Valencia streets and the Temple of Ken: Denon, Marantz and Boston Acoustics re-invent themselves
Valencia is a place in a hurry: with just over a week to go before F1 engines are fired up in anger around its harbour for the European Grand Prix, the city is busy converting its streets, piers and bridges into a race-track, lined with safety fencing and surrounded by temporary grandstands.
Everywhere you look, stretches of smooth tarmac curve in to meet the bumpy streets full of taxis and surprisingly London-like buses, and scaffolders are hard at work under brilliant sun and in 30C+ heat, with stands taking shape out on the piers backing onto the beach, and in front of old shops and houses covered in heat- and weather-peeling paint. The harbour is again reinventing itself as the Valencia Street Circuit.
So it's appropriate we're here to witness another reinvention or two, as the parent company of Denon, Marantz and Boston Acoustics completes its transformation from D&M Holdings to the D+M Group, and reveals completely revamped thinking in the range of products it offers.
CEO Jim Caudill is jetting in to explain the changes and rally the troops – the troops in question being more D+M Group staff than I've ever seen assembled in one place, plus hundreds of retailers and journalists from all over Europe.
With so many people, and more constantly arriving, we perform a kind of mass logistical ballet in the grounds of the beachfront hotel where the event is being held, knots of people being shepherded from meeting-room to meeting-room in the two Romanesque 'temples' in the gardens.
We go to look at new products while our colleagues from the Benelux countries are treated to one of Marantz Brand Ambassador Ken Ishiwata's near-legendary demonstrations – and one of his even more legendary jackets – while what was yesterday a restaurant is today a fully decked out D+M Group showroom.
Products – this is the Denon Cocoon Portable – are arranged in room-sets overlooking the beach, noise-cancelling Denon headphones are demonstrated in airline seats and sports 'phones on a gym treadmill, and we all take a look at the bottle of Scotch just delivered by room service to add atmosphere to one room-set and think 'but it's only 9.30am...'
Like Valencia, D+M is in a hurry: it has no fewer than 70 new products on show here, and as well as the traditional core components – CD players, amps, home cinema receivers and so on – it's branching out into new areas.
There's that hugely expanded headphone range, for example, new streaming products from both Denon and Marantz, docking speaker systems from all three brands, and offerings promising enhanced multiroom capability in the near future.
New strategy – and global headwinds
When we arrive, a day ahead of the main invasion of retailers from across Europe, CEO Caudill is still in transit, so it falls to D+M UK MD Jason Dear to outline the new group strategy. And it soon becomes clear that, despite the current economic situation – or 'the headwind from the Japan Earthquake, last year's floods in Thailand and global macro decline' as the presentation describes it, the group is doing pretty well.
Despite the UK market being down 16% overall last year, D+M UK's sales were up 6%, and Marantz up 33% year-on-year.
Time to sit back, clink the odd glass and take a deep breath, then? Hardly: the company is doubling its marketing speand this year, and taking steps to ensure it can both develop products more quickly and respond more efficiently to changes in demand.
And it's put in place what it sees are the strategies it needs to go forward, increasing staffing, boosting research and development and – vitally – moving away from its concentration on 'bricks and mortar' retailers to allowing all products across all brands to be sold online across Europe.
Denon trendy, Marantz elegant
It's taking a fresh look at how its brands are perceived by consumers: Denon, we're told, is now 'trendy and cool', while Marantz is 'elegant and sophisticated.' And as an example we're shown the group's ideas on docking speaker systems: Denon's Cocoon models – one mains-powered, the other offering a five-hour battery option for out and about use – are on one side, all fluid lines and organic shapes.
On the other is the Marantz Consolette, with its retro cues – the real-wood enclosure, the 'porthole' display, the use of the same kind of gyrocontrol seen on the company's vintage tuners.
There's one more thing about the Consolette, which hits the shops in August at £900: 'it's history, it's heritage, it's Ken – Ken in a little box,' Dear explains, pointing out that the company's Brand Ambassador has been heavily involved in the design and tuning of the product.
And obviously some extensive tuning – to laughter, Dear adds that 'it's a month late because it's Ken, but it's Ken.' In fact, the Consolette even sits on three – not four – vibration-reducing feet, just like one of Ishiwata's recent Marantz labours of love, the TT-15S1 turntable.
