Marantz PM-17 Preamp Reviewed

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Having established itself as THE brand for affordable audiophile CD players, Marantz is going out of its way to prevent what's known as 'cherry-picking'. Cherry-picking happens when a brand has one outrageously successful product, but the rest of the range is just so-so; retailers order the star item by the truckload, but rarely stock anything else from the range. In Marantz's case the company would prefer to see its myriad SE-suffixed CD players connected to Marantz amplifiers, and the company has already issued plenty of decent amps worthy of the CD-63SE K.I., et al. But last year the company launched a Ken Ishiwata'd CD player further up the price ladder, and the competition hots up when you're finding homes for £1100 source components.

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MC reviewed the CD-17 K.I. Signature last May; it took until late '97 before the PM-17 amplifier arrived. But it was worth the wait, especially as Marantz decided to make it part of a complete set-up, thus cross-pollinating with another genre. By releasing the ST-17 tuner as well, the K.I. Siggie owner can now create a system offering full remote control of the three components, as well as uniform aesthetics. (Before you ask about suitable speakers, note that Marantz distributes Tannoy in the UK, so they'd prefer it if you sourced your speakers from Scotland.)

You already know about the CD-17 K.I. Signature, its built-to-boogie solidity, sleek low profile and involving, up-front sound. Imagine a CD-63 Mk II SE K.I. exhibiting even greater refinement and better dynamics and you've got its measure. What the matching amp and tuner had to do was reflect this level of sound quality, while sharing the ultra-luxurious finish, feel and functionality. And, given the success of the CD-17, the need for stablemates was pressing: its unique look makes the CD-17 stick out like a Ferrari amongst Fords when sharing shelf-space with most other amps.

Although the 17-Series is offered in black, as was the sample photographed for MC's article, the system really does blossom in a coating of traditional Marantz champagne/gold. It creates a delicious visual contradiction, the gold colouring making the equipment look light and delicate, when the tuner weighs an impressive 5.1kg and the amplifier a meaty 15kg. These are not filled-with-air boxes but substantial constructs which will impress the hell out of you when you unpack them. It's what you'd expect if Porsche ever made hi-fi equipment.

Although you can stack them, you won't be able to put the amp on top as habit would dictate, because it's deeper (and a bit taller) than the CD-17 and the ST-17. They share footprint dimensions of 454x300mm, while the CD player is 81mm tall and the tuner a mere 68mm. The amplifier requires a slot measuring 454x110x444mm (WHD). But I managed to stack 'em with the amp below, and I worried not at all about too much heat, thanks to the system's first talking point: a front-panel mounted temperature gauge.

Try though I may, I can't name another component - not even an all- valve or pure Class-A solid-state amp - which comes fitted with a thermometer. The PM-17's 'Warm-Up Meter', though, tells you more than whether or not the amp needs more ventilation; as its moniker suggests, the gauge tells you when the amplifier has reached the operating temperature for best performance. After roughly 30min depending on ambient conditions, the needle should reach the 2/3rd point on its arc. I ran it for days at the bottom of a stack, admittedly on an open surface, and the needle never moved past the optimum point.

It's tweaky touches like this, along with the extra-large feet, the overkill socketry, the heavy-duty binding posts and a source-direct setting bypassing the tone and balance controls which allow the '17 to remain firmly a part of the audiophile camp, despite remote control status and interior-decorator-friendly looks and dimensions which place it in the 'Next Level Above Midi' arena. The aforementioned cross-pollination between genres is simply the blending of audiophilic performance with convenience, tempering the minimalism of short signal paths and by-passable circuitry with the niceties that midi-system owners take for granted. Buy if the cynic in you thinks that there's a sonic price to pay for these luxuries, check out what's on offer besides a hand-held IR commander.

From left to right, the PM-17's front panel offers a source selector marked 'Phono', 'CD' and line inputs 1-3. The differences are reinforced on the back panel, which features a button to choose between mm and m-c for the phono stage and an earthing post, while CD is singled out from the other line sources with more substantial phono sockets, although all of the connectors are gold-plated. Below the source selector is a headphone output, then a row of controls for record selection, the choice of two tape decks, a speaker on/off button and the IR receptor. The thermometer is positioned dead-centre, above the on/off switch. To the right are balance, bass and treble, the rotary volume control, and the source direct selector for by-pass mode.

Although rated at 60W/ch, the PM-17 acts like an amp boasting three times that power. Driving either the Apogee LCRs or ATC's A7s, it never required a setting past the 11 o'clock position for near-headbanging purposes firing lengthways down a 22x14ft lounge. And however precious its low profile and remote control makes it seem to purists, the PM-17 was designed for a hard life. Among its design details are an overspecified power supply with a 'Super Ring-Core Power Transformer' (which I think is Marantz-ese for a toroidal), dual-mono construction, a 4-gang active volume control, silver-relay input selection and the aforementioned hefty chassis to create a vibration-free environment. External confirmation of the purist intent also includes enormous WBT speaker terminals and pre-amp out socketry for driving a second amplifier.

For serving as the heart of either a purist's system or a facility fanatic's operations centre, the PM-17 seems to have everything covered. It just seems so right, whatever hat you're wearing at the time. The sheer convenience of its comprehensive remote control, with buttons which change function according to which source is selected, the fuss-free behaviour, the comprehensive source routing options - it's one of the most 'fun' Marantz integrateds since the legendary PM-4. What makes it a prime candidate for those who hate to mix brands, though, is the existence of a matching tuner.

Read Page 2 for The High Points, Low Points and Conclusion

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