How important is Marantz's latest foray into the true high-end arena? Let's put it this way: they sent Ken Ishiwata along to check the installation. It gets no scarier than that, for K.I. is The Man, and I wouldn't have been allowed to review the new flagship pairing, the SC-7S1 Stereo Preamplifier and MA-9S1 Monoblock Power Amplifiers, if the system didn't pass his scrutiny. It was like taking a driving exam....
• Read more Marantz reviews including Blu-ray players, SACD players, AV preamps, receivers and much more.
Although they produced official re-issues of their classic valve electronics a few years ago, Marantz wanted to mark its 50th Anniversary with all-new models harking back to the company's birth, but they couldn't very well reissue a recent, er, reissue. So the decision was made to apply the spirit rather than the form of the original Model 7 pre-amp and Model 9 power amps to something undeniably 21st Century. All-balanced, solid-state, funky new meters, useable with multi-channel set-ups - about all you can say regarding the lineage is that the SC-7S1/MA-9S1 combo is stereo and champagne-coloured, with blue lights a'winking. The spiritual link, though, is simple: no-compromise.
Externally, both are disarmingly minimalist, despite being jam-packed with mouth-watering audiophile-grade componentry and complex circuits. Common to both are the obviously harmonious styling, fully-balanced operation front-to-back and use of the latest evolution of Marantz's exclusive HDAM (High-Definition Amplifier Modules), 'for exceptional dynamic range, resolution, clarity and transient response.' Both products boast massive power supplies, heavy-gauge internal wiring, extra-thick circuit boards with large circuit traces and extensive internal shielding. Their chassis are machined from aluminium alloy, and, yes, they both sport round meters on their front panels. Style gurus will note that, like Plinius and the forthcoming Classé range, the faceplates terminate is smoothly curved ends - clearly this decade's hot look.
Marantz SC-7S1 Stereo Preamplifier
Inside the SC-7S1 pre-amp are no less than eight HDAM modules 'for maximum signal purity and lowest noise', four on each input-output buffer and another four HDAMs on the V/I converter. Ultra-wide bandwidth circuitry is used throughout 'to achieve a frequency response from 3Hz-150kHz, and Marantz reports better-than-100dB channel separation, 'for a natural tonal balance and superlative image specificity upon a vast, wide and deep soundstage.'
Impressive from the minute you unpack it, the SC-7S1 measures 18x 5 1/8x7 1/8in (WHD) and weighs a confidence-building 46.3lb! That's more than most companies' power amps weigh, so if you equate build quality and worth with mass and girth, this unit makes you think 'hewn from solid.' Its other measurements, too, border on the fantastical, with the aforementioned channel separation and frequency response joined by S/N ratio of 103dB for balanced operation and 105dB for unbalanced, the 8-gang linear volume control operates in 0.5dB steps and there's level trimming of +/-6dB to match all sources and amps within 0.5dB, too.
Minimalist almost to the point of being naked, the SC-7S1's front panel contains a rotary source selector (marked 'Balanced', 'SACD/CD', 'Line 1', 'Line 2' and 'Tape'), a power on button below a meter that reads out signal output level in dB, a rotary volume control, and buttons for applying attenuation of -20, -40 and -60dB (as when changing LPs!) and display on/off. That's it, which means for a slim and uncluttered remote control. The back is filled with top-quality phono connectors for all inputs and two sets of unbalanced outputs, plus XLRs for balanced input and output. Given the importance Marantz has placed on its balanced nature, I was disappointed to see only one set of balanced inputs, a curious oversight in light of the target audience.. I had two CD players and phono stage with balanced outputs to hand at the time of the review, and soon grew tired of connecting and disconnecting them.
Dearth of balanced inputs aside, Marantz is proposing decidedly weird, over-the-top audiophilic behaviour from the SC-7S1 owner. (Remember: at least one lucky audiophile bought five Project T1s for an all-valve multi-channel set-up.) Check this out: 'For the ultimate in sonic performance, two SC-7S1s can be used together in mono mode, to create a completely separate stereo audio signal path from the source to a pair of MA-9S1 amplifiers to the loudspeakers. Up to six SC-7S1 preamplifiers and 12 MA-9S1 amplifiers can be combined for a multi-channel system of awe-inspiring power and impact.' The driving of two or more pre-amps is possible because Marantz has developed a 'floating control bus system' with the aforementioned level trim capability. And how I'd just love to hear a dozen of 'em....
