Marantz was founded decades ago by the legendary highend audio pioneer Saul Marantz, and so the firm’s modernday products have a lofty reputation to uphold. Fortunately, Marantz’s flagship SR9600 AVR is up to the task, delivering the sonic goods in all the areas that matter most, and bristling with features, functions, and inputs—including dual HDMI and i.Link inputs. The receiver’s signature feature is its automated MRAC (Marantz Room Acoustic Calibration) system. Using an included calibration microphone, MRAC determines the system’s speaker configuration, applies appropriate speaker size and distance settings, and then calculates two sets of speaker- and room-specific EQ curves. The AUTO 1 settings equalize for flat inroom frequency response, while the AUTO 2 settings adjust center-channel and surround speaker voicing to match the L/R mains.
On films, the SR9600 reveals two personas, one that is delicate and full of finesse, and the other exhibiting take-no-prisoners power. On Jim Jarmusch’s brooding and introspective Broken Flowers, for example, the SR9600 perfectly captured lead actor Bill Murray’s subtle vocal inflections along with the soft, atmospheric sound effects that establish the film’s mood. Soundtrack reproduction doesn’t get much more refined than this. Yet on big action sequences, the SR9600 turns into an absolute tiger. On demanding scenes such as the “Echo Game” sequence from House of Flying Daggers, the “Under Attack” sequence from Master and Commander, or “The Flying Boat” sequence from The Aviator, the Marantz delivers explosive dynamics while preserving fine textural details. The SR9600’s intoxicating combination of abundant power (140Wpc) and precise control is hard to fault.
On music, the SR9600’s sound is characterized by sweet and detailed highs, a relaxed and open midrange, and potent foundational mid-bass that sounds rich yet clear. Overall, the Marantz impresses with its almost self-effacingly natural sound, but when the receiver’s PURE DIRECT mode is engaged, the sound becomes noticeably more transparent. The PURE DIRECT mode helps the SR9600 nail the deep, smoky sound of Patricia Barber’s voice and the intricate textures of her keyboard work on “Bye Bye Blackbird” from the artist’s Nightclub SACD [MFSL]. The SR9600 is at its best when playing audiophile classics that make lesser AVRs sound coarse and compressed.
Marantz’s AUTO 1 and AUTO 2 EQ settings both performed as advertised, though I preferred the flat AUTO 1 setting because it plainly improved the system’s overall accuracy. The benefits of both auto EQ settings come, however, at the price of a slight reduction in transparency. On tracks rich in inner details such as “In My Secret Life” from Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs [Columbia], where Cohen expresses more in a few phrases than most singers do in entire songs, the sound loses focus when DSP-driven EQ modes are engaged. Happily, Marantz lets users customize or even disable auto EQ settings as the music warrants. Either way, the SR9600 is one of the top three or four AVRs I’ve heard for listening to music.
The receiver’s powerful, pushbutton/ touch-screen universal remote looks simple and elegant, but in practice it is difficult to use, largely because it combines too many different control paradigms in one device. One small example would be the remote’s side-mounted PAGE UP/PAGE DOWN and topmounted FWD/BWD menu control buttons; these buttons function interchangeably in some contexts, yet not in others. Welcome to confusion. I mastered this remote with considerable study and practice, but for me it never became intuitive to use.
Sonically, and in terms of I/O and multizone flexibility, Marantz’s SR9600 is everything a flagship AVR should be. But in the end it all comes down to sound, and I loved the way this receiver shifted gears, showing delicacy and refinement one moment, and room-shaking power the next. This receiver’s superb sound more than offsets the effort required to conquer its finicky remote.