31 Marantz PM6006 CD6006There are lots of people, including a guy I know who makes amplifiers, who say it’s just about impossible to pick any sound quality difference between amplifiers of similar price and power. And there are lots of people, including most other amplifier manufacturers, who say it isn’t. So who’s right? I don’t want to sound wishy-washy but it’s a bit of both.

It’s like this. Unless you have ears of rolled gold you’re likely not to hear any appreciable difference between two similarly priced amplifiers playing someone like Joanna Newsom. But with the fifth symphony of Shostakovich you’ll start picking the chalk from the cheese.

That’s because Joanna is a singer of gentle voice accompanied by her harp and minimalist additional instrumentation. Her recordings are all about making her extraordinary voice the star. Her music is terrific, it’s just that there’s nothing at all in it to tax audio equipment. But the Shostakovich fifth is an entirely different kettle of drums. Dimitri Shostakovich was a Russian who wrote music as vast and unequivocal as his homeland, at one time incurring the rage of Stalin. The fifth is as subtle as a Siberian winter and is best played loud, when it puts real demands on everything in a stereo system, but especially the amplifier. If the amp is not up to the task you’ll hear where it’s falling short.

Actually you won’t because with a lesser amplifier it’s all about what you don’t hear. It won’t have the capacity to properly handle the big crashes of sound as they roll in, so what should be bouncing you out of your seat, or at least getting you leaping to your feet to explore your unarguable talents as a conductor, will rather be a bit tepid and bland. If your music is unexciting and uninvolving try listening to it through an amplifier with big, beefy toroidal transformers and a seriously fast and flexible digital to analogue converter. You’ll discover stuff you never even heard before along with new levels of definition and depth. You’ll feel the hair on the back of your neck standing to attention.

31 Marantz 14-series SE GDSo how much is a good amplifier? First you need to know the difference between an amplifier and a receiver; an amplifier is just that while a receiver is an amplifier with a radio tuner built in. Convenient, but sometimes a tuner comes at the cost of sound quality. For example Yamaha’s RS201 receiver ($449) and AS201 amplifier ($499) at first appear to be pretty much identical apart from the LED radio dial on the RS201. But read into the specs and you’ll discover the AS201 amp has a pure direct mode to bypass the tone and balance controls, shortening the signal path and promising greater musical purity, as well as a turntable input. This is a serious little amp and great buying for $500.

But if you have more demanding speakers and a bigger room you should look at budgeting around $1000. This will get you into some serious performers like the Marantz PM6006 ($1090). But there’s an odd thing here; read the specs and the Marantz pumps out half the power of the $500 Yamaha despite costing twice as much.

First, power figures are a deeply flawed measure and only part of the audio equation anyway. Second, what you’re paying for with the Marantz is a toroidal transformer that delivers solid grunt with minimal interference, a fully shielded digital-to-analogue converter that handles everything from CDs to high resolution downloads (Marantz calls downloads ‘non-packaged media’) and discrete components all along the signal path. Discrete (not discreet) is a magic word in hi fi meaning all the components work individually rather than as a single entity, so there’s less interference and greater musical purity.

Marantz has matched this amp with the CD6006 CD player and the combination has just won an EISA award for the best European stereo system 2016-17. EISA stands for European Imaging and Sound Association and its awards are one of the big kahunas in audio. And if you take headphones seriously there’s an in-built headphone amplifier with its own gain control, so it sounds better than the bulk of headphone outputs.

Published September 2016

 

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