POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 28
SA-11S1 Reference Series SACD/CD Player and the PM-11S1 Reference Series Integrated Amplifier - A Dual Review
as reviewed by Max Dudious
In 2004 I reviewed the then-new flagship models of the Marantz line in these pages and noted in passing that they might raise the bar of performance and improve the bang for the buck ratio for all the large audio firms. It seemed the off-shore mass-production techniques employed in the large production runs of major manufacturers (such as Marantz) had been closing in on the superiority previously enjoyed by the smaller boutique companies with their small production runs. ("Little bugs have littler bugs/on their backs to bite 'em./And littler bugs have littler bugs,/ and so on infinitum." Jerry Garcia.) [Not to mention Jonathan Swift …not one of the Grateful Dead, I might add. - Ye Olde Editor] For years it has been a not so tightly held secret that many "High-End" lines have their designs assembled in certain mainland Chinese or Taiwanese factories, where, whether the product is made with tubes, transistors, or nuvistors, small production runs allow for greater quality control.
I wondered how long it would take for the trickle-down of improved technology in large scale production to make such quality available at much reduced prices. These two new products (the made-in-Japan Marantz SA-11S1, and the PM-11S1) seem to be the first of the new wave, employing many features used in their flagship models, but at lower cost. I really hate to be an "I told you so," you'll notice. Whereas the absolute top-of-the-line Marantz Reference Series SACD player, preamp, plus two monoblocks together list for nearly $31,000; the two newer pieces of their next-to-top-of-the-line (CD player and integrated amp), together list for about $8,000. At around 25% the cost, can the two pieces deliver the same functions? I think so, albeit with 100-wpcinstead of 300 (which is only 4dB, or so, louder). The same quality? I think so; perhaps better than the earlier gear, with their second generation HDAM®s. How do they stack up to the competition at that price point? I'll have to leave it to you to survey the field; well, if not the entire field, only the competitive pieces you're interested in. I can only say, distinctions between High End and alleged Mid-Fi just got a lot more complicated.
"What is the HDAM®?" you might ask. A good question, since at around the same time, some other pretty highly respected manufacturers began using them. I think HDAM® stands for "High Definition Amplification Module," which doesn't explain much. Just to rev the suspense up a notch, Mark Levinson and Musical Fidelity are using HDAM® type circuits as well, though they might call them something else because the registered term "HDAM®" was first used by Marantz, and each of those other firms likely has engineered its own variation on the circuit they use. Or, it may be an unsubstantiated rumor. Marantz claims to have invented the HDAM® and copyrighted the term in 1992. Levinson seems to have used buffer circuits in their Preamp #32 released in 1999, calling them "high performance buffer amplifiers." Musical Fidelity released its Nu-Vista pr-amp in 1998, and has had its stand-alone Model X-10v3 Tube Output Buffer amp on the market for nearly as long. At least in this one example, two relatively small "High-End" Boutique firms may be competing with a "Mid-Fi" mass-production giant for the recognition of having first introduced the discrete-parts operational-amplifier to the Hi-End.
All I have are the following facts, communicated by Mr. Kevin Zarow, Vice President of Marketing for Marantz, in an email dated 12/04/2006. In September of 1992, or fourteen years ago, in Japan, Marantz released an integrated amplifier, the PM-99SE, that used HDAM®s extensively. The term "HDAM®" was registered by the Marantz Corporation a little in advance, or at about the same time. The piece, PM-99SE, was never marketed in the United States, although Marantz used HDAM®s in many products since the mid-90s—especially on CD players (CD-63-SE for just one example). That's the best information I can get.
According to a technician in the customer service side of the Mark Levinson office, they didn't begin using their "high performance buffer amplifier" until the debut of their Preamplifier #32, which was released toward the end of 1999 or the beginning of 2000, I'm told. It would be jumping to conclusions to say the Mark Levinson engineers were mimicking the Marantz guys' latest wrinkle in op-amps. They might have come at the problem from different directions (like Descartes and Leibniz did in "inventing" calculus), and solved it simultaneously. Might have. That's an opinion.
