CD burners: Marantz vs. HHB
I post this as a followup to a thread started by MHubbard on 9/10/01 about the Marantz CDR-500 dual-well burner. First off, let me correct an item in my original reply: this unit and the single-well CDR-631 do not have any differences in their A-to-D conversion circuitry, despite what the promo literature and Marantz's website seem to imply - this from a Marantz Professional Division technician whom I spoke with by phone. He said the discrepancy has been raised by the engineers and brought to the attention of the marketing staff.
Now on to the comparision. My original plan was to get a good, professional (uses non-royalty blank media, has adjustable level and balance, can defeat SCMS copy-protection) dual-well burner, have it do double-duty as a transport to feed my Theta D/A converter, and get rid of my current Adcom changer/player/transport. I had wanted a dual-well machine not for the 2x copy speed, but so that I could use an erasable CD-RW to assemble goof-free compilation discs, then turn to the built-in dubbing to copy it onto normal CD-R's for archiving and use in other players (CD-RW's will not play in most regular CD players), re-using the CD-RW for the intermediate step each time.
I had researched the different brands online, and had become interested in the Marantz machines, but was torn when it seemed that I would have to give up the apparent A/D advantage of the single-well CDR-631 for the dubbing capabilities of the dual-well CDR-500 (most of my source material is analog vinyl). By telephone I arranged with a salesperson at a local pro-sound dealer to let me take home both of the Marantz units to audition and see if I could hear, or cared about, the A/D differences (if I could, and if it mattered to me, I was even thinking about buying two CDR-631's so I could still dub CD-RW's to CD-R).
When I got to the store, however, the salesperson's manager enlightened me to a couple of new perspectives. Firstly, he said that blank CD-R media (the regular "computer" or pro-sound type, as opposed to the royalty-taxed, "music-only" or consumer type that home-use burners must be fed) had become so cheap, around $.60 each in bulk, that most users didn't care anymore about having erasable capability, since if you screwed up a CD-R, you could just digitally recopy it up 'til the bad point, and then continue afresh from there, throwing away the first disc. Secondly, he told me that the two Marantz units sounded no different from each other anyway, and what I should really hear was the single-well HHB CDR-830 BurnIT, which he felt was superior in sound quality and said most of his customers gave the best feedback on.
So, I wound up taking home the dual-well Marantz and the single-well HHB for trials, hoping that any differences in sound quality would be too small for me to want to sacrifice the Marantz's dubbing feature. (It wasn't until the next day that I called Marantz and confirmed that their two units in fact did possess identical A/D sections, supporting the store manager's claim about their similar sonics.) I was disinclined toward liking the HHB from the start for some reasons other than just its single-well configuration, though: it was only $50 less in price ($549 as compared to $599 for the Marantz as priced online); it was purple in color (pro-audio, remember); it didn't have as many input/output options 'round back (though I don't run balanced in my system); it was feather-light in its lack of heft, hardly reminiscent of even my Adcom, let alone normal high-end gear like my Theta. Both of the new units sported flimsy plastic trays. I connected the burners into my system and set about reading the manuals.
I wound up the day by starting to make copies from LP (Benz Glider M2 on a modified Technics SL-1200 through a c-j PV-8 tubed phono stage, Cardas Cross IC) of revealing tracks two-by-two, one on each burner, until I had filled up half a CD-R, while monitoring the sound late at night through Sennheiser HD-600 'phones. The headphone output on the Marantz went louder; the HHB was sounding somewhat better overall. The HHB was easier to figure out in use, the Marantz more complicated and frustrating. I went to bed. The next day, I finished recording the comparision CD-R and auditioned the results through the existing system (aforementioned changer, DAC, and pre-amp, then to a c-j MV-55 tube amp and Thiel CS2 2 floorstanding 3-way speakers via all-Cross cabling). I also made digital copies with both machines from the external source, and 1x and 2x interal dubs on the Marantz.
Well, the store manager and his pro-sound customers were right on the money. The Marantz didn't sound bad on its own. But the BurnIT preserved more of everything off the records, moving ahead especially in terms of fullness of tonality in the body of the midrange, and uncompressed dynamics (imaging, soundstaging, and extension at the frequency extremes were also somewhat better on the HHB). In no area did the Marantz outperform it, and though the differences could be subtle and elusive on some tracks, on others there was no contest - it depended on the cut (of course, even the HHB didn't sound as good as the records themselves, but the sonic degradations were generally comparable in quantitative terms [not in qualitative terms - apples and oranges] to those of a good three-head cassette deck). To my surprise, even digital dubs made on the BurnIT 830 surpassed those made at 1x on the CDR-500 when played back on the third player. Its laser or tansport therefore could also be superior, in addition to its ADC (and DAC, by the way, playing pre-recorded discs, but this was unimportant to me - and no, I didn't get around to comparing their performance as pure transports). Still, I couldn't deny that the Marantz would be just as good for making discs to play in the car, if not for archival purposes. But truth to tell, I would have to have given the HHB the nod even if the sound quality had been identical. Why? Details, details.
The BurnIT was just plain better to use, ergonomicly, intuitively, quickly, and repeatedly. To begin with, the display was much easier on the eyes - larger, with well-formed letters, in a much more attractive shade of white-blue instead of sickly green. Even the messages that the unit displays while it's busy processing TOC info are both friendlier and more informative than on the Marantz, which just admonishes you to "Wait". The meter ballistics were about an order of magnitude more representative of the musical signal I heard, and therefore worked better to help set optimal recording levels. Speaking of setting levels, the HHB has separate controls for the analog and digital ones. This allows for mixing of sources with less readjustment, but the analog level is also infinitely adjustable, rather than operating in 1dB clicks as on the Marantz - in other words, more like a tape deck. Importantly, the threshold level for signal detection during sync recording in analog mode is user-selectable up to just -24dB, whereas the Marantz wants you to make do with a fixed -55dB, too low to fall below the noise floor of most LP's when the recording level is set within its optimum range. On the HHB, you can hit one button, either Sync or Record, as needed, and be in record/pause mode. On the Marantz, you need to press Record Mode as many as six times to enter that state of readiness. HHB includes an automatically timed indexing feature for recording long programs that do not have obvious start and stop points to break up tracks into separate numbers, such as continuous spoken word. And in Sync mode, you can choose between recording one track and then automatically entering record/pause, or syncing to all tracks in a program. The former is very handy when compiling single tracks one-at-a-time from different ablums or sources. The HHB manual is less tedious to consult and more hospitable graphicly. But perhaps the most salutary single feature present on the HHB and absent on the Marantz is a simple, lowly "Monitor" button - again, like a tape deck - so you can listen to your source as you adjust recording levels and balances and perform cueing operations, without having to go through the routine of actually selecting your recording mode and entering record/pause (a state which will expire in a few minutes if you dally too long), which makes you wait while the burner reads and sets up the disc for recording before you can hear your source. Unbelievably, this is the only way provided to go about preliminary monitoring chores on the Marantz, and it soon becomes more of pain than it may at first seem.
So, as you have no doubt sussed out by now, I am keeping my Adcom changer around a while longer. It still won't play CD-RW's, but it will serve as my "second well" for digital dubbing of CD's and copying of CD-R's, and remain as my primary transport for listening enjoyment. Maybe one day I'll replace it with something that can allow me to pursue the CD-RW master idea (erasing still seems easier - more like tape!), but then again, I might just become a less error-prone recordist instead. But the HHB CDR-830 BurnIT is definitely here to stay. At the price, I can recommend it to one and all (Oh, and let me not forget to add that the shade of purple really isn't as lurid in life as the pictures make it seem!)