Marantz SA-15S1 SACD Player Reviewed

Marantz SA-15S1 SACD Player Reviewed

Along with its matching integrated amplifier, the PM-15S1, the 13.5 kg SA-15S1 represents a step down from the top-of-the-line 11 series in terms of price while giving up little in the way of sonics or features. And of course you get With Marantz's usual impeccable build quality

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Life’s just full of surprises, eh? Little did I know, when I wrote the worshipful if doleful review of the Marantz SA-11S1 SACD player in May that a baby sister was on the way. I absolutely adored the ’11, but the note of melancholy in my coverage was down to two things.

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First was the needless and foolish removal of multi-channel capability, given that its presence It was a truly asshole-ish ‘judgment call’ in which Marantz is not alone, one of a bunch of companies pandering to miserable audio jerk-offs who need a reality check.* The second is the abject failure of SACD itself to secure a market, and therefore its future. But I love the format, and intend to enjoy it as much as I can, until the last SACD is released.

Anyway, along comes the SA-15S1 and the matching integrated amp, the PM-15S1, the latter with the same down-scale relationship to the SA-11S1’s matching amp, the PM-11S1. What Marantz has done, though, which should make all of you utter ‘thanks,’ is create economy versions that don’t give up a whole helluva lot except for price. They even look like baby ’11s. The ’11s cost £2499 for the amp and £1999 for the SACD player, yet the ’15s are only £1100 apiece. So, for only £200 more than the SA-11S1 on its own, you get a tasty amplifier thrown in.

Just lifting them out of their boxes – if heft is any indicator – tells you that you’re not dealing with flyweight, corporate, mass-market swill. The amp weighs 18kg, the SACD player 13.5kg. Lids off, and you can see why: Marantz has filled the PM-15S1 with a fat toroidal transformer and a brace of massive heatsinks, huge custom-made film capacitors in the power supply – a real eyeful to please those who value parts content. Neither is the SA-15S1 a box full of air, as is typical of disc players these days – big motherboard filled with top-grade components, decent transport, serious power supply. I guess you could say they reek of Ken Ishiwata, though his name is not appended to them.

They’re part of the company’s flagship Premium Range, which has boasted, in addition to the SA-11S1 and PM-11S1, such gems as the SC-7 and MA-9, the 17 series and other heavy hitters. From switch-on, when the atmospheric blue lights spread out from the centre sections, to the gentle mechanical clicking when you change sources, reminiscent of a Leica shutter’s action, to the feel of every knob and button – even the remote controls suggest pure luxury. Kinda makes high-end cables at £3k per meter even more disgustingly bad value for money.

Marantz points out that the units are built to their new standards without any visible screws, and they feature heavy, ‘double layer’ chassis. The solid metal faceplates curve gently to the sides, the controls are sensibly laid out and positioned discreetly, and the two units, when stacked, look like a whole lot more than £2200.

For the PM-15S1, Marantz uses its 3-stage construction with full ‘Current Feedback’ to render the amp insensitive to tough loads. Marantz also reduced the feedback impedance of the Current Feedback circuit to its minimum to make it faster and extend the bandwidth. The two heat sinks I mentioned are completely independent for the left and right channels, and the unit incorporates Marantz’s latest HDAM-SA2 (Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module), originally designed for the PM-11S1, in place of conventional op amps. They offer the shortest possible signal path, and reduce external noise and reduced mounting area. In the PM-15S1, HDAM-SA2s appear in the line buffer, pre-buffer, pre-amp and power amp stages.

A number of features help to lift the Marantz above its integrated competition. For openers, genuine WBT speaker terminals are fitted, and they accept just about any connector you could want to use; I inserted banana plugs from the top, through the pillar. All other socketry is gold-plated and robust. The PM-11S1 features the WM8816 electronic linear volume control from Wolfson, hand-selected and custom-made components, floating control bus allowing you to daisy-chain up to four of these for multi-amplification or multi-channel systems, true tone defeat, ultra- solid chassis construction with an additional bottom plate to reduce susceptibility to external noise and vibration, low noise LCD display, and – drum roll, please – a damned fine Current Feedback MM/MC phono stage.

Marantz isn’t taking any chances. They’ve separated and extensively shielded all pre-amp, power and volume control circuits in their own enclosures, to prevent cross-talk and other unwanted interference. There are independent power supplies for the LCD display, preamp, power amp and volume sections. And there’s even one for the greens among you: Marantz has removed hazardous substances like lead in the solder, no doubt anticipating future EU regulations.

