This CD player was most interesting for what it represented when released back in 1998, a tacit acknowledgement that progress is not necessarily a good thing. Bitstream DACs are a case in point. True, they did rid the listening public from the scourge of digititis – bleeding ears and headaches resulting from listening to CD for over ten minutes – but it wasn’t all positive. Where multibit stripped wallpaper at one hundred paces, Bitstream stripped the excitement even from the most emotive music.
Looking to do a statement CD player for Marantz, designer Ken Ishiwata showed quintessential Japanese pragmatism in electing to return to multibit. So what if he stuck two fingers up to all those press conferences and advertisements celebrating Bitstream’s virtues! The problem was that one-bit simply wasn’t musical enough, and the answer was to go back to something that was – Philips’ TDA1541A continuous calibration DAC.
The result was the £3,500 Marantz CD-7, using the very best Double Gold Crown version of the aforesaid digital converter chip doubled in differential pairs for maximum linearity. Working in conjunction with these was a new bespoke MZ777f digital Linear Music Filter, which was effectively two Motorola 56000 processors running the source code of Philips’ SAA7220 digital filter chips. So although the player didn’t physically use SAA7220s (which partnered Philips original TDA1541-based players), its DSP chip emulated them to recreate their four times oversampling as well as offering three switchable algorithms.
What of the transport? Sadly not even the cleverest microprocessor could emulate the heroic data retrieval talents of Philips’ classic nineteen eighties swing-arm CDM9. So Ken decided to get his spanners out and re-fettle a proprietary CDM12.3 disc spinner, selecting a metal chassis version and rebuilding it to his specifications, including diamond milled stainless steel slide bars for super slick disc loading.
This done, it was time to plug in the soldering iron for some vintage Ishiwata-style tweakery. No less than fourteen selected Marantz HDAM (Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module) op-amps were used, and the power supply was breathed on with Shottky diodes, discrete transistor regulation and an ultra low noise ring-core toroidal transformer. Audio-grade selected components were in abundance, while the copper-plated diecast chassis and casing got anti-resonance fixings and vibration damping feet.
In the best tradition of Japanese high end, the CD-7 featured sonically superior balanced XLR outputs as well as the usual RCA phonos, and a choice of either optical or coaxial digital outs. Unusually for a machine at that time however, the player also had a digital input, meaning it could operate as a standalone DAC too. Working at up to 20-bit, 48kHz oversampling – considering all the trouble Marantz had gone to get these DACs, it was a peach of an idea to extend their application. Finally, you got all the usual play and repeat modes as seen on every other CD player under the sun, and Marantz’s tiresomely over-bright fluorescent display; thankfully you could turn it off.
Sonically, this retro Marantz is a delight, and unique at the time it came to market. Compared to a second generation Philips machine running the original DACs and digital filtering, the CD-7 is a smoother, sweeter and more three dimensional listen, with less fuzz and mush, and a tonal smoothness closer to a noughties machine than an eighties one. But it has a wonderful zestiness to the way it makes music, unlike the Bitstream players that still pervaded the digital landscape at the time the ‘7 was on sale. It’s fast and full on, making for a highly animated sound that makes listening fun.
These days, Marantz CD-7s are few and far between. When new there was the sense that it was going to be an instant classic, and the people who bought them still want to hang on to them. Expect to pay a good couple of thousand pounds providing the condition is good and the provenance reliable. Even then, you could say you’d got a bargain.