Marantz has been in the home electronics game for over 50 years now. I won’t go into their long and storied history, but it has covered a lot of territory. From its beginnings as Saul Marantz’s vision of high quality home entertainment products to the large Japanese conglomerate it is today, Marantz has certainly had its ups and downs. While it’s simple enough to do a Google search on their various owners, today it is owned by D&M Holdings; the same folks who own McIntosh Labs. They have been on a mission to preserve the Marantz legacy and their current crop of products in their Reference line is proof of an excellent job. Marantz has had many famous, illustrious engineers and designers under their roof, and to this day, they offer cutting edge products well reviewed by the high-end audio press. In fact, my colleague Todd Whitesel reviewed the Marantz Pearl commemorative components here (SA-KI link), and here (PM-KI link).
It is interesting to note that the Marantz legend began with tube components, which to this day are traded on the used market and prized by many collectors, like a mid 60′s Ford Mustang. There are no longer any tubed products in the Marantz line, but their commitment to quality and excellent sound is obsessive as ever. They have moved on to very sophisticated reference quality AV receivers, preamps, integrated amps, power amplifiers, and Super Audio Compact Disc players. For this review, I’ll be covering the SA-11S2 two channel SACD player (priced at $3599).
I won’t go into the future for the SACD format, or any physical format, for that matter. The fact is, that scenario may be on the horizon, but I believe it’s still off in the distance. Redbook standard compact discs still hit the stores every Tuesday, and Amazon still sells millions of units online. SACD reissues have continued from smaller, boutique labels and are actually quite numerous from classical and jazz labels. In addition, the SACD format is very popular in Japan, where Marantz is based. The Reference line of components is still manufactured in Japan as well.
Super Audio Compact Disc is a format invented by Sony and Philips Electronics. First brought to market in 1999, the SACD has the same physical dimensions as a standard compact disc. That is where most of the similarities end. Audio is encoded using a process known as Direct Stream Digital (DSD). The SACD sampling rate is 2822.4 kHz with one bit resolution. In contrast, a standard Redbook disc is 44.1 khz and 16 bit PCM resolution. A stereo SACD recording can stream data at an uncompressed rate of 5.6 Mbps; four times the rate for Red Book CD stereo audio. Hence, SACD recordings can have a wider frequency and dynamic range than conventional CDs. SACD also require a special transport for playback. Lastly, SACD allows for multi channel mixes, a major selling point for some. Many classic albums have been remixed in surround sound to take advantage of the format.
When SACD first came about, it was competing with the only other major high resolution format, DVD-Audio; which has essentially become a footnote in our digital history. Audiophiles were elated to have an alternative to the Redbook CD. The major complaint against the standard CD was the seemingly inadequate sampling rate, which many said was not good enough to properly present the correct harmonic structure of music. Of course to the masses of non audiophiles, the standard compact disc was a huge upgrade from their scratchy records and prerecorded cassettes.
Set Up and Features:
The SA-11S2 is built like no other disc player I have had in my system before. It weighs in at almost 40lbs and has exemplary case work. It’s finished with high quality connectors, inputs, and support feet that help tame resonance. Regarding connections, there are both XLR and single ended RCA analog outputs on the back panel as well as coaxial and TOSlink digital outputs. On the inside, the player is even more impressive. The digital output is defeatable. There is a phase switch on the front panel, a DC Offset function, a function labeled Noise Shaper and, most interestingly, three selectable digital filters. You might say this makes the player interactive. Lastly, and very interestingly, there is a connection for an outboard master clock via BNC.
Via the high quality metal cased remote, you can access every function. You can quickly switch between SACD and Redbook layers on hybrid discs, which most SACD’s are. I was quite impressed how fast the player responded when a disc was inserted, and how quickly it allowed for track selection and functions selects. I have heard complaints about other SACD and universal disc players that took an eternity to recognize discs. The SA-11S2 was superb in this area. No minute long “Reading” or “TOC” display to endure.
According the manual, the three selectable filters offer the following choices. Filter 1 is linear, not altering the CD or SACD digital stream. Filter 2 is asymmetrical and claimed to be the most analog like, with a longer post echo than the pre echo. Filter 3 is similar to Filter 1 and is said to provide the most detail. Switching between filters is a snap. You just need to hit Stop, select the filter, and press play again. Comparisons are quick and easy. For most of my listening, I left Filter 1 engaged, occasionally selecting Filter 3. I can see many listeners preferring Filter 3, as did several reviewers before me.
