Industry Profile: Ken Ishiwata—Brand Ambassador, Marantz

At the end of November, I spent a couple days in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, getting a first look at Marantz's New Reference series audio components. During my brief visit to D+M's European HQ, I was fortunate enough to spend 40 minutes of one-on-one chat time with Ken Ishiwata, Marantz's famed Brand Ambassador, and a key component to Marantz's success for nearly 40 years. I was originally only scheduled to have 10 minutes with him, but thankfully, due to a last-minute adjustment, we were able to talk for longer.

Ken's chic green robe and delicate patterned scarf intrigued me from the very beginning. His fashion sense is unlike any other—especially in this industry. Beyond that, his upright posture and look of constant contemplation commands immediate unspoken respect from any who share a room with him. He speaks fluent English with a heavy Japanese accent, pronouncing each word very carefully, and with much deliberation.

I had heard nothing but utmost praise for Ken Ishiwata from nearly everyone I'd spoken to about him prior to meeting him in person, and my respect for him only continued to grow as our conversation went on.

I started our interview off by asking him to give me a brief history of how he got started in this industry:

Ken Ishiwata: I started from music. I studied violin when I was small. In that time, everything was mono. Not stereo yet. This was in the '50s. I was born in 1947. In the '50s, I was already starting to play violin, and that's the period when I learned all the old masters, like Oistrakh and Heifetz. Then, I wanted to listen to those masters, but could not afford hi-fi. So I built my first amplifier when I was 10 years old. I was really passionate about becoming a violinist and won quite a number of contests in Japan. But then, of course, I've changed my direction of studying it since then. But music is always with me.

In high school, I was making quite a number of amplifiers for my friends and also friends of my father as well—because they had money. (Laughs) In such a way, I first got in to this industry as an amateur engineer.

But then, when I joined Pioneer (1967), they sent me to Europe (1968). And then, I started running so many things in Europe and wanted to stay there. I then joined Marantz in 1978. It's been almost 40 years since I joined!

I've encountered so many different things and different periods. In 1978, there was no CD. Everything was still analog. Then Compact Disc came in the '80s, so things changed quite a bit. After the millennium, it became SACD, DSD. But still—the fundamental thing was always music. I was promoting the Marantz brand because I fell in love with the way Marantz products communicated with music. It had such a passion, a character, a very specific soundstage; very warm mids, beautiful voices. I wanted to keep that Marantz identity. I paid a lot of attention to the details on every single product—which wasn't easy, to be honest—especially because we have different price categories. Maintaining on every class of price the same philosophy.

In Europe, we are very strong because we've kept our identity. The Marantz brand was born in America, in New York. Then went into Sun Valley, California—completely different, but still American. Then, like how today's Mr. Trump says to try to get the production in America—in that time, for hi-fi, it was already too expensive to keep in America. They decided to go to Japan, so they found a company in Japan and made a joint venture company called Marantz Japan: a mixture of American and Japanese industrialization.

In the '80s, Philips, with its Compact Disc technology, bought the Marantz brand. Marantz is a rare mix of American, Japanese, and European. There isn't any other brand that has such a culture of those three different areas.

JD: Do you think there's a difference in the perception of the Marantz brand in Japan, Europe, and US?

KI: Unfortunately, yes. But again, you say "perception"—it all depends on how the brand is promoted in different countries. As I mentioned earlier, the Marantz brand was born in America, but it was sold to so many different people—different types of people. That's affected Marantz in a negative way, like it did in the US.

Saul B. Marantz, the original owner, sold the brand to a company called Superscope. Superscope let Philips handle the brand outside of US, and Philips finally had to sell the Marantz brand. But in the US, Superscope kept Marantz to themselves. They went to Taiwan, China—cheap products with the name "Marantz" on them, which had nothing to do with Marantz outside of the US. So management, and how the business was run in a different country, was different with Marantz. In the end, Superscope had to sell because they weren't successful with Marantz.

They didn't want to sell to Philips, so they sold to another American company in Chicago that again couldn't make it. In the end, Marantz was finally part of Philips again. But it took more than 10 years. We've wasted that period.

Historically, Marantz in America had a really bad period because of this arrangement. But in Europe and Japan, we kept it in the same way. The situation in America was unfortunately different. At certain periods, even Philips in America tried selling Marantz products under Philips name. They even tried that! They've tried so many crazy things. That's the reason why, today, Marantz America is not the same as the rest. But now, Kevin Zarow and his group have been working with Marantz for quite some time and we're quite happy with the way they're doing business. If we can continue like this, it'll be no problem.

JD: What's your official title?

