Review: Marantz SA-11S2 CD Player

Category: Digital

I’ve owned the Marantz SA-11S2 for 6 weeks now and it has been given an appropriate workout during this time. The 11S2 is an upgrade from the 11S1 in that it shares a transport (among several other things) with its significantly higher priced sibling the SA-7S1 player. The 11S2 is substantially built weighing in at 36 lbs. As with previous Marantz CD/SACD players in the SA series, they offer the listener the choice of three digital filters for both CD and SACD playback. Another attractive feature of this player is the inclusion of a phase reversal switch. I had lost that capability when I changed from a Sonic Frontiers Line 1 preamp to the Cary SLP-05 and am glad to have it back in the 11S2. The player has both unbalanced and balanced outputs – I use balanced interconnects throughout my rig.

Operationally, the player has been nearly flawless. The transport drawer is smooth and the transport itself is very quiet when spinning disks. I did have one instance when it failed to load a CD immediately playing an SACD. After ejecting and reloading twice, the CD played fine. Nevertheless, this type of behavior is a bit troubling for a player of this caliber. I leave mine on continuously with the display set to OFF. In this case, “Super Audio CD” is still displayed on the LCD panel but the blue side lights are off. I have no idea why they just don’t shut down the display completely when it is not playing a disc. Speaking of the display, I can see the track and time elapsed from my listening seat reasonably well about 8 feet away. Other display info (like Filter setting) is too small to see from anywhere but up close. The remote is a solid device with good functionality but why on earth did they not provide for polarity switching from the remote? That can only be done by a switch on the front of the unit itself.

I’ve selected some of the very best SACD’s for my analytical listening. For SACD’s, I prefer to listen using Filter 1 engaged. Filter 1 provides the native DSD stream without any filtering. To me, this filter setting seems to provide the most natural instrument timbres and soundstage rendering but the differences with the other two settings are really quite subtle. I could easily live with any of the filter settings. My listening priority is to obtain the natural sound of acoustic instruments in their typical performance spaces. My choices of music reflect this priority.

Vivaldi – La Stravaganza (Channel Classics SACD19503): These early violin concertos are performed on original instruments by R. Podger and band in a church. The spacious church acoustic is readily apparent through the 11S2 yet the instruments never sound awash in the acoustic. Podger’s solo violin is crisp and clear without the annoying top-end bite that many players impart to violin sound. Period violins are known for their distinctive tone (mainly due to the use of gut strings) and can be difficult to reproduce without sounding edgy or brittle. Here, they sound correct – properly bright but with no fatiguing edge. Same goes for the rest of the ensemble – a very natural, engaging sound with a beautiful balance among the instruments. One can clearly hear the more exotic baroque stringed instruments (like the theorbo and lute) and the harpsichord amidst the ensemble instruments when called for in the score.

Mozart – Violin Concertos 3-5 (2L SACD 38): Another concerto recording this time played by a chamber orchestra in a church but on modern instruments. The band is somewhat larger here compared to the Vivaldi and includes some wind and brass instruments. This is another demonstration recording for string sound. Both M. Thorsen’s solo violin as well as the massed strings sound utterly natural. The 11S2 brings me to the recording space and immerses me into their splendid music making. The church acoustic is slightly less spacious in this recording but is still readily delivered by the 11S2. I love how the 11S2 reproduces violins which are among the most difficult instruments to reproduce properly.

Beethoven – Cellos Sonatas (Channel Classics SACD 22605): Moving to more intimate fare, we have an exemplary recording of cello and piano. The 11S2 delivers all of the low end authority and bloom of Wispelwey’s cello when he digs into the lowest registers along with the delicate overtones of the top register. The piano, also a very difficult instrument to reproduce properly, comes across with the dynamic impact one expects if you were seated in the recording space. The piano also has very good low end bloom from what sounds like a small hall in the Netherlands. Superb playing by this duo!

