I auditioned the P-3000R and M-5000R through three different pairs of speakers. The bulk of my listening was done using PSB’s Synchrony One speakers, a winner of S+V’s 2007 Audio Product of the Year award. I also fired up my Quad ESL-57 electrostatic speakers, which presented the amp with a fairly complicated load, and the excellent Rosebud monitors from Mark Levinson’s Red Rose Music.
Eager to wrap my ears around some high-rez digital files, I downloaded Lenny White, Jamey Haddad, and Mark Sherman's Explorations in Space and Time, a jazz selection from HDtracks.com, and played it with my laptop connected to the P-3000R’s USB input. Anyone who thinks that a two-channel system can’t deliver a credible sense of depth needs to hear this release: playing it through the Onkyo and PSBs, I could close my eyes and point at instruments that sounded as if they were positioned twenty feet behind the speakers. On the track “Groove” it was easy to hear details like a drum’s pitch bending as the drummer struck different areas of the skin. Words like “smooth” and “forceful” appear repeatedly in my listening notes, underlining the Onkyo amp’s ability to get a firm grip on the speakers.
The preamp’s phono stage was another highlight. It requires a high-output moving magnet cartridge, so I plugged an Audio Note IQ3 cartridge into my turntable’s tonearm. Playing “Rudy” from an original US pressing of Supertramp’s Crime of the Century LP, the sound had great dynamic swing, with plenty of impact and tight, tuneful bass. The phono stage was impressively quiet, with just a very low-level “rushing” sound becoming audible if you cranked things way past a normal listening volume.
The Onkyo separates’ relative strengths and weaknesses were clearly different from those of my regular tube electronics. Heard through the ultra-revealing Quads, my Croft preamp and Audio Note amp deliver a slightly broader tonal palette, giving you a subtle but clearly enhanced sense of contrast between various instruments. On the title track from Geri Allen’s Segments CD, for example, drummer Paul Motian’s various cymbals had a more sharply defined sonic thumbprint when heard through the tube setup. the Onkyo amp’s superior power and control, on the other hand, made Charlie Haden’s acoustic bass lines much easier to follow as he dropped down into the lowest registers.
Overall, I would describe the Onkyo separates as having a classic “iron fist in a velvet glove” kind of a sound. Despite its seemingly modest power on paper, the M-5000R power amp delivers really punchy sound while simultaneously keeping everything under control. Sure, some of the finest high-end electronics can manage to lift a gossamer-thin veil that stands between you and the music. But it’s hard to get both that result and the dynamic prowess that this Onkyo combo delivers without spending a lot more money.
Despite the company’s current focus on home theater gear, these separates tell us that at least some folks at Onkyo are still passionate about good old two-channel music. Its M-5000R power amp delivers the goods using a tried-and-true formula, while the P-3000R preamp manages to pack some cutting-edge technology inside a sleek package. When you consider that you get excellent, versatile digital-to-analog conversion and a fine phono stage as part of the bargain, the true value of this Onkyo combo becomes clear. Now, if there were only a way to slap on some Krell badges to placate any snooty audiophiles who happen to drop by…
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