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Positive Feedback ISSUE 5
Golden and Beautiful: the SA-12SI SACD/CD player
by David W. Robinson
(All photos and digital processing by Robinson, unless otherwise noted)
"They're doing it again!"
The folks at Marantz have been busily at work on several new SACD players since my favorable review of the reference grade stereo SACD/CD playback Marantz SA-1 in Positive Feedback, Vol. 9, No. 2 (pp. 93-94). Now that the flagship SA-1 has been discontinued, one of its successors is the SA-12S1 player. Marantz has put out some very good SACD players; I was curious as to how this model would sound, compared to the very fine SA-1.
So... I reached for the old email and got in touch with Frank Doris, who handles media relations/reviews for Marantz in the USA, and made the request. Frank is a very good fellow, and agreed to send the SA-12S1 just as soon as he could. Given the strong interest that the Marantz SACD players have generated, this took a while.
Nevertheless, the package from Marantz did arrive, and I was able to put it into place directly.
Specifications and features
The SA-12S1 has a list of capabilities consistent with Marantz's clear strategy to make this model desirable to a maximum number of audiophiles/videophiles. (No surprise here; in the current environment of multiple competing audio/video formats, a number of hardware manufacturers are opting for the "Swiss army knife" approach... something for every format in order to avoid errors. Thus we're seeing quite a number of "universal players" being produced, or announced, in 2003.) In addition to its SACD playback, the SA-12S1 also handles DVD-video, including DD and DTS output. On the audio side, both stereo and multichannel SACD/DSD is supported, plus CD, CD-R, CD-RW, and video CDs. This is important, since some SACD players have been rumored to have trouble with CD-R/CD-RW, with their lower levels of reflectance.
The list of I/O is pretty impressive; when I checked out the back of the SA-12S1, I saw quite a full set of ports:
Additionally, the following points caught my eye:
(Complete documentation and detailed product information can be found at the manufacturer's link at the end of this review.)
I should also mention that the Marantz remote control is a substantial aluminum model, with complete audio and video functionality. The finish is a Marantz champagne... attractive stuff, quite hefty... sufficient for self-defense!
The folks at Marantz make much of the quality parts in the SA-12S1, with heavy duty power supply, power regulation, steel shielding, and an "ultra low jitter master clock." Certainly, from what I could see of the interior of the unit, the build quality looked to be good. Marantz has a reputation for building superior audio equipment; I saw and heard nothing during this review to change that.
Assorted review notes
For the purpose of this review, I chose to concentrate on the SACD and CD playback of the SA-12S1, and did not hook up the unit to our Toshiba 65" HDTV. (There just wasn't enough time to work through that too!)
The look and feel of the SA-12S1, while not quite of the sterling quality of its larger retired sibling, the SA-1, is still quite fine. The finish is black, not champage/gold, but quite attractive nonetheless.
The load time of the SA-12S1 is quick, with faster TOC load times when compared with the Sony SCD-1 or SCD-777ES, with their very solid transport mechanisms. Marantz uses a different transport mechanism and a "metal alloy" tray. The advantage is that audiophiles who are impatient to get to their SACDs as quickly as possible can do so, and not have to wait the 27 seconds that it can take to load SACDs in the SCD-1. (Me, I like the load time; it lets me get to my seat, grab that adult beverage, and lean back ready to listen! Civilized, that... )
The disadvantage of the Marantz approach is twofold. First, there's no display of the SACD title and track name from the SACD TOC data, something that I like very much in the SCD-1. It's very handy to see the title of the SACD display then the title of the track... very cool indeed! Then again, some would see this as a minor quibble.
Second, you do put up with a certain amount of noisiness in the transport, something that both the SA-1 and the SA-12S1 exhibit. There's a bit of a low squealing spin-up sound in the SA-12S1 that those of us who are used to the Sony designs in the SCD-1/SCD-777ES, or even in the XA-777ES, aren't used to hearing. Those of you who are fussy about SILENCE while an SACD is loading should take note: you'll definitely hear the Marantz SA-12S1 when it loads/accesses tracks.
The remote control does have a good feel to it... a very solid heft. Since it combines both video and audio functions, the gizmo-challenged among us will need to study it for a bit to get a feel as to where the functions are. I found the layout to be pretty easy to use, and the response time from remote to player was reasonably quick.
As always, the proverbial question arises: how did the SA-12S1 sound in my system in PF Online, River City branch? At the time that I was listening to this Marantz model, the playback configuration included both the Audio Research Reference Two, Mk. II preamp (which is what was used for most of the listening) and the new BAT VK-51SE preamp; the Linn Klimax monoblocks, and the Linn Komri reference monitor loudspeakers. Cabling was by JENA Labs (interconnects and speaker cables), Cardas (power cables), and Sound Applications (power cable to CF-X for sources); power conditioning was by Sound Applications CF-X (main sources) and the Tice Signature III (secondary sources).
In my earlier review of the Marantz SA-1, I noted its smooth, relaxed presentation with both SACDs and CDs. The SA-1 excelled in being "analog-like" in its sound; like the Linn CD-12, it made many digital sources much more pleasant to listen to. To quote from my comments in Positive Feedback, Vol. 9, No. 2:
"In contrast [to the stock Sony SCD-1], the SA-1 exudes a remarkable sense of refinement and elegance in its sound. The upper range does not seem quite as detailed as the SCD-1, but then again I am convinced that there are a number of audiophiles who would prefer its performance for precisely that reason. The upper octaves via the SA-1 are definitely NOT rolled off, and I am a bit perplexed to come up with a way to describe the impression that this range is somewhat golden, with just the slightest touch of warmth and richness in comparison with the SCD-1.