Shostakovich – String Quartets Vol.2 (Audite SACD 92.527): This recording is so nearly perfect in so many ways! This is exactly how I like to hear a chamber music recording – there is not too much hall sound to mask the natural sound of the four players yet they sound perfectly integrated on the 11S2. Though this is a hi-rez pcm native recording, it simply sounds fabulous in its DSD incarnation. The first violin tone is sweet when it needs to be and aggressive when the score calls for it – ideal! The ensemble playing is superb and is beautifully conveyed by the 11S2. For fun, I switched to the CD layer to see what differences exist – and they are quite apparent. The CD sound has a slight veil over it compared to the SACD layer and the whole ensemble seems just a bit more distant. It’s still a very good rendering of a string quartet but the DSD is clearly superior. The Mandelring’s way with these quartets is outstanding – highly recommended.

Mahler – Symphony No.2 (Channel Classics SACD 23506): A massive Mahler symphony is a good test for any full range audio system and this recording is spectacular in both performance and sound. Listen to how the cellos and basses in the opening movement dig into their parts – this always gives me chills. The cymbals at the climaxes sound appropriately metallic without sounding fizzy and the overall dynamic range is very wide. The 11S2 never sounds stressed no matter what the SPL is. The brasses have the right amount of “spit” on the top without sounding edgy. When it their turn to shine, the timpani and bass drum make a wallop of an impact. When the chorus enters pianissimo in the final movement, words escape me – simply fantastic! The 11S2 handles the huge dynamic range of this recording just fine without any obvious compression.

McCoy Tyner Quartet (Chesky SACD 206): Check out track 5 “Ask Me Now”. The presence of a real saxophone in my room is unbelievable! The track begins with a long sax solo from Joe Henderson. The slap of the valves, his breath intakes and above all the tonality of the instrument are so very realistic sounding. In other tracks where the full quartet is playing, they sound nicely integrated as an ensemble. The drum kit is to the back center of the soundstage with the bass in front center. Sax is right of center, piano is left. This, along with several of Chesky’s more recent jazz recordings, is among the most natural jazz ensemble recording I know.

Now some comments on CD performance. For CD’s, I prefer listening with Filter 1 engaged. Also, in CD mode, Marantz offers noise shaping, DC filtering and digital out functions all of which I leave OFF for listening to CD’s. I selected several recent releases for listening – none would be considered “audiophile” reference discs.

M. Weinberg – Cello Sonatas (Bis CD 1648): Weinberg was born 13 years after Shostakovich and his music shares much similarity with DSCH. As is typical for Bis chamber recordings, this one has a bit too much hall sound making the instruments sound farther away than they should (I prefer a closer perspective). Other than that, the timbres of cello and piano are both very realistic in the acoustic space they’ve been recorded in.

Spohr – String Quartets (Marco Polo CD 8.225316): This is a Moscow studio recording of several of Spohr’s late string quartet music. The recording captures the (annoying) breathing of the players and the 11S2 makes it plain to hear. From a tonal and dynamics perspective, the instruments sound fine. The first violin has a lot to do in Spohr’s quartets and this one sounds just fine in timbre. Very non-fatiguing sound even when the violin is in the top register. An enjoyable CD if you can ignore the players breathing.

Arnell – Symphonies 4&5 (Dutton Epoch CD 7194): Virtually unknown British late romantic music nicely recorded by Dutton. I would have preferred a little closer perspective to the orchestra – as it is, the sound is a little homogenous sounding though the dynamics seem to be fully rendered. I don’t know how much has to do with Dutton’s recording versus the 11S2’s rendering of it but considering the excellent results of almost everything else I’ve played through the 11S2, I suspect the recording. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Dutton for this and their other fine British music recordings.

Rontgen – Cello Concertos 1-3 (Etcetera CD 1329): I’ve discovered the music of Julius Rontgen over the past few years and I’m sure glad I did. He writes very much in a Brahms romantic style with decent melodies and interesting orchestration. These concertos are no exception. The sound here is big and full with the solo cello balanced a bit forward in the mix (an issue common to most concerto recordings). Plenty of hall sound here too to create an enveloping soundstage but, again, I would have preferred a bit closer perspective to the orchestra. The timbre of the solo cello is excellent and the recording nicely captures the foundation of the orchestra that adds so much to the illusion of being at the Dutch concert hall.

