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Seems Like Old Times: Three New Marantz Top
of the Line Pieces, a Review
Sometimes I feel like the fool my wife takes me for. Not often. But definitely sometimes. Recently I felt most foolish after attending the New York Home Entertainment Show in May. I hadn't quite noticed, but while I was sleepwalking through my various duties as an audio journalist, a trend had been building right before my very ears. Some people were on to it, and maybe even had written about it, but I hadn't caught on. An industry-wide attempt to return to what was best about analog (glowing tubes, big warm sound coming from big warm speakers), was snowballing. It was an epiphany for me. It was as if the Audio Genie were whispering in my ear, "Wake-up call, Old Dude. A growing number of manufacturers are trying to re-capture what we've come to call ‘The Golden Age of Hi-Fi.'"
A recent owner's manual was explicit enough to say: "The ancient Chinese described the most cultured of homes as having ‘the scent of books.' What more can we say of our Golden Age of Hi-Fi in the Fifties and Sixties, when the finest technologies were brought together to make the finest recordings except that it had ‘the scent of music?'... To keep these traditions alive, today's audio engineers are once again creating a Golden Age for discerning listeners. Today we can put together a satisfying home system capable of delivering all the diverse music we love B the delicacy and power of the Vienna Grosser Musikvereinsaal, the passionate blues of the old Apollo Theater; the intimacy and excitement of the Village Gate and other great Golden Age jazz cafés." This description was not from the folks at Marantz, as you'll see it might have been, but from the folks at Monster. As the notorious letterist, Wanda Tinasky, once wrote: "For some people you can't be too obvious." I may be an old, slow, geezer of a Dude, but I do wake up for a few minutes a day.
I have noticed changes in sound quality emphasis in some recent recordings and in some recent gear, from quality headphones to the most elite electronics and speakers. My reviewing duties have kept me abreast of the developments in recently released CDs, enough so that even though the mind of man tends to see patterns where often-times none exists, I am fairly certain that some classical CD manufacturers have had success with the more "natural" (as opposed to "analytical") SACD stereo/multi-channel sound (Telarc with Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet; Decca with Puccini's La Boheme, DG with Bryn Terfel's Favorites); and, as imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, other pop-rock CD producers have followed suit, such as Capitol with Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.
I'm not sure if the loudspeaker manufacturers have followed the CD labels, or if they, on their own, decided the introduction of some cheap, bad, Home Theater rigs led to the inevitable conclusion that five mini-monitor speakers beaming out enough treble energy to peel wallpaper was not an end to be desired. But it seems a demonstrable fact that speaker makers, too, have toned down their treble range, at more or less all the price points. Or, it all could be just a coincidence that there has been a pair of recent advances in tweeter manufacture (the Vifa ring radiator, and the Focal beryllium tweeters) that have forced the rest of the speaker makers to clean up their highs. Is it a coincidence or a cabal? Who cares! In either case, I'll take it.
In an industry where "Monkey hear: Monkey do!" seems the rule, the electronics manufacturers, perhaps sensing this "trend," or perhaps mimicking the most expensive and widely acclaimed of the latest electronics, have toned down the "analytical sound" a click or two. Many manufacturers are playing "Follow the Leader." I cite as examples only some of those known directly to me: the Shure E5c in-ear headphones; the Monster Sigma Retro interconnects and speaker cables; the Tetra 505LTD and Epiphany 12-12 loudspeakers; the Halcro dm 58 amplifier and dm 10 preamp; and the new Marantz MA-9 S1 Amp, SC-7 S1 Preamp, and SC-14 CD-player combination. All lean toward the sound of the Golden Age.
The Marantz gear is of particular interest because if they produce high-end audiophile-quality sound using off-shore manufacturing facilities two things might happen: 1) the rest of the Marantz product line would benefit from the production techniques they are employing in these flagship pieces, hence many of the large mid-fi lines would stand to improve by mimicking Marantz, which would give credence to a claim of industry leadership; and 2) Marantz would have raised the bar of price/performance ratio that would close the gap between mass-produced products and boutique-produced small-production-run products more typical of the high-end. Of course, I didn't have that in mind when Marantz's Kevin "Z-man" Zarow (winner of Max Dudious's Dude of the Year award) convinced me that I was the man to review these products. I thought, "Cool! Marantz has some new gear coming out that looks like the old days. Could they sound like the golden oldies?" Was I in for a pleasant surprise!