To my ears, the midrange of the SA-1 shares the same sense of warmth that I sensed in the extensible range. Songs like Saint Saens' "The Swan" on Audiophile Reference IV (a special favorite of mine) gleam and glow via the SA-1, with a sense of elegant velvety delivery.
The lower frequencies were very well controlled on the SA-1, generally matching the fine renditions of the SCD-1.
Soundstaging with the SA-1 was interesting. It seemed to be perhaps just a shade wider than the SCD-1 in my listening room, but not quite as deep. Since depth of stereo presentation is extremely important to me, I would give a slight nod to the SCD-1 in this regardbut not by so much as would tip the balance if you preferred the timbre or the musical presentation of the SA-1."
In retrospect, the SA-1 struck me as an SACD player that took "smoothness" and "refinement" to a new level... perhaps to a fault. Certainly, some very experienced audiophiles have delighted in the ease and sense of velvety texture and detail (which is roughly what I mean when I speak of "refinement") in the SA-1. Other listeners prefer a more dynamic, incisively detailed presentation, and have for that reason preferred the sound of the now highly modified Sony SCD-1. Human tastes varying as they do, it is not possible (or wise!) to adjudicate flavors in audio reproduction.
Those who are interested in a more dynamic presentation of their music, with more detail and punch, will be glad to know that the Marantz SA-12S1 is definitely more active, livelier, and less laid-back than the SA-1 is. After a few days of warm up, my initial listening impressions were quite clear: the SA-12S1 was more reminiscent of the stock SCD-1 than it was of the SA-1. The sound was less rich, less opulent than the SA-1, being more forward in its presentation of soundstage, tonality, and detail. All of my usual SACD references from FIM, Opus3, Vanguard, Sony, Channel Classics, Rounder Records, simply confirmed over time that initial take on the SA-12S1. It was more activenot aggressive or harsh, just punchy. Over time, this tonal character didn't really change; the sound became slightly smoother, but never altered significantly.
If I were to hearken back to the days of digital yorethis may help some of youI would say that the SA-12S1 is closer to the traditional sound of Theta's Pro Gen Va, while the SA-1 is closer to the Wadia presentation... but that's only a very rough guide.
Soundstaging was very good with the SA-12S1, though not quite in the same category as the SA-1 in this regard. It didn't strike me as being quite as deep or wide as the SA-1, though the soundstage was placed more forward. Some who heard the SA-12S1 in my listening room found this to be an improvement; others didn't. De gustibus....
The SA-12S1's imaging was good, though I didn't find it to be quite well done as the SA-1. It was definitely not as precise as some of the modified Sony and Philips SACD players that I've been listening to over the past ten months or so... that is a particular strength of adding the Audiocom Superclock II. For this reason, I would also adjudge the transparency of the SA-12S1 to be less than that of the Audiomod (http://www.audiomod.com) Sony SCD-1 with the Audiocom Superclock II, or, say, the ModWright (http://www.modwright.com) Philips SACD 1000 or Sony SCD-777ES with 5687 tubed output.
Standard CD playback was, as always for me, a come-down from what SACD has to offer. I listened to some of my MoFi, DCC Compact Classics, JVC XRCD's, and FIM CD's on the SA-12S1, and found the results to be acceptable, but not in the same league as the Linn CD-12. My highly modded SCD-1 also outscored the SA-12S1 in this regard, being more transparent, more detailed, and more lively. If CD playback is of supreme importance to you, then you'll have to approach the SA-12S1 cautiously; I would not say that standard CD playback was its strongest suit.
Then again, those players don't give you multi-channel or DVD video... a significant consideration for those who prefer, or need, an "audio system plus home theater" solution.
I should make one comment about the video side of this player. While I did not review the video reproduction, it is clear that the SA-12S1 was never intended to be a state-of-the-art video source. It does have component output... sine qua non for DVD video but it does not do progressive scan, and its video DAC is limited to 10-bit, two deficiencies that videophiles will find distressing. I would guess that the video section was included to attract crossover buyers who wouldn't purchase a multi-format player unless it included DVD video as well as multi-channel. This was a wise move on the part of Marantz, but I would expect that if they were to design the next generation reference grade SACD player with video, it would include progressive scan and 12-bit video DAC.
So as long as you're comfortable with video being "sufficient" but not "reference grade" (and many readers would be in that camp, I suspect), then the SA-12S1 will meet your needs.
Overall, I would say that the Marantz SA-12S1 is a very good achievement for a video-ready, multi-channel capable player at only half the price of the SA-1. Those who are sensitive to such things should note my comments about the tonal characteristics, and the caveat about CD playback, and the video section, and use them as guidelines for further consideration/auditioning.
Where does this leave us? Well, in my opinion, those who like the Marantz sound now have two major flavors to choose from: those who want a more forward, active presentation can opt for the SA-12S1, while the SA-1 (now discontinued, but available via the usual sources for used gear) will continue to provide an elegant and more mellow alternative for those who prefer it... and can locate one!
International readers should go to http://www.marantz.com and select the appropriate region.