Mahler - Symphony No.1 (Harmonia Mundi CD 907118): I thought I’d include a CD that is widely regarded as a sonic showcase. This was engineered by Peter McGrath (now of Wilson Audio) and it captures the large orchestra very, very well. It is recorded at a significantly lower level than many CD’s presumable to allow for the wide dynamic range. The 11S2 is certainly up to the task. The beginning of the 4th movement will lift you out of your seat. The bass drum is awesome in its power and bloom - just like the concert hall. The brass in their full glory sound very natural with no annoying “hi-fi” edginess. This symphony has one of the most thrilling endings of all symphonies and the 11S2 delivers it all. Cymbal crashes, blaring brass, tutti strings, bass drum, tymps and triangle – WOW!

Conclusions – The SA-11S2 is an outstanding player of both CD’s and SACD’s. It renders acoustic instruments very naturally with very good dynamics and is particularly good at portraying the low end foundation of orchestral recordings, something that is vital to creating a realistic sound picture in stereo. This player is never fatiguing to listen to but this is not at the expense of a rolled off top end since brass and cymbals all possessed their natural shimmer and bite. However, if you are someone who craves detail and instrumental imaging then the 11S2 may not be your best choice. I have mentioned above how the 11S2 is capable of delivering a very realistic picture of the recording venue (what I refer to as the “soundstage”) but it does not provide pinpoint imaging of the individual instruments in the soundstage. For me, this latter feature is pixy dust anyway since I don’t experience such pinpoint imaging when I attend concerts.

Whether CD or SACD, I have found the 11S2 to be unfailingly musical, non-fatiguing, and accurate in reproducing acoustic instrument timbres. It is capable of delivering the orchestral foundation very realistically – something that I find to be critical in creating a believable soundstage for large ensemble recordings. It readily transports me to the recording venue. Provided that the 11S2 has operational longevity (i.e. its transport doesn’t give up the ghost in a few years time) then I think it is a true music-lover’s hi-end bargain.

Equipment used for review: Cary SLP-05 preamp, Cary CAD211 AE monoblock power amps, Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers, balanced Cardas Cross interconnects, Cardas Golden Cross biwired speaker cables.

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Great review Mark. I must say that I agree, especially with your description of 'unfailingly musical, non-fatiguing and accurate instumental timbres'. I also think that where it really stands out is on massed strings, the true test of digital. I'm still an analog first guy, but my Marantz cd player makes listening to digital bearable. :)

If this review is accurate then all I can say is I have wasted money on buying the Marantz SA-7S1 which is no where near as good as my 20 year old Marantz CD94(modified) which is far superior to the SA-11 first version. The CD94 despite not being an SACD player sounds better with SACD's than either the SA-7S1 or the SA-11. The problem is that SACD sounds best when played in surround sound. The SA-7S1 should have been a multi-channel player
Disbeliever - not sure you can draw that conclusion from my review. I did not say anything about the capabilities of the SA-7S1 player (nor about any other CD/SACD player for that matter). I like very much what the SA-11S2 does with acoustic instruments - it may be that the SA-7S1 is better (I would hope so since it costs significantly more). I'd like to hear from folks who have seriously listened to both.
The problem is that SACD sounds best when played in surround sound.

I, and many others would disagree with that statement. Now, if you put a IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) on the end, then you can say whatever you want. Why would any surround sound fanatic even consider a player of this caliber? Surely there are less expensive players for a decent surround system, IMHO.
I'm not trying to revive the whole surround sound vs. two channel debate as the two camps are fairly well entrenched.
However, your claims of 'far superior' and 'wasted money' are all thrown in the trash by your surround sound comment. It shows your bias. You say nothing about how the player sounds, timbre, soundstage, imaging, all we know is it doesn't have the great googily moogily sound effects for you. Best Buys probably has what you're looking for.

Just got mine today, Wow!
Out of the Box it is smok'in!
I have the SA-11S2 with the Underwood Level 2 Mods.
200 hours for burn-in, but right now this is
a very special player.

Right now, it sounds like a "Original Master Tape".

We ALL hear different, and I am so glad Walter

offered this player so satisfy my Musical needs.

Very happy am I.

Love Your Music!

I am...