In 2001, Marantz’s SA-1 represented the state of the art in high resolution digital audio thinking. Compact Disc had been around for some twenty years, during which time it had been refined and streamlined to the edge of its performance envelope. Marantz had proved particularly adept at squeezing a quart out of CD’s proverbial pint pot, thanks to the redoubtable talents of its engineering figurehead Ken Ishiwata. But then he turned his attentions to something altogether bigger and better, Super Audio Compact Disc…
SACD was announced some three years before. Using single sided, dual layer discs with Sony’s proprietary Direct Stream Digital coding system, it had a number of theoretical advantages over Pulse Code Modulated CD and DVD audio formats, not least of which was its very wide frequency range without the need for dramatic high band filtering. Running at a sampling rate of 2.8224MHz, it offers a theoretical frequency response from DC to over 100kHz, with greater than 120dB of dynamic range.
In the early nineteen nineties, Sony developed a type of Bitstream coding called Direct Stream Digital for transferring its CBS music division’s deteriorating analogue master tape stock into the digital domain. Sony said that using PCM ADCs was a needlessly complicated and lossy process, involving converting analogue to bitstream digital, bitstream to CD’s 16-bit PCM and then PCM back to bitstream for the one-bit DACs of modern CD players. Why not just keep the digits bitstream all the way down the chain? It was simpler and less prone to losing data while being converted to and from PCM.
Unlike PCM, with DSD the sampling frequency determines both resolution and bandwidth. A one bit word is oversampled 64 times at a master clock frequency of 44.1kHz, giving an overall sampling frequency of 2.8224MHz. This seems stratospheric compared to DVD-Audio’s 192kHz PCM, but comparisons are misleading because of the differing word lengths. DSD’s 64 times oversampling can give four times the bandwidth of CD with the same Signal to Noise ratio, or four times the S/N with the same bandwidth, but Sony set it at 120dB S/N and 100kHz bandwidth.
Apart from its simplicity, there are other benefits to DSD. One is that unlike PCM, its wide 100kHz bandwidth has no dramatic brickwall filter at the top of its frequency range. This means the music’s harmonics are allowed to gently tail off by themselves, rather than being sliced off at one arbitrary point. DSD is also particularly well suited to ‘downconversion’ into other formats such as Redbook CD or MiniDisc, because its 2.8224MHz sampling frequency is a multiple of the current 44.1kHz standard. Rather than using interpolation (i.e. ‘guesstimation’) to squeeze 96kHz PCM data down to 44.1kHz, DSD can be converted relatively simply. Super Audio Compact Disc is the first commercial, disc-based implementation of the DSD coding system.
The SA-1 was Marantz’s first cost-no-object attempt at getting the best from the new format, and is a pretty impressive beast by any standards even now. Weighing in at nearly 20kg, this slickly finished front loader boasts machined aluminium-alloy casings painted in the company’s trademark champagne gold. Large Play, Stop, and Pause buttons dominate the fascia, while there are smaller switches for SACD/CD and Display on-off, Open/Close and Track Advance/Back.
The rear panel has two single-ended RCA phono sockets, the ubiquitous (for Japanese high end audio, at least) pair of balanced XLRs, TOSLINK and coaxial digital outputs (only for use when playing standard Red Book CDs), an IEC mains socket, plus a ‘Standard/Custom’ Filter switch (a la Sony SCD-1). The ‘Standard’ setting curtails the SA-1’s ultra high frequency output, which you get when the ‘Custom’ setting is selected. As this can upset some partnering amplifiers and loudspeakers, Marantz recommend the former for general use.
Inside the beast we find a veritable feast of digital audio goodies. The whole chassis is sturdily built, with internal resonance damping and electrical noise isolation as its goal. To wit, there’s a copper-plated double-layer steel bottom plate and shock-absorbent mounting feet, plus a large shielded toroidal transformer which boasts ‘Super Core Ring’ technology, housed in a cylindrical copper cage. There’s also an additional, smaller transformer to drive the fluorescent display. As per usual Jap high end practice, the transport boasts a diecast aluminium disc tray using zinc parts. The dual lens pickup assembly reads both CD (and CD-R/CD-RW) and SACD. The digital audio section boasts four TDA1547 1-bit Dual Bitstream DACs (two per channel), and the analogue section has six dual Marantz HDAM (High Definition Amplifier Modules) op-amps in differential configuration, plus two in the unbalanced output.
