited to get my hands on the new AV8801. The interim models had some of the bells and whistles that were missing from the AV8003, but none seemed to be able to match its sound quality. Rumor had it that the AV8801 was capable of meeting or exceeding the AV8003's level of performance. The combination of this level of performance, along with an incredibly full feature set, intrigued me. At $3,599, the AV8801 is more expensive than its predecessors but would be well worth the extra money, in my opinion, if it could deliver the goods.
Marantz receivers and AV processors released over the past few years have had a reputation for being light on features, especially when compared with Marantz's sister brand Denon. Comparably-priced Denon units would typically have a much larger feature set than the Marantz units, while Marantz was said to provide a more "musical" sound. Any complaints concerning a stripped-down feature set are completely annihilated by the AV8801. The audio feature set is ridiculously complete with 11.2 channels, all of the latest DTS and Dolby surround codecs, balanced outputs for all channels, HD Radio, a phono input, a headphone output, and Audyssey's MultEQ XT32, DSX, Sub EQ HT and LFC. The AV8801 is also Audyssey MultEQ Pro-capable, a feature definitely worth utilizing. Marantz did not abandon its audiophile heritage, as the audio "bells and whistles" are backed up with solid engineering, including a Hybrid PLL jitter reducer, M-DAX (Marantz Dynamic Audio eXpander), Marantz's proprietary HDAMs (Hyper Dynamic Amplification Module), and 192-kHz/32-bit DACs on all channels, all housed in an extremely solid copper-plated chassis and powered by a large toroidal transformer.
On the video side of things, the AV8801 supports 4K Ultra HD, 3D, Deep Color, ARC, and Auto Lip Sync through any of its seven HDMI inputs (one of which is also MHL-compliant). Three HDMI outputs allow for dual display devices (think flat panel and projector) in the main room and one output for a remote zone. The Analog Devices video processing circuitry can upconvert video signals to 4K resolution and employs that company's proprietary Noise Shaped Video, which is said to move noise in the video signal to where it can be more easily extracted from the signal. The AV8801 also features InstaPrevue, a feature I had not used before, which allows live picture-in-picture viewing of HDMI sources and allows for faster switching between HDMI sources. Video processing and upconversion get a lot of attention, but I found InstaPrevue to be the video feature that I used the most.
The AV8801's feature set extends beyond the audio and video realms to include a four-port Ethernet switch to make network connections easy, as well as DLNA, Bluetooth, and AirPlay support and streaming from a wide variety of Internet sources like Spotify and Pandora. I have been utilizing DLNA playback for my music library more and more over the years, so I appreciated this capability, especially since the AV8801 could handle WAV and FLAC files up to 192-kHz/24-bit and ALAC to 96-kHz/24-bit - with gapless playback, too! (Alas, there's no AIFF support, but perhaps a firmware upgrade can add that capability.) Control and integration are facilitated by a variety of physical connections (RS-232, 12-volt triggers, etc.), as well as iOS- and Android-compatible applications. There are many other features and specifications; for a full list, visit the Marantz website.
All of the above is contained within a solid chassis that weighs in at just over 30 pounds and features Marantz's current industrial design with the curved faceplate corners, a retro-style porthole display that pays homage to Marantz products from the past, and a flip-down door. The design matches other recent products, including the MM8077 amplifier, with which the AV8801 is likely to be paired.
I placed the Marantz AV8801 into my Middle Atlantic rack in the space vacated by the Anthem D2V processor. Sources included the Oppo BDP-95 and a PS Audio PerfectWave DAC MkII. The speaker system included B&W 800 Diamonds up front with the HTM2 Diamond in the center position and 805 Diamonds in the back. As the AV8801 is dual subwoofer-capable, I used a Paradigm Sub25, along with the B&W DB-1 subwoofer. For amplification, I started with Krell's Theater Amplifier Stndard and later brought in Marantz's companion amplifier, the MM8077 (separate review to come). Cabling was Kimber for all multi-channel connections, and I used both Kimber Select and Transparent Ultra for the balanced stereo connections between the source components and the AV8801.
The physical connections were quite simple, and the four-port Ethernet switch came in handy, freeing up space on my main network switch and cleaning up the cabling as well. The Setup Assistant on the AV8801 is a much improved version over past iterations. The Assistant is informative, easy to use, and has graphics befitting an upscale component. I ran through the Assistant and the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 setup process with ease and had no need for the exhaustive manual that comes with the processor.
As I mentioned, the AV8801 is Audyssey MultEQ Pro-capable. MultEQ Pro calibration requires the use of a special microphone kit and software running on a Windows computer. This calibration is typically performed by a professional installer who is trained in the additional features that the Pro system provides, but Audyssey kindly agreed to send me the Pro calibration kit. Audyssey explains that the Pro system has a much more accurate microphone, and the installer has more target curve choices and control. The kit comes in a large, soft-sided case containing a tripod, microphone, microphone preamplifier, software, and cables. The software is only available in a Windows version and would not run on a Mac running Windows via Parallels. The hardest part of the Audyssey MultEQ Pro installation was getting the software up and running on one of my older Windows laptops. This process took nearly a month to troubleshoot, as I ran through multiple updates on two older Windows laptops. However, this should not be an issue for most users, as the MultEQ Pro calibration is almost always performed by professional installers. The microphone is placed into tripod, and the Windows computer is connected to the processor via a serial connection; the microphone, microphone preamplifier, and processor are also connected with the supplied cables and adapters that allow for use with either single-ended or balanced systems. Once the software was loaded and the multitude of cables connected, the Audyssey MultEQ Pro program was only slightly more complicated to run than the versions that are found packaged with receivers. While I will save the performance details for later in the review, I can say it was worth the effort to get the MultEQ Pro system installed.
Click over to Page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, Comparison and Competition and the Conclusion . . .
I used the AV8801 to break in some new speakers for a week or so before I installed it in my theater system and ran the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 speaker calibration. The MultEQ Pro calibration was not performed until a few weeks later when I go the software installed.
The latest movie in the James Bond series, Skyfall (Blu-ray, MGM), has been in heavy rotation in our house and is one of the movies I watched with both the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 and Pro calibrations. I will focus on the series of scenes beginning with M addressing the MPs (Members of Parliament) running through the helicopter attack at Bond's family home, Skyfall. Watching the scene in the meeting room, the voices of M and the MPs were clear, distinct, and realistic with both the MultEQ XT32 and Pro calibrations. I found that the soundtrack provided a better sense of space with the MultEQ Pro calibration than with the XT32 calibration. The voices were very similar with both calibrations, but the male voices sounded a bit more solid with the Pro calibration. The scene turns chaotic as Silva, Bond's nemesis, attacks the meeting and gunfire erupts from all angles. The AV8801 was not overwhelmed by the frenetic pace and dynamic range of this scene or that of the following gun battle and helicopter attack at Skyfall. The sonic cues, whether faint or prominent, were clear and distinct. The clarity and relative balance of the sounds enables the listener to be easily immersed in the onscreen activity.
While Skyfall has been popular with the adults, the children have been favoring Monsters University (Blu-ray, Disney/Pixar). Early in the movie, the university's Dean Hardscrabble flies in and around the classroom, and the Marantz AV8801 did an excellent job putting the listener right in the middle of it. There are also a lot of low-frequency effects that the Marantz reproduces with a balanced combination of authority and detail. Immediately following Dean Hardscabble's classroom visit, one of the main characters demonstrates the proper roaring technique. This roar provides a combination of aural and tactile sensations that demonstrated the clarity of the Marantz's bass capabilities, especially with the MultEQ Pro calibration. Lesser processors may have the authority or detail of the Marantz, but the combination of both is what provides the excitement of deep bass and the details necessary for a realistic presentation. While all rooms will be different, it was with scenes like the ones from Monsters University that the MultEQ Pro's superior calibration provided a noticeable improvement over the already good MultEQ XT32 calibration. The midbass to bass regions were where this improvement was particularly apparent, providing better continuity and overall sense of realism.
I spent a lot of time watching movies with the Marantz AV8801, sometimes alone, often with family and guests. When watching alone, I sit in the center seat but, with guests, I can be just about anywhere in the room, depending on how many are joining us. It was during one of these full-house movie sessions when I was sitting way off to the side that I noticed how good the Marantz sounded. While the center seat was still better, the "sweet spot" was impressively large, allowing listeners off to the side of the room to still enjoy the soundtrack.