If you grew up in a household with a stereo system that featured Marantz tube electronics, I have a pleasant surprise for you, too. Three new transistorized designs from Marantz have arrived at my little beach shack on the shore of the Chesapeake, and indeed they have recaptured—well, considerably—the suave old tube sound that we remember from the "Golden Age of Hi-Fi." These pieces may sound more like tubes, but they employ many solid state engineering tricks likely to make them near maintenance-free and near bullet-proof. They sound special in a way you can understand if you grew up on Marantz products, and even if you didn't. At the May 2004 Home Entertainment Show in N.Y., I was surprised by how often the priciest systems sounded like that old tube sound we old farts remember so fondly—warmly emotional instead of coldly analytical—a sound that I value and towards which portions of the industry are turning their emphasis.
With great interest I had read debut announcements of the new solid-state, stereo-only, pre-amp and monoblock power amps, named for their predecessors. I guess their engineers figured they could cash in on the now forty year ago Marantz tradition for being among the leaders in the field. This reputation has been desultorily revived over the years, most recently by their Class A rated SACD-CD player, the Marantz Model 8260, a relatively inexpensive ($1200 MSRP), high-performance, multi-channel, audio-only piece that has surprised a lot of skeptics who believed one had to spend upward of ten times that price for a truly high-end CD player. The new pieces are reverentially identified with the same model numbers prominently evident in their names: the pre-amp is the new Marantz SC-7 S1, after the Marantz 7C tubed preamp; the monoblock 300 watt power amp is the new Marantz MA-9 S1 after the Marantz 9, a 70 watt tubed monoblock.
The SC-7 and MA-9 are each cost-no-object, state-of-the-art pieces at the current level of Marantz engineering and mass production. They retail at $7,000 per, and with the Marantz SA-14 SACD player weighing in at $3,000 more, the total quickly runs up to $24,000, serious money for a serious stereo front end. Yet they are not out of line when you consider the price/ performance ratio of just a pair of Halcro dm58 amplifiers (at $25,000/pair), or Lamm ML2.1 SET amplifiers (at $29,290/pair), a pair of Tenor Audio 300HP amps (at $37,000) or a pair of Wavac SH-833 amplifiers (at $350,000/pair), whose warm overall sound they resemble in the largest sense (if we can trust the description of Stereophile's usually reliable editors, and David Robinson's exquisitely tuned sensibilities). This is a Marantz attempt to climb back up the slippery and mysterious mountain of audio eminence, based on an unexpected price/performance ratio, and it succeeds in large measure. Together they sound great, and I could listen to them for a long time. But they are not your father's Marantz gear. The new Marantz gear sounds 40 or 50 years advanced in resolving power, and more in-the-room lifelike and musical, with a sweet sound and a huge sound stage. Saul Marantz would be proud.
The Marantz SC-7 preamplifier
I recently brought my highly modified Marantz 7C downstairs to listen to it on my big rig in my big room to see how it compared with its solid state great grand-daughter, the SC-7. It is still excellent in the way that modern tube preamps are: it has wide band-width, great detail, capable of slewing high voltage it has wonderful bloom in the midrange, especially on human voices, and the ability to keep multiple lines separate (as in Bach three part inventions played on a harpsichord). In my system it is very suave and seductively satisfying. It is not analytical, in the sense that it does not "expose" poorly recorded CDs as too etched. Rather, it allows the listener to enjoy the music, even if some early CDs in question might be too harsh through other preamps. It is neither too full nor too lean sounding. It is as near to neutral in balance (highs, mids, lows) as I've heard, having no "presence-peak," and it has what Saul Marantz called "a feathery quality," as if through it one could hear a fallen feather landing.
