Review: Marantz SA11-S2 vs. Marants Black Pearl SA-KI
There is so much hype and BS about equipment in magazine reviews and websites. In reviewing these two Marantz players, some of this will be discussed in the review. These two players are a perfect example, as a reviewer who reviewed both made comments and comparisons that I find far from accurate.
As a preface, a few comments on Marantz’s history. Saul Marantz designed products in the 1950’s which were state of the art tube designs, and still highly desired by many today. Particularly, the Marantz 7C preamp, the 8 amps, and the the 10B tuner. With the advent of transistors in the mid 1960’s through the 1970’s, Marantz changed ownership to Marantz Japan The receivers and separates they produced in the 70’s were beautiful and exuded luxury and quality. They were considered top of the offerings to their competitors such as Pioneer, Sansui, Kenwood, etc.
In the 80’s, Marantz became more of a mid-fi company, and its high end roots remained dormant for a decade. In the 90’s, Marantz re-entered the high end market with expensive, high end products and introduced their Reference Line, which were designed and built to a standard back to the old days, and have become Marantz’ highest achievement in the modern high end world of audio, and bringing them high acclaim by some reviewers. Their present Reference offerings benefit from an intended trickle down design from their most expensive offerings, most of which contain major design input from Ken Ishiwata, a modern Japanese version of Saul Marantz. Go to Marantz’ website to watch and hear him speak, Read about him. His musical inclinations, meticulous listening and parts selection put him at the top of high end designers who have served to advance the art, pushing the envelope of high end sonics.
I’ve owned the Marantz SA-11S2 for some time now. The S2 is a significant upgrade from the S1, from its new, rugged, metal transport that has no peers in sonics and quality at its price point. This transport, along with the high quality caps, resistors and other parts, in a completely balanced design , puts it in its own class at this price range. It contains the majority of parts and design of the flagship SA-7 S1 player, which is double the price. The SA11 is built like a battleship, weighs 38 pds., and is absolutely gorgeous.
I’m not going to describe all the features, such as the filters, phase reversal, external clock input, etc. I just want to talk about the sound. On my balanced Aesthetix Calypso, connected to my Pass X250.5 amp, I found the sound of the Marantz was its finest running balanced to the preamp, though it sounds nearly as good in single-ended mode.
Operationally, the player has been perfect. The transport drawer is smooth, quiiet, fast, and has given me no problems whatsoever. When one compares the mediocre transports that others companies, such as Ayre at $6,000 use, I scratch your head and wonder about profit margins and the arrogance in this field, designers and companies using $20 transports in $6,000 machines. This truly disgusts me..
As I had no SACD player in the past, I’m now in the difficult process of obtaining them, as so many are no longer in production, though there are many SACD’s still available and being released. Hence, much of my listening was done with plain Redbook discs. There are three Filter choices, Filter 1 and 3 similar, whereas Filter 2 has certain effects some may like and others may not.
I listen for pieces that provide musicality, space, air, imaging, dynamics and overall listenability. No piece is perfect, and audiophiles often forget this maxim. I find every piece has some character of its own, and has its strengths and its less than perfect characteristics.
I had sold my Northstar units out of necessity. With digital equipment, I tend to move on from time to time, as chips, converters, filters get better, with the equipment losing value. I’m not interested in expensive players, because they just are not worth the depreciation, unless you have money to burn.
I compared the Marantz as a transport to the Northstar, a famous Pioneer transport and a Sony DVD player. The Marantz trounced all over them.. It is a dynamic, detailed, full sounding transport made of a solid metal, and as smooth as silk.
I owned a Cullen-modified PS Audio DAC3. The Cullen is a wonderful DAC, and a benchmark in its price range.
The Marantz as a total player has a pleasant, even sound, and is certainly not boring or lacking in the high end, as Fremer would have you believe. It has very good dynamics, bass, midrange, and a lively, but not overbright high end. Dropping the Cullen in, showed the Cullen’s bass to be even more powerful, the midrange more palpable, and the treble highly detailed, more in your face, perhaps more than some will like, and revealed detail like mad. If you didn’t hear the Cullen with the Marantz as a transport, you wouldn’t know you were missing anything.