Marantz MA-9S1 Monoblock Power Amplifier
An equally impressive beastie, a single MA-9S1 stands 18x7 5/16x17 5/16in and weighs 78.9lb. A pair is not to be approached glibly. Its front panel contains a sexy, blue-lit power meter reminiscent of the new Aston-Martin's dials, and there are only three controls on the front: choice of balanced or unbalanced input, power on and meter on/off. The back of each monoblock contains two pairs of multi-way speaker terminals and the balanced and unbalanced inputs.
Rated at 300W into 8 ohms, 600W into 4 ohms and 1,200W into 2 ohms, the MA-9S1 is unlikely to meet a speaker it can't whup. Marantz filled this mad bastard with a massive power supply with a large Super Ring Core toroidal power transformer, heavy-gauge internal wiring, six HDAM modules and audiophile-pleasing, top-quality internal components to provide the capacity to deliver instantaneous current greater than 150 amps. Its damping factor is 200, the frequency response is stated as 3Hz-120kHz +0, -3dB, and the S/N ratio is 120dB. I needn't tell you that this is one quiet system.
To pass muster with Marantz, I used the system with components familiar to Ken Ishiwata and Marantz's Neil Gill, who also joined in for my SATs (Subjective Audio Trial). Sources included the Marantz CD12/DA12 in balanced mode, as modified by KI, Audio Research CD3 Mk II CD player, the SME Series V arm, SME 30 turntable and Koetsu Urushi Black through the EAR 324 phono stage - also balanced - and Wilson WATT Puppy System 7. All wiring was the latest Transparent Reference, and I eschewed any tweak accessories.
Read more on Page 2.
Ken Ishiwata tends to pause and think before he speaks. Nervously, I
took that to mean that the system sucked and he was going to be polite
by finding some euphemism for it. On the contrary, he was pleased
enough to spend a couple of hours wading through LPs and CDs with me,
and to offer the kind of advice most audiophiles would pay obscene
amounts to hear. Satisfied that we were both hearing the same things, I
was given the go-ahead.
Like a flashing neon sign, the Marantz system has a distinct sound
that, though subtle, will immediately signal to the listeners whether
or not it's friend or foe. It's a deceptive, not-what-you'd-expect
character, too clean and precise to be mistaken for valves and too
sweet and silky to herald the presence of solid-state circuitry. What
compounds the act of trying to assess it is an absence of misbehaviour
thanks to the vast power reserves. In many ways, it reminded me of
'Jurassic' Krells, which I'm fortunate enough to have savoured recently
in the SME Listening Room. Because the Marantz amplifiers have no
operational limits to speak of in real terms, there are few sonic clues
to the nature of the amplifiers' topology, especially the lack of
occasional clipping when overdriven - quite simply the best indicator
of tubes or tranny comportment.
Another benefit of the Marantzes' zero-compromise design is the way
it was utterly unfazed by speaker load, cable changes, proximity to
other hardware, choice of mains cable - you name it. It's as if the
Marantz team went out of its way to make it immune to mismatches; Ken
spoke of the care taken with the balanced operation, the earthing
arrangements and other details that rendered it impervious to hum, RF
interference and other nasties. And that's why you'd never mistake it
for valves: it's simply far too quiet, too well-behaved, too serene.
In practice, this means a sonic experience that's so free of stress
or tension, a sound so easy to listen to that you will, as I was forced
to, access it in six- or seven-hour sessions. I had to because my time
with the pairing was limited, so it was with no small measure of relief
that it proved to be the least-fatiguing system I've heard since I last
fired up my Quad '57s and the Dynaco Stereo 70.
What does this mean for the music? Voices are warm and clear, with
only the most minuscule traces of sibilance keeping you from thinking
that Alison Krauss or Joss Stone is in the room with you. The copious
amount detail was another indicator that you were listening against the
sort of silent background attributed to solid-state gear and massive
power supplies. Massed, amplified instruments benefited from this
because even overlapping guitars enjoyed their own sonic space.
(Confession time: I dug out some old Quo....) While I've never been
hung up on a hygienic, warts-and-all sound, even when I'm reviewing, I
have to admit that some of the revelations caused by the Marantz
combination were shocking, especially when listening to vinyl. Low
level detail came through intact, a boon for acoustic instruments if
you want to hear the body of an acoustic guitar as well as the strings.