The new SC-7 preamp is similar in many regards. It is also wide band, wider than the stock Marantz 7C at both the high and low ends. That is, the highs have more extended and cleaner shimmer on string tone, as well as more splash-free sparkle on cymbals. The SC-7 also has the kinds of things we associate with modern preamps. The Marantz spec sheet claims excellent common mode rejection rate that permits extra-wideband frequency response (3-150kHz), vanishingly low signal/noise ratio (103 dB), nearly ripple-free power regulation (choke input topology), greater measured separation, which adds up to airier presentation, wider and deeper soundstage, and greater spatial stability of instruments within the soundstage. The lows have greater authority, better resolution, freedom from ringing or bloat, which doesn't yield bigger lows as much as qualitatively better, tighter lows able to capture timbre and texture. So the stock Marantz 7C can't hold a candle to the new SC-7 in any parameter. The Pooged Marantz 7C is still in the ball-game, but gets edged out in the extreme highs and lows. In the mid-range, they are surprisingly similar and lifelike, and each possesses great bloom, the family trait. Jazz musicians have a patois all their own, and it is said of a musician who catches everything that is going on at once, "The cat has big ears." The new SC-7 seems to have big ears, or rather, it gives the listener big ears.
The new SC-7 preamp has many other things going for it. Compared to my Pooged Levinson JC-2, the Marantz SC-7 is more genteel, and a tad less analytical; it presents a more stable sound stage, with a rock solid center image; it has an agreeable near mid-hall as opposed to a front row placement; it has a good grip, good braking horsepower on the bass (the iron hand in the velvet glove), a detailed and very spacious yet soprano friendly mid-range, with airy highs. The SC-7 has many good design features: it's built like a brick-shipyard; it has a copper chassis for keeping EMI and RFI out, and as much as possible keeping its own magnetic fields, in; a brute on-board choke-filtered power supply; balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) inputs and outputs; an IEC socket for use with various after-market AC power cords; its own remote that controls a selector switch and volume control; seductive feel on the manual controls; great parts selection; a cool running temperature, and a cool blue light. It is, overall, way cool. I haven't surveyed all the preamps in the $5K - $10K range, but (from what I've heard at shows and shoppes) I'm sure this preamp can hold its own. It's pretty damn fine!!
Once, while setting up, I unintentionally obscured my wife's (La Dudeen's) vision while I got a John Pizzarelli/George Shearing SACD into the tray of surprises, and since she couldn't see my lips as I was facing away when the singing began, she asked if I was singing. I thought that was a nice compliment for my voice, which has similar range and timbre as his. But upon reflection I thought what a nice compliment for the Marantz SC-7 that she might mistake an electronically reproduced voice for anyone's actually singing in the room. That says a lot! That might be the highest compliment!!
That is one quality that this preamp has. It makes CDs sound "lifelike" to a larger extent than most, bringing artists to the listening room rather than taking the listener to the recording studio, if you get this small, but crucial difference. Somehow, it deemphasizes (or puts down in the mix) many of the electronic artifacts we've become accustomed to listening through (echo, reverb, aphasic excitement). In so doing the SC-7 might be a tad on the Yin (or musical) side of neutral. More Yang (or analytical) preamps, in seeking to stress "inner detail," wind up emphasizing things like violin bow scrapes, and guitar fingering noise. "More musical" in the long run translates to more "beautiful" sound, with less emphasis on recording studio anomalies, which translates to more natural sound and less listener fatigue.
At the recent Home Entertainment Show in New York, the most expensive rigs I heard had a lot in common with the Marantz rig (a tad soft on highs, notably liquid on the midrange, with warm mid-bass and a large and three dimensional sound stage). While the $350 K Wavac power amps were not at the show, in the July, 2004 issue of Stereophile, Michael Fremer characterized the Wavac sound as, "Slightly on the mellow side up top, a bit warm down below, the Wavac SH-833 seamlessly filled in the midband with a rich, transparent, detailed sound that managed to unite the entire audible bandwidth into a whole that was coherent, transparent, rich and round." The design emphasis of many elite electronics seems to aim at capturing live music convincingly.
That is the trend, nowadays, in the ultimate reaches of the high end at various price points. In the most recent of periodic swings of audio taste, which like hemlines go up and down every so many years, everyone now seems to be aiming at more "natural" sound; less emphasis on splashy treble, more on liquid midrange, warmer and less "recording studio sound" (with its etched highs and electro-mechanical, disco bass). It seems we are in another pendular (J-10's preferred word, related to the more commonly seen pendulous) swing away from the super detailed to smoother, more musical reproduction. It reminds me of the schism during the ‘50s and ‘60s between the smooth New England (Bozak) sound, and the ultra-detailed West Coast (J.B. Lansing) sound. The new Marantz electronics seem to be in-step with this latest high-end reversal, and can hold their own in all but the very highest, cost-be-damned, company.