KI: Because of the fact that I was doing so many things, I actually didn't have or need a title. But then, when Philips came, they said "why don't you have a title? Someone like you must have a title." I said, "I don't need one." They said, "a company like Philips, we are well-organized, so we have to have all the classifications properly written down. What do you do?" I explained what I did: from development to commercial marketing—everything. "Huh. We don't have such a function! But we must find something. We'll come back." I didn't hear from them for 3–4 months. One day, I got a phone call, "Mr. Ishiwata, we couldn't find you a title, so we went to an outside agency to come up with a new title, and they came up with the title 'Brand Ambassador'."

JD: On a day-to-day basis, what are your duties?

KI: I have to make sure products are properly developed, make sure that they're well-produced, and that we've explained all the details properly on the technical side. My function is that I have to make sure that everything is in line.

JD: Since you've been in the industry for so long, do you have any comments on how its changed? About how people don't seem to value hi-fi as much as they used to?

KI: You see, people always listen to music. Before the LP, we had a disc format called SP. It was mono and it was in 1948. In 1958, stereo LPs came out. Then, LP became very popular, and stereo LPs went into every household. That's the format people used to listen music, which continued through the '70s. In the beginning of the '80s, the CD came out. The change from LP to CD happened. Now, even CD is dying, because it's all on file formats, like MP3 and so on. People will always listen to music but software will change.

Now, we're talking only file formats, compressed. Why? Because in the '80s, memory was so expensive. They had to compress the music, otherwise it was impossible to have such a large-sized memory on a low-priced player. But today, memory is not expensive at all. I'm hoping that people will make music without compression. You can do it in high-resolution. We speak about high-rez audio, so hopefully streaming companies start hi-res streaming and downloads. So step-by-step, music sources become high-resolution then we adapt our equipment accordingly.

JD: But how realistic do you think that is? Just look at Spotify—so many people are content staying at the free tier.

KI: Yes, but still it is increasing. I don't know how it is in the US, but over here, people are really paying for Spotify.

JD: [sigh] I don't think it's like that in the States.

KI: That's always been the case—even with equipment. Native English speakers are not very keen to spend money. They go for the lowest-priced everything. For whatever the reason, it's always native English-speaking countries. People in Australia, UK, and America are completely different than German people, for example, who are willing to pay.

JD: What other trends do you notice between Europe, US, and Asian markets?

KI: Most probably, you already know these. Discs are still very popular in Japan. People in Japan like to collect discs. They prefer to buy a disc rather than getting files on their computer. They want physical things. That's quite a different mentality. To pay for something non-physical . . . Asian people don't like that. In Europe, they're more realistic. The majority of people accept Internet downloads. And in US, Americans just don't want to pay. That's the difference.

JD: What do you see for the future of high-end audio?

KI: High-end audio is a tiny business. In terms of value, worldwide, high-end is stable. Still, people want a certain level, but size is not increasing. We can't really think of a huge business, but it's still reasonable. The reason why we're doing this [motions towards New Reference series] is because though we can never sell so many, but we know, worldwide, that we are able to sell certain numbers.

It all depends on how you position your brand, and how you promote your products. That's a key success factor. Sony, for example, has to go much wider. Depending on the brand you're promoting, each brand has the right size to be.

The secret is: don't think about getting bigger. That's not realistic.

Some high-end people do well, like Wilson, for example. He knows his limitations and he doesn't go beyond them. But unfortunately, many people follow the nature of human beings, and try to get bigger. Then the bubble bursts somewhere, unfortunately. You have to know who you are and understand the limitations of your size. This way, you stay healthy and happy. That's the only way, in my opinion, to be successful in high-end audio.

JD: What are your thoughts on the analog comeback?

KI: I love analog LPs and still own more than 8000 LPs. Many of those have never been published in CD. Today, youngsters are interested in playing analog, so cheap turntables are selling very well. Another thing you can't forget is that many discotheque DJs (the majority being Europeans) use LPs, because that's where the only special music they can get is. As long as those DJs work with those LPs, youngsters will want that same music. They'll buy those same LPs and play with cheap turntable systems. It's a very specific market. That will never really become high-end unless someone comes out with a new concept making it properly with disc creators. Then, DJs will show what is possible with high quality and younger people will be able to hear the difference.

If we did it that way, we'd have a quicker chance of getting somewhere—with DJs. The type of music they play, and the types of discs they pick up are completely different than normal musicians.

At the very end of our chat, I had one last topic I wanted to touch upon with the audio guru sitting in front of me: music.

JD: What are you listening to right now?

KI: Every month, I listen to somewhere around 100 new albums, trying to find something I'm able to use for demonstration, which is very difficult! I have to really keep listening to everything that comes out. But unfortunately, I scrap the majority because of the quality.

We get on to chatting about our mutual love for Adele.

KI: I love her. She's fantastic, an amazing singer, such potential. Her last album, 25, is the best recording of her. I use two songs from that album as demo tracks. And Lady Gaga is an amazing singer. She can sing almost anything. She sang with Tony Bennett. I use that sometimes for demos too.

JD: But you didn't choose to play any of that today . . . because of the crowd?

KI: Yes. I have to be very careