In common with the more expensive Reference Series Marantzes, the SA-11S3 has digital filters and a noise-shaping circuit. According to the company’s literature, with Red Book sources Filter 1 has “extremely short pre- and post-echo characteristics and an absolutely linear phase response” for the highest fidelity to the original digital source, while Filter 2 provides a more “analog-like signal,” meaning some detail is sacrificed in favor of “rich harmonics.” With SACDs, Filter 1 provides no additional filtering, while Filter 2 “attenuates any residuals above 100kHz.” There is also a noise-shaping filter “for in-band low-level linearity” and another that cuts out infrasonic signals (DC to 1.7Hz). All filters are accessible only from the handset, and whatever is in use at turn-off is defaulted to upon turn-on. As with the amplifier, the display is too small to read from a typical listening location.
Marantz products almost always stand out from their competitors for a very musical sound that is notably free from harshness, glare, or anything remotely abrasive. Such is the case here with both products. The tonal balance of the PM-11S3 is about as neutral as you can get, which means that nothing calls attention to itself up and down the spectrum. Occasionally you run into designs that subtly highlight one part of the spectrum over the other. A few issues back I reviewed Plinius’ powerful Hautonga integrated amplifier (TAS 229), which, like this Marantz, also comes outfitted with a phonostage and is more or less competitively priced ($5750). The Hautonga exhibited great control and dynamic impact, but its sound was definitely on the Yang side of the continuum: crisp, etched, if not bright then certainly canted that way. While all this was within the bounds of acceptable neutrality, those characteristics were observable with critical listening.
This Marantz displays no such anomaly. As with the Plinius, I hear no bogus warmth, but, as is not the case with the Plinius, neither do I hear anything in the opposite direction. The top end is very extended, but quite natural and easy on the ears. For example, on the SACD of Christy Baron’s Steppin’, all the high percussion (including rain sticks) emerge with truly crystalline clarity and glitter yet without any excess audiophile “sparkle,” so to speak. The midrange displays welcome body, ripeness, and dimensionality (again, a bit more than the Plinius), the bottom end has the kind of extension, weight, power, and definition you’d expect from an amplifier equipped with a transformer the size and weight of this one. But again, there’s no hype or hard-sell here, so if you’re a bass-freak who wants extra push, I’d suggest a good listen before buying. For me, it was right on, but your tastes may be different. (The Plinius has a lot of bottom-end oomph.)
One area where the PM-11S3 really pulls ahead of the integrated pack is with the included phonostage. While it’s nice to see more and more manufacturers paying attention to the persistence of vinyl in an increasingly digital age, many built-in phonostages give the impression of being something of an afterthought, included more as a selling point. Not so here. This one is astoundingly clean, lifelike, and about as transparent as any I’ve heard— you feel you can almost reach out and touch the sound, it’s so palpable. Though it lacks options for loading moving coils, the fixed impedance of 100 ohms is an ideal value if there is to be only one. The presentation on the Bernstein Carmen had a rare tactile presence, combined with sensational dynamic wallop and brilliance. Perhaps there was a tad too much of the latter quality, but I am certain this owes not to the circuit itself but to the slightly high 100-ohm loading for the Ortofon Windfeld, which really does like about to see about 30–50 ohms for absolute neutrality. This is one area where the 20kHz-centered treble control proved genuinely useful—a very slight cut did the trick, but even without the cut that little bit of brilliance is so mild that most of the time I didn’t even bother to correct it, except for really extremely bright recordings.
I moved next to Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (Classic Records reissue) and was again rewarded with the same virtues of eye-popping transparency, presence, and body and remarkably precise imaging and soundstaging. In “Sylvie,” the background vocals were perfectly rendered and placed—just present enough to make themselves felt, but not too much—and Belafonte’s voice had tremendous focus and you-are-there realism. Resolution is likewise extraordinary, and again those background voices tell the tale: You can actually make out the words despite how soft the singing is. By the way, hardly less impressive is how truthful applause sounds through this setup—not undifferentiated hash but a huge crowd of real hands brought together to make an approving noise.
I have no way of measuring the performance of electronics, but this phonostage sounds really quiet and unusually low in perceived coloration and distortion. Perhaps there is something to the DC-servo equalization Marantz makes a point of using in preference to what it calls “conventional” RIAA equalization with its “negative feedback.” Offhand I can’t recollect a better built-in phonostage in any integrated amplifier. I don’t like to evoke quality in terms of price, because I find the correlation inexact to say the least, especially when it comes to electronics. But I’ve heard separate phonostages costing three-to-four grand that are no better, some not as good. About the only criticism I might tentatively advance is perhaps a slight foreshortening of depth (slight enough that I wouldn’t want to put any real money on it), which I also noted on digital sources. It may seem odd to be raving so about a built-in phonostage in a unit with looks and design as contemporary as this one and that has a matching disc player, but there it is. Before I move on, let me reiterate how involving the presentation always was. I put on the Belafonte album only to spot check a couple of things, but wound up listening through two of the four sides.