I had been in the analytical camp for years, but the new Marantz products make a very convincing case for the musical camp. Corno de Basetto and I sometimes argue whether it is best to hear all the artifices of the recording engineer, or to hear the emphasis on the performer with those studio embellishments forced down in the mix. We take turns presenting the case for either side of that argument. We just like to argue. Ironically, with the DACs in some of the best CD players sampling at 96kHz, and even 192kHz, the PCM stepladder sine waves are smoothing out to more closely resemble the analog sine wave than the old 44.1kHz/16-bit system. (Not to mention DSD's far smoother curve — single-bit at 2.8224 mHz—which behaves like analog, especially when it is taken from a pure DSD source.) And that may explain why the latest and best SACDs and (even) CDs sound more and more like the best LPs.
The Marantz SC-7 is very cable sensitive, and the listener may "voice" this neutral sounding preamp with various cables. The stock AC cord was O.K., but a Harmonic Technology Pro AC 11 seemed to bring up more power and texture on some synth effects, like the rumbling bass on the new Decca Ti Adoro album by Luciano Pavarotti. Also, it helped to play mix and match with various interconnect cables: Harmonic Technology's Truth Link (Copper and Silver); Goertz Alpha Core's Copper Mini-Purl, and their Silver Tri-Quartz 2; Twisted Pair Design's Reference Quest; Monster's Sigma Retro; and from Turkey, Silver-Fi's Iliad Purple. Each of these cables in such an electronics chain can subtly but noticeably color the sound and can affect the soundstage a surprising bit, each cable putting its own thumbprint on the result. A prospective owner should experiment, try different combinations, keep a log book, write down his thoughts, until he finds an optimum blend. I'd tell you what worked best in my system, but that might prejudice you, and I'm sure your system/room/ears/brain combination is not the same as mine. A good dealer will be able to help with this, and together you can voice the system to your needs and taste. Your call.
The Marantz MA-9 amplifier
Similarly the MA-9 power amplifier is essentially neutral, but a tad on the "musical," or Yin side. It is also a brute, weighing in at about 80 lbs. It shares the totally copper-shielded build, which adds weight, but that mostly comes from its power supply. I matched a pair of them up with a pair of Harmonic Technology Pro AC-11 Power Cords. These made a noticeable difference in the noise floor. The stock power cords were, again, O.K., but not up to snuff. If you have deep enough pockets, a real top-of-the-line AC Power Cord, such as Harmonic Technology's "Magic Power Cord," might improve performance a noticeable notch. Similarly, loudspeaker cables: As my poker-playing Dutch Uncle used to say, adopting an English maxim, "In for a penny, in for a pound." But you can live with the stock cables, forever, or until they annoy you enough that you feel you're not getting all the performance you paid for. With a good, thoughtful selection of cables, this Marantz electronics chain (CD player, preamp, power amps) can really sing.
The MA-9 power amp has many features you'd expect in an amp that aims to compete with the very best. If you look at the cover-off photo you might notice the chassis looks as if it were painted orange. That is copper!! The whole chassis is copper, to keep RFI out and its own hum field in. To that end, toroidal transformers are said to limit hum as well, and this Model 9 has a doozie of a doughnut shaped transformer in the lower right had quadrant of my photo. These two features (copper chassis, large toroid-shaped transformer) help keep the noise floor low, and create the illusion of inkier black backgrounds that sounds just rise out of. (Blacker blacks, Dudes. And inkier ink.) The amp also features a choke-filtered input power supply that has very low "ripple" and sounds very sweet. In my experience with tubed equipment, a choke (sometimes called a Pi-filter) input made a quite noticeable difference compared to a standard electrolytic capacitor filter on the power supply. It just knocked the hash and "white noise" quality right out of the signal. I'm partial to Pi-filters, and I suspect the Marantz engineers are too.
