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Dr. Sardonicus Continues His Search for Nirvana in SACD land - The Marantz SA-7S1 …A Preview
I have been playing Goldilocks and the Three Bears with SACD since its inception (this bed is TOO hard, this bed is TOO soft). It was so easy at first …like Henry Ford …no choices to make; the Sony SCD-1 was the only game in town. Of course, this has changed enormously, and there is a plethora of choices one can make, including the simple addition of SACD capability in one's HT universal player.
Now, in the mid-days of 2007, many of the bigs (Krell, Sony, Marantz, Mac, Accuphase, Phillips, et al) have players in the fray, and prices range from the ridiculously inexpensive, but passionately loved, Oppo, to kilo-buck offerings from Esoteric, and such.
And while I have not heard everything …I am trying danged hard to look at the serious offerings, as time passes.
While there is always some maladroit trumpeting the demise of SACD (like Peter Sellars in, "The Party."), consumers now have meaningful choice at virtually every price point in the spread.
I have tried to concentrate my personal efforts on the best of the "real world" players. Most of what I have looked at has been in the sub-$15K range.
To this point in time, my personal favorites have been the Lindemann 820, and the EMM Labs CDSA-SE.
Both of these machines retail in the ten to twelve thousand dollar arena.
While the EMM Labs has a slight edge in absolute resolution over the Lindemann, care is required to extract this edge, and the mechanics of the player are problematic. The Lindemann is more refined mechanically, but I have not been able to secure the new edition of the 820 (designated "S"), and the company seems indifferent to the US market, so I am abandoning it as a reference piece from this point forward.
Marantz and Economies of Scale
It is trite to even reference the history of this label. Suffice it to say, the history of the Marantz name is the history of audio. Now, along with Accuphase and companies such as Luxman, Marantz arguably represents the best of commercial Japanese made audio equipment.
It is very important to understand the economic power of companies like Sony, Phillips, Marantz and Teac in this microscopically small market (SACD).
When brilliant, but independent designer, Joe Wizz finishes his design for the best SACD player on the planet and starts hunting for component sources …grim reality sets in. He picks the Baby's Butt 202 transport, made by Sushi International. When he speaks with the US rep about sourcing the drive, he is told he has to buy a minimum of ten thousand units, or go get them from a wholesaler at three times the direct price, and with uncertain supply guarantees (if they got it, they got it …if they don't, tough nuggies).
By the time the new SACD player is all costed out, he has to charge $10,000 per unit to make a reasonable profit and PRAY he can continue to get the parts the machine was designed around. And in the process he has chosen component parts as often because he can actually GET them, as opposed to them being what he truly wanted.
More simply stated …there is an economy of scale here that makes it very tough on the independents. They have to be oh so good, just to be at parity, just because of the ante-up to play. This is one of the reasons why the modders are there. They apply the individual creativity so often missing from mass marketed products, TO mass marketed products. They have to face the continued issue of having their piece of choice go out of production, unexpectedly, but there is always the approach of general mods that are useful in a wide range of applications.
I believe this explains the EMM labs player. I think Ed Meitner knows as much as anyone on the planet about DSD, and his converters are legendary … BUT, disc drives and other such like are essentially commodities, and getting access to the really cool ones on a reliable basis takes very deep pockets. So with the CDSA-SE we see his genius, and we also see the rock against which his hard place has found an obdurate barrier. I think the unfortunate nature of the CDSA-SE box is one of necessity, not choice.
I have no explanation for Lindemann's weirdness, and since they won't talk to me, it is unlikely I ever will.
Now Enter the Marantz SA-7S1
This is the flagship of the Marantz Reference series. Constructed around a custom-made aluminum transport mechanism, the SA-7S1 features a new DAC chipset from NPC (Nippon Precision Circuits), which is said to have the best performance specifications of any currently-in-production DAC chipset. It is asserted that this new chipset gives the SA-7S1 the highest signal-to-noise ratios, dynamic range and lowest Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) specifications amongst competitive machines.
The new HDAM-SA2 analog stage features a toroidal power supply, with separate supplies for the digital sections, analog section and the display.
*Adapted from manufacturer's materials
I think at its best, audio is a complete sensual experience. Opening the box, and oohing and ahing about what you see …hefting the piece out into the light …feeling its weight and smelling that new component smell …the whole Freudian thing of plugging it in and warming it up. Sweet!
The SA-7 is a sensual delight before you ever hear it. Beautifully, but not overly constructed …impeccable visual design and fit and finish …even the luscious touch of the pink back plate that looks oh so sexy with Jennifer's (Jena Labs) natural copper cables; the silent and substantial drawer mechanism, the relatively small, but extremely high resolution display …clean, clear and understandable functionality. The best remote of any SACD player I have seen thus far.
This passion for quality in Japanese manufacturing is nowhere more evident than in this extraordinary piece of audio equipment. It is simply gorgeous. It reminds me of the stratospherically expensive WAVAC equipment.
Functionally, it is as responsive as best sports car … from drawer close to first note is generally around five seconds, even when switching formats (CD/SACD). Moving between tracks and functions is both intuitive from the design of the remote, to virtually instantaneous in terms of machine response to inputs.
So far it has never made a bad sound, hung up on a disc, or misbehaved in any way mechanically. Perfect.
But, How Does it Sound?
Precisely like it looks …silky, refined and rich, BUT with the resolution of the more hair-shirted players.
Break in is very slow, but the player is quite enjoyable from the beginning …it just gets better with time.
The SA-7 artfully combines the best qualities of my favorite players (the beauty of the Lindemann, and the resolution of the Meitner) but with a synergy that pretty much eclipses both, all for thousands less then either.
I want to emphasize that this beauty of presentation is not achieved by reducing resolution, or introducing coloration. The player is very neutral ...to the degree my GF complained that it was hard to define the personality of the SA-7 because every recording sounded differently. She preferred the Lindemann because it had more "personality."
As I am hearing the Marantz mature over time …I am discovering a wealth of subtle, inner detail in familiar recordings, and a presentation that is "whole cloth" coherent, in a manner similar to superb tube amplification.
Normally, I find extremely detailed equipment to be fatiguing and often less than emotionally nourishing. Not the case here. The SA-7 has the lowest level of listening fatigue of any SACD machine I have personally reviewed, even in comparison with the Lindemann, which has been my historical champion in this regard. Resolution is as good or better than the Meitner, my reference for that attribute.
Even after a few short weeks, it is hard for me to imagine being without the SA-7. I think this lovely lady may be "the one."
I also want to audition her little sister, the SA-11 …which retails for about $2k less than the SA-7.
$6500 is a lot of money …but compared to the machines I view as competitive (dCS, Lindemann, Meitner, Esoteric, etc.) the SA-7 is not only a better all over package, but a screaming deal.
Right now I am driving my VMPS-30s with the newly acquired Ming Da EL-34-AB (preview to come shortly) …and the combination of this shockingly good $1200 integrated amplifier from China, and the Marantz SA-7S1 has me grinning from ear to ear.
If you are even remotely considering an SACD player, you must, repeat MUST give the SA-7 and presumably the SA-11 a serious listen. I think you will be amazed with what you hear!