When launched in 1982, opinions were strongly divided about the sound of Compact Disc. Initially there were two distinct CD player tribes – the Philips-based machines and the Japanese ones. The former, such as the Philips CD100, had DACs which only ran up to 14-bit resolution but oversampled the digital datastream four times. The latter, such as the Sony CDP-101, didn’t oversample but worked with the full 16-bits available.
Sonically they were very different, with most people in Europe preferring the Philips designs, feeling them to be more organic and tonally smoother compared to the rather brash Japanese machines. Generally, audiophiles who supported CD went for the Philips platform, and indeed so did a number of hi-fi manufacturers wishing to introduce their own silver disc spinners. Meridian, Mission and Marantz were but three examples of this, but the latter company – a wholly owned subsidiary of Philips, naturally worked closest with the Dutch consumer electronics giant.
This meant that Marantz ran a shadow range of CD players – from the first CD-63 (closely based on a Philips CD100) in 1983, and the CD-45 Limited Edition that followed a couple of years later, the company carved itself a new identity taking a Philips chassis and tweaking it expertly to create something that would appeal to audiophiles rather than casual consumers wanting their first CD spinner.
The Japanese, sensing that the Philips machines had a weak point in marketing terms by being ‘only’ 14-bit, pushed the ‘full 16-bit’ nature of their machines. Despite the TDA1540 DAC chip fitted to the Philips machines being a fine sounding device, the Dutch company was forced to respond and in 1984 launched the CD160, its first 16-bit player and with it Marantz produced its version of the same – the £200 CD-273. Fitted with the TDA1541 16-bit, four times oversampling DAC, Philips could now compete in the specification war…
Or so it thought. Japanese machines soon arrived claiming 18-bit, 8 times oversampling – such as the Sony CDP-557ES – while the British designed Cambridge Audio CD2 claimed 16-bit, 64 times oversampling. These numbers were arrived at by using existing DACs in multiple configurations, letting manufacturers play the numbers game even more. Meanwhile, the average hi-fi buyer simply went for the one with the highest numbers – 18×8 had to be better than 16×4, naturally!
This was highly misleading, as the bit-depth and oversampling arrangements of any CD player were not the sole determinants of its performance. Rather, that also was down to more subtle things such as quality of the mechanism, master clock, filter, vibration isolation, passive componentry, power supply, and so on. But that didn’t translate to sales brochures so easily, and by the end of the eighties the CD player world was awash with misinformation and gobbledegook.
In 1989, the whole wretched ‘bits and oversampling’ balloon was punctured with the advent of Bitstream. This new technology from Philips was a completely different way of storing and processing the digital audio data inside the converter chip itself, and produced a slightly different subjective performance too – smoothing off what many saw as the rough edges of the Compact Disc medium at the time. Bitstream revolutionised the digital world, making products cheaper and more palatable in their performance.
Marantz’s first implementation of Bitstream came with its CD-52 model in 1990 – a good quality £250 machine which replaced the very similar looking but multibit DAC-equipped CD-50. Now fitted was Philips’ first (and now legendary) SAA7350GP DAC chip alongside the (then) latest Philips CDM12.1 swing arm mechanism. It brought new levels of refinement to budget CD players, which inevitably at that time suffered from a coarse, fuzzy sound laced with distortion and ‘digititus’.
When it came to the new Special Edition, Ishiwata had a great machine to work with, and so he did with a smattering fancy Elna and Silmic capacitors here and some OFC wiring there. No changes were made to the basic player though – in modern terms, the ’52SE feels a very crude thing to operate, its casework and chassis a festival of plastic and with an unlovely fluorescent display that seemed compulsory back in the day. The disc tray is also cheap and cheerful, but at least you get very fast disc access from the era when CD players used bespoke CD mechanisms, and not something originally designed for reading a DVD-ROM inside a PC.
Sonically however, the CD-52SE really impressed. Back in 1991 it brought the best of both worlds to budget silver disc sound – first, you had the clarity, openness and freedom from distortion of the new Bitstream convertor, and second you had the extra subtlety, warmth and depth garnered by the Ken Ishiwata modifications package. The result was a great sounding budget product. Although not as good as £1,000 designs, this was probably the first £300 machine that you could go back to having lived with a high end CD player. It wasn’t searingly uncouth, and moreover it has a really musical character of its very own that just made listening fun.
For example, you could put on any decent recording, and compared to mainstream mid-price multibit machines, the CD-52SE’s midband would feel cleaner and more expansive, with a little more depth too. There would be less of what used to be called ‘digital glare’ across the upper midband, less of a sense that vocals and snare drums had been plated with chrome and then had a bright light shone on them! Treble was very impressive too, with lots of space and filigree detail, and a less feeling of roughness. Only in the bass did the ’52 let the side down, being just a touch light compared to some price rivals, although it was always very tuneful.
This all made for a wonderfully accessible, affordable silver disc spinner that gave cash-strapped digital audiophiles a true taste of the high end for not much money. Owning a Marantz CD-52SE showed you knew what you were doing when it came to choosing an affordable yet high performance product. Magazines raved about it, dealers couldn’t get enough, and Marantz final began to emerge from the shadows of its parent company to really make its own presence felt in the hi-fi marketplace. Marantz sold them by the warehouse load, and did a quick tweak with a ‘Mk II’ version late in its life just to keep the production lines running. The spin put on this at the time was that the standard non-SE Mk II had most of the tweaks of the Mk I SE, and it was certainly an improvement, but it wouldn’t quite have been worth selling your Mk I to get.
Whichever incarnation you go for, the Marantz CD-52 is an enjoyable sounding music maker with bags of character, and historically it has be be applauded for bringing decent sounding digital disc to the masses for the first time. Today, the good news is that you’ll be able to pick a good working example up for less than £50 – which is a brilliant bargain if it’s a cheap silver disc source you seek.