Marantz's SR5500 has been doing the rounds since late 2004, which equates to being long-in-the-tooth in AV receiver terms.
As such it doesn't boast any auto set-up system, has no truck with auto EQ and doesn't come supplied with a little microphone that you are going to use once and stick in the box for the rest of its life.
That's not to say that the SR5500 is frugally specified. It ties with the Pioneer VSX-1015 when it comes to muscle. Our lab tests clocked it at 95W into 8ohms when in 5.1 channel mode and a chunky 120w per channel when used in stereo.
It also has trendy 192kHz/24-bit DACs for all channels, a 32-bit DSP engine and upconverts all incoming video signals to component output, albeit without scaling. The full range of Dolby and DTS decoding formats are on tap right up to Pro-Logic IIx and the analogue input frequency response spans 10Hz - 100kHz for Super Audio CD and DVD-A fans.
Circle of sound
Interestingly, the SR5500 also sports SRS's Circle Surround II, which I believe is an arguably better stereo to multichannel algorithm than Pro-Logic II. CSII has generally improved rear channel steering, smoother front-to-rear effects panning, and, for lovers of older movies, offers superior mono to 5.1 sound that can give classic films a real lift.
If you fancy a little surround sound action without disturbing the rest of the household this receiver also packs Dolby Headphone processing. This can turn even the most mundane earcans into surround sound stars although don't expect seismic bass effects from your iPod in-ear buds.
Up front the SR5500 sports a fetching brushed aluminium fascia, solid feeling buttons and nicely weighted volume knob. The build quality oozes class and is the most robust feeling in this group by quite a margin. The display is informative and bright, even if the colour is a matter of personal taste, and every feature and function can be accessed by the front panel for when the bland remote control slips down the back of the sofa.
The rear panel is equally well appointed. Despite lacking such modern digital niceties as HDMI or DVI switching it does use the Marantz D-Bus and has a bi-directional RS232 port should you have an AMX or Crestron style control system. It has multi-room outputs for a second (stereo) zone with internal switching that allows independent audio source selection for both zones. Sadly there is no secondary video output meaning it's music-only in Zone 2.
The onscreen menus could not be any more basic but do lead you through the set-up with equally simplistic style. There is no danger of getting lost in the menus or not being able to find a function and the base-level set-up can be achieved in seconds. Features of note include lip sync delay should a videoprocessor or display device in the chain be a bit sluggish and a video off mode that turns the SR5500 into an audio-only amplifier for improved sound quality.
It might be an old timer (relatively) and lacks some of the widgets of its current peers but the SR5500 has got technology where it counts, features that are genuinely useful and a build quality that justifies every penny of its £450 tag.
The big easy
With such a simplistic set-up and menu structure, the Marantz goes from box to box office in a matter of minutes. It's delightfully simple to dip back in and out of the menus at any time to tweak and adjust settings and this alone makes the SR5500 the easiest to use receiver assembled here.
In fact, 'easy' is the Marantz's middle name. The 1930s' early backdrop of Scorsese's Aviator is sumptuously poured out into the room with a warm and enveloping ambience. The sound is smooth and full bodied and within minutes you get the urge to nip to the kitchen for a Margarita while doing the Charleston back to the living room. Bass lines are rich and fulsome even with the artificially 'lightened' score of The Aviator, which was engineered to give more of a feel for the era.
Dialogue follows the same pattern with a silky, mellifluous tone that strays into the warm side of neutral. Sibilance is kept to an absolute minimum and DiCaprio's voice is robust and rugged (as much as it can be) but female voices tend to adopt a rather lush 'come hither' character. It is by no means an offensive balance and has quite a kinship with THX-balanced cinemas (which employ a 10dB bass boost) but it's not exactly natural either.
Supersize my sonics
On more action-centric material the SR5500's easy-on-the-ear style simply begs you to go large with volume control. Despite one of the lowest power claims in this test the Marantz has absolutely no shortage of welly when the going gets tough. It rises comfortably above 100dB without breaking a sweat or hardening up. The balance stays exactly the same throughout the volume range with superb bass grip. The LFEs simply get bigger and weightier with every few degrees on the volume knob until DVDs are vibrating off of the shelves and the neighbours are calling the police.
However there are films and scenes that demand a raw, aggressive style and SR5500 can polish the edges off such effects. Tyres don't quite screech with convincing drama and gun shots are very much a percussive bass thump rather than a full spectrum crack. Even with the volume cranked up high the Marantz continues to play a safe hand, which never really gets your pulse racing or your bum on the edge of the seat.
Dip your ears into music and the SR5500 emerges from its shell. With the video circuits switched off the sound is no less smooth and full-bodied but finds a reserve of treble detail that adds real sparkle to vocals and high frequency notes. With the flick of a switch the SR5500 turns into a very competent hi-fi amplifier in both two channel and five channel modes. SACDs in particular are rendered with first-class honours as the SR5500 warms the cool balance of many high resolution recordings without sacrificing detail too much.
For those whose heart lies with music first and movies second the Marantz is the natural choice. It might lack the auto-set up and EQ features of its peers and it might not be an amp for all seasons but those looking for a big rich sound for a small frugal outlay will not be disappointed with the SR5500.