Aa befits a Japanese company /-which is owned by Philips and whose origins lie in 1940s America rather than Japan's post-war economic miracle, Marantz is a breed apart from its Oriental peers—a mass producer with genuine audiophile credibility. Not because it competes with today's American high-end manufacturers on price and pretension but rather because it is widely perceived as having a slightly quirky approach to product design and development which doesn't quite square with the marketing-led conservatism typical of its compatriots.

Which other Japanese major, for example, still offers an expensive turntable in its range (the £5,000 TT1000 MkII) and is prepared to promulgate such hi-tech heresy in its catalogue as "LPs can sound every bit as good—and often better—than digitally recorded sources"? Marantz's reputation for individualism today rests primarily with its highly praised and consistently award-winning CD players, but it actually stretches back to the pre digital era. Then it was amplifiers and tuners for which the Marantz name was best known and respected, a fondly remembered example being the MA-5 monoblock power amplifiers which, prior to the arrival of dreadnought American designs like the Krells, served as a rare reminder to British enthusiasts of the benefits of Class A operation.

The MA-5 heritage lives on most obviously in the current MA-24, but lower down the range the traditional espousal of Class A is still to be found. In the PM-80, PM-82 and £630 PM-80SE—the subject of this review—the user is given the unusual choice of operating the amplifier either in Class AB mode, which maximises power output potential (110 Watts continuous into 8 Ohms), or in Class A, which drops the rated power considerably (25 Watts) but offers the potential of superior sound quality. In Class A the transistors in both halves of the push-pull output stage conduct throughout the signal cycle, thereby eliminating the various distortions which can arise in Class AB operation, where one half of the output stage is switched off for part of the time.

No Japanese amplifier, even a Marantz, is complete without a welter of proprietary features codified by arcane initials, and the PM-80SE is no exception. In addition to the Class A option it incorporates CCNE (current conversion noise elimination), LDPS (linear drive power supply) and HR (high resolution) circuits. The SE appended to the amplifier's designation stands for 'special edition' and signifies that its design was fine-tuned in Europe under the watchful eye and keen ear of Marantz International's respected Senior Product Manager, Ken Ishiwata.

Of more immediate significance to hard-bitten audiophiles than this plundering of the alphabet will be the PM-80SE's lack of tone controls and filters, the provision of a disc input stage with switchable sensitivity for moving-coil and fixed-coil (i.e. moving-magnet) cartridges, and Marantz's claim that the amplifier is delighted to drive low impedance loads (rated power in Class AB increases to 270 Watts DIN into 2 Ohms). Those who bi-wire their loudspeakers will also be pleased to note that two sets of (switchable) loudspeaker output terminals are provided.

Other design features lionised by the manufacturer are a copperplated chassis, incorporated to minimize induced eddy current effects in the metal case, and a toroidal mains transformer—an item which British amplifier manufacturers have been using for many years but which is still an unusual sight in mainstream Japanese designs.

Class A entails high heat dissipation, which is one reason for the PM-80SE's considerable bulk (420 x 146 x 334mm)—large heatsinks are necessary. These are accommodated within the casework rather than mounted externally, a feature for which anyone who has suffered cuts and contusions from sharp-edged cooling fins will give thanks. Mounting the heatsinks internally also obviates the problems inherent in providing a high quality anodised finish and allows maximum case temperature standards to be more easily met, so the manufacturer benefits too.

Internally, the construction is archetypal modern Japanese—of high quality but with a profusion of wiring. Most British designs did away with this long ago by means of a single printed circuit board and board-mounting input and output connectors.
Not that you could realistically incorporate the PM-80SE's 26 (yes, 26) phono sockets in such a fashion. Five inputs are selectable by the rotary control on the fasciaPhono, CD, Tuner, Aux I and Aux 2—and tape monitoring is provided for no less than three tape recorders (cassette, DAT and DCC?). A Record-out selector permits any source to be recorded while listening to another, and also allows dubbing from Tape 1 to Tape 2/3. A fourth output/input loop is additionally provided for an add-on processor such as Marantz's own EQ3I5 or EQ5I5 graphic equalizers—presumably as a sop to those affronted by the PM-80SE's eschewal of tone controls.

For the minimization of in-circuit switches and wiring, and thereby the maximisation of sound quality, a Source Direct button is provided which bypasses all these inessential provisions.

How it performed
Given the choice of Class A or Class AB operation (switching between which must be done with the amplifier powered down), potential purchasers of the PM-80SE are bound to be intrigued as to the difference in sound quality. In truth it is subtle, and not experienced to the full unless the Source Direct option is selected, which confers a slight but worthwhile focusing of the sound.

In Class A this sense of focus is further enhanced and the PM80SE's sound takes on a slightly smoother, more refined quality, but the difference could hardly be called a transformation. If you own relatively sensitive loudspeakers (say 88dB/W/m or higher) and you do not listen at high levels, then Class A will likely be your mode of choice— provided that the greater heat dissipation is not a problem, as it might be if ventilation is for any reason restricted. I used the amplifier with Alphason Amphion loudspeakers (rated sensitivity 90dB) and was able to listen to clipping-sensitive programme such as female voice (Emma Kirkby's "When I am Laid in Earth" from Andrews Parrott's recording of Dido and Aeneas— CD CHAN0521, 11/91) and piano in Class A at unrealistically high volumes without the amplifier exhibiting any signs of distress. Should you require the extra 6dB in output potential promised by Class AB, however, the sacrifice in sound quality is nothing to lose sleep over.

That said, in neither mode does the PM-80SE provide the transparency and vitality which are the hallmark of the very best amplifiers. Despite its Class A provision, it does not proffer top-drawer sound quality at an on-the-rack price. If resolution is your prime requirement, indeed, there are even some cheaper amplifiers you might consider.
What the PM-80SE 'majors' on is undramatic, unfatiguing music making, which endears itself by the very act of being unremarkable. Its stock in trade is refined discourse, not robust badinage, and it will appeal most to listeners who are likewise inclined.

KEITH HOWARD. (Keith Howard is a freelance Technical Writer and is also Consulting Editor of "Audiophile")

Specifications Marantz PM80 SE class A amplifier

DIN 8 Ohms / 4 Ohms: 120 / 180W
Class A 8 Ohms: 25W
Dynamic power 8 Ohms / 4 Ohms: 150 / 240W
Total harmonic distortion: 0.005%
Damping factor: 150
Signal to noise ratio CD / Phono: 106 / 94dB
Frequency response (-1db): 10Hz - 70kHz
Channel separation: >85dB
Dimensions (WxHxD): 420x166x334mm
Weight: 13.5kg