Marantz CD65II SE

The number of budget, Philips-based Marantz CD players made in the nineteen eighties and nineties is quite overwhelming. Back in the heyday of the silver disc, the market was constantly shifting and Marantz – like everyone else – had to come up with new features, tweaks and/or styling to keep its market position.

Marantz’s CD65 Special Edition first surfaced in 1988, and sold for £249.95 in the UK. That’s approaching a £750 in today’s money, so is mid-priced by modern standards. This is the mk II edition and is very similar, even down to the horrible moulded plastic fascia and base. At least the transport buttons are brushed metal-finished, so one’s point of contact with the machine feels nice enough. Above and behind the front, the thin pressed steel lid case is held in place by Ken Ishiwata’s trademark copper screws – which go to plastic on the chassis inside…

In a way, the slimline (420x90x300mm, 4kg) styling of the CD65II Special Edition still works today. Sleek, purposeful and devoid of annoying styling flourishes, it wins no prizes for good looks but has a whiff of eighties high end about it. I can imagine how it would be admired back in the day, as it spun the Pet Shop Boys’ Introspective, or REM’s Out of Time. The cheesiest aspect is the cheap stuck-on Special Edition badge on the front of the disc tray, set in italic script – which was an eighties sign of class. The display is crude but informative, with cold fluorescent blue digits. To its credit, unlike many eighties designs, it still works perfectly thirty one years later, unlike some Sonys I could mention…

Overall though, this machine feels pretty flimsy; Marantz was likely hoping that most of the contact its customers would have with their new CD players would be via the (then) fashionable remote control. The moulded plastic base is nasty – although you never normally get to see it – and the rear panel is little better. The ‘Made in Belgium’ sticker showed that this had far more in common with Philips than the huge, US or Japanese made Marantz behemoths of a decade earlier – how times had changed! It was in fact manufactured in the Philips factory in Hasselt. The disc tray is cheap plastic too, and whirs out in a way that no self respecting Sony of that era would. The thin damping pad on the underside of the top cover is pretty lamentable, and doesn’t stop the case sounding tinny when you knock it with your knuckle.

Take a closer look at the CD65II Special Edition’s innards though, and you begin to see it in a more positive way. The disc transport is the much loved Philips CDM4 metal hub, swing arm, single beam design – one that is now hallowed by audiophiles. The quality of this is excellent, and far more reliable in terms of lasers failing than the CDM12 series that soon became the norm in the early-to-mid nineties. Marantz made a big deal that it would play the new 80mm CD singles, but no one cares in 2020. What’s more interesting is that the mech is very well isolated, and attached to an electrical coaxial digital output socket at the rear of the player, complete with shorting plug. In other words, this is one hell of a CD transport.

The trick of the tale however, is that many may not wish to use the CD65 II Special Edition as such – because sitting on its copper-plated, double sided printed circuit board are twin Philips TDA1541A DACs. Yes, the legendary 16-bit, 4 times oversampling chips that CD obsessives secretly hanker after – and in later improved, lower distortion form. These coupled with its excellent transport, make this Marantz a digital hot rod. The underside of the main board shows a lot of surface mount devices, making it a more modern machine than perhaps it looks. So what of those Special Edition touches? You got higher grade ELNA Cerafine capacitors in key locations, copper screws and the aforementioned tacky fascia sticker for your money.

Overall then, we have one of the last eighties CD players to have that magic combination of Philips CDM4 and TDA1541As – in their last and (almost) best incarnations. Switch this machine, let it warm up for a few minutes, then sit down and be amazed. It sounds nothing like earlier players with TD1541s, which were thought to be harsh and brightly lit. Instead, you get a wonderfully soft and mellifluous sound – one that’s about as ‘valve like’ as anything digital ever was. My reference Chord Hugo TT2 DAC sounds lean and forensic by comparison, lacking much of the romance of this classic Marantz. True, the CD65 is a bit soft in the bass, and doesn’t have anything like the insight of a modern digital product, but it’s really sweet and the music just seems to flow like water. 

Hearing this player in a modern setting gives the lie to the notion that early CD was poor, and neither is the cliche about it sounding harsh universally true. Rather, the Marantz CD65II Special Edition is very nice by today’s standards and has bags of charm to its sound. True, it’s not the most forensic or detailed, but that’s not really the point. Its handling of female vocals can still teach any modern machine a thing or two – indeed you find yourself wondering just how much progress digital audio has made in the past three decades…

The good news is that these things turn up for peanuts on the secondhand market – we’re in £100 to £200 territory, depending on condition – but the bad news is that they’re fairly few and far between. All the same, they are around and can be bargains if you find a decent example. Think on this – to my ears, this Marantz’s transport sounds better than today’s highly respected Cyrus CD Xt Signature at £2,000. Happy hunting…

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