Marantz SC-11S1 Control Amplifier / SM-11S1 Power Amplifier Review
Last month, I wrote about the Marantz SA-11S2 SACD player and felt it was another superb component from a company with an excellent track record in audiophile gear. I was so impressed with the SA-11S2 that I arranged for a review of two more components in the Marantz Reference series. I had it on good word that the SC-11S1 preamp and the SM-11S1 power amplifier were very special and competed with components positioned much higher in price. I needed to hear them for myself. Marantz shipped review samples of each unit. Needless to say, I was anxoius to set them up and didn’t waste any time.
The SC-11S1 and the SM-11S1 are both beautifully built and finished in champagne gold; the same finish used on the other components in the Marantz Reference series. To say the build quality is impressive is the understatement of the decade. Robust power supplies and battleship casework make for a combined weight of nearly 100 lbs. It’s not just the exterior of these products that are impressive as there is advanced, proprietary technology working on the inside as well. These are also two of the most user friendly and customizable high end components I have ever encountered.
The SC-11S1 preamplifier, or control amplifier as Marantz likes to call it, retails for $3199 and offers a plethora of user customizable settings, inputs, and features; most selectable by the supplied remote control. The SC-11S1 has six single ended inputs and two XLR inputs. There is one set each of Preamp Out RCA and XLR outputs. The unit also includes a headphone jack, defeatable tone controls and a few other cool, user friendly features, such as selectable Illumination Lamp to shine light on the buttons and switches in a darkened room. Overall, the SC-11S1 has a very neat, tidy, and ergonomic layout with a useful set of functions. The paper manual is extensively comprehensive and offers many set-up tips. The manual is also available for download on the Marantz website for more detailed information about the SC-11S1.
The SM-11S1 power amplifier, retailing for $4499, also offers single ended and XLR connectivity and an old style “port hole” display which provides a variety of information,. There is a speaker selector switch because the SM-11S1 has 4 pairs of high quality binding posts on the rear panel. The power ratings are 110 Watts into 8 ohms and 220 Watts into 4 ohms. For those who crave even more power, two SM-11S1 units can be configured for mono block use, doubling the power!
Set Up and Listening:
I decided to install the SM-11S1 first with my Audio Research SP16 tubed preamp. I am intimately familiar with the preamp and wanted to introduce one new variable at a time. I also used Kimber KCTG and DH Labs silver interconnects for consistency, as they have been in my system for a few months now. All connections were single ended. Thiel CS2.4 speakers were used for an upcoming review, so they were first up. I also had a pretty good idea of their sound quality as I had used them for several weeks with a tube amp.
I really don’t like audio reviewer hyperbole, but this is one of the few times I can honestly say I was blown away. Specifically, I have never experienced such a controlled, natural, detailed and musical presentation from a solid state amplifier with out a hint, I mean not even a minute trace of dryness, sterility or edginess. Highs were silky smooth, sweet and presented with gobs of air. The SM-11S2 did not have a trace of any mechanical or electronic sound. As a tube loving audiophile, I can honestly say this amplifier would be an easy transition for me if I chose to give up tubes all together. During long, extended listening sessions, I now realize I never once concerned myself over whether I was listening to a solid state or tube design, as the music was always front and center. The tonal balance was so ideal, it was almost frustrating. All audiophiles by nature find something to complain about, or one aspect of the sound they wish they could tweak. Not this time. Bass, mids, and highs so wonderfully occupied their natural space that I wanted to change nothing. I then installed the SC-11S1 in place of my tube preamp.
I made sure to queue up a wide variety of music to see if the Marantz combo would retain its exquisite balance across multiple genres. First up was Works in Progress by the late, great genius Tim Buckley. This release was a posthumous collection of alternate versions, out takes and unheard compositions. The tracks on this CD were mixed from the original multitrack tapes and really sound amazing. The Marantz components allowed me to hear the depth of the performances, and again showed there is not a hint of dryness or transistor haze. This particular disc can trip up some systems, as Buckley’s voice is so full of nuance and so unique. Lesser systems obscure certain details that give the listener cues into Buckley’s vision. Little things like distance changes from the vocal microphone and lip purses are important to understand Buckley’s intent. The Marantz setup handled this disc wonderfully.
