POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 32
SA-7S1 SACD/CD player
as reviewed by Mark Lawton
Mark Lawton comes our way via the Head-Fi chat room where he has been reviewing for the past 10 years. Mark is a most welcome addition to Positive Feedback Online, and will naturally focus on all things via headphones.
I Heard It Through The Grape Vine
The SA-7S1 is Marantz's latest flagship CD/SACD player. Considering how popular its little brother the SA-11S1 has been, it's quite surprising how little information has surfaced thus far on its newer/faster/better (and twice as expensive) sibling. Although this unit has been out for over 6 months, as I write, there are no "official" print reviews, just some excited chat on a couple of the audio boards, plus a small preview of a forthcoming analysis by Dr. Sardonicus right here in the pages Positive Feedback Online. Though he was still at early stages with the player, he seemed quite enthused, comparing it favorably to many of the more well-known SACD players at or near the same price point.
Dr. Sardonicus responds …Indeed, and after hearing it at full break-in, I decided to keep the review sample as my new reference. The SA-7S1 is the girl I have been trying to find!
Actually, there is one other review, written for a Japanese magazine. Here is just one brief and hilarious excerpt courtesy of Google's translation software:
"With the table which it shakes off in former times LP under remaking if from under preparing it raised the table which it shakes off above the man with underdeveloped genital organ duck earth in the vibrating back…"
No, I didn't make that up, and it goes on like that, useless...
Anyway, it was that little sneak peek from Dr. S. that tipped me over the edge and encouraged me to take the leap and get my own SA-7S1. Since receiving the player, I have been comparing notes back and forth with the good Dr., who suggested I take a little time to write them up as a Counterpoint to his review. Now that my player is thoroughly burned in, I've done just that. So, off we go!
Fit & Finish
OK, I'll admit it—the main reason I had been eying (ogling, actually) the SA-7S1 in the first place is its outstanding styling and sleek, curvy, feminine casework with it's subtly varying shades of champagne, silver and copper. In the few photos I could find, the player really looked great, but they just can't capture how gorgeous this thing is in the flesh. It's nothing short of a piece of audio jewelry, and hands down the most attractive component I've ever owned. The brushing on the aluminum case is sublimely executed and the whole package just reeks of quality. Its beauty and immaculate fit and finish have wowed everyone who has seen it. Damn thing weighs 50 pounds, too!
Under the Hood
But she's more than a pretty face. Under the hood are two very interesting new features:
The analog section is op-amp free as you'd expect at this price point, and uses Marantz's proprietary "HDAM" modules instead. The "problem" is that these modules are complex, containing many parts, with several of them stacked one after the other in the analog stages of all of their better gear, allegedly having a negative effect on their overall transparency. As a result, one often read descriptions of Marantz gear incorporating these HDAMs as being warm, analog, pleasant, relaxing, and musical. All well and good, but you'll notice "neutral", "resolving", and "dynamic" are not among those adjectives. As you'll see, to some extent my impressions of the player agree with those stereotypes of Marantz's "house sound".
The SA-7S1 has a number of cool (or maddening, depending on your point of view) features that are worth exploring.
It has an Invert Phase button, which obviously enough inverts the phase of the CD/SACD you are playing. As it turns out, many CDs and SACDs are actually (and amazingly) out of phase. From what I've read, when an out-of-phase CD is corrected, the sound seems to snap into better focus, and sounds more coherent. I've played around with this one a little bit, and so far, I've either been unable to tell the difference, or have noticed a subtle worsening of the sound. Thus, I surmise I haven't yet used it on a bona fide out-of-phase CD, but I'll keep trying.
Dr. Sardonicus responds …Here, I must disagree. My experience with switching polarity on discs that "don't sound right" has been significant. I am annoyed it cannot be done from the remote, but the function is very useful.
Then there are the 3 special filters that change the way the SA-7S1 crunches the numbers and have subtle effects on the sound and frequency response. In general, the changes are minor and frustrating. You can get lost and end up spending days endlessly A/B-ing the action of the different filters trying to decide which one is microscopically preferable to you.
I should also point out there is a minor idiosyncrasy with the Filter function on the Marantz. For some reason, the designers did not imagine an obvious scenario where a user might prefer one filter on CD (say #3), and another on SACD (say #2). The SA-7S1 can only remember one filter setting at a time. Naturally, I happen to prefer different filters for different media. Filter #1 for SACD gives you pure unadulterated DSD in all its glory, so it's probably the ideal filter for your Hi-Rez titles. After a lot of experimentation, I've settled on Filter #2 for regular CDs; it just sounds crisper, clearer and more present than the other two. So, I have the minor annoyance of having to make sure I've got the right filter set for each new disc I insert in the player. Not a huge problem, obviously, but given how incredibly well thought-out the rest of the player's functions are, one wonders how this little bug slipped through the cracks.
In addition to these 3 filters, the Marantz has two other sets of parameters that can be manipulated. There is a Noise Shaper button, which adds or subtracts digital feedback in the DAC, and a DC Filter button whose purpose is not adequately described by the manual.