At their website Musical Fidelity says they introduced a pr-amp called the Nu-Vista pr-amp in 1998, and their Nu-Vista Power Amp in 1999. These pieces used nu-vistors, highly miniaturized vacuum tubes in metal (not glass) jackets. They also developed their Model X-10v3, a stand-alone Output Buffer amplifier, at about the same time. Their website claimed their buffer amp was essentially the same as the output of their top-of-the-line CD player, and it could transform a modestly-priced CD player into a first class piece. That's their opinion. It really doesn't matter who came first, but it would be ironic if the high-tech high-end firms were following the lead of the mid-fi engineers. And that's my opinion.
So, again, exactly what is an HDAM®? Essentially an HDAM® is an operational amplifier built of discrete parts (as opposed to "surface mounted parts" in an 8-pin DIP, IC package). Op-amps are used all over solid state circuits, and there are some designed as an IC 8-pin DIP (Dual In-line Pins) chip that sound really fine. When selected for audio use, as the result of exhaustive listening tests, the process is somewhat random because most chips are designed for use in computers, TV, telephone, or micro-wave circuits—that is, for use in applications that go beyond the audio frequency band, and some just happen to sound good. Hear the Grado RA-1 and the Ray Samuels Emmeline Hornet for two examples. Aye, 'tis true some better IC op-amps have found welcome use in buffer circuits. Aye, but—aye but, there are some things about the usual 8-pin DIP op-amp chip that can get it in trouble no matter how sophisticated the circuit topology, or how thoughtful the designer is in using it.
These trouble makers are: poor conductivity due to badly engineered traces in the chip, heat developing within the chip, electronic and magnetic interference (the parts talk to each other), "plasmas and plasma-surface interactions," ["plasma: a collection of charged particles ...containing about equal numbers of positive ions and electrons and exhibiting some properties of a gas but differing from a gas in being a good conductor of electricity and in being affected by magnetic field." Webster's 9th Edition] that is, small magnetic field interactions, etc. Each can cause the IC op-amp to misbehave, and together cause heaven-only- knows-what plasmatic havoc. [For more detail, see "Integrated Circuit" in Wikipedia on-line.] Critics of ICs hold that all ICs have problems with Quality Control, their small size creates design limitations, and they are never (well, hardly ever) designed to optimize their performance in audio applications. Custom, audio-appropriate, discrete-part op-amps could be designed to overcome those problems inherent in IC op-amps, and (I assume) the manufacturers named above have taken it upon themselves to do just that. Somewhere (was it http://www.bursonaudio.com?) I read that, so far, such op-amps are mostly found on pieces of gear in the above $3,000 category. That may no longer be up to date.
The reason I'm giving you so much information about HDAM®s (all of which is available on-line) is that I think this kind of incremental (as opposed to radically different) breakthrough is one that brings about a subtle, but real wave of improvement in sound (as opposed to a Tsunami). Marantz claims it was first to use HDAM®s in 1992, and used eight of their proprietary design HDAM®s in the Model SC 7 preamp, and four more in the MA 9 amp that debuted more than three years ago in the U.S. (and two years before that in Japan). About the same time Mark Levinson and Musical Fidelity began using discrete-part op-amps of their own design, three other firms whose names and reputations are not known to me (Greek, Aqvox, and Sphix) started using them as buffer amps. Burson Audio of Melbourne, Australia has sent me for review a stand-alone buffer circuit that uses discrete op-amps (in voltage-differential topology), which has enthralled me in its first listening sessions. It is also a piece in-queue for full-review and I have high hopes for it. My point here is that the word is out, and it won't surprise me if more (hand or robot assembled) audio-appropriate, discrete-part op-amps start making it into the better solid-state gear.
