Marantz SA-15S1 SACD Player Reviewed

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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.

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