But as becomes clear as we get deeper into the products, Ishiwata has a few more tricks up his iridescent sleeve. In what soon becomes known as 'the Temple of Ken', he has the new S3 versions of the SA-11 SACD player and PM-11 amplifier, and a pair of Boston's m350 speakers, set up in a large conference room.
The room isn't ideal – unless he's designed it himself, I've never heard Ken say any room is – and on this occasion the ceiling was apparently lower than he was told, meaning some of the special acoustic treatments built for it had to be cut down, and others wouldn't fit.
However, the sound he manages to conjure out of the S3 electronics and slimline column speakers – set up with the usual radical toe-in to take the room effects as far out of the equation as possible – is certainly striking, from the scale of a Steinway piano playing solo jazz to deep, punchy percussion and delicate handling of voices.
With the usual 'unfamiliar room, unfamiliar system' caveats, it sounds very impressive, and while Ishiwata certainly knows how to pick music to make the most of a system, this time he seems to have chosen content to stretch the set-up. Tracks played include some a cappella Michael Jackson, and excepts from Thomas Newman's American Beauty soundtrack and Hans Zimmer's for Pirates of the Caribbean, and the system is responding well.
Ishiwata's colleague Rainer Fink, who heads up Boston Acoustics' European operation, explains that the m-Series is designed to build on the success of the a-Series models: the new range is more expensive, and so 'we had to improve everything', he says.
That means making audiophile-sounding speakers without what he calls the 'boxy audiophile speaker look', the use of real wood veneers and leather-look trim for the baffles, and cabinets made using a 'LoQ' construction.
This involves the use of two layers of 10m MDF sandwiching a damping material instead of 20mm solid MDF: as Ishiwata explains it, 'it's not usual to talk about the signal to noise ratio of loudspeakers, but that's what this design addresses'.
And the midrange driver above the speaker's tweeter uses symmetrical mass loading (left) of the cone to remove unwanted peaks and smooth the sound.
Elsewhere in the range, another favourite Ishiwata speaker technology – it's also found in the Consolette – makes an appearance, the unusual mSUR surround speaker (£300 and built 'upside-down for near-ceiling mounting) and m-Centre using Balanced Mode Radiator tweeters.
The advantages are twofold: this drive unit shifts the crossover frequency all the way down to 400Hz for better voice quality, and also has much wider and regular dispersion characteristics.
That's required, Fink says, for modern soundtracks which put much more information on the surround tracks than was the case in what he calls 'the old THX days.'
Those centre and surround speakers will join the range in October.
Back to the mainstream Marantz and Denon ranges, and in both cases the message is a cleaner look, from the design of the products to their remote controls, and performance-enhancing technology under the hood.
Gapless – at last! – and FLAC/ALAC
The new streaming products will – at last – support gapless playback, as well as Apple Lossless and hi-res FLAC up to 192kHz/24-bit, and the company also plans to add more streaming services in the near future.
It won’t be drawn into making definitive statements until all the contracts are signed and the firmware is in place, but reading between the lines I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find a well-known service with a green logo and a name rhyming with Sprotify in place in the not-so-distant future.
The cleaner look of the new products is seen in the AV receivers: less buttons on both front panel and remote (above), an improved step-by-step onscreen Setup Assistant (below) – re-named from last year’s Setup Wizard and with a clearer ‘workflow’ – and onscreen graphics, remote control apps and even corporate websites colour-co-ordinated.
That means blue for Denon, gold for Marantz.
The remote app, available for both iOS and Android devices, now offers much greater control both of the receivers and of connected Blu-ray players via HDMI CEC, and has faster scrolling for DLNA content information aided by direct connection to the media server.
4K video upscaling is available from midrange models upwards, although it’s freely acknowledged that this is more futureproofing than a feature of immediate relevance for most buyers, and at the top of the range triple HDMI outputs are provided – two usable simultaneously, the third able to deliver either the same source or a different one, for example for multizone use.
On the audio front, special attention has been paid to the shielding and grounding of power supplies to improve sound quality, the use of discrete amp channels (below) and – at the top of the range – an internal monobloc arrangement to maximise channel separation.
