Despite claims to the contrary, the profile of many brands best fits either a hi-fi scenario or a home cinema one.
Marantz is one of the very few companies with feet successfully planted in both camps.
So, it's in an ideal position to rule the universal disc player roost, where musical performance - both stereo and multichannel - is as important as the visuals. The DV9600 ably demonstrates that Marantz lives up to the task, thanks to a role-call of video toys that would make any home cinema buff salivate and a level of audio performance that even the most die-hard music snob will find to their liking.
The big plus point to the Marantz sound quality lies in those eight evenly spaced gold plated phono sockets along the top of the back panel. With two sets of stereo outputs and the four surround connectors, these phonos sit in front of a board made up of discrete and proprietary HDAM circuits, one for each channel.
Normally, HDAM circuits are limited to the stereo channels, the rest making do with conventional op-amps. Even very expensive players make this sacrifice, usually on the grounds of cost-saving. Marantz has given every channel HDAMs, immediately raising the bar on multichannel sound at the price.
Natty amp modules are all very well, but if the electronics that precede them don't cut the musical mustard, they will merely amplify poor sound. Fortunately, Marantz doesn't seem to have cut corners here, either. It delivers 24-bit/192kHz performance all round, with the audio processing circuit based on a brace of Cirrus Logic CS4298 chips.
This stereo Delta-Sigma D-to-A converter chip has two useful feathers in its tiny silicon hat: it delivers a mighty 120dB dynamic range and deals with Direct Stream Digital data from an SACD player like a native, filtering the datastream at 50kHz.
Marantz has also designed the chassis to separate the audio, video, transport and PSU stages; with a substantial transport mechanism and large transformer inside, these need to be isolated from the delicate audio and video circuits.
If you want to keep the audio in the digital domain, there are optical and coaxial outputs for CD and DVD-Video data, plus a pair of i.Link connectors that will additionally pass SACD and DVD-Audio to suitably-equipped amps. Unlike the majority of today's players, there's even a headphone socket and the now obligatory RS232 and remote control links.
This is impressive enough to prick up audiophile ears, but the video side is perhaps even more significant. The HDMI (v1.1) digital output supports HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection), a must-have for the latest 'HD-Ready' screens and projectors.
This is nothing special - most HDMI-equipped DVD players do the same. The big improvement is the addition of 1080p scaling - Classé got there first, but Marantz is the first company to deliver 1080p on a player that's not hand-built (and not with an accordingly stratospheric price tag).
What is 1080p scaling? Put simply, it takes the 480-line, progressive scan picture output of a DVD player and blows it up to 1,080 lines while retaining the progressive scan (frame by frame instead of line by line) functionality.
This is done thanks to industry-standard Anchor Bay technology, using the latest, high-precision 10-bit scalar chip to produce up-converted 720p, 1080i and 1080p video signals from 480p signals received via the HDMI port. It can even be used as external video processor for 480i output sources.
Marantz uses top-notch video processing for more humble screens too, with 14-bit/216MHz D-to-A conversion and an Analogue Devices Noise Shaping Video processor. The video DAC is a notch above the average at the price (meaning sharper, more colourful images) and the NSV system allows the user to perfectly tailor the output of the player to match the picture quality of the monitor.
This is one of those rare universal players that remembers CD might be the senior format, but it's in no way a 'legacy' one. With five squillion CDs out there, and millions more bought every month, it's still the dominant source for music on disc.
Often, it seems that the designers get starry-eyed at the prospect of high-resolution sources and overlook the simple fact that the bulk of most people's collections are CD-based. Fortunately, Marantz has made CD playback a priority with the DV9600.
There is an excellent sense of stereo soundstaging from CD. The music stretches far beyond the speakers, with good stage width and very decent image depth. Many universal players present a wide, but paper-thin soundstage; here, the Marantz expands the stage by projecting into the room and behind the speakers. There's even some stage height, but this really is the domain of top-notch dedicated CD players.
