Impressed as I was with the Parasound Halo, I found the Marantz moved one step farther toward neutrality, with a bit more definition in the treble, though it sacrifices the Parasound’s enchanting musicality. Some of that feeling of neutrality also may come from the very slightly lighter bass presentation of the Marantz. It would be hard to prove which is right, but in any event, we’re talking about very small differences. And we’re talking about very good performance.
But the real shocker for me came when I pitted the Marantz against the mbl 6010D. Try as I might, I really couldn’t reliably say what the difference was. With the 6010D, trying multiple discs, about all I could say was that the mbl sounded a little more stable – in the sense that subliminal noise and distortion modulated the music less on the mbl. Another way of putting this is to say that the Marantz had the sense of a miniscule low frequency grain when compared to the mbl. This is a very subtle effect.
At this point in my listening tests, I remembered some experiences I had last year when reviewing a group of CD players for our sister magazine, The Absolute Sound. At the time, differences between players would often seemed non-existent until I found a certain section of a certain disc that could expose and highlight performance differences, suddenly making them seem night/day obvious. One of the important things about testing equipment is that you have to remember certain rules. One of them is that “the object under test can’t show a behavior unless there is a stimulus than triggers that behavior.” An obvious example is that of a speaker without significant output from 20-40Hz. You can’t expect to observe that particular weakness until you play music that you know has instruments that are playing down in the 20-40Hz range.
As I explored the capabilities of the Parasound Halo and Marantz, I decided to use some of the same difficult test material I had found helpful (and revealing) in my CD player reviews. Often this is material with repeated or high-level treble transients (female voice, cymbals, other metallic percussion).
With these CDs the Parasound occasionally emphasized the leading edge of treble sounds. You might say the P7 sounded a little brighter than neutral, but really the overall treble level didn’t rise. Instead, only the first part of “S” sounds and the initial “ping” of cymbals being struck was emphasized. In contrast, the mbl, Audio Research, and the Marantz all tended to sound as detailed as the P7, yet somewhat smoother, when reproducing these same sounds.
Are these slightly accentuated transient edges right or wrong? That’s harder to say. First we should note that these emphasized transients aren’t what you hear with live acoustic music. So, in some sense, this behavior isn’t what we want. But, it may not be the fault of the equipment under test. It could, for example, be on the recordings. Or, these transient anomalies could be caused by the D/A converter that I used (primarily an EMM Labs CDSA). And so on.
Returning to the Marantz on the same test material, I got basically the same result with it as I did with the mbl, which is remarkable considering the price disparity between the products. Again, the differences were essentially inaudible, to me at least. My colleagues at Playback and The Absolute Sound have sometimes heard things that I didn’t notice immediately (and vice versa), so I wouldn’t take it to the bank that this $2600 A/V controller is basically the equal of a more or less handmade $24,000 preamp from Germany. But I would say for many of us that it is so darn close on the kind of material I used that the differences are meaningless (the paragraphs above should issue a further cautionary note about the importance of specific test material). And almost no one would view the value issue as debatable.
Now I need to bring up the troubling tale of the Audio Research LS26. The trouble is that it doesn’t sound like the mbl or the Marantz. The LS26 is troubling because it isn’t obviously flawed or superior; it just sounds different. The tonal balance is similar, the transient handling is similar, and the soundstaging is similar. But I can’t imagine that two groups of experienced listeners would be indifferent if offered their choice of the mbl/Marantz or the Audio Research. Some would pick the former and some the latter.