Above the transformers you'll similarly notice the heat fins (those black things about at the center of the chassis), are way less numerous than you'd expect for a 300 watt amplifier. I've noticed many competing brand name high-power amps with three or four times the space engineered for heat fins, so these few heat fins, with their placement inside the main chamber of the amp, came as a surprise. This amplifier runs cool, much cooler than standard solid state engineered amps, which means less heat-related fatigue of parts. In turn, this means that there should be much less parts "aging" with this amp. It should sound the same its whole life long, and require less parts maintenance.
Marantz is able to achieve this due to its HDAM SA module, a proprietary signal amplification module (near the left border of the chassis, with clear, if upside down, markings) that goes in front of the output devices in the circuit diagram. The High Definition Amplifier Module is not to be confused with a Darlington module, which is a cluster of output devices often found in mid-fi receivers used in the output stage. The HDAM module is a relatively new proprietary development that Marantz claims minimizes impedance of the Current Feedback circuit making the whole amp faster. I'm not sure how, but I think the HDAM gives the Model 9 its characteristic features of low operating temperature (even in my high volume stress tests) which allows for greater parts density, and its tube-like "back to the future" sound that gives the amp its warm, well-defined quality that is all the rage. I must confess, the guys at Marantz are not talking much about what the HDAM actually is (would you give away trade secrets?), but whatever it is, it works. Marantz uses eight HDAMs in the Model SC 7 preamp, with four more in the MA 9 amp. I don't want to sound too hyperbolic, and claim the HDAM is a revolutionary new development, but it just might be an evolutionary new tweak in amplifier design.
It does generate impressive specifications: 300 W into 8 Ohms, 600 W into 4 Ohms; THD (20Hz - 20kHz, at 8 Ohms) 0.01%; Frequency Response (1W, at 8 Ohms) 3Hz - 120kHz; Damping factor is 200; S/N ratio 120dB; the sort that previous experience with other amps leads us to expect impressive performance. Marantz claims for the MA 9 are: improved channel separation in the high frequency range; significant reduction of cross talk; low impedance drive capability; high-speed signal handling capability; high instantaneous current delivery capability; SACD-ready with super wide frequency range and wide dynamic range. If my listening tests are any indication, I find the sound quality lives up to its advance billing. If I might take exception with anything this amplifier does, it is as it approaches clipping. Allow me to say it doesn't clip gracefully. But, very few solid state amps do. Considering all the things the amp does well, its clipping behavior is a minor quibble.
The Marantz SA 14 SACD player
The SA 14 is a stereo-only SACD and Redbook CD player of considerable virtue. It shares the copper chassis build quality of the other two pieces in this category of no-holds-barred attempt at maximum quality. Its M.S.R.P. is $3000. I had my trusted Marantz 8260 here to compare as a stereo SACD playback unit with an M.S.R.P. of $1200. I must say the SA 14 didn't stand very tall over the 8260. The sound was comparable, and that isn't bad. After all, the 8260 was judged in the highest category by Stereophile just a short while ago, so the SA 14 is pretty damn good. With a bright set of interconnect cables, I could get the SA 14 to sound almost equal to the 8260. And, conversely, I could make them sound equally sweet with a smooth set of cables on the 8260. You get my drift. The two pieces could be made to sound almost identical by playing around with cables.
I'm told the Marantz engineers have acknowledged this and have come up with a new, improved SACD player that will replace the SA 14 in the line soon. In which case I'm off the hook. I'll review the new model SACD player when it is officially released to the public sometime soon.
The new pieces of top-of-the-line Marantz gear, the SC-7S1 Stereo Control Amplifier (Preamp) and the MA-9S1 Monaural Power Amplifier (Amp) have much to recommend them. They are very stylish to look at, with their brushed aluminum face plates and blue L.E.Ds. They are ergonomically designed with minimal switches and buttons. They take some tried and true design features, like a Choke Filtered Power Supply, and put them together with new engineering developments, like High Definition Amplifier Modules (HDAMs), to get a very suave, very charming sound—with components that give you exceptional bandwidth and current-generation specifications.
If you have a quality system and feel the time is right to upgrade your front-end to a very high level, this is an ideal trio (you'll need one SC-7 and two MA-9s) that competes with all but the most expensive gear.
And remember: a matching SACD player is in the pipeline. I'll keep you informed.
Check the Marantz website (www.marantz.com) for more information.