Ken Ishiwata

Ken Ishiwata a“Saul B Marantz was a great hi-fi pioneer,” says Ken Ishiwata, “and along with McIntosh arguably made the high end hi-fi scene we have today – maybe we wouldn’t have home hi-fi systems at all, as we know them? So as we develop our products these days, we try to retain his distinctive musical signature which is an amazing sound stage, and a seductive feel to the way vocals are reproduced. This is also very much my personal taste, too. I am not sure if this would have been retained if I hadn’t stayed at the company…”

It was 1977 that Marantz Europe contacted Ken Ishiwata. “They said we’d like to have you because we have relationships with the Japanese, but don’t have anybody who speaks Japanese, understands business and also engineering. I gave them my conditions, but they said, “sorry, we cannot afford you.” Then I forgot about it and got on with life, but a few months later, they called me back. “We still can’t afford you, but our Japanese organisation still wants you and they will pay what you want.” I flew over and and discovered the amazingly high standards that the company was running. For me, that was the biggest difference between Marantz and the rest.”

“At that time,” he remembers, “Japanese engineers were not allowed to design anything; they were so keen on keeping the quality high. That was my first impression. Then I spent three months learning about Marantz and then went to this factory in Belgium where they made loudspeakers. My first job was solving the problem of misunderstanding between the Japanese engineering group and European quality control department. I learned so much by doing this. Then Marantz Europe found out what I was doing and said, “can you do the speaker development for us?” That was the first time I got directly involved in Marantz products directly, and by 1979 I was making quite a number of speakers for them.”

One thing lead to another, and Ken was soon turning his attention to the electronics. “I noticed that the sound of the amps of that time was not really what I remember Marantz amplifiers sounding like. So I began to talk to Marantz Japan about this and began to involve myself in these products. Then Compact Disc came in and things changed forever. Actually, the new Red Book CD standard wasn’t good enough for really high level sound, but we understood that it had to be set where a big company could make a product at a reasonable price. At the time I didn’t know anything about digital audio at all, but I learned so much from Philips. I always gained knowledge from doing something and that always made such a big difference in my life. My last forty years have been so interesting.”

When he joined Marantz in 1978, Marantz Europe was very successful, doing over $100 million US sales, with a net profit of 6 million. “It was a daunting task to come in, but I concentrated on improving their relationship with Marantz Japan. As you can imagine, Japanese engineers had huge problems communicating with Philips due to their poor English. So my involvement was vital for the company, and with this we began the transformation from an analogue specialist to an analogue/digital specialist – which was another cultural challenge. It was fantastic to learn about digital audio from the masters at Philips, and informed the experience behind my Special Edition CD players.”

The extensive collaboration between Philips and Marantz had a downside though, Ken says. “From a business point of view, Marantz being owned by Philips wasn’t ideal because the Philips sales organisation took sales of Marantz products away from many successful distributors we had. For example, in Europe Marantz enjoyed over ten percent of the market share at that time! In Switzerland, Marantz had 14% via our own distributor, and all the Nordic countries had over ten percent too. When Philips took over, these sales went down, and they forced us to change product development. The new products were not at all traditional Marantz designs, and we lost out in our own markets. By 1990, we were really in trouble, then we took the company back from Philips and turned it from a big loss-making business to break-even, in one year!”

So how has Marantz managed to succeed in the world of two channel stereo separates, when so many of the big Japanese players have walked away from this market? “It’s true that in the nineteen eighties, when AV receivers were gaining market share, many manufactures were shifting their focus to multi-channel AV and some then stopped two-channel completely. Inside Marantz there were big discussions about this; indeed at one point the Japanese Marantz management wanted to stop stereo separates and move to AV. “Over my dead body! We cannot stop being who we are!”, I said. I insisted that we kept the two channel business going, and made sure that we developed strong products that gained market shares, and contributed strongly to our bottom line. After some years, the Japanese management thanked me for this strategy, acknowledging that I helped to keep the business running.”