[By the way, did you notice that I gave the audio side of the Marantz DV660 "universal" CD player very high marks in its review some months back? That when I looked inside I noticed the audio-out line-amp was made of discrete parts, and that they were spaced relatively far apart from each other (a semi-HDAM®)? Certainly farther than on an IC chip! This was not a hand-built circuit, but it sounded better than many SACD players I've heard lately, especially at the $600 price-point; and the unit plays DVDs and surround-sound, too. I think this is how technological improvements spread, through word-of-mouth in the designer (and consumer) community. Max]
What is an HDAM® then, and why ought we to pay attention to it? It is a discrete-parts operational-amplifier, one that can employ various devices (transistors or nuvistors), and various configurations including the pretty sophisticated voltage-differential set up; and it might be used in various ways; as a buffer stage (or impedance-matching device) on each and every input and output of a preamp, as on the Marantz PM-11S1 integrated. According to the Mark Levinson website, their best pr-amp #32 uses their "high performance buffer amplifier" in a similar fashion. Such an op-amp also can be useful after most analog output stages, as an output stage and/or a stand-alone output buffer itself (as do the Musical Fidelity and the Burson), or as a driver stage before the output stage of a power amplifier (as does Marantz in its MA9 and PM-11S1).
A well designed version of a discrete parts op-amp, by introducing a friendlier impedance match, would lessen noise and distortion, lower output capacitance, handle high current when necessary, manage broad bandwidth, and increase dynamic range, as the Levinson website suggests. Critics seem to agree that such well executed op-amps improve the sound in real, if subtle, ways, like the difference between real good perfume and human pheromones. I'd guess they'll be all over the better gear in the next few years, because they are very effective, although other (less expensive) variants might break through into the mid-fi, if the Marantz DV660 universal player is any example.
How do these two Marantz pieces (the integrated amp and the SACD player) sound? Where, exactly, is the HDAM® improvement? The sound is very refined, unspectacularly natural. Subtle. There is a lack of "Hi-Fi Sound." The overall effect is the opposite of IN YOUR FACE: maybe "diffident" is the right word. Addition-by-subtraction is more complex, a harder to hear shift in perspective than bigger, more powerful, MORE. Marantz bass, for example, is excellent and it has the desirable trait that as the volume increases the bass does not ring. That seems to say the amp has a high damping factor (not included in the Marantz spec sheet), which may not be the exact explanation of why the amp doesn't ring. It might be the friendlier impedance match between the HDAM® driver stage and the output stage of the amp. I'm only hypothesizing here. I would like to see a damping factor spec and an explanation from the Marantz folk. But if my hypothesis is correct, we might see a stampede of me-too designs.
The SACD/CD player also shows pretty terrific bass cohesiveness (attack, sustain, decay ratios; similar freedom from overshoot) when auditioned through headphones. For example, Mark Summer's cello solo "Kalimba"on Paquito D'Rivera's CD, The Jazz Chamber Trio (Chesky; JD 293), is among the most complex to play, record, and reproduce through a sound system—and get right—that I've run across. When I played the two Marantz pieces through my Lowther PM5A systems, through Ecosse interconnects and speaker cables (also, in the queue for review), I had to add 6dB of bass (to compensate for the well known Lowther bass-shyness) through the bass control on the preamp section of the PM-11S1. While one might expect some ringing in that situation, I could hear none; no smearing, masking, or overshoot etc. Nada. The bass got fuller and louder, and I felt I'd been moved a bit closer, but the bass never sounded tubby, wooly, or boomy. Only very well designed gear, pieces with multi-segmented and multi-regulated power supplies, (and with HDAM®s in strategic places)—which the Marantz integrated amp has—behave like that in my experience. The same is true for high-frequency splash or overshoot: there is none that I could hear, no matter how loudly I played it.
