New digital amplifier revives the famous Marantz MusicLink name – and does so in style
Last weekend’s system? Mac Book Air providing the tunes, Bowers & Wilkins 803 D3s filling the room.
Linking them together, the Marantz HD-AMP1 – the company’s new super-amplifier-in-miniature, yours for just £799.
Yes, a compact and highly affordable integrated amplifier driving a pair of speakers with a price-tag in the region of £12,500; and however ridiculous the combination may sound on paper (or screen or whatever), it works – and spectacularly well.
Having first encountered the Marantz HD-AMP1 in decidedly dummy form back in the summer at the D+M Group’s annual conference for dealers and press, I’d been keen to get my hands on a sample for some listening as soon as possible, and for a couple of reasons.
One was that it builds on the success of the company’s HD-DAC1 DAC/headphone amplifier, which I reviewed at the beginning of this year, and which I’ve been using ever since as a reference for headphone testing; the other was that, like that product, the new one has been overseen by Marantz Brand Ambassador Ken Ishiwata. And I’ve known Ken well enough for more than two decades now to recognise when he thinks a product is on to something special.
That ‘something special’ description certainly applies to the HD-AMP1: for a start it has the classic looks of the HD-DAC1, complete with the references to Marantz products of the past in its ‘porthole’ display and star detailing complete with blue power indicator, not to mention the classy metal casework and wood – oh, all right then, wood effect – side cheeks.
Whether in black or the company’s ‘silvergold’ finish, the HD-AMP1 one looks solid, substantial and well-proportioned, the precisely resolved styling of the HD-DAC1, with its ‘high end in miniature’ appearance, scaling up very successfully in this new model.
It’s also a lot more than just a slightly larger version of the previous model, with a quick fix power amplifier bolted in: Marantz – and Ishiwata – doesn’t work that way. Instead, what we have here is a product with a cosmetic similarity to its smaller sibling, but with extensive re-engineering – and new features and capabilities – under its substantial lid.
To cover off the obvious question first, the HD-AMP1 will do almost everything possible with the HD-DAC1, including decoding and converting high-resolution audio and driving headphones to a very high standard – there’s even adjustable gain for the headphone output to ensure it’s able to power even electrically demanding cans. Just about the only thing missing is line outs, or preouts to enable it to be used as a preamp straight into power amplification.
But then why would it need these, when it has onboard amplification able to deliver 35W into 8ohms and 70W into 4ohm loads? Especially when, as we’ll see, those apparently modest figures belie its real-world speaker-driving ability.
What you get instead is a choice of analogue or digital inputs: two sets of entirely conventional line-ins, plus one coaxial and two optical digital inputs, plus both USB-B and USB-A sockets, the front one for memory devices and portables, complete with iOS compatibility, and the rear one operating asynchronously with extensive isolation to keep noise from a connected computer at bay.
Completing the line-up is a set of high-quality speaker terminals, able to accept 4mm plus, spades or bare wires, a single subwoofer output, and Marantz remote control in/out sockets, as found on almost every product from the brand.
The amp modules here are the respected Hypex UcD (Universal Class D) switching-mode units, while the digital-to-analogue conversion is in the hands of the equally ESS Sabre DAC, as found in a wide range of top-notch digital devices these days – most of them being considerably more expensive than the Marantz. This converter allows files of up to 384kHz/32bit resolution to be handled via the USB-B, along with not just DSD64/2.8MHz, but also DSD128/5.6MHz and DSD256/11.2MHz, with the conventional digital inputs good for 192kHz/24bit. That’s what you call future-proofing.
Supporting this is a dual-clock system allowing correct conversion of a wide range of formats – one clock handles 44.1kHz and its multiples, the other 48kHz, 96kHz and so on – along with filtering downstream of the DAC making use of the famous Marantz Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules, in their upmarket HDAM-SA2 and –SA3 versions.
I still reckon someone came up with the HDAM name and then thought of a meaning for the acronym, but these modules, built from discrete components and used in place of the more common chip-amps, have been used to very fine effect in generations of Marantz products.
Finally there’s a user-selectable digital filter – Marantz Musical Digital Filtering, no less – which to these ears delivers subtle, but worthwhile, differences. In the standard filter 1 position, the sound has a characteristically Marantz (or do I mean Ishiwata?) combination of depth, tight focus and warm, deep and yet beautifully controlled bass, along with what I can only really describe as a luminous view of voices and instruments.