Across the front, the PM-15S1 carries a rotary source control, selecting six inputs including phono, three vertical buttons for speaker on/off, tone on/off and display on/off, followed by the centre section, with the ‘temperature gauge’ display indicating attenuation mode (the amount of which is user-adjustable), output level referenced against 0dB and chosen source. Below this are a headphone socket, power on/off button and small rotaries for bass and treble adjust. Further to the right are three more buttons in a vertical array, for choosing attenuation, record, and phono mm or m-c, followed by the volume control.

Around the back, in addition to the inputs, outputs, phono earth post and speaker terminals, are the sockets for the special connections for piggy-backing multiple SA-15S1s, connections for system remote integration, an IEC socket for the mains, and a switch to choose between bi-amping and stereo mode. Additionally, you can run this as a stand-alone pre-amp, via pre-out phono sockets.

Rated at 90W/ch into 8 ohms or 140W/ch into 4 ohms, the SA-15S1 has a frequency response 5Hz-100kHz +/-3dB, with total harmonic distortion of 0.01%. For vinyl users, the input sensitivity for mm is 2.5mV/47k ohm and for m-c 230µV/100 ohm; signal to noise ratio for phono is mm/m-c 88/74dB. Available in platinum or gold finishes, the PM-15S1 measures 440x464x123 (WDH), as does the SA-15S1 SACD player.

Read more about the SA-15S1 on Page 2.
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And the two do share much in common, as you’d expect of sister
components. Their cabinetry is identical, they have their switches in
the same places, and their aluminium remote controls, while of the same
profile but differing buttonry, operate each other. (Note that these
remotes are the same as supplied for the ’11s, so some functions do not
apply to the ’15s, in particular, the user-selectable digital filters.)
HDAMs are used extensively, and the SACD player shares with the
amplifier such niceties as custom components and complex construction,
including the double layer chassis.

In place of the amplifier’s round display, the SACD player features
a rectangular low noise LCD to show all the relevant information, under
the sturdy CD tray. This is flanked by the six transport buttons; below
it are the sound mode button for choosing between SACD and CD, the
power on/off button, a headphone socket and a separate level control
for the headphone. At the back, minimalism rules. You get a pair of
analogue outputs, digital coaxial or digital optical outputs and
sockets for Marantz’s system integration. That’s it.

Inside, the SA-15S1 features the Crystal CS4397 ‘Super DAC’ D/A
converter, with a high precision system clock to prevent any distortion
from jitter. The output stage employs current feedback topology, with
the HDAM modules for high bandwidth and fast signal handling needed for
pure audiophile playback regardless the format. Playback is stereo-only
CD, CD-R or SACD. The unit’s analogue audio circuitry is a
fully-discrete design including newly developed Current Feedback
technology, with the HDAM modules operating as a buffer amplifier and
as a low pass filter and with audiophile-grade electrolytic and film
capacitors for the power, filter and output sections. Both channels are
completely identical in terms of components and circuit layout.

Marantz has created a new mechanism module specifically for audio
applications. The servo and decoder are mounted on a four-layer glass
epoxy board, so noise radiation is
said to be extremely faint, while shielding is provided by the box
construction of the chassis. Marantz even finished the tray with a
special coating that dampens vibration, and they’ve chosen black as ‘an
ideal tray and mechanism colour for minimal effect on laser diffusion.’

In addition to a chassis as robust as that of the amp, the SA-15S1
features shock-absorbing feet to minimise internal vibration and
mechanically induced jitter. The rest of the thought processes mirror
the amplifier, with digital, analogue and control circuits separated
and shielded in their own enclosures to prevent cross-talk and other
unwanted interference, and with independent power supplies for each
dedicated system block to ensure maximum separation, clarity and
dynamics. Symmetrical layout, hand-selected, custom-made components,
machined brass gold-plated terminals – aside from the removal of the
user-adjustable filtering, a change of DACs and other minor
differences, this really is an SA-11S1 for the fiscally-challenged.

Let’s deal with the SACD player first: it’s a real pip. I love the
fast action, even when switching from SACD to CD on a dual-layer disc.
The feel is pure ‘high end’, and I just don’t know quite how they did
it at the price. If perceived value moves your soul, you’re going to
love this even before switch-on.

