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  1. A couple of months ago I stepped into a pretty nice audio store to kill some time. There was a setup featuring a gorgeous pair of Italian-made speakers that I'd always wanted to hear: the Sonus Faber Cremona M. The turntable wasn't hooked up, so the sales rep cued up a very familiar Diana Krall CD. Wow! I could hear the recording venue ambience, the subtle details of how Diana forms her notes, slight creaking of the piano and piano bench, and easy delineation of natural and induced reverb. In spite of that level of detail, the presentation did not sound deconstructed; it sounded more "in-the-room" and musically engaging. In addition to the ambient detail, these speakers wowed me with their clear and nimble bass. The standard, "All or Nothing at All," opens with a fast acoustic bass intro by Christian McBride. These speakers handled that passage with the full bloom of the bass, but with no muddines or overhanging notes whatsoever. Again, Christian McBride was in the room. That audition haunted me for days. Weeks even. I'd love to have a pair of these speakers and I' know they'd be keepers for life. One obstacle though: list price is $12,500 per pair. Usually when a high end store sets up some game-changing and fairly expensive speakers like this, they use really high end electronics and cabling to show them off--a $5-10K turntable, $3K preamp (or more), amplification in the $5-10K range, $1500 for the equipment rack and $2K for the cabiling. They did have a nice rack and decent cables, but the CD/SACD player and integrated amp were a mid-line product bundle from Marantz. On its own the integrated amp lists at $999 but can be had as low as $699 if you know where to shop for a factory refreshed unit. It was the electronics combo that made this happen. Not many of you out there may be up for the matching $999 SA8004 SACD/CD player, though it was the source component making this happen. Not only does it play both CDs and SACDs, you can use its internal (and very good) DAC to decode digital music via Toslink, S/PDiF coaxial, and USB. Yes, it can decode computer-based digital music. But back to the amp. This amp, rated at a mid-level 70 wpc, took ahold of these $12.5K floorstanders with dual woofers and dual ports (a challenge for current delivery and an effective damping factor) and brought out a stunning performance, rich in harmonic fullness, intimate detail, and dynamics, both subtle and dramatic. It's not the kind of performance you expect from a <$1K amp. I'm not alone in my reaction. The Absolute Sound, which is often accused of reviewing too much too-expensive gear, came to the same conclusion, giving this an Editor's Choice award and validating my impression that this amp is something special. What makes it better? A couple of things, both of which show passion and care on the part of the designers and manufacturer. Where other integrated amps use mostly ICs and string them together, this amp uses specially designed circuits made of discrete components for certain parts of the design, including the phono preamp section. Highly unusual. Second is a circuit exclusive to Marantz called the HDAM (Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module). This module inserts 70dB of extremely wide bandwidth, low noise gain into the gain circuit. By wide bandwidth this amp is near linear out to 100 KHz. Can't hear that high? No matter. That wide bandwidth also translates into a rise time that's about 5 times as fast as an amp that's linear only out to 20 KHz (the widely accepted upper limit of human hearing). And you can hear that rise time difference in the way it translates into presence, transparency, immediacy, and especially clarity. Furthermore--and this is what I think sets this amp apart--this amp has an unusually high signal-to-noise ratio. In the amplifier section the s/n is 125 dB. Up to now that has been the exclusive province of five figure and above amps. The line stage is good for 106 dB. The amp is also capable of putting out a decent amount of current--25 amps--very quickly, and that has a lot to do with keeping firm control of the speakers' fluctuating impedance curve. OK. So $999 seems like a lot for an integrated amp. Google for it and you can find it cheaper. Go to accessories4less.com to get a factory refurb unit for $699. Also, to put this into perspective, back in the '70s in the "golden age of stereo," a good 40 wpc receiver went for around $400, or $2000 in today's money. By that standard, $999 today would be like getting the amp in 1972 for $190, with double the power and near double the s/n ratio. Back then you couldn't buy this Marantz's performance for any price. Few had this bandwidth, none of the SS models had this combination of clarity and smoothness, and none came within sniffing distance of 125 dB s/n ratio. I checked over Marantz's line, and there are less expensive integrated amps in this series, the PM6004 and PM5004, but no HDAM circuit, no 125 dB s/n ratio, no ultrawide bandwidth. They're nice units to be sure, but the real magic starts at the PM8004. It's the lowest priced Marantz amp with HDAM. So I know times are tight. I certainly can't get one right now. But if you're in the market, if you have a reasonably secure job, and you want to see what it's like to introduce true high resolution into your audio system without paying corksniffer prices, this is the best intro I know of.
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