With Marantz's history of providing musical presentations, I would have been remiss not to listen to test the AV8801's musical prowess. I used a variety of sources, including Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds' concert Blu-ray, Live at Radio City (Sony BMG), which was recorded in Dolby TrueHD. The song "Crash Into Me" is one of Dave Matthews' classics that I have heard on countless systems over the years. The Marantz did a phenomenal job of reproducing Matthews' voice on this track, conveying emotion with the best balance of vocals, instruments, and venue that I have heard in a concert recording. "Don't Drink the Water" has a guitar track that was reproduced with a combination of musicality, detail, and balance that made it easy for my ears to believe that I was listening to a live guitar. Larger-scale band performances like U2's "U2: 360 Live at the Rose Bowl" (Blu-ray, Interscope) also fared well. "The City of Blinding Lights" is not one of the most popular U2 tracks, but it does show off to good advantage a combination of Bono's vocals and the band's instruments. The crowd noise was a bit more pronounced than I would like, but unfortunately that's realistic from what I can recall of going to concerts at the Rose Bowl.
I listened to a few SACDs through the AV8801, including Camille Saint-Säens' Symphony No. 3 (SACD, BMG). "The Organ Symphony" features deep, powerful bass with impressive dynamics and a detailed soundstage that the Marantz nailed. Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" (SACD, Analogue Productions) is another great album with a 5.1 mix that provides an immersive soundstage that the Marantz places you in the middle of without the surrounds overwhelming the performance up front. Listening to the music on this album through the AV8801 was emotional and engaging with both the stereo and 5.1 tracks. This same album on lesser processors can come across a bit dry and lifeless, but it was vibrant on the Marantz.
The Marantz iOS application came in handy. While I generally preferred the learning remote that Marantz supplies, the app was helpful when I was in another room and my son yelled for me to adjust the volume. No more running up and down the stairs to do so. However, when I was using the DLNA connectivity of the Marantz AV8801, I preferred using the JRiver Media Center application controlled by the JRemote application on my iPhone. This combination made for easy access to all of my compatible audio files. The sound quality was extremely good, but my reference network-capable DAC, the PS Audio PerfectWave DAC MkII, still provided a more textured and nuanced playback.
I also spent a little bit of time listening through the AV8801's headphone jack. I used the V-Moda M-100 and Sennheiser HD 700 headphones. The sound through both headphones was decent, but did not have the dynamics or resolution of a good, dedicated headphone amplifier. In short, the AV8801 is more than adequate for occasional headphone use, but if you want to get the best out of high-performance headphones, a dedicated headphone amplifier is the way to go.
As feature-laden as the AV8801 is, there is one missing hardware feature that some will undoubtedly seek: WiFi. Personally, I'd rather use a wired Ethernet connection; in the event that's not possible, an external wireless access point can be added for less than $100 and reduces the risk of any interference to compromise performance. Another feature I would like to see added, and may be possible to add via firmware update, is a video streaming service such as Amazon or Netflix. While these are typically included in most new smart TVs, having the capability built into the Marantz would make it easier to run the audio through the audio system you have assembled.
The Marantz iOS app could use some improvement, such as increased functionality to allow access to the Marantz's various menus and settings. The application can also be used to access music off of a network storage device, but the lack of direct access letters forces a lengthy scrolling exercise for those with large music collections.
Competition and Comparison
The Anthem D2v has been my gold standard for AV processors but, at $9,499, it is substantially more than the Marantz AV8801. It does not have nearly as complete of a feature set, but sounds even better than the Marantz. Temptingly priced in between the Marantz and the Anthem is the Krell Foundation at $6,500; click here for a full review. The Onkyo PR-SC5508 ($2,199) and Yamaha CX-A5000 ($3,000) are priced slightly less, but have similar feature sets.
Some readers may note that similarly spec'd-out receivers can be had for the same or less money, so why go to a separate processor? Performance and long-term bang for the buck. Separate AV processors and multi-channel amplifiers typically perform better than similarly specified receivers. Each component has its own power supply, there is less cross-contamination, and there are typically more performance features that are not easily translated to a spec sheet, such as cleaner power supplies, electrical and mechanical shielding, cleaner layouts, etc. Separate processors and amplifiers also let you protect your amplification investment over the years. Unless you add channels, it is unlikely that you will need to update your amplifier every few years, making it a sound, long-term investment. On the other hand, AV processors can become outdated rather quickly as new surround codecs and video formats become available and new features come into fashion.
Marantz's new AV8801 evidences Marantz's continued dedication to performance and does so without giving up on the features that users have come to expect in today's competitive marketplace. The AV processor market is rapidly changing, with new models touting the latest iterations of surround codec capabilities being released all the time. The AV8801 has all of the newest surround sound codecs with up to 11.2 channels for loads of flexibility. Often, these features come at the expense of being able to provide music playback that strikes the balance of being musical and accurate or movie playback that is truly engaging, but that's not so with the Marantz AV8801 - it delivers both performance and features. Kudos to Marantz to providing a real contender.