The mid-range follows the pattern of emphasis on natural sounding sound, rather than attention-grabbing, realer-than-real "hi-fi" effects. My Lowthers' presence peaks seemed at least considerably tamed by the Marantz gear. The effect gave me the most convincing illusion of a position in the symphony hall farther back than any other amp I'd ever auditioned with my frontal Lowthers in my listening room. The CD player/amp combination is notably ring-free in reproducing female voice. It can minimize the "metallic" coloration some sopranos exhibit in performance, and eliminate it when it is not there in the first place. This is especially evident with excellent recordings, such as the singing of Woojung Kim on David Chesky's "The Girl From Guatemala" on his Area 31 album, (Chesky, SACD 288). Performing the vocal acrobatics you'd expect of a modern concert piece, Kim never sounds nasal, metallic, or shrill. It is amazing to hear music without such colorations when for years I believed they were just inherent in the recording and reproduction process, something I could do nothing about.
[Art Dudley implies the same resignation about LP reproduction before hearing The Well Tempered Record Player, (in Stereophile, Nov. 2006, p. 42), where he writes, "... the resonant energy created during record playback is itself a cause of distortion..." To avoid charges that I quote him out of context, I should add he then goes on to tell how the Well Tempered engineers minimize that distortion. Max]
The Art of "Less is More":
Other excellent pieces of gear add some of those colorations to the soprano voice (in particular) at full cry, but they are so good at other things we tend to forgive them a minor glitch, or we listen to such selections at slightly lower levels and blame the shrillness on the recording engineer. Listening through the Marantz CD player and integrated amp, and my Lowthers, I heard some of the cleanest sound I've heard outside of a performance venue, though I can only characterize it as having less of the usual pitfalls; masking, boom, tizz, overmuch presence. Sometimes, less is more. Definitely.
But, what are we dealing with here? Seems like small increments of improvement at the edges of perception: freedom from masking, freedom from boom and tizz, freedom from many annoying (chalk on blackboard type) colorations, freedom from up-front sonic obtrusiveness (by moving the listener farther back in the listening hall). These are not giant steps, but they do add up. These are subtle small steps, like a prima ballerina's pitty-patting herself into position to perform some of the most wonderfully expressive of human movements that are the emotional highlights of ballet. This less expensive, second from the-top-of-the-line, Marantz front-end delivers equally well the big emotional moments of music under complete control, down to the smallest detail. If these small increments of improvement get the details right, they quite rightly suggest the gear will reproduce most everything else gracefully and with ease. So if "diffident" is a word that describes this gear, so do the words "graceful" and "relaxed." Sometimes a handful of such small refinements synergistically make all the difference in the world.
And if all these improvements (minimizing distortion, maximizing dynamics, for two), or "refinements," if you will allow me, that separate the great from the merely very good, or the merely excellent, are important to you, then you must consider these two pieces as candidates for your system. In certain circles some audiophiles are willing to pay $10K for a phono cartridge to capture the smallest of LP detail, or $30,000 for a power amplifier that delivers an agreeable facsimile of BIG, in-the-Symphony-Hall sound. These pieces of Marantz gear, having such outstanding sonic performance, are an exciting team, in terms of price/performance ratio, or in terms of excellence for its own sake. These second from the top-of-the-line pieces approach the performance of the Levinson and the Mobile Fidelity. And they are way less expensive. Hey, sometimes less is more. But each according to his taste.
Sometimes More is More
Some folks like music gritty and raw. And this kind of gear might not give the kind of facsimile they would expect from a get-down blues-band recording, though it might be more natural. Yet for lovers of big classical music, chamber music, jazz, show tunes, opera, folk music, even bluegrass, café singers, unaccompanied vocal groups, this is the kind of electronic gear that will capture all the nuances you're looking for; the size of the room, the placement of the instruments, the subtleties of performance, all with a natural sounding ambiance that eliminates the realer than real, electro-mechanical presentation we've come to call, "the hi-fi sound," or "more is more." And it is this realistic balance that may be at the heart of the "less is more" style this gear offers. If you like "More is More," you might like a rock PA system in your listening room. There is no accounting for taste.
