Review - Marantz 17 MKII M (modified) system (March 2003)

The Marantz 17 system looks very impressive in its new silver finish: from the top, tuner, CD player and amp The latest versions of these upmarket Marantz components have power, finesse and a striking look, says Andrew Everard arantz may be wholeheartedly embracing multichannel music and film sound, but the arrival of new versions of its upper-mainstream 17 series shows the commitment to music in stereo remains undiminished.

The new models are the CD17MkII M, PM17MkII M and ST17 M. The 'M' stands for 'modified', and all have been the subject of extensive 'under the bonnet' reworking. But there's a more obvious change: the review samples provided for this test were in a very striking silver. Silver finishes are nothing new in the hi-fl arena, but the Marantz products have a particularly high-quality look to them, helped no end by the inherent solidity of the 17s' construction; when racked up together they make a strong visual statement. The feeling of quality extends all the way from the terminals to the action of the controls, and from the sleek metal-faced remote control handsets to the neat `m badges. Large, easilyread displays on the CD player and tuner, a 'gyro' tuning control on the ST-17 M lifted straight from classic Marantz tuners of the past, and a gauge on the PM17MkII M to tell you when the amp is up to operating temperature; all these features are a sure sign of an elegant and substantial trio that's a very long way away from the budget end of the separates market.

The 800 CD17MkII M uses established Marantz technology in the form of a VAM1201 transport/loader mechanism from the company's former parent Philips, and differential DAC7 single-bit digital-to-analogue conversion from the same source. To this is added Current Conversion Noise Elimination (CCNE), to reduce noise and thus boost midband and highfrequency response, and the company's Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules, or HDAMs, in the output stage. The amplifier's substantial chassis and case work in the cause of vibration elimination. Copper shielding is used extensively, here extending to the integrated circuits and transistors used for power supply regulation, while the capacitors are also upgraded and shields applied to other signal-critical areas of the circuitry. The transformer is also contained within its own shield, and outputs extend to analogue and optical/electrical digital, with connectors also provided for the Marantz D-Bus integrated remote control system.

The E600 ST-17M tuner flies in the face of the digital radio trend in offering just FM, long wave and medium wave reception. RDS and 60 presets are provided with twin antenna inputs useful if like me you use one highly directional antenna for top-quality local FM transmissions and a second omnidirectional to pull in more distant stuff.

The tuner also has a highquality power supply, with upgrade capacitors and shielding, and rigid casework of nonmagnetic aluminium for mechanical and electro-magnetic shielding. Tuning and set-up is very simple, and the flywheel control referred to above has a beautifully responsive 'feel' in keeping with the crisp precision of the whole system's controls.

And so to the amplifier, which also acts as the control centre for this set-up, thanks to that D-Bus system. The 1000 PM-17MkII M is a 60W per channel design of a dual mono layout, with the power sections and their massive heatsinks straddling an equally substantial toroidal transformer, clamped firmly down to prevent vibration and a pair of huge main smoothing capacitors. Relay switching for the inputs is close behind the main socketry, which accommodates three line sources and two tape decks with in/out loops, as well as either moving coil or moving magnet phono cartridges. Tone and balance controls are provided, though these can be bypassed using the 'source direct' switching, and there's also a direct CD input.

The amp also uses CCNE to reduce distortion and Marantz HDAM modules; the Linear Drive Power Supply is meant to give clean, extended dynamics. High-quality terminals from German company WBT are used to connect speaker cables to the amp, and there is a switch to disconnect the speakers for separates and a great system headphone listening much better than a crude cut-off activated by inserting the headphone plug. The amp's preamp and power amp sections can be separated using a switch on the rear panel, allowing an extra power amp to be added for biamplification.

The system burbled to itself for about a week or so before it was really under examination, and after that I used the PM17MkII M's temperature gauge as an indicator of when I could listen after bringing the components out of standby using the remote. Half an hour seemed to do the trick, as suggested by the manual; before that the sound could be a bit rough and harsh, but with the needle about two-thirds of the way across its travel it filled out, smoothed out in the treble, and gained full impact and presence.

And what presence: having tried each component with other sources and amplification, I came to the conclusion that all three have the same neutrality of presentation; a big, rich bass that smoothly integrates through a lucid midband into a crisp, clean and expressive treble. There's fine control right across the frequency band, but this is never at the expense of the directness with which music communicates with the listener. Most of the listening for this test was carried out with my reference PMC FBI speakers, but the Marantz trio also worked well with the smaller DB1s, and did fine work with the Castle Durham 3 speakers, also reviewed this month.

I was interested, having read JV's account of the smooth, rich character of the Castle speakers, to hear how they'd fare with the forthright, highly informative Marantz amplifier and CD player: the answer was very well indeed. They weren't as open and airy as the little PMCs, nor did they deliver as much bass, but they gave a very relaxed, enjoyable presentation of a wide range of music. The PMCs, and especially the big FB Is, gave a more riveting performance from which the attention never wandered.

Voices hang in space between and in front of the speakers, and the 'bite' with which strings are reproduced is just as striking as the way in which the atmosphere of a recording location is evoked. The scale and weight of a full orchestral entrance is breathtaking, but there's still excellent insight into the detail of individual performances.

Like lesser Marantz products, the CD17MkII M connects the listener directly with the recording, and in concert with the PM17MkII M is capable of tingling the spine from the very first disc played. There's a glorious synergy between these two as you might expect given that they were designed in tandem and the ST17 M tuner is no letdown, giving the same delicious presence and atmosphere. What's most striking is the absolute effortlessness of the sound of this trio. It starts with the unfettered dynamics and glorious power of the CD player, in which the use of those HDAMs plays a major part, and goes on through the way the PM17M1dIM sounds so much bigger than its 60W per channel nominal output would suggest. This is an amplifier that will drive speakers to very high levels indeed without any sign of stress, so if you crave realistic concert-hall loudness without any compromise in dynamics or sheer impact, you'd have to look long and hard to find a better amplifier for your 1000.

It's even good when used with a turntable, as an evening listening to some old LPs on my Rega Planar 2/Super Bias combination proved. Clearly the phono stage here is no makeweight, as I should have suspected given that the Marantz development room still makes plenty of use of a heavily modified (and very lustworthy) Marantz TT1100 turntable. Last time I saw it, a hefty toroidal transformer was being used as a clamp, giving you some idea of the solidity of build and bearings!

From a slightly sideways perspective, the Marantz is a perfect 'separates made simple' system, offering all the convenience of remote control, flawless integration between the various components and even the kind of looks more usually associated with 'style' systems of much lesser performance. At 400 excluding speakers it's hardly in the budget arena, but many people spend this kind of money on designer set-ups offering much less. (t)