There is also plenty of detail on offer. The DV9600 pulls a lot of information from a CD, especially with all the video and displays turned off. There is a slight emphasis toward midrange and bass, making the player seem natural rather than 'digitally' bright, but that's no bad thing.
This has an added bonus of bringing out the articulation of voices, especially female vocals. In fact, the only point where the DV9600 is demonstrably inferior to top-quality standalone CD players is in timing. There's some sense of temporal sluggishness that the best players don't have. But this 'snap' in musical timing is almost unheard of in universal players, especially at this price.
Of course, where the DV9600 really shines is in multichannel audio. Separate HDAM circuits in every channel (instead of just the stereo channels) really raise the bar for high-resolution music sources, especially SACD. All the findings of CD replay remain extant across the hi-res formats, but with the added bonus of snappier timing.
Perhaps this is due to temporal limitations being swamped by the sheer amount of information from all channels, but this locks tighter to the sound than CD. Of the two formats, DVD-Audio is (just) the weaker, sounding exciting but lacking the palpable 'there' sense of solidity and naturalness of SACD.
Intelligently crafted discs that use the surround element to build ambience and deliver accurate, naturally recorded acoustic instruments (which means almost all of the SACD classical canon) are simply wonderful to behold. The subtle detail and room-opening nature of the player, coupled with a balance that gently adds the merest touch of useful and euphonic presence will make even SACD-sceptics long for more.
The DV900's sound is 'merely' very good; the video is something far, far better. If you can take full advantage of the on-board 1080p video upsampling, your DVDs are transformed. Pictures are even more cinematic than usual, with none of the stair-step edges of even the best interlaced pictures.
Shifting back to standard digital and analogue video incurs a drop in quality, with less picture resolution, more colour blurring, a touch of moiré (in composite video) and increasingly jagged edges. But - and this is significant - the performance of the Marantz in any given video output is better than most of its rivals. It even looks decent with bog-standard composite video... All of which means the video processing inside this baby is doing something really special.
Put it together and you've got one of the best multi-format disc players on the market today. The balance of stunning pictures - especially through 1080p, which are so good, they'll likely keep the Marantz running long into the Blu-ray and HD DVD era - and excellent sound quality across all major disc types is hard to resist.
New AV formats may be just around the corner, but for enthusiasts wanting to make the most of their existing music and movie collection, this player is a star. Given that finding anything approaching a rival on all counts might mean spending twice as much, it's hard not to get very excited about the Marantz DV9600.
Q & A: Ken Ishiwata, brand ambassador at Marantz, discusses the innovative design that went into the DV9600
HFC Is a high-end universal player harder to make than an SACD player, from an audiophile standing?
KI When we introduced CD, nobody asked us to come up with a player that played both LP and CD! Yet the difference between LP and CD is much smaller than between all those different formats on 12cm silver discs. People do not realise how difficult it is to cope with all the different standards on the 12cm discs. The fewer standards you build into your player, the easier it is to engineer. The market, however, demands a universal player.
As a premium audio brand, Marantz had to study the possibility of making such player. But the truth is, there will always be some compromise to be made if we must cover every format.
Of course, Marantz has tried to minimise the influences of one format on another but, once again, if you eliminate the numbers of formats involved, you have a much better chance of getting a good sounding machine!
That said, we know we have created by far the best sounding universal player on the market, underlining our 'because music matters' philosophy.
What has Marantz done to make the DV9600 sound so good with CD?
A key R&D focus of the DV9600 was stereo sound quality. We have spent a huge amount of time optimising the sound quality of DV9600! But it must be remembered that this development actually started when we introduced the 9500, so we have been continuously improving the sound of this product for more than 30 months.
Why do the discrete HDAM circuits need their own circuit board?
Actually, HDAMs do not require an independent circuit board, but to cut external influences from so many other circuitries to an absolute minimum we decided to make it this way. You can really hear the difference!
Does video upsampling pose any problems for good sound quality?
Once again, it's entirely dependent on the solution you come up with. In our audio-only disc mode, none of the video circuits receive any power. This completely removes interference from them. However, to keep a high standard on DVD-Video sound quality, we must pay a lot of attention on this execution.