Recently, The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street has gotten alot of press since it has now been reissued on a remastered CD, LP, along with unreleased material from those sessions. I compared the 2010 remaster to the Bob Ludwig 1994 version and I actually prefer the Ludwig master. The new version is louder; highly eq’d and seems to have been mastered for car stereos and iPods. Ludwig managed to maintain the scuzzy analog vibe of the original, but with plenty of funky details and coherence. Through the Marantz pair, the album absolutely rocked in all its sleazy glory. Guitars bit, vocals were exactly where they should have been, buried in the mix, and there was surprisingly solid bottom end.
Staying in the past, I got a copy of the Beatles mono version of one of my top ten albums of all time, Rubber Soul. Tacked on to the mono version is the “original” stereo mix. I say original because, outside of the Beatles Capital Albums Vol.2 box set, Rubber Soul has only been available on CD with the 1987 George Martin remix. He reportedly remixed it because he was never “happy” with the 1965 mix. Why? I have no idea. I always loved that mix and had an original as well as a late 70′s LP pressing of it. The Marantz combo brought me back to when I was 13, listening to this album on my father’s Quad ESL speakers driven by Revox and Quad amps. The magic of those times came flooding back. A new window of clarity and punch was revealed, much to my delight. One last oldie but goodie was Canned Wheat by the Guess Who, an overlooked album in the pantheon of classic rock, with a rerecording of “No Time” which was featured on American Woman. I was very pleased how modern and undated the recording sounded through the Marantz set up. Acoustic drum and guitars, keyboards, and electric guitar leads all occupied their proper place in the soundstage,with a clarity I had not experienced before.
Moving on to the present, the self titled reunion album by Stone Temple Pilots appeared in my mailbox and I was eager to hear how newly recorded, heavy hitting rock sounded through the Marantz gear. I was not disappointed. Being a fan of their older records, I thrilled by the familiar sound of the weaving guitar riffs, heavy bass lines and out of left field melodies sung by illustrious lead singer Scott Wieland. I was worried the album would suffer from over compression and pro tools hell like so many modern releases, but it did not. The Marantz gear did everything right on this one. Drums were slamming, vocals were front and center and guitars were gritty with real bite, not “hifi system” bite. I took a completely different turn on my final evaluation disc, Hamsa, by Bustan Abraham, a Middle Eastern ensemble that plays Arabic and Gypsy instrumental music. It is a very well recorded disc, with traditional acoustic instruments creating exotic, beautiful melodies over sensual rhythms. The Marantz gear handled it with absolute grace, preserving the timber of each instrument, but creating real drive.
Marantz seems to be putting out beautiful products these days in what I consider to be a bit of a renaissance. They have produced some superb sounding SACD players, amplifiers, and now even a universal Blu-Ray player in an effort to stay cutting edge. Their Pearl series of commemorative components were reviewed very favorably ‘by my colleague (SA-KI / PM-KI ). This is clearly not a company resting on its laurels. Their Reference series of components, from my experience, clearly deserves that label, and I for one can’t even imagine how good the flagship Reference stuff sounds.
I love the sound of tubes, or maybe more accurately, the sound of “tube magic”. But I am not an absolutist. I own solid state amplifiers and have heard some that were very impressive but always had one chink in the armor or another. I now have found a solid state system I can easily live with and not worry. The SC-11S1 control amplifier and SM-11S1 power amplifier are made to an incredible standard, have the legendary Marantz name behind them, and in my opinion, are priced very fairly, if not under priced. I have heard far more expensive components that bored the pants off me. Not so here, these are some of the most musical solid state performers I have encountered. To be as thorough as possible, I used both components in various systems, including my in bedroom, driving Spendor floor standers and the results were just as remarkable. Even at lower volumes, all previously mentioned attributes remained.
The SC-11S1 is a fabulous preamplifier, with a ton of customizable features, a very neutral presentation, and excellent sound staging. The SM-11S1 power amplifier offers up a large soundstage, a near perfect tonal balance, and total authority over even hard to drive speakers. I believe it was the star of the show, and it does certain things no tube amp can do. It’s exquisite, taut, and articulate bass pretty much blows away most tube designs, but what is most surprising are the liquid mids, extended, yet utterly relaxed high frequencies and holographic imaging. In case there is any doubt about how impressed I was with the SM-11S1, I have put it on my shopping list for purchase in the near future. Enough said.