“Lest we forget that Marantz was born for pure hi-fi, and developed into a stereo music reproduction specialist, and this will never change”, exclaims Ken. “In the nineteen eighties I came up with the tag-line ‘Because Music Matters’, because everybody without exception has a special relationship with music, usually starting when you were a very small child and continuing until you die. As I always say, music is the highest form of art we humans have created! There is nothing else that has the power to touch people so strongly. I must thank Saul B Marantz for opening my eyes – and ears – to really know stereo reproduction is, with the Model 7C when I was high school student. I never thought that one day I would work for the company and do what I have done for the brand. Maybe it was fate…”

“My greatest high during my career at Marantz is without doubt the Ken Ishiwata Signature CD player series”, says the great man. “That’s very well known of course, but what is far less famous is the Marantz LD-50 loudspeaker system, back at the end of the nineteen seventies. The CD-63 KI Signature is surely the classic – many hi-fi reviewers still keep these in their collections. It’s not most neutral sounding player but it had a very special sexy sound. The lowlights of my time were when I had to accept product development direction from the Philips management. Due to this we had to close our loudspeaker factory in Belgium, and of course all electronics product designs were initiated by Philips people rather than from Marantz. I wasn’t able to influence anything in that period, and it was very hard for me. You know, it’s so easy to damage your brand when you launch poor products – and it was a struggle to get the ship back above water when we took the company over.”

“I have learned many lessons, but in truth I was not always in a position to change the decisions because of company politics and/or organisation. The time when Philips took over sales of Marantz Europe from our distributors and Marantz’s own sales organisation, that was difficult because we had been highly successful in Europe. The lesson here was “don’t fix it, if it isn’t broken!” I feel that if this hadn’t happened, Marantz would be in a different position in the hi-fi market.”

“The time when Ripplewood Holdings forced Marantz to purchase the Rio company and brand was terrible”, he remembers. “Do you recall those horrible MP3 players from twenty years ago? We were totally against it and the result was awful – huge losses for the company, which in turn forced us to sell the Marantz-owned Sagamiohono factory near Tokyo in order to pay our debts. If this hadn’t happened, our Japanese organisation wouldn’t have to pay high rental costs every month for office space now…”

“My greatest personal regret,” confides Ken, “is that I was too big headed to fight against the Japanese management over the use of my name in Japanese domestic market products. I was up against a senior company man and wasn’t diplomatic enough. This resulted in there being no KI products in my home country, which is a big regret. This isn’t a problem now – even though there are no KI Ruby pieces there – but in the late eighties and nineties it was. This is my one big regret, and wish I had handled the company politics differently.”

“I sometimes think about the path my life has taken”, he continues. “It is very difficult to imagine myself working for the first company I joined – Pioneer – now. Many people in Pioneer have quietly told me that they thought it was a big mistake to let me go. Nobody knows one way or the other I suppose, but I don’t think I could have learned as much as I have with Marantz, nor been as successful. Who knows?”

Ken tells me that the nineteen sixties and seventies were the golden age of hi-fi. “The vinyl LP and tube technology was making such a great sound – and then we saw transistors really coming into their own. In truth, forty years ago we were already capable of getting an extremely high standard of sound quality in the home. The relatively poor basic specification of Compact Disc (44.1 kHz sampling, 16-bit words) meant that we had to work very hard to get this format to reach the level it has today. Actually the sound quality we can now squeeze out of this format is amazing. For me, the major contribution of digital is that it can preserve high quality music in high quality, and we don’t need to keep coming up with new formats – as there are so many high resolution ones around now. This in my opinion, is the biggest change we have made – it is liberating no longer being dependent on the software media anymore.”

“Because we’re no longer locked to one physical format,” he continues, “we now have the chance to approach a much wider group of people. Many music lovers are using streaming services and providers are improving quality all the time; even high resolution streaming is getting popular! This is the lifestyle of today and allows people to choose their favourite music in the way that they want it, and that in my opinion is a very good thing. For many audiophiles, listening to very high quality vinyl replay systems is the greatest dream and I don’t think this will change. From a more mainstream position, the new world of digital audio is a fantastic thing, the gift that keeps on giving.”

Ken has extremely fond memories of using an original Marantz Model 7C preamplifier with the original McIntosh 275 power amplifier. “This combination sounded amazing, but actually I have many favourites, after all these years in the hi-fi industry. I love the Audio Research SP-10 preamplifier and Mark Levinson No.20.5 Class A monoblock power amplifier, driving Mark Levinson HQD speakers or B&W DM70s. If you ever get a chance to listen to this system, you should.”

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