Marantz SA-11S1 SACD Player Reviewed

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'All dressed up and no place to go.' That, alas, is the overwhelming feeling imparted by Marantz's utterly magnificent SA-11S1 SACD player. Aside from the clumsy name and its inherent limitation of stereo-only playback, it just may be the nicest SACD player around. Too bad it arrives precisely as the rumours fly thickest about the format's demise.

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Let's back up a bit and deal with the SA-11S1's main personality quirk. It is, like the stunning Tri-Vista SACD player, a two-channel-only machine. Why? Purely consumer psychology. Y'see, there's absolutely NO justification for knobbling the player's multi-channel capability because there's no reason to assume that the mere presence of 3.1 more analogue outputs will compromise the purist stereo sound. None - zip - gornisht, so I don't expect to see Ken Ishiwata and a dozen Ninjas arriving in the dark of night, refuting it and forcing me to concur at knife-point. Even if they kidnapped my Beatles' 'Butcher Sleeve'.

Thus the reason for doing this is pandering to lunatic audiophilic prejudice, as if you guys have some malformed gene telling you that unused features automatically compromise your system. Fine, then, shmucko: when's the last time you actually used 78rpm? Every setting on your m-c step-up? A-B repeat mode? All I can see is that one day SA-11S1 (or for that matter, Tri-Vista SACD) owners wish to move onto multi-channel, and they'll have to buy new players. And they'll be severely ticked off about the omission.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but just about every multi-channel source component on the market also sports stereo-only output socketry because the manufacturers know that the take-up on multi-channel is neither total nor automatic, and that at the very least most systems are stereo. (Let's leave mono-only playback of SACDs and DVD to the hardcore, like Italy's Eugenio Lazzari.) So why on earth did Marantz do it? Anyway, it tells you that I'm reviewing this in stereo-mode only - not a problem as I have plenty of stereo-only SACDs, and dozens of multi-channel SACDs that were two-channel originals, e.g. Steely Dan's .

As for the name, it's an unpleasant reversion to the Akai School of Front Panel Gobbledygook, so I will write it as 'SA11' for the rest of this review.

Lastly, we have to deal with SACD itself. Despite new releases arriving at something like 6-10 times that of DVD-As, the take-up is dire, record stores don't even know it exists and word has it that, last year, vinyl outsold SACD and DVD-A . Now I couldn't give a toss about DVD-A, but - damn - I do love SACD. And this player shows just why: its performance with SACD is sensational, probably the most convincing I've heard for proving to music lovers that the new format betters plain, vanilla CD.

Although it has a clean and minimalist front panel, the SA-11 is loaded beyond the promise of the half-dozen basic transport controls, on-off and SACD/CD mode buttons. The rear is equally abundant with , containing only the stereo outputs in unbalanced and balanced modes, optical and coaxial digital outputs, AC input and sockets for linking it to an all-Marantz system. A weight of 14kg and dimensions of 440x123x418mm (WDH) suggest that there's more under the bonnet.

A button-filled, beautifully-made all metal remote control, too, betrays hidden depths. Most important are noise shaping to adjust the amount of digital feedback and the three selectable filters you can apply, and herein lies a problem. All sound different enough to favour either different types of material even pressings, e.g. Telarc discs, to my ears, sounded better on Filter 1, the so-called by-pass for SACD, while CDs favoured Filter 2 without pre- or post- echo.

It was easy to get distracted by the choices, but it's something every fastidious listener will face. Some might even enjoy it, but finding a 'default' setting is impossible. So my comments about sound refer only to traits not effected by filter changes, that is, those I believe to be intrinsic to the sound of the SA-11. The other traits are the variables, dependent on filter setting. Let's put it another way: I'd hate to be demonstrating this in a shop, because you really do need familiarity with each.

Read more about the SA-11S1 on Page 2.

HTR Product Rating for Marantz SA-11S1 SACD Player

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Naturally, it boasts the myriad details that signify modern Marantz thinking; your first glance at the back is a dazzler as it's all-copper-clad, a clue to the presence of the copper-plated and heavily-braced chassis. The unit's heft is also increased by double layer steel bottom plate resting on shock-absorbing feet designed to minimise internal vibration and mechanically induced jitter. [See sidebar: The SA-11 As A CD-Only Player.]

Within the SA-11, the digital, analogue and control circuits are separated and shielded in their own enclosures to prevent cross-talk and other unwanted interference. The unit contains an over-kill choke input power supply using Marantz's Super Ring transformer, and it's bursting with custom-made components, including stress-free electrolytic capacitors, Schottky diodes in the rectifier circuit, high-grade electrolytic and film capacitors throughout the audio circuitry, regulators covered with copper-plated shielding and Marantz's Current Feedback HDAMs instead of integrated op amps.

[Snide but crucial told-you-so aside: While perusing Marantz's literature, I found this gem appended to the inclusion of one of the above: 'Achieving a more dynamic, accurate and detailed sound reproduction regardless of .' Yup, my italics. Despite the syntax, they just confirmed what I said above regarding 2-vs-5.1 channel playback.]

