Photo: Jana Dagdagan
Marantz “brand ambassador” Ken Ishiwata
Late last year, DMGlobal, the corporation that now owns Marantz (also Denon and Boston Acoustics), announced the new Marantz Premium 10 Series and arranged for members of the international press and other interested parties to visit its European headquarters in the Dutch city of Eindhoven to hear about—and just plain hear—the latest flagship electronics from the famed brand. The Reference Series, which debuted in 2003 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Saul Marantz’s first product, comprised a preamplifier (the SC-7), a monoblock power amplifier (the MA-9) and, appearing in 2006, an SACD player (the SA-7). The Premium 10 line replaces these with fewer boxes—the PM-10 is a dual-mono integrated amplifier—and introduces plenty of technological advances over the earlier models. For example, the new SA-10 is a disc/file player that “doesn’t actually have a DAC.”
Headlining the product presentations in Eindhoven was Marantz’s “brand ambassador,” Ken Ishiwata, an engineering fixture at the company for nearly four decades. Resplendent in a bright green Nehru jacket and a flowing silk scarf, Ishiwata crisply and clearly described the PM-10’s layout. For the first time in Marantz history, the new flagship uses switching power amplification to deliver 200 watts RMS into an 8-ohm load, 400 into 4 ohms. Marantz eschews the designation of “Class D” for this amplifier because to many audiophiles that term always connotes a digital process, which simply isn’t true. The PA-10 is driven by a differential analog signal, a highly linear switching modulator operating at 450kHz. There are separate power supplies for the preamplifier section and for each of the power amp channels. With the goal of achieving the greatest possible noise rejection throughout the signal path, the topology is fully balanced from input to output. Line-level single-ended inputs are provided as well, though it’s hard to imagine many purchasers will be using them.
In lieu of the usual integrated circuits (“chip amps”), the PA-10’s preamp section employs Marantz’s much-admired HDAMs (Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules)—described in the company’s literature as “tiny amplifiers…built from discrete components.” Several important audio constituencies have not been forgotten: A carefully isolated discrete phonostage for moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges is provided, and the front panel sports a headphone jack. Part selection, construction quality, and aesthetic considerations are first-rate, in line with the $7999 retail cost of the unit. A double-layered copper-plated chassis assures excellent rejection of both mechanical and electrical interference, and the case, available in the familiar Marantz silver-gold as well as three other options, is constructed from robust, non-magnetic aluminum panels.
Rainer Finck, a Senior Engineer at Marantz who has been working on its digital playback for two decades, outlined the key innovations utilized by the SA-10 SACD player. “Marantz Musical Mastering,” he explained, upsamples any and all digital files to DSD256—that is, four times the usual SACD standard. One of two high-precision clocks accomplishes this: multiples of 44.1kHz are oversampled to 11.3MHz, multiples of 48kHz to 12.3MHz. No sample-rate conversion is required; Marantz maintains that this extremely high-frequency, one-bit data stream is essentially an analog signal, ready to be passed along to an amplifier. In fact, the SA-10 promotional literature boldly maintains that “DSD is analog.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it can certainly be argued that less processing of the signal may be required than with PCM. This approach isn’t exactly new, as bitstream conversion methodology was very much in vogue back in digital’s earliest days. But in recent years, Marantz has devoted considerable effort to developing technology that will truly deliver the superior linearity that (the company feels) is inherent to single-bit digital.
The SA-10 gives users a choice of two filter settings. There are optical and coaxial digital inputs for data streams up to192kHz/24-bit plus an asynchronous USB-B port for the connection of a computer, potentially handling PCM and DXD files (up to 384 kHz/32-bit) as well as 1x, 2x, and 4x DSD. Pretty much any PCM format is welcomed. The build-quality of the player, priced at $6999, is every bit as sumptuous as that of the integrated amplifier.
The technical presentations were followed by ample opportunity to hear the SA-10 and PM-10 in action, in Ken Ishiwata’s custom-built listening room located on the lower level of the Eindhoven facility. There, the digital player and integrated amp were driving a quite remarkable $4000/pair loudspeaker, the Q Acoustics Concept 500, a modest-sized British floorstander that had a number of experienced listeners furtively looking around for a non-existent subwoofer. It is, of course, very difficult to judge the character and quality of electronics in the context of an unfamiliar system and room. But I have to say: This was quite possibly the best sound I’ve ever heard from a system costing $20k or less—and, certainly, the Marantz player and integrated were not getting in the way of this level of performance. Ken Ishiwata demonstrated the gear with recordings of his choosing, including some he’d made himself, but after he’d excused himself to participate in interviews, attendees brought out their own discs and the audio experience remained consistently outstanding—imaging as holographic as I’ve ever heard, detailed hall information, subtle dynamic gradations, and accurate instrumental and vocal color. No one seemed especially eager to leave that room.
DMGlobal must have a lot of confidence in these components, if only in that it’s chosen to market them as the Premium 10 series. “10” is not a good number in the Marantz mythos. The Model 10B tuner that Sid Smith and Dick Sequerra worked on tirelessly was released in 1963 at a price of $650. It was a legendary product that today can sell for over $3000 on the vintage market. At the time, however, it ruined Saul Marantz financially and forced the sale of his company to Superscope in 1964. Superscope sold to Philips in 1980 and the latter eventually sold its remaining share in Marantz to DMGlobal in 2008. Which, of course, was why we were all gathered on a gray December day in Eindhoven. This time, one suspects, “10” will work out much better for the Marantz brand.