Dr. Sardonicus …as I understand it, the DC filter is to address recordings with significant amounts of non-musical low frequency energy (essentially a rumble filter).
So you can see there are almost exponentially complex numbers of different combinations of filters and functions that can be turned on and off. It's either audiophile heaven or hell, depending on your personality. (Hopefully, I won't get so worked up I toss the thing out the window.)
For the most part, the SA-7S1 is an absolute dream to operate. It loads CDs quickly and performs almost all its functions far better than any other piece of digital gear I've ever owned. The drawer opens and closes with authority; it's all-metal and does not wobble or jiggle like the cheap plastic ones when you insert or remove a disc. It has so far played back all manner of various CD-Rs from different manufacturers without stutter or complaint.
I'm in love with the remote. It's heavy, sturdy, made of hard aluminum. It looks great (classy!), and feels fantastic in your hand. It's well laid out, and the player instantly responds to your commands. There are a few nits to pick, though, starting with the fact that the phase inverter is not available on the remote, you have to push the button on the unit's front. Second, you have to stop the disc in order to switch between the various filters and other selectable items detailed above, so there's no way to instantly A/B between them. The unit also mutes the sound when you fast forward through a track, so you are never quite sure where you are in the song until you release the button and the music starts again.
There is also one function that doesn't function at all. The player has a "Sound Mode" button, which is supposed to switch the layer of your hybrid SACDs to the CD layer and back again. However, I've tried half a dozen hybrids from different manufacturers and record companies, and the SA-7S1 just refuses to play the CD layer on any of them. A Marantz rep has told me this must be some little defect in my unit and that I can send it in for repair. But given the inconvenience not to mention sheer cost of shipping 60lbs. back and forth across country, I think I can learn to live without this function. Still, this has made comparing CD and SACD performance on the unit somewhat difficult.
Burn-in on this player is protracted; it starts to hit its stride at about 200 hours, and is fully cooked somewhere around the 300 hour mark. My current reference source is a heavily modified Sony XA9000ES. I originally purchased the Marantz SA-7S1 with the intent of having it modified as well, but more on that later. All impressions herein concern the regular stock player.
Straight out of the box, it's obvious the SA-7S1 is a very high performer. After thorough break-in, it does most things better than my reference, some things at least as well, and only a few things not quite up to standard, which I will detail shortly.
The ways in which the SA-7S1 excelled really surprised me. I'm used to hearing blacker backgrounds, higher resolution, better dynamics, etc. when I upgrade, but the Marantz's secret weapon is subtler than that. The SA-7S1 is simply more revealing of minor shifts and shading of tone, more illuminating of little changes in pitch and emphasis and this is giving my favorite music a whole new dimension. When a musician is putting more emotion or feeling in a particular passage or set of notes, the Marantz is really able to convey that to you. In fact, it makes the Sony sound almost monochromatic, while the Marantz is in full glorious Technicolor.
Which is not to say that the SA-7S1 is colored per se—it's not. It's surprisingly neutral which is why it allows all the instruments to sound more distinct and more like themselves. OK, there is a teaspoon or two of extra warmth, but it is at precisely the level that most audiophiles simply adore.
You can tell a lot about a component's general character by the way it handles tape hiss. The Marantz seems to naturally suppress its sound. Tape hiss should be low in level and unobtrusive, and on the Marantz it's definitely discrete, exceptionally smooth and analog, and significantly less granular, metallic and crisp. This carries over to the rest of the presentation, which is elegant, natural, precise, accurate, and refined.
The Marantz pulls off that near impossible trick of giving you dizzying high-end extension without ever hurting your ears. Its treble response is immaculately clean and free from etching, grain, or grit. Edges aren't sawed off or blunted down to a nub either, and there is no fraying. There is, however, a slightly unnatural softness plus a slight glow/halo effect to the edges of sounds and a twinge of sugary sweetness to the highs, but it's all easily forgivable. I like to listen relatively loud (but safe), and if the Marantz gives me a few extra db to play with before those tingly advanced early warning signs of fatigue start to set in, I'm happy.
But that easy-going nature doesn't come without some downsides. Electric guitars, for example, just aren't as satisfyingly crunchy and gutsy as they are on my reference. As compensation, you get to hear all the subtle shadings of tone inherent in the guitar and the notes being played. I think musicians would love the SA-7S1 because it clearly reveals all the subtleties of their playing, the way their instruments are tuned, and the overall tone/timbre of the particular brand and model they chose to play on that song. But head-bangers might miss some of the raw crunch of unfettered electricity from amps that go to 11 that the Marantz can't quite fully deliver.
And that's probably its major Achilles heel. There's no getting around it—the hot-rod-ed Sony simply has bigger balls than the Marantz. It easily provides greater heft, slam and punch. The output level of the Marantz is also several db lower than the Sony, as verified by my level meter (yes I level-matched in all my A/B comparisons). Not that the Marantz is feeble or weak, but the Sony has more headroom to deliver the goods in an authoritative way, and that's typically one of the things those mods buy you in the first place. The stock Sony was not nearly as powerful as the modified version, and I've never heard a stock player that was as lively as either of my last two modified sources (though I'm sure it's out there).
One of the chief reasons the SA-7S1 comes across as being more suave and subtle is that it makes the Sony sound almost compressed dynamically like a modern CD. In fact, that's a great analogy—the Marantz sounds like a good old Japan first pressing CD with all it's dynamic range intact and a slightly warm, but generally unfutzed-with sound, while the Sony comes across as a more in-your-face, compressed and EQ-tweaked re-master. I'm exaggerating the differences, but you get the idea.
Bass response on the SA-7S1 is well balanced and particularly tight and springy, going a tiny bit deeper in tone than the Sony, but doesn't have quite the same grunt force of my Sony. Snare drums don't snap and pop quite as well, and kick drums don't kick quite as hard as they do on my reference. If you are looking for a source to juice up your bass response, or knock you back into the next time zone, the Marantz won't do that. Its bass response is voiced to be properly proportional to everything else, and in that sense, impossible to argue with.
The Marantz is incredibly resolving, but not in a shove-it-under-your-nose intrusive way. This change in presentation took some getting used to, and several listening sessions before I started to appreciate that it's even more resolving than my Sony. I'm hearing all kinds of things I've never heard before, but these have as much to do with subtle changes in tone and timbre than in revealing a lot of new "details", although they are there, too, in some abundance. The noise floor on the Marantz is very low and the background is quite dark, but not as pitch black as on my Sony.
The Marantz is incredibly clean (but not clinical like the Krell SACD Standard for example) and "un-digital" sounding, allowing the music to flow in a natural, liquid way. It's as if it fills in more of the empty spaces between digital bits, rendering a very analog-like sound. The Marantz almost makes the Sony sound slightly "transistor-y" and mechanical, revealing some grain inherent in my reference I had not noticed before. I dread that awful and almost useless word "musical", but the Marantz is probably more "musical" than the Sony, which sounds more "hi-fi".
Hands down, the Marantz images and throws a soundstage like nothing I've ever heard before. The soundstage size is wide and spacious, spreading the sound out to the far left and right, and has a vast and profound sense of depth that's simply stunning. But you are not quite as close to the performers as you are with the Sony; you go from the front row to about the tenth row. The Marantz images incredibly well; every musician is clearly delineated within their own space. Singers seem to take a step forward from the rest of the band, and this adds to an increased sense of depth. Performers are as big as life, holographically portrayed, and eerily realistic.
Despite my unit's inability to play the CD layer of my hybrid SACDs, I have been comparing Redbook vs. Hi-Rez performance on the SA-7S1 by burning copies of the CD layers of a few hybrids and A/B-ing the CD-Rs against the SACD. My general feeling is that the Marantz is not one of those players that draw sharp and obvious distinctions between the formats, though it certainly sounds great no matter what it's playing. This surprised me a little, because as I understand it, the DAC in the Marantz does not convert DSD to PCM for processing (as do many so-called "SACD" players); it stays pure the whole way through. I was frankly hoping for a larger jump in performance (comparable to what I've heard on some other players) when switching between the two, but that was not my overall reaction.
The Marantz SA-7S1 is definitely not one of those polarizing, love it or hate it pieces. In fact, it's so well-judged, and so well-voiced, you would have to go well out of your way to actively dislike it. It aims to please, and on those terms, it truly succeeds. But as you've been reading some of my impressions, I know there's one major question they probably beg for you—is the Marantz (go ahead, say it) boring? Has it been overcooked and over-thought to the point of blandness, or conversely, has it been dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator guaranteed not to offend anyone?
I really don't think so. Yes, it's inviting and subtle, refined and composed, and could never be called "forward" or "aggressive". But that doesn't mean it's limp, thin, lifeless, or un-involving—quite the contrary in fact, it's completely captivating. However, if you're looking for a source that will fill in some hole or other in your system, this ain't it. It's almost perfectly even-handed in every regard; to ask for "more" of this or that from it is really to demand (gasp!) some added coloration.
Me, I'm not afraid to ask for a little "more" zest and spice from the Marantz, and that's why I'm sending it off to the Mod Man to be upgraded. When I packed it up and sent it out, here's exactly what I asked him to address in order of importance:
1. Improve dynamics, heft, slam, power, punch, oomph, etc.
2. Increase transparency, palpability, and address blackness of background. It has a very low-level (but noticeable) amount of "fog" between you and the performers. Images are a tad "soft" around the edges could use some firming up.
3. Tone is a hair on the warm side of neutral, a small correction wouldn't hurt. Tone is also a tad on the dry side, and if that's fixable, that would be great.
And that's it. In every other way, the Marantz SA-7S1 exceeds the performance of my current reference. In stock form, it's a real winner, and will make most folks very happy indeed. Still, based on previous experience, I expect that the mods will enhance a lot more than those 3 simple bullet points, improving virtually all areas of performance, even those the SA-7S1 already does so much better than anything else I've heard. I've owned 3 modified players so far and am a big believer in the power of these upgrades, so as you can imagine, I'm really anticipating the return of this already superb player. If Positive Feedback will have me back, I'll happily follow up this report with my impressions of the fully modified SA-7S1. Cheers! Mark Lawton