Even with standard 16/44 CDs, this player sounds very special. Tonally, it’s a riot. Its low frequency prowess is as if it was coupled to Mother Earth herself, its midband is as lucid as romantic poetry and its treble response good enough to get the bats singing out from the trees. Unlike Marantz’s previous ultimate silver disc spinner – the CD-17 – though, it doesn’t rose tint everything it plays. This means that if a piano or a human voice is poorly recorded, it will say so instead of glossing over the problem. The upshot is a transparent player with a wide and varied palette of tonal colours which it deploys without so much as a second thought.
Okay, so it’s one of those louche high end CD players that lull you into thinking you’re listening to a half decent turntable, then? Wrong, because when it comes to rhythms, dynamics and transient attack, the SA-1 is up there with the likes of Naim’s CDX – which is no mean feat. Leading edges are meat and drink to this Marantz – with a natural affinity for starting and stopping on a sixpence, music just sounds faster. Couple this to its talents with small dynamic inflections – another Naim-like trait – and it can follow the complex drum patterns of Escape That with wonderful alacrity.
Information retrieval is no less inspiring. Donald Fagen’s Tomorrow’s Girls comes from the rather curiously mixed Kamakiriad album. It’s a great torture track because most CD players turn it into a splashy mess. But the Marantz just breezed through like it was on its holidays, excavating vast amounts of low level like there was no tomorrow. Suddenly Fagen’s voice had a position in space, you could hear guitar licks decaying away naturally, and there was even a touch of timbral detail to be enjoyed.
As I ran the gamut of my CD collection, the SA-1 remained creditably consistent. It’s as open and transparent as the CD format permits. You couldn’t call it ‘glass clear’ because olde worlde sixteen bit just doesn’t have that on the menu, but it’s as good as you’ll realistically encounter. Rarely have I come across such an addictive combination of musicality, tonal accuracy and sheer hairy-chested, muscular grunt. Was it the best CD player in the world in its day, as others have said? No. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but it’s very special.
With SACD, Marantz’s SA-1 was surely what the hi-fi world was waiting for. Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love – hardly a state of the art recording even back in 1982 – was a joy. From the opening beats of that horrid ‘period’ Roland drum machine on Sexual Healing, you’re aware that you’re listening to something special. Rather than being just another generic drum machine, what you get is something with all the finesse of a ‘Speak and Spell’ toy – which is just how those early Dr. Rhythms sounded! Then, seconds later, one of the sweetest, smoothest, silkiest voices ever committed to magnetic tape cuts in. The contrast between the song’s gravel-like electronic percussion and the creamy patina of the singer’s voice is utterly arresting, and something you’ll never hear unless you run high end vinyl.
The space around Marvin’s voice is incredible. Hanging out of the speakers, yet surprisingly far back in the mix – those drum patterns are beating away forcefully in front – you begin to realise how deliciously lucid this new format can be. Combining fantastic rhythmic snap – everything about its sixteen bit performance holds true for SACD, and then some – with a delightfully organic nature, it simply takes you as closer to the music.
It doesn’t stop there though, because even in that uncouth electronic percussion, you can hear tiny dynamic inflections that sixteen bit CD completely misses. It’s as if the drum programming has all been changed, and the producer has kept the patterns but shifted the accents. Suddenly, something that previously sounded as if it was played on a Casio calculator lives and breathes! SACD is packed full of surprise and delight. Whether it’s hearing guitar strings decay for bar after bar – rather than them just vanishing into the electronic ether – or delighting in the wonderfully thick and full bass guitar sound, it’s a true festival of the senses.
Up the ante to a decently recorded slice of DSD like Jacintha’s One for my Baby and you hear the SA-1 really strut its stuff. The best way to describe it is like this: At the end of the day when you’ve a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, on which format would you prefer to spin your precious jazz discs – LP or CD? Previously I wouldn’t have given it a second thought – and out would come the vinyl. Now though, SACD comes a very close second, even if it doesn’t quite win the day. Effortlessly dynamic with a noise floor that goes down to your listening room’s very foundations, I’ve rarely heard a drum kit, electric guitar, piano and double bass sound so eerily, spookily life-like.
Where Compact Disc failed most dismally was its reproduction of female vocals. Its coding spec was simply too ragged in the sensitive upper midrange region into which these fall, and the result is a dulling and a coarsening of what – in some cases at least – can be one of the many wonders of the world. But the 2001 Marantz SA-1 brought new levels of transparency and subtlety to silver disc – it opened the music up and let you in, in a way that we’d never heard before from digital.