By contrast, the sound with the filter in its second position is subtly, but noticeably, more hi-fi, in a way that’s slightly too ‘obvious’ for my taste. There’s certainly more attack to the sound, but it can begin to sound like detail is being hurled at the listener with some force, and while instruments stand out from a mix even more clearly, they can appear a little over-projected and lacking in their characteristic weight and resonance.
OK, so I’m slightly overplaying these differences in the cause of comparison: as I said, they’re subtle, but they’re definitely there. I know which I prefer, but I wouldn’t say one was right and the other wrong: rather the selection of these settings will be down to personal taste, and may well even vary according to the music being played at the time.
A very Marantz amplifier
What is beyond any doubt is that this is not only a remarkably accomplished amplifier for its size and price, but also a very Marantz amplifier, for all the reasons I mentioned above when talking about the ‘filter 1’ position. And that’s especially so when the amp is used in line with Ishiwata’s suggestion that I stuck to listening with the ‘source direct’ setting in use, giving the cleanest possible signal path through the circuitry.
Very Marantz? What I mean by that is its ability to develop that broad, deep, yet precisely focused soundstage between and around the speakers, thrilling you with the impact of instruments and voices, and allowing you to hear elements of mixes previously thought familiar, with the effect that almost every track listened to comes up fresh.
And yet all this is achieved without any sign of effort or the smoke and mirrors involved in creating the illusion of a three-dimensional performance – the music just happens before the listener, and it’s hard not to be swept away in the performance.
There’s another aspect of the HD-AMP1 worth mentioning, too: along with the announcement of the arrival of the amp, Marantz announced that it also marked the revival of the MusicLink range, last seen in the company’s catalogue some time in the 1990s.
Relatively short-lived, the line-up comprised much the same kind of ‘hi-fi in miniature’ components as we see here, but in the form of a CD player, preamps and a range of power amp options. We’ve been running a preamp and a pair of monoblocs in our dining room system for many years now, and they’ve performed faultlessly.
One can only assume, if the MusicLink range is being revived with this unit – and presumably the HD-DAC1 (seen above with the HD-AMP1) will become part of the line-up – that there are more products on the way: taking a clue from the rest of the Marantz catalogue, the obvious contenders would be a disc player and/or a network music device, which should make for an interesting 2016!
And the HD-AMP1 is more than up to the task of exceeding expectations, as it demonstrated when used with the big Bowers & Wilkins speakers: it really shouldn’t have worked, but it not only drove the 803 D3s, but did so in an entirely convincing fashion, whether with the fine detail of solo or small-ensemble classical music, or pounding or rock with all its impact intact.
Not that you need to go as far as the big floorstanders from Worthing to hear what the HD-AMP1 can do: I had good results when using it with much more affordable floorstanders, in the form of the long-discontinued PMC GB1 speakers, some high-quality compact speakers I have on-site for review at the moment, and even the little Neat Iotas I use as my desktop loudspeakers.
In fact, whatever you choose to drive with it, the Marantz shines, and it’s also more than capable of revealing the benefits of stepping up through the choice of hi-res files on offer out there, as was apparent when comparing DSD64 and DSD128 versions of the same track, and even the very few DSD256 files I have in my library.
Played through the Bowers & Wilkins speakers in particular, the HD-AMP1 just delivers more presence and sparkle as you move up through the DSD spectrum, but it’s also entirely convincing both when used with more modest speakers and when playing files at standard CD resolution. This is an amplifier you can buy with confidence for your current music collection, knowing it has the wherewithal to handle whichever direction your purchases may take you in the future.
Just occasionally I come across a product beyond the extremely good and well into truly special territory – having used the HD-AMP1 for a while now, I’m convinced the Marantz team has done it again. Compact it may be, but this amplifier has definite giant-killing ability, and is one of the most convincing products in its sector this side of £1000, if not beyond.
Add in the stylish ‘retro’ looks, the solidity of build and the comprehensive specification, and you have a real hi-fi bargain on your hands. That’s not a bad start for the New Year, is it?
Type Stereo integrated amplifier with built-in DAC
Inputs Two sets of line analogue; two optical, one coaxial digital; asynchronous USB-B for computer connection; USB-A for iOS devices and USB memory
Format handling Up to 192kHz/24-bit via conventional digital inputs; via asynchronous USB up to 384kHz/32-bit and DSD to DSD256/11.2MHz
Outputs One set of speaker terminals, subwoofer, headphones
Output power 35Wpc into 8ohms, 70Wpc into 4ohms
Finishes Black or silvergold, with wood-effect side-panels
Accessories supplied Remote control handset
Dimensions (WxHxD) 30.4×35.2×10.7cm
Written by Andrew Everard