Details have already been announced of some of the Denon and Marantz receivers for 2012/13: the slimline Marantz NR1403/1603 have been covered here, the mainstream Denon receivers and Blu-ray transport here and the flagship Denon AVR-3313 here.
But there are more high-end models on the way later in the year: sitting atop the Denon range will be the AVR-4520 (above), a £2300 nine-amp, 11.2-channel receiver due in October. It inherits the features of the AVR-3313, including the new DenonLink HD connection between player and receiver using a combination of HDMI and a clock connection, and of course offers network streaming, muiltizone HDMI and 4K upscaling.
But it adds to the equation symmetrical monolithic power amps, Audyssey MultEQ XT32 equalisation with support for multiple subwoofers, and both neo:X 11.2 and DSX 11.2 surround. The latest version of Denon’s discrete circuit design, DDSC-HD 32 is used, along with the company’s AL32 multichannel audio processing, upscaling the signal to 32-bit to all but eliminate low-level harmonic distortion.
Marantz also has a comprehensive line-up of receivers on the way: sitting above the two slimline receivers is a three-strong range launching over the next couple of months, starting with the £700 SR5007, pictured above.
As with the Denon models, the products have been designed to be cleaner-looking, simpler to use and easier to accommodate, not least because their depth has been reduced by 5cm to enable them to fit on slimmer shelves.
All three are network-capable, complete with AirPlay and that promise of ‘Additional online streaming service (TBC)’, have 4K upscaling capability, app control and discrete power amplification plus multichannel preouts.
Audyssey MultEQ set-up is provided, along with Dynamic EQ and volume, and the units have a digital USB input connection for memory devices and iPhones/iPods/iPads, plus a front-panel HDMI for mobile devices.
The SR5007, due next month, has 7x100W output, while the £900 SR6007, on sale in August, adds DSX capability to the Audyssey suite, ups the output to 110W all round, and adds a second HDMI output.
At the top of the receiver range sits the £1300 SR7007, shown above and also on sale in August: this has 125W per channel, and uses Marantz Current Feedback and Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules (HDAMs) for optimal sound quality. There’s an extra HDMI input – six instead of the 5007/6007’s five, and triple HDMI outputs, one with Zone 2 capability.
Due later in the year is this heavyweight Marantz processor/preamp, the £1500 AV7701. This will have 6+1 HDMI inputs (the +1 being a front-panel hook-up), 2+1 HDMI outputs, and 7.2 channel XLR balanced audio outputs. It’s designed to be used with the existing MM7055 five-channel power amp, with which it's shown above, and MM7025 stereo unit.
Complementing this new AV amplification is a line-up of Blu-ray players from the two brands: all are universal players, and can play content from USB or network, including 192/24 FLAC and WAV, YouTube Leanback and Netflix.
They’ll also work as media renderers, able to be streamed to using DLNA PlayTo, PlugPlayer or the fast media browsing on the new Denon and Marantz remote apps.
Dual HDMI outputs are also provided, and not just for the usual 3D-compatibility reasons: AV Pure Direct enables one output to be run as audio only, with all video processing switched off, for the best sound quality.
The players are also designed to be much quieter in operation, due to fanless construction, and load discs 20% faster.
Sitting above the Denon DBT-1713UD transport already announced is the £900 DBT-3313UD, due in October.
It features Denon Link HD connection for the lowest possible jitter, with that extra clock link connection beside the audio-out HDMI allowing the connected receiver to take charge of the master clock in the player.
There's also a new, fully-shielded Denon SVH (Suppress Vibration Hybrid) transport mechanism, and a high-quality dual-layer chassis and enclosure.
Marantz, meanwhile, will add the £1000 UD7007 universal player (left) in October, and as well as being bang up-to-date with video, surround audio and network capability, it has optimised two-channel operation.
This involves using the latest SA2 versions of the familiar HDAM amp technology, as found in the company's flagship stereo range, along with balanced XLR stereo outputs.
Phew! That’s a stack of products, but so far I’ve only covered the AV line-ups. Coming soon, a closer look at the companies’ plans for stereo, those new docking systems, new Denon separates, a smaller version of the RCD-N7 Ceol and a replacement for the classic D-M38 system.