Marantz PM-44SE Amplifier

A lengthy and worldwide recession has few benefits for anyone. But if you manage to survive with your pay packet intact, there is at least one good point: the way in which it sharpens up the appetite for competition. In a buyer's market you can't hope to succeed unless you can offer a product that performs superbly at a keen price.

So maybe it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to find ourselves going through something of a mini 'golden age' so far as excellent budget-priced amplifiers are concerned.

And nowhere is the battle more keenly waged than at the critical £200 point. Because of the weakness of sterling during the early part of this year and devaluation after Black Wednesday, many importers have had to raise prices by 10-15 per cent: a good amp for around £200 is really quite a bargain.

A few months ago I wrote enthusiastically about the excellent Technics SU-A600 which offers superb performance and value for just under £200. Now, at the same price, Marantz has unveiled its new PM-44SE, a stripped-down audiophile design tweaked for the UK market.

I Marantz has already won an enviable reputation for the performance and value of its budget components, with the Special Edition lines being particularly well thought of. Its I concern with quality has paid off - recession or no, Marantz has enjoyed increasing sales lliese past few years while others have seen theirs shrink. All the same, the high standards set by recent amplifiers from JVC

A hefty mains transformer feeds a Linear Drive Power Supply and Technics present formidable competition; it was far from being a foregone conclusion that Marantz would be able to trump or even match these superb designs.

No need to worry. The PM-44SE turned out to be a little gem. I always like it when a product arrives, is hooked up, and without further ado delivers superb sound. In a nutshell that's what happened with the PM-44SE; from the start it was easy to accept, easy to listen to.

There's something intrinsically right about the sound of this amplifier. It's clean, forward, lively, and pleasantly assertive. With both vinyl and CD it sounded detailed and engaging, with excellent dynamics and presence. Stereo imagery was superb. Above all, the PM-44SE's greatest virtue was its transparency and naturalness.

Tonally, the PM-44SE has a bright open sort of balance; it is both sharp and articulate rather than rich or warm. Dynamics are excellent, and the music always has plenty of life and forward momentum. Because of this, you're immediately involved in whatever is being played - the music projects out to you confidently rather than sounding recessed.

Bass is firm and tight with impressive weight and authority, while treble is clean and precise. There is a satisfying feeling of precision and control; it reproduces music with clarity and definition, sounding firmly-focused, and utterly seamless from high treble to deep bass.

Comparisons to the similarly-priced Technics SU-A600 proved interesting. Essentially, the Marantz offers a brighter/leaner tonal balance with greater presence in the treble region. The Technics sounded slightly darker tonally, with a marginally richer/warmer sort of balance and a fuller bass.

Overall, I felt the Marantz won out as far as openness was concerned; the Technics could be a little 'closed in' tonally at times. Against this the Marantz seemed to sound just a tad less solid and firmly anchored. Moreover, there was slightly less space around voices and instruments. The Marantz gave a sound which had slightly less depth than the Technics. The latter s stronger midband gave a soundstage that was more solid and tangible, whereas the Marantz was a touch less immediate despite its brighter more projected treble.

This is slightly paradoxical in that the Marantz seemed a shade less immediate and focused despite sounding brighter and more obviously detailed and dynamic. The effect wasn't huge, but it was there when direct A/B comparisons were made.

Sometimes, both amplifiers could sound a touch 'hard' tonally; neither quite achieved the sort of sweet silky mellifluousness you might get from an expensive valve amp. Of course these expectations are absurd given a selling price of just £200, but the fact that such comparisons are invited shows the calibre of these amps; with good matching ancillaries they can sound so superb that you involuntarily start to compare them to much more expensive products.

Facilities are limited with the PM-44SE; its purist design seeks to eliminate spurious 'extras' in order to ensure maximum purity of sound. A simple signal path is undoubtedly one of the factors that helps it sound so good, but this by itself won't create a great-sounding amplifier. Technics offers both tone controls and speaker switching, and therefore a less purist straight-line approach. But high-calibre electronic relay switches ensure minimal losses of sound quality; it cant really be said the SU-A600 suffers through being more complex. Marantz sticks with conventional switches, but offers a special bypass button to give an even shorter/cleaner signal path for best sound quality. This only eliminates the balance control and tape monitor buttons, but results in noticeably better sound - crisper, cleaner, fresher. Although two sets of speaker terminals are offered, the PM-44SE does not have conventional A/B outputs that can be switched. You could connect up two sets of speakers, but they'd be on all the time. Clearly, Marantz has its eye on those wanting to bi-wire; having two sets of speaker terminals makes life just that little bit easier for those who want to wire their speakers thus.

Incidentally, you'll get slightly better sound if you use the lower set of terminals when using single runs of speaker cable. This is because the lower terminals sit closer to the amplifier's circuit board; therefore the signal has a shorter signal path. If you don't believe me just try it. The same applies to the Technics SU-A600, and many other similar amps.

In use, the Marantz PM-44SE runs cool, and unless it is driven hard it tends to stay that way. The mains transformer makes a slight buzzing sound, but this isn't to any serious degree - the noise is less than that produced by many competitors' products, including Technics' SU-A600.

When faced with performance as good as this for just £200 there's a tendency to wonder if there's any point in spending any extra on an amplifier. Certainly, using the Marantz PM-44SE through Impulse H-ls produces results that sounded way better than anyone has the right to expect. Just as long as you don't need vast reserves of power and are happy to partner it with an efficient pair of speakers, a good amplifier like this from Marantz can perform superbly well.

If asked to be hyper-critical, I'd have to say the PM-44SE suffers from a slight tendency to harden when pushed, and lacks a certain ease and sweetness. The Marantz PM-44SE may not be a perfect piece of hi-fi equipment, but it's good enough not to be a seriously weak link even in high-calibre systems. Its flaws are tiny compared with the problems of many current CD players and quite a few budget speakers.

A great little amp then, and one that should do very well for Marantz. Certainly, I could live quite happily with the fresh engaging sound of the PM-44SE. Partner it with a decent source and speakers and you won't go far wrong.

Marantz PM-44SE Stereo Integrated Amplifier, Power output 43 Watts into 8 ohms