It’s impossible not to be impressed with these new entries in Marantz’s Reference Series. Their weight alone—59 pounds for the PM-11S3 amplifier, 37 for the SA-11S3 SACD player— tells you they mean serious business. With beefed-up chassis (5mm thick for the top plates), copper-plated internal surfaces to resist RF, and even special isolating/absorbing feet, they seem intended to realize the idea of integration in an unusually thorough way. Marantz apparently doesn’t want the end user to feel he or she has to supply anything for optimal performance, apart from an interconnect to link the two components together (though a generic one comes with the player). A fair number of parts and features from the Reference Series’ separates has been incorporated into these models, which, while far from inexpensive, nevertheless come in at prices considerably lower than Marantz’s flagship models, the integrated amp and the SACD/CD player each retailing for a dollar under five and four grand respectively. Looks, design, and build are of highest quality.
Let’s start with the integrated amplifier, which is equipped with forty of the latest generation of Marantz’s all-discrete amplifier modules. Rated at 100Wpc into eight ohms, doubling into four, the PM-11S3 boasts a huge toroidal transformer that ensures absolute stability into any loudspeaker load, the circuit optimized for maximum current delivery within its power rating.
The control half of the unit has some novel features, including a configuration whereby two or more units can be tethered for multichannel operation. There’s a built-in phonostage (switch- selectable for moving coils and moving magnets); two line-level inputs; two tape loops with monitoring; and one balanced pair. There is provision for two pairs of speaker systems with switching, Marantz’s own heavy-duty speaker terminals looking as substantial as anything from WBT, as do the other jacks. The amp and preamp sections can be operated independently, though not both at the same time. For all the obeisance to audiophile concerns, it’s curious the AC receptacle on the back is only two-pronged, not three—the same for the disc player—so how this will work with most after-market cords that have a separate ground I don’t know. The same remote handset operates both the amplifier and the disc player, and it is not an accessory, as certain functions on both components are inaccessible without it.
In an otherwise rather full-featured product, a puzzling omission is a mono switch, very odd inasmuch as there is left/right channel balance. Don’t manufacturers know mono operation is essential for routine system checks, not to mention mono sources, which usually sound better played that way? My regular readers will know I applaud the inclusion of a balance control and also tone controls, which Marantz has gone so far as to make accessible even—indeed, only—from the handset. Well done and deserving of an extra round of applause . . . except that the actual implementation leaves a lot to be desired. To start with, accessing them requires entering a menu where the settings are selected with the “help” of the front-panel alphanumeric display. The reason for those quotation marks is because the display is so small that I couldn’t read it from my listening seat some ten or eleven feet away. Guys, what good is remote operation if you can’t read the settings from the location where you’re likely to be entering them?
The tone controls operate in 2dB increments over a ±8dB range, an adequate spread at the bass end for normal listening levels, much less so for very low levels, though at least the 50Hz center frequency is well chosen. But whose idea was it to center the treble at 20kHz? It’s utterly useless for fixing bright recordings, which require no higher than 10kHz, with 7k–8k much preferable. About all 20kHz is good for is taming the resonance of inadequately loaded mc pickups.
Like many integrated disc players these days, the SA-11S3 allows for independent operation of its DAC section and transport. It also seems to have every kind of input and output jack you are likely to need, including USB-A and -B. I am not much into downloads yet, so I cannot comment on the DAC section’s performance or flexibility in this regard. It wouldn’t recognize some Chesky WAV files downloaded from HDtracks onto a USB stick (a check of the manual indicates it will play only MP3 and WMA files). It’s entirely possible this could be circumvented by connecting a computer to the SA-11S3, which can be done, but, as I said, I’m only beginning to experiment with hi-res downloads and am not savvy yet about any of this. All the same, I doubt anyone contemplating the purchase of a disc player is doing so because he or she wants to use it for downloads. One thing I did find extremely useful is the selectable optical input. I subscribe to DirectTV, which still has not worked out its grounding issues to eliminate 60Hz hum when its DVR is connected to a sound system. But connecting the optical out from my display to the Marantz yielded blessedly hum-free sound. Otherwise, I used the SA-11S3 strictly as a disc-spinner.