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Test Stereo Amplifiers - Driving Your Tunes Forward (Part 2) : Marantz PM6004, Onkyo A-9050

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Marantz PM6004: $716

What can we say about the Marantz PM6004 that we haven’t already? It ran away with our Product of the Year gong at the 2011 Awards and, a year on; it’s still a wonderful listen.

There’s a modest-sounding 45W of power per channel, but don’t be fooled by that – the PM6004 is never found wanting in terms of scale and power, sounding as poised and compelling as it did the first time we heard it. Detail levels are high, with confident dynamics that soar and weave through any track. It’s not a fussy performer, either: it’s easily partnered with other kit and is happy with all kinds of music.

Marantz PM6004

Marantz PM6004

While amplifiers from the likes of Denon charge through a track with all the energy they can muster, the Marantz takes its time to coax out all the nuances of detail in voices, instruments and rhythm. And despite its rather civilized touch, there’s no hint of sluggishness – it effortlessly displays a nimble and punchy sense of timing that keeps the rhythm of any song style fresh and engaging.

It takes great skill to deliver both Eminem’s spitting rage and Norah Jones’s wistful vocals, and the Marantz has the deftness to do it

It takes a great deal of skill to deliver both Eminem’s spitting rage in The Way I Am and Norah Jones’s languid and wistful vocals on Come Away With Me, and the Marantz has the right amount of balance and deftness to pull off both. There’s no putting off the looming comparison between the Marantz and the Rotel RA-10. The Rotel amplifier did knock the Marantz off its perch to claim top spot in our 2012 Awards, but only because it edges it when it comes to transparency, dynamic expression and punch. In each case it’s by small margins, though.

And you’re sorted, whether you play music from a CD player, streamer, or turntable – there are ample inputs and connections on the rear panel for multiple analogue sources.

Flexibility and ease of use

Along with the five line-level inputs, there’s a 3.5mm auxiliary input for portable players, a headphone output, and the option to switch between two sets of speaker terminals.

As with the Denon stereo amplifier, we’d highly recommend pressing the Source Direct button for a more robust sound that bypasses the tonal controls. As for the amplifier itself, it’s sturdy and solidly built, with controls and a remote control handset that are easy to live with.

As we’ve noted previously, the PM6004 is tuned to complement the Marantz CD6004 CD player, but the unfussy nature of the stereo amplifier means that it will partner easily with most hi-fi separates.

Along with the five line-level inputs, there’s a 3.5mm auxiliary input for portable players, a headphone output, and the option to switch between two sets of speaker terminals

Along with the five line-level inputs, there’s a 3.5mm auxiliary input for portable players, a headphone output, and the option to switch between two sets of speaker terminals

This is a former Product of the Year at our awards, which makes it all the more attractive in such a competitive market. Its engaging performance means it most definitely keeps its five-star rating (despite stiff competition), and it certainly remains one of our favorite stereo amplifiers at this level.

Perfect partner

Pair up this Marantz amp with its matching CD player, the Marantz CD6004, for a splendid balance. It’s a dream-team that includes fast-paced and detailed dynamics in its list of major achievements. Not only do the two units complement each other with similar build and finish, there’s also a common remote to make your life easier.

Rating: 5/5

For: Subtle detail and dynamics; composed and elegant presentation; build quality; price

Against: Just a shade soft and smoothed out – could do with a touch more transparency

Verdict: The PM6004 is a firm favorite that still delivers a thoroughly engaging listen

Onkyo A-9050: $575

Onkyo’s new range of integrated stereo amplifiers grabbed our attention during consumer electronics show IFA 2012, the entry-level A-9030 impressing us with its lively, enthusiastic presentation.

The A-9050 is that unit’s big brother, and sonically it’s a different proposition. Hi-fi kit in the same range tends to share familial traits – the sound tends to get more revealing and inherit more layers of detail as you go up the range, but the sonic character usually remains consistent. The two Onkyos, though, have gone in different directions. Where the A-9030 sounds warm and comfortable, the A-9050 has a much thinner and more brittle sound.

Onkyo A-9050

Onkyo A-9050

More weight, please

The thin sound makes the A-9050 feel a touch Anaemic compared with the more robust A-9030. Its soundstage also seems modest when put next to the likes of the Rotel and Marantz amps in this test. With a lack of weight to the overall sound, there’s a shortage of punch and richness that doesn’t fully engage the listener in the way that made the A-9030 so appealing to listen to. This aspect is most revealing when playing a turntable using the phono input – spin Dusty Springfield’s Spooky, and the sound is much less involving than the other amplifiers in this test, robbing songs of the usual mellow and warm glow we tend to associate with vinyl records.

That said, while the Onkyo is not the smoothest and easiest listen, it’s not without its merits. The A-9050 is fairly well-balanced across the frequencies and has a decent helping of detail on board that makes you keep on listening.

It has a gentle and deft touch when it comes to dynamic shifts, being more pliable than the stubborn-sounding Denon PMA-720AE

It may not have the layers of insight and composure needed to win this test, but its clean and assured sound and good grasp of timing does make it more listenable than the Denon amp. Play The Social Network soundtrack, and you’ll find that it has a more tightly controlled bass that gives it an edge over its in-house competitor, the A-9030. It has a gentle and deft touch when it comes to dynamic shifts, too, being more pliable than the stubborn-sounding Denon PMA-720AE in this test.

A step up from the A-9030 means an increased power output of 75W per channel, along with digital inputs (one optical, two coaxial) linked to an integrated Wolfson 192kH/24- bit DAC. Stream music directly from a computer, or connect to a streamer using a digital connection and you’ll find the DAC has a similarly thin, hard sound.

The A-9050 itself is a solid piece of kit and looks good finished in either silver or black. It offers plenty of connectivity with five analogue inputs alongside the aforementioned moving-magnet phono input. It also has analogue, subwoofer and headphone outputs, and two sets of speaker terminals.

A step up from the A-9030 means an increased power output of 75W per channel, along with digital inputs (one optical, two coaxial) linked to an integrated Wolfson 192kH/24- bit DAC

A step up from the A-9030 means an increased power output of 75W per channel, along with digital inputs (one optical, two coaxial) linked to an integrated Wolfson 192kH/24- bit DAC

This Onkyo faces stiff competition from rivals. It has plenty going for it, but it needs to be more rounded to seriously worry the class leaders.

Speaker matching

The Onkyo’s lean sound means some care must be taken when partnering it with speakers. We’d avoid anything that makes it sound too harsh or clinical, so we’d steer clear of the Monitor Audio BX2s and even the Wharfedale Diamond 121s. Instead, we’d go for the more refined sound of the Q Acoustics 2020i standmounters.

Rating: 4/5

For: Good detail; handles dynamics well; good build and spec list

Against: Lean sound could be warmer and richer; not the most engaging listen

Verdict: The lean presentation means it’s not as involving as some, but there’s plenty to like

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