Pros: Believable sound; top-notch aesthetics
Cons: Frustrating setup; somewhat high MSRP
Jack of All Trades, Master of Most
The relationship between home theater enthusiasts and a/v processors is a bit of a cyclical conundrum: We invest significant fiscal resources into devices guaranteed to achieve partial obsolescence within three years. Once partial obsolescence is realized, additional investments are sometimes required for a new device or updates to the existing device. This full viability of a processor’s functionality can be pared down to as narrow a window as a single year if the A/V industry is at the cusp of a technical breakthrough like HDMI 2.0. There are exceptions to this—Anthem’s Statement D2V processor, for example—however, more often than not, a processor’s life-span is very limited. As I write this in July of 2013, HDMI 2.0 approaches and the longevity of all HD products must be questioned; however, sometimes, the value of a component lies not in the longevity of its feature set, but in its raw ability to outperform and outlast its competition. That being said, features can and do matter. One of the most feature-laden A/V multi-channel processors available at this moment in the a/v industry timeline is the Marantz AV8801—a popular choice for music and home theater enthusiasts alike with very little competition at its $3600 MSRP price-point. The Marantz AV 8801 has a bevy of features—many of which will go unused by enthusiasts. As such, this is a review of the Marantz AV8801 through the lens of practical enthusiast use. The fancy, oft-times useless features will be skipped for this review, as they have been chronicled in many other locations.
The Set Up
I spent the last three years enjoying the Integra DHC 80.X series of processors. I first purchased the 80.2 model in 2010, and made the lateral shift to the 80.3 model in 2012. I was thoroughly impressed with the sound and ease of use that the Integra products provided. Needless to say, the Marantz AV8801 had some Shaquille-sized shoes to fill. The hardware replacement was extremely easy, although I will offer a bit of advice: when dealing with any processor of this complexity, it is paramount that you label your cables (name tags from an office-supply store work wonders in this regard). I simply unplugged my cables—an enjoyable mix of WireWorld, Emotiva, Better Cables, and AudioQuest brands—from my Integra DHC-80.3, removed the unit from the rack, slid the Marantz AV 8801 into the rack and connected the cables. Easy set-up, right? Not necessarily.
The Marantz AV8801 and I did not start on the right foot with each other. Upon first start-up, the processor would not output audio or video signals. Now, I generally give any new product a chance to get adjusted to my fairly complex HDMI-based video chain, so I gave it a week of troubleshooting, and after much trial, error, and advice from fellow enthusiasts, I ran the first-time setup out of desperation, and voila! Perfect operation. To all potential owners out there, heed my words carefully: run the first-time user setup, no matter how advanced of a user you think you are. We don’t need the user setup, but the unit might.
After this issue was solved, it was time to run Audyssey XT32, which provides precisely one ba-jillion gazillion filters to the sound. (See footnote 1) Running Audyssey was a breeze, with a great GUI that guided me through every step of the setup. Audyssey is best done with a tri-pod or boom stand; I used the latter to perform my measurements and once complete, all consternation regarding my setup issues melted away.
What this Marantz AV 8801 does very well is sound. Movie demonstration material ran the gamut from the bombastic final thirty minutes of Oz, the Great and Powerful, to the entire nuanced soundtrack in George Clooney’s too-soon-forgotten The American. The audio mix of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had more crunch than usual and the crowd scenes from Hugo sounded very believable. And then, there is the final assault on the Skyfall ranch in James Bond’s latest adventure, which was riveting from start to finish with spectacular audio moments in nearly every shot. Other scenes played through the AV 8801 were: 1) Transformers (Desert Battle), 2) Tron: Legacy (Welcome to the Grid), 3) The Hunger Games (forest-fire scene), and 4) Fantastic Four (Rocket Launcher vs. the Human Torch). Each of these played back at -5db below reference volume were an absolute joy to experience, but when I cranked each one up to reference volume, I was utterly and completely transported to the land within the screen and I now find myself re-visiting my favorite scenes from each film at reference leve.
Through the Marantz AV 8801, Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack was conveyed with sheer gravitas when required, capably spewing the growing beast that is Dna, while preserving the subtleties of piano decay in the track This is Clark Kent. Anthony Evans’ Let it Rain was extremely crisp and the bass that kicks in at the first chorus was very defined—more defined than I’ve ever experienced. This track serves as a reminder that Redbook CD quality music is STILL a superb source of audio, despite the high-resolution files now widely available. The song Polly Come Home from Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ album Raising Sand is a song that, although far from the crispest I’ve heard, is a very moving song. Played through the Marantz AV 8801, I could almost feel Plant’s sorrow with every word.
The Marantz AV 8801 is a processor that I can absolutely recommend. Were this an audio-only review, I would give it 5-stars in a heart-beat; however, the frustrating set-up and high MSRP do work to its detriment. All in all, the AV 8801 is the best A/V processor on the market right now (in the context of the wallets of mere mortals) and I am proud to own it. The A/V experiences that it has provided me with over the last few months have been nothing short of breathtaking. If this processor is in your budget (and even it’s not), it absolutely deserves your consideration. Does it make sense to purchase a processor at this price with HDMI 2.0 on the horizon? Instead, ask yourself this question; do you plan to replace every piece of equipment you own with HDMI 2.0-enabled gear the second that it’s announced? I didn’t think so. Skip Starbucks for a month; drive below 55MPH on the highway; telework three days a week; bottom line: do what you need to do in order to get a Marantz AV 8801 in your rack.
FYI: Features You Will Not Use:
Internet Streaming (most HT devices already do this.)
JVC DLA-RS56 w/ 3D Package
Legacy Audio Focus SE Loudspeakers
Legacy Marquis HD Center Speaker
Infinity Primus 360 Towers (surrounds)
Oppo BDP-105 Universal Media Player
HTPC powered by Jriver Media Center 18
Cables: Wireworld Chroma 6 | Better Cables Silver Serpent | AudioQuest Diamondback | Emotiva X-Series
Footnote 1: One ba-jillion gazillion is not an actual number and was stated purely in jest.