I fed it a few dozen SACDs and conventional CDs, including a fistful
of Telarcs (Rory Block, Junior Brown and others), Mobile Fidelity’s
SACD of Aimee Mann’s , the Chandos Klezmer disc, and Audio Fidelity’s . CDs included the new Cream ‘best of’, the amazing new Donovan reissues on EMI, on Shout, the Judds’
and Weezer’s latest. Let’s start with this: even if it didn’t play
SACDs, the SA-15S1 is worth considering because its CD playback is
terrific.

Played side-by-side with champion CD-only players like the Musical
Fidelity X-RAY v3 and the Quad 99CDP, the Marantz demonstrates the
smoothness that makes those two players such bargains, with the added
benefits of slightly better transparency than the Quad and better
detail retrieval than the X-Ray. If you put all three on a shelf and
fed each the same disc, and left aside the price differences and
styling, you’d be hard-pressed to choose between them; the differences
are so small that they could be obliterated by changes in the system.
But the Marantz costs more than both, so it should add something to the
mix, and that something is simply delicious SACD playback.

I’ve had my say about the multi-channel element being removed, so
let’s just think of SACD as a stereo format here. Just don’t forget
that by doing so you are depriving yourself of one of its genuine
advantages. Anyway, with both new and archive SACDs, the SA-15S1
extracted the richness and weight that SACD exhibits over its 16-bit
ancestor, with the kind of authority one would only associate with
high-roller hardware. It breaks my heart that the very music lovers who
would really appreciate this probably don’t even know SACD exists.
(Lord knows, the mainstream music press has been downright cretinous in
the way it denies the existence of superior formats on political
grounds.)

Put simply, SACDs sound more real and natural than normal CDs, and
the SA-15S1 does correctly what few if any universal players or budget
SACD players can do. It exhibits a level of authority almost as
commanding at the ’11, sounding only slightly lighter in the bottom
octaves, and with marginally less impact than I recall. The Klezmer
music, in particular, showed it to be a real thoroughbred, able to
separate musical strands so the listener could home in on a particular
sound, without upsetting the overall coherence. And what it does with
voice will make you gasp, especially blending the two Judds harmonies,
and handling the textures in Donovan’s voice.

At 900 less than the ’11, it shines out as an almost ridiculous
bargain. And given that audio retailers are no longer on their knees –
they’re on their bellies – I can imagine a little haggling will get
this down a few quid more. It’s simply a delightful product, on every
level bar the removal of the multi-channel option.

But the real surprise was the amplifier. I have to say at the outset
that it is not the most powerful-sounding unit I’ve tried. I fed it to
PMC DB1+, 15 ohm LS3/5As, the new LS3/5A V2, MartinLogan Summits and
Wilson WATT Puppy System 7. At no point did it sound like the amp could
inflict any harm to any of them. While I could get satisfactory levels
out of all of them, the dial was turned way up to do it, and I have no
reason to believe that running in the unit for weeks or months would
suddenly endow it with bags of power. As this had no bearing on sound
quality, I point it out only to implore you to try it with the speakers
in your system.

To nail its character, think ‘smooth’ but not valve-like. Not too
warm, not too rich, rather a neutrality without nasties at the
frequency extremes. Too much bass can catch it unawares, a side effect
of its seeming gutlessness, and some heavy dance tracks and hyperactive
Jack Bruce made it sound a bit breathless down below. But nothing could
upset the midband or treble, so maybe this amp is best mated to smaller
speakers of high sensitivity and an easy impedance. Suffice it to say
that, within limits, the amp sounded positively magical with the PMC
DB1+ and the MartinLogan Summit at medium levels.

Its phono stage is a real bonus, with plenty of gain; I even ran the
Transfiguration m-c into the m-m setting and it was listenable.
Beautifully quiet and clean, it’s easily worth 300- 400 on its own. It
may seem like icing on the cake. Or, more genuinely, it makes this the
Compleat Amplifier for its price sector.

Operationally, the PM-15S1 is as much of a joy to use as the SACD
player. Both behaved impeccably. They look great, they sound terrific.
They ooze perceived value. They lack nothing beyond what I’ve
belaboured about multi-channel and absolute power. Damn, it’s a great
time to be buying hi-fi equipment…

Marantz 01753 680868

*Read my lips: Every multi-channel source product ever produced –
SACD player, DVD player, universal player – provides two-channel,
analogue outputs.

Additional Resources
• Read more source component reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find a receiver to pair with this source.
• See more about the audiophile world at AudiophileReview.com.
• Discuss all kinds of gear at hometheaterequipment.com.

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