Legends of High-End Audio: Saul Marantz

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers
Legends of High-End Audio: Saul Marantz

We present very brief excerpts from a few of the extended profiles, interviews, and archival photography that comprise The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio, Volume Two: Electronics.

The Grateful Dead’s unofficial slogan “What a long, strange trip it’s been” could have been written about the 64-year (and counting) journey of the Marantz Company. One of the most iconic marques in audio underwent periods of spectacular achievement, equally spectacular decline, and multiple changes in ownership among multinational corporations and holding companies. Despite the battering that Marantz has taken under its various corporate overlords, it seems to have, improbably, survived into the second decade of the 21st century, still embodying the values of the company’s founder, Saul Marantz.

After returning from the Pacific Theater in World War II, Marantz and his wife Jean settled in Queens, New York. Although he had no formal electronics education, Marantz was a natural tinkerer with an aptitude for electronics. He was also a serious music lover, an amateur classical guitarist, and later, a close friend of Andrés Segovia. At the urging of his wife, Marantz began building in the family home’s cellar a 100-unit production run of an experimental electronics project originally called the “Audio Consolette.” That product morphed into the Marantz Model 1 preamplifier shortly after it was launched in 1953. The Model 1 was the first preamplifier to offer the new RIAA phono equalization curve, in addition to Columbia and 78 curves.

In one of those serendipitous twists of fate, an out-of-work electronics designer named Sidney Smith saw an ad for the Model 1 and showed up unannounced at the Marantz home looking for a job, just as the first Model 1 preamplifiers were being built in the cellar. Smith’s talents were exactly what this about-to-be-born company needed. The 14-year partnership between Marantz and Smith would produce some of the most iconic products in the history of audio, as well as profoundly shape the future of the high end.

Marantz’s success was instant; he had orders for 600 Model 1s before the first batch of 100 had been built. He moved the company to an industrial factory, and with Smith as the chief engineer, went on to create a series of outstanding components that were widely acclaimed and commercially successful.

It was three products that immortalized Marantz: the Model 7 preamplifier in 1958, the Model 9 power amplifier in 1960, and the Model 10B tuner in 1964. Each represented a “swing for the fences” approach that exemplified an emerging ethos of heroic design effort that would inexorably influence future generations of electronics designers.

Just when the Model 10B tuner launched, Marantz sold his company to Superscope, the importer of Sony tape machines in the U.S., for $3 million. It was Marantz’ uncompromising quest for quality that put the company in financial peril and forced the sale; the premium parts and meticulous design and build in every unit weren’t reflected in the products’ retail prices. In addition, the massive cost of developing the 10B tuner could never be amortized.

Superscope moved the Queens factory to California and began outsourcing manufacture of some products to Japan. Three years later, Marantz, Smith, and the rest of the engineering team (which now included tuner maven Richard Sequerra) resigned. Saul Marantz’s last act at the company was to hire replacements—Dawson Hadley and James Bongiorno, both of whom would go on to contribute seminal designs for other companies (see Nelson Pass’s “A Brief History of Solid-State Amplifiers,” the profile of James Bongiorno, and the feature on Hadley, all in The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio, Volume Two: Electronics).