I don’t have a huge collection of SACD discs, but I have some excellent ones. All of them are hybrid discs, as I don’t own my own SACD player; although I have had some high quality players in my system on loan. First up were two Moody Blues classics, Days of Future Passed, and In Search of the Lost Chord. Both are masterpieces of their era, and have been out in various digital incarnations in the past. The SACD hybrid is heads and shoulders above any previous version. The Redbook layers are excellent in their own right and have been mastered from the original master tapes. Unsuprisingly the SACD layer offered another dimension through the SA-11S2. Sibilants were much smoother, sound staging was larger, and the overall presentation was more organic and relaxed. Not relaxed as in laid back, but as in the absence of digital grain apparent in even some well mastered Redbook discs.
Next up was a stack of the Bob Dylan SACD hybrids. Desire, from 1974, sounded stellar in the Marantz. It emanated a very analog sound, with an amazing sense of flow. I finally found out what all the fuss concerning SACD was about. Comparisons to the Redbook layer were ridiculously easy. Hit the stop button, then Sound Mode, which switches layers, and hit play. The SACD layer yet again was more natural sounding. I want to stress that the differences between layers on all the discs I tested typically varied from easily distinguishable to a marginal change. But with the Dylan discs, the difference was pretty easy to hear. What made the comparison easy for me is that I know most of these Dylan albums by heart. Even so, I was still able to pick out elements of the mix that I had never noticed before. I was stunned at how clear Emmylou Harris’s harmony vocals were. Ditto for the intricate interplay of the excellent band Dylan assembled for this album.
I heard similar results from Blood On the Tracks, his other mid 70′s high point. Except for electric bass, most of the instrumentation on the album is acoustic. There was plenty of analog texture and a crazy amount ambience. I remember my scratched up old LP never sounded this good, even excluding the surface noise. Mind you, the Redbook layer is not bad, but the SACD layer had the last word, in my opinion. After spending time with these other SACD discs, I really started to wonder why the record company suits did not put their full backing behind the format. The industry seriously dropped the ball.
I was eager to hear a SACD recording done in native DSD. Most of these are classical, and I had a superb performance of Rachmanninoff’s Symphonic Dances conducted by Seymon Bychkov, on the German Profil label. It is also a multi channel recording. The strings had texture I had never heard before in any digital format. It was quite stunning. The sound of the hall was more apparent than on any other digital source I have encountered. The Marantz really shined on this one. I only had a few other native DSD discs, but not with music I was very familiar with. But I was impressed with the sonics, if not with the content.
It is really hard to find fault with the Marantz SA-11S2 in that it really represents the Marantz legacy well. If anything, the Marantz SA-11S2 is overbuilt. It is packed with user selectable features, a super fast transport, a battleship chassis, and a remote that leaves no stone unturned. Additionally, if apperance matters to you, the SA-11S2 looks fantastic and the pride of ownership factor is off the charts. As far as value, there are plenty of Redbook only players on the market for way more than $3599. Way more money will get you a SACD player with multi channel capability, and maybe a tiny sliver more resolution. As a side note, I have heard many, many multi channel SACD and DVD-A mixes, and they leave me cold. I would rather spend less, and do away with multi channel capability.
The SA-11S2 may not be perfect, but no component is. I honestly cannot imagine someone taking this player home for an audition and not being impressed with its big sound, features, and overall level of performance. It performs beautifully on SACD and standard discs. The selectable digital filters allows you to tailor the sound to your liking, plus the added options of Noise Shaping and the ability to turnoff the digital output for optimum performance is pretty unique; even at much higher price points. Throw XLR connections for those with fully balanced systems, and two digital outputs in the mix and you really have an amazingly versatile component. You should take note that SACD cannot be outputted via the digital jacks. You can connect an external clock via BNC, a very cool option for the digital perfectionist.
In conclusion, the SA-11S2 was amazingly versatile, musical, and robust in its performance. It is Exhibit A against the argument that most high end audio products are over priced. Indeed, if I was not already vested in a pretty good disc spinner, the SA-11S2 would be among the handful of players I would consider purchasing.