When I was a young, lanky nerd (now I’m only a nerd), my boyhood dream was a nice stereo system with a robust amplifier at its centre. That was many years ago, and the classic stereo amplifier was for many years an endangered species. But like the turntable and vinyl records, the stereo amplifier is now enjoying a renaissance.
The Denon PMA-1700NE looks like a classic stereo amplifier from the days before the world had heard of streaming. The front panel is dominated by a motorised volume knob the size of a jar of shoe polish. In addition to the volume knob, there are bass and treble controls, a balance knob and input selector on the front. Three small buttons can respectively switch off the digital section, skip the tone controls and select between MC and MM pickups on the built-in phono stage.
A turntable input is a given on such a classically designed amplifier. But it’s a rarity, even in higher price ranges, to be able to connect moving coil pickups directly. The input selection is shown in a clear and easy-to-read OLED display.
It goes without saying that the headphone output on the front has the correct diameter: 6.3 mm. If you want to plug in some newfangled junk, you’ll need an adapter. And no, there’s not a transmitter for Bluetooth headphones!
The Denon PMA-1700NE doesn’t just look like something from a bygone era; it also looks almost identical to its predecessor, the PMA-1600NE. And just like its predecessor, it’s available in both silver and black finishes – depending on whether you prefer the glossy 70s look or the dark front panels that have been the norm since the 80s.
PC input – but no HDMI
On the back, you’ll find two sets of solid gold-plated speaker sockets, as well as a full set of analogue and digital inputs, including the turntable input. There’s also a USB-B port so the amplifier can use a computer as a signal source. It’s the same configuration as its predecessor, but the choice seems old-fashioned rather than nostalgic. Today, an HDMI input would be far more useful, allowing the amplifier to be used for stereo TV sound. It still can via the two optical inputs, but you can’t control the volume from the TV’s remote control.
Denon should be commended for including an Ext. Pre in input that bypasses the PMA-1700NE’s own preamplifier and volume control. This allows the amplifier to be used as a power amplifier for the front channels in a surround system with a home cinema receiver.
There are two sets of speaker sockets, just like on classic stereo amplifiers, but both sets are always connected in parallel, so they can only be used for bi-wiring and not for switching between two sets of speakers. The sockets are the usual screw-mount terminals with the option of also using banana plugs – if you remove the small plastic plugs to prevent this. By the way, the stoppers were pretty damn firmly stuck in place!
The Denon PMA-1700NE has digital inputs, but you’ll be searching in vain for even the most basic streaming features. No AirPlay, Chromecast or multi-room. And do not ask about room correction. Not even Bluetooth reception. You’ll either have to put on a vinyl record and relax. Or invest in a separate streaming receiver, like the Denon DNP-2000NE.
Inside, the Denon PMA-1700NE is a pleasant reunion. Both with classic virtues and with the technology from the PMA-1600NE.
The Denon DNP-2000NE is one of the most versatile of the top music streamers and by far the easiest to use.
The Denon PMA-1700NE is a class AB amplifier like they made them in the 70s. Two massive transformers, massive charging capacitors and two even more massive heat sinks to dissipate the heat from the output transistors. A class AB amplifier produces a lot of excess heat, which doesn’t look very good on the green balance sheet – but is often accompanied by a warm sound.
This also means that the PMA-1700NE is heavier than the modern Class D amplifiers that we more often encounter. 17.6 kilos to be exact. The power output in 4 ohm load, which is exactly twice as much as in 8 ohm – 140 watts – also shows that it’s powerful. That’s how it should be done!
The sound of the Denon PMA-1700NE
The sound is as nostalgic as the exterior. From the first note, it’s clear that we’re dealing with an amplifier made for cosy listening sessions.
There’s nothing dark or gloomy, but a warmth and cosiness that makes you want to kick up your feet on the sofa and pour a glass of red wine (or a cup of tea, if preferred).
The Denon PMA-1700NE has a surprisingly full bottom end for an amplifier that is, after all, only rated at 70 watts output power. The drumbeats in Banditen Gallop don’t say “boom”, but a rich and sonorous ” boumm!”, and the synthesiser drum voice in Madonna’s Dark Ballet fills the living room with pounding bass. What the amplifier has in commitment is perhaps a little lacking in discipline. Because I’ve heard both tracks reproduced with better control in the bottom end.
This small amplifier was in its time both admired and infamous for several reasons.
The warmth and cosiness is echoed in the other tonal ranges. Voices are rendered close and pleasant, and on the opening track of Disturbed’s cover version of Sound of Silence you get the (slightly intimidating) feeling of having David Draiman standing in your living room. A little later in the same track, however, the illusion is lost. The orchestral crescendo at the end is one of my favourite tests of amplifier headroom. And although the Denon PMA-1700NE has plenty of power, it loses the overview and it becomes difficult to separate the instruments from each other.
But hold your horses! This doesn’t necessarily have to be a big problem. There are amplifiers that are better than the Denon PMA-1700NE at extracting the last details from the plate grooves and bitstreams. If room information and razor-sharp depth perspective is what matters most to you, be prepared to pay a lot more for it. Or at least sacrifice other features. We’re actually talking about a complete class AB amplifier with MM and MC input at a price most people can afford.
As we are experiencing a stereo amplifier renaissance, there are quite a few competitors vying for the favour of buyers. If you’re looking for something truly classic, you can get even warmer sound from the recreated Musical Fidelity A1 tabletop BBQ, and at the opposite end of the technology scale you’ll find the Lyngdorf TDAI-1120, which has both room correction and streaming capabilities. The Denon PMA-1700NE lies somewhere in between the two. It’s more engaged – but also less accurate – than the Lyngdorf. And thanks to more power, it can be used with a wider range of speakers than Musical Fidelity. Another – literally obvious – alternative is the Model 50n from sister company Marantz.
The Marantz Stereo 70s is equal parts stereo amplifier and home cinema receiver. Is it a Columbus egg or does it fall between two stools?
The Denon PMA-1700NE is an amplifier that’s easy to like. It plays with enthusiasm and intimacy and would be perfect for the cosy nook or man’s cave. Preferably paired with a pair of smaller standmount speakers, where the rather full-bodied bass will be perceived as a strength. Analogue fans will be pleased to find inputs for not only turntables, but even amplification for MC pickups. Digital inputs are also pretty much plentiful, although many would probably prefer to swap the USB host input for an HDMI Arc. Networking and streaming capabilities are optional extras, however, so if convenience is a priority, there are more digital alternatives.