A couple of set-ups hosted the SA-11, including the Musical Fidelity kW pre-amp and kW750 power map driving Wilson WATT Puppy System 7 or PMC DB1+. I also used the Marantz with the McIntosh C2200/MC2102 and the Quad 99CDPII/909 pre/power combinations driving the Wilsons or Sonus Faber Guarneris. Wiring throughout was Transparent Reference.

Armed with a stack of mainly hybrid stereo SACDs, I set to work with every intention of playing CD vs SACD head-on before realising that it was futile. The filtering saw to that. So I just concentrated on the SACD playback, comparing the SA-11 to the Sony XA333EX SCAD player, as well as the Theta Compli and the trusty Denon 2900 universal players. That took about 2 seconds. Not only did I not expect universals to compete on an even playing field with an SACD-only player, I figured that the Sony was a generation or three behind, as well. So I immediately learned that SACD circa 2005 is a format with which to reckon. The Marantz sounded blindingly good. Absurdly good. So instead, I used vinyl as a reference: SME30, SME Series V, Transfiguration Temper V moving coil, Audio research PH-5 phono stage.

10 Kinks SACDs including and , some Dylan, some Stones, the aforementioned and others I had on LP. Plus, of course, SACD blockbusters like Gershwin on Telarc, the Police in concert. Damn - I haven't had this much fun since I reacquainted myself with mono. The SA-11, no matter how clearly superior the vinyl rival, never spat or hissed, never suggested the likelihood of listener fatigue. It was so devoid of digitalia that I had no choice but to return to vinyl for confirmation. Better still, its handling of voices let me know that I was in the presence of something special.

Normally, a component has an overall character and one or two areas of strength and/or weakness. These, added to its overall feel, define its 'personality'. The SA-11, on the other hand, excels in so many areas that it's almost baffling. Its bass is gloriously large, deep and controlled, with a roundness and warmth that favours the acoustic, but it's just dry enough and sufficiently damped to handle synthetic bass. The midband, too, is warm and uncannily natural, with just the right amount of sibilance to indicate an 'S' sound, yet not enough to suggest any nastiness.

As for composure, try this: with Keb Mo' or Eric Bibb SACDs, the richness of their voices, separate from yet complementing their choice of strings, is an exercise in coherent presentation. Keb Mo', in particular, has a roughly textured voice, often hovering over liquid-y bottleneck guitar. The marriage is always spellbinding. Via the SA-11, it's imbued with added presence. Like in your room.

But the single most impressive in this catalogue of strengths is the sense of air and space created by the SA-11 - especially when played against the equivalent CD. This player is world-class in this respect, displaying the music on an open soundfield, absolutely shorn of congestion or artifice. For this alone, I could love it. But add to this and the above such qualities as exceptional transparency, breathtaking speed and wonderful resolution of detail without sounding clinical.

Undermining it for some will be its inescapably romantic, rounded warmth, regardless of the filter settings. But weighed against its strengths, and against the scratchy, shitty noise pollution we hear every day, it's like a much-needed soak in bath salts, every time you switch it on.

I absolutely love this machine, even with the quirks and oddities. Yet it's not so much what I heard as what others told me they were hearing: quite blatantly, despite or even because of the stereo-only playback, and regardless of a 2000 price tag, the SA-11 is one of the best ambassadors SACD ever had. Too bad it arrived too late.

Marantz 01753 680868

Sidebar: The SA-11 As A CD-Only Player
Most notably amongst its extras, the SA-11 also features facilities previously the domain of scary-money machines such as Wadias: switchable DC filters and 'noise-shapers' that 'allow you to fine tune your preferred music reproduction.' With judicious use, these can 'remove DC components added to the signal that could be added especially with older recordings.' This, of course, makes it difficult to A/B the Marantz with other players, just as Audiopax's amplifier's adjustable voicing without a null point made it tough to compare to other amps.

As Paul Miller points out, there's no 'plain vanilla' CD setting free from Marantz's proprietary filtering. As I was concentrating on the SA-11 in SACD mode, with only secondary thoughts about its CD playback, this wasn't a major issue. But it may be for you if you're considering an SA-11 to replace a CD player while adding SACD to your system. So, I will say that - strictly as a CD player - the SA-11 can sound, depending on filter usage, like a player with a valve output stage: rich, lush and incredibly euphonic. It brought a tear to my eye as I recalled the CAL Tempest II. You can even tweak it to sound a lot like the non-valve but tube-like Marantz CD-12/DA-12 combination.

Such euphony, of course, will anger those who prize accuracy above all else, but it makes the SA-11 a very 'more-ish' player to use for CD. It has a wonderfully fat, extended bottom end, plenty of weight and scale, but utter freedom from the kind of bass that induces queasiness. Even with recent hip-hop CDs, engineered to exaggerate bass to ludicrous levels, it remained listenable.

Could I live with it for CD-only usage? Yes. But not for reviewing purposes, as the added lushness below can even make undernourished systems sound.

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