Tim de Paravicini's sublime EAR 324 phono stage matched the SC-7S1
perfectly in balanced mode, and it served as yet another reminder of
analogue vinyl's superiority over CD. Magic Dick's harmonica on the
first J Geils Band album - original pressing, well-played over the past
34 years - cut through with a visceral, sharp stab that was oddly muted
on CD, with better body, decay and, yup, breathing from the player
himself. Transients on guitar, the solidity of the bass, Peter Wolf's
vocal rasp - it was as if the Marantzes knew that their roots lay in
analogue, if only because the '7' and '9' in their names.
Natural, free sound, rapid attack, smooth decay, glitch-free
transitions - they only tell part of the story. If the Marantz system
exhibited one particular trait that convinced me of its greatness, it
was the soundstage. Now there are plenty of pre/power combos out there
with superb imaging or massive soundstage capabilities or a way with
conveying air and space, but this set-up has it all. Image height, the
correct scale, stage width and depth - it could not be faulted beyond
one odd little quirk. So silent are the spaces between and around the
performers that some recordings, especially overly-processed
multi-mic'd affairs can leave the musicians sounding disembodied. But
feed it a great recording, and the sound is seamless from left-to-right
But will Marantz dealers have the balls to carry this unbelievable
combination? A pair of MA-9S1 monoblocks will set you back 12,000
while the SC-7S1 preamplifier carries a tag of 5000. I reviewed it
thinking that the system cost 3000 more and still thought it was a
bargain. For perceived value alone - if, that is, styling, finish,
build quality, smooth operation, mass, etc mean anything to you -
there's nothing on the market to come near it in my estimation. Friends
who saw it were simply gob-smacked. It's like looking at a Ferrari Enzo
or a Greubel-Forsey tourbillon: you know it exists, but someone's gotta
pinch you so you know it for certain.
Forget that Marantz makes digital projectors and sub- 300 CD players
and lifestyle systems, if such family members might prove a negative
influence. Let's be quite open here: many of us don't want to believe
that big, multinational brands with vast catalogues can produce
high-end equipment of 'to die for' excellence. Which is a stupid
prejudice, when you consider that the very finest cars, cameras,
watches, luggage, pens and other luxury goods come from 'big,
multinational brands with vast catalogues' - it's only audiophiles who
have a problem with this. Make no mistake: the SC-7S1/MA-9S1
combination reeks of the spirit of Saul Marantz. It's a pleasure to
use, on every level, and I have no doubt it will be a pleasure to won.
So, yes, Ken, you were right: Marantz did create a Model 7 and Model 9
for the 21st Century.
There's nothing incongruous about launching a scarily high-end pairing
because Marantz loves to - on occasion - flex its audiophilic muscle
with masterpieces like the Project T1 valve amp (300Bs as driver
tubes!) and a series of high-end CD and SACD players. With the SC-7S1
and MA-9S1, Marantz hopes to accomplish a number of things beyond
marking an anniversary. Firstly, it intends to have this pre/power
package carve a niche of its own amidst the more obvious choices like
Krell, Classé, et al. For another, it wanted to find a worthy recipient
for its cutting-edge CD and SACD players. And for a third, well, let's
just say that its newest sibling is also its first-ever rival: McIntosh
and Marantz share the same owners.
Now I don't know if the parent company (which also controls Denon)
wants to encourage sibling rivalry, but in this case, it's inevitable.
Imagine what would happen if Porsche suddenly found itself owned by the
same concern as Ferrari. It may just be me reading something into it,
but a spat amongst these sisters would certainly make for interesting
Anyway, what we have before us is a pre/power package that, at every
level, bears comparison to the most exotic hardware available. For the
sake of clarity, let's leave out the valve rivals, because I firmly
believe that the two camps remain as far removed from each other as is
possible - even with some brands, like McIntosh, working with both
technologies. And customers for one type couldn't give a hoot about the
Ken confirmed that just about all of the SC-7S1s and MA-9S1s have
been sold together, although you can mix'n'match. To be ornery, I tried
them with McIntosh's C2200 and MC2102 all-tube rivals, with interesting
results, but - aside from satisfying my curiosity - the listening
sessions involved using them as a combination. And they are as
closely-related as a pre/power pair can be. Or, ironically, as closely
related as Marantz and McIntosh now are.
In 1958, who'd have believed this would ever happen?
• Read more Marantz reviews including Blu-ray players, SACD players, AV preamps, receivers and much more.