Home theaters in a box are all the rage, but sophisticated listeners still demand separate components. Persnickety buyers lavish upward of 40 percent of their home-theater budgets on A/V receivers such as the Marantz SR5400, which carries a retail price of $599. Marantz is one of the oldest names in audio, so the SR5400's stellar sound and build quality didn't really surprise us, but the receiver is missing a couple of features that some users might want.
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For 2003, Marantz updated the cosmetics of all its receivers. Compared with last year's models, such as the SR5300, the new products look more symmetrical. For example, the company centered the SR5400's display and input-selection buttons in an attempt at greater organization. The design is also more macho: this bad boy measures 17 inches wide and 17.5 inches deep, and it weighs a healthy 27.6 pounds.
Setup is straightforward, thanks in large part to intuitive onscreen menu navigation. And unlike its predecessor, the SR5400 provides an adjustable crossover to help you better integrate your satellites and your subwoofer. You choose from 80Hz, 100Hz, and 120Hz.
We mostly liked the remote. It's nice and big, and it offers bass and treble controls. Our one gripe is with the awkward placement of the 6.1 button, which we used to access our SACD/DVD-Audio player.
Marantz didn't reinvent the receiver or discover a new way to move electrons through its circuits, but the SR5400's range of surround-processing modes is pretty impressive. On the Dolby Digital side, you get EX and Pro Logic II. Your three DTS options are ES 6.1 Discrete, Neo:6, and 96/24. And Marantz offers its proprietary TruSurround headphone technology for late-night movie watching, as well as Circle Surround 2 as an alternative to Pro Logic II. Power for each of the six channels is rated at 90 watts for 8-ohm speakers and 110 watts for 6-ohm speakers.
The connectivity choices around back are on a par with those of other receivers in this class, which is to say pretty darn good. The SR5400 features component-video switching, along with four ins and two outs for A/V. Digital-audio hookups comprise a quartet of inputs (two coaxial, two optical) and two outputs (one coaxial, one optical). The receiver accepts analog audio on three connections and sends it on two. Plus, a 7-channel direct input accommodates DVD-Audio and SACD players. The front panel also has a suite of A/V ins. But wait, there's more: 6.1-channel preamplifier outs enable the use of external power amps. Unfortunately, the SR5400 lacks A/B speaker switching and second-zone outputs.
Perhaps feeling guilty about the second-zone shortfall, Marantz offers a three-year warranty on the SR5400. Most competing brands make do with one- or two-year coverage.
For our listening tests, we paired our Dynaudio Contour speakers with the SR5400. It sounded sweet as we cruised through James Taylor's multichannel SACD, JT. The acoustic guitars and Taylor's vocals were present and natural. It's ironic that 30-year-old recordings such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon offer the best surround mixes, but the fact remains that this SACD came across as positively huge. However, it directs most of the bass to the front-left and front-right speakers instead of the sub, so we wish the receiver could exert more control over the woofers. In the louder passages, the bass lacked definition and detail.
Dark Side segued beautifully into the 28 Days Later DVD. In the film, an epidemic has devastated England, and the story follows a group of survivors. Much of the movie is fairly quiet and atmospheric, but the action sequences in which the infected souls attack are loud--really loud. This DVD's intensely powerful soundtrack, loaded with sounds designed to scare you out of your seat, made huge demands on the receiver's power reserves. We were terrified, but the SR5400 remained perfectly calm.
For headphone listening, Marantz offers TruSurround processing, which opens up the sound so that it's less inside your head than everyday stereo. The audio was especially rich and full over our Grado SR80 headset.
Finally, we compared the SR5400 with Yamaha's RX-V1400, which is listed at $799. They were pretty close overall, but the V1400 delivered Dark Side with tighter, more clearly defined bass. The Yamaha also offers a host of useful features, such as automatic setup, that the Marantz does not.