After having it a year, why did I not keep the Cullen? I wanted to have a one-piece player, and keep expenses down, including the cost a top digital interconnect costs. Plus I knew the Cullen would sell for half of what I paid in another year or so, not just because it was digital, but because that is the fate of modded units, no matter how good they are. Plus, the PS unit is rather homely looking with cheap-feeling and looking buttons. As another review on the Marantz here on Audiogon stated, the Marantz reproduces treble sounds with clarity, but not with the brightness and bite of overdefined digital. Walking this tightrope is a difficult feat. It is a welcome relief to listen to less than stellar recordings and hear much of the glare removed. However, with the very finest material, there is a slight loss of detail compared to something like the Cullen.
COMES THE MARANTZ SA-1 PEARL:
There is no doubt the limited edition Pearl player is a very good sounding piece, but it does not possess the big sonic superiorities that Michal Fremer says it does. It was built with some expensive parts, but there were compromises made. One, the transformer is a bit smaller, and one hears this as somewhat less bass impact and dynamics compared to the SA11S2. It must be pointed out that the Pearl design is based on the SA15, a less expensive player. That is why the Pearl is not a balanced design. Nor does it have the superb metal transport of the SA11S2. Though its new Xyron transport is rather good, it is not that SA11’s transport. I decided to test this out directly by using the SA11 as a transport and the Pearl as a DAC. It was frustrating that the Pearl lacked a coaxial input, which required me to use a Toslink cable to use the SA11 as a transport. Even with this limitation, it was immediately apparent that the SA11’s transport improved the Pearl’s dynamics, bass and took its sonics to a even higher level. It became more like the SA11 with greater dynamics and punch, more extension both low and high and more clarity, lifting the slight veil the Pearl can exhibit on vocals and other instruments. The piano had more ring and attack. Drums had more guts and drive. The high end became more extended. So much for Fremer’s review.
The high end of the SA11 has more extension and detailing than the Pearl, contrary to Fremer’s opinion. Taking the burden of running the transport away from the Pearl ‘s smaller transport, along with the superiority of the SA11’s transport is responsible for these improvements. I’m quite weary of reviewers whose opinions are so religiously listened to that anything they say is taken as if from the words of some audio god. Believe me, the more years I’ve done of listening and comparing, the more I trust myself than the revered reviewers. I listened to them too many times to find they were wrong, and these turned out to be expensive mistakes.
The Pearl’s DAC section is very good and perhaps has some slight midrange improvements over the SA11, but the SA11 would be my first choice. If the Pearl were equipped with the SA11’s superior transport, transformer, and fully balanced design, it might be as good. But it ain’t, Blanche, so that’s the reality. To be frank, I found the Pearl’s transport much slower at reading and accessing tracks.
Further, the SA11S2 sounds even better run in balanced. Since I heard enough comparison between units to tell me what I wanted to know, it wasn’t necessary for me to listen to the SA11 in balanced, which I know sounds somewhat better. The SA11 Is more dynamic and punchy with better bass, more extended highs, and more detailed with a wider soundstage. The SA11 may lack a bit of the top end filigree of the Pearl, but it is more extended on top, has a wide and deep soundstage (sorry, Fremer, you’re wrong). As a player in this price range and above, I would be very surprised to find anything that can touch it. It is somewhat of a dark horse in this sea of overpriced, cheaply made, and overrated digital equipment that seems to attract nerdy, geeky types, rather than music lovers and listeners.
There is another SA11 member review I encourage you to read. Simply search the forums. The SA11-S2 is highly recommended, and is one of very few machines in its price range that is fully balanced, with multiple filters, a phase inversion switch, and a transport to die for.
Aesthetix Calypso, Pass X250.5, Dali Helicon 800 Mk. 2
Listed in review.