The Usual Suspects
To what does the listener owe a tip of the hat? There are so many production features in the two pieces it would take a very long list to name them. For example, both pieces enjoy the presence of over-sized toroidal transformers that like to devour hum. Similarly they each benefit from a heavy copper-plated chassis, with a double bottom, that mechanically damps unwanted air-born acoustical vibrations from the music that cause acoustical feedback, and physical insults like foot-falls that amplified through a system sound like rolling thunder; while the copper plating electronically shields the circuits from nasty radio frequency interference (such as taxi-cab radios) and electromagnetic radiation (such as household computers and appliances) that it bleeds to ground.
The SA-11S1 SACD/CD player also enjoys a new and improved precision laser mechanism with a "stabilizer plate." There are accurate and selectable digital filters that can make red-book CDs sound very much like SACDs. At first I thought I'd never use them, but they do behave as advertised. Each channel of the output stage enjoys triple HDAM® circuitry, as I might have mentioned earlier. They also benefit from a Phase Error Correction (PEC) circuits that virtually eliminate Phase Delay. And the LCD display unit is handled in a way that produces Zero Noise.
The PM-11S1 integrated amp employs many of the best design elements of the Separate SC-7S1 (Preamp) and the MA-9S1 (Monoblock Amp). It has an expensive "Hybrid" Toroidal Transformer, somewhat tweaked from the original, that is the center of its multi-segmented power supply system. It employs an expensive choke input system power supply circuit that kills the hash that rides on the "white noise" of a merely capacitor filtered power supply. It employs a new and expensive HDAM®, designated as HDAM-SA2®, in its output circuitry. All inputs and outputs, including phono, are buffered with more expensive HDAM-SA2® modules. The integrated amplifier offers a floating control bus system that can link it with one or two more PM-11S1 units for Multi-Channel configuration. The volume control is of the high precision type, and the speaker terminals are from WBT. These are visible expenses. Inside there is a similar array of premium parts that remain otherwise invisible. And, did I mention? the LCD display unit is handled in a way that produces zero noise. For more specifications go to the Marantz website http://us.marantz.com/products/630.asp. The information in the spec sheets isn't the best, but it is adequate. There is a lot of advanced engineering stuffed into these two pieces.
Did I remember to say at the outset, this gear is pretty terrific as far as fit and finish is concerned? Its style and look is equally impressive as its use of op-amps as buffer circuits. These newer 2nd generation HDAM®s are pretty slick, as is the multi-segmented and regulated power supply. Together these two pieces produce a very understated, beautiful sound. If I were as foolish as I was in 2004, when I reviewed the Marantz top-of-the-line separates, I'd call the sound "retro," and praise it for sounding much like the sound of the golden era of tubes. Today I recognize the sound is much in advance of the "golden oldies." The sound is warm, dynamic, free of colorations, and the like, but it is also (in software and hardware) far ahead of the sounds that were available back then, and what was available even to recording engineers. I'd go on to say, the sound available through the Marantz SA-11S1 SA-CD player, with the PM-11S1 integrated amp is better than anything Saul Marantz and Sid Smith (his chief engineer) ever got to hear in their homes. I think they'd be jealous, but proud. "Well done!" they'd say to the Marantz engineering guys. If you can't imagine that, then I'll say it: "Well done!" I'll leave it to wiser heads than mine to judge whether this Marantz gear is high-end or mid-fi.
Either way, when you put on your Top Hat and Tails to show off your best gal, your best pal, at your Marantz dealer, and she's lookin' good enough to get their attention, do a little Fred & Ginger over to the showcase, and when she demurely places her Platinum Card on the counter, remember to have her tell 'em, pouting suggestively as good taste allows, Max Dudious sent 'ya.
Marantz SA-11S1 Reference Series SACD/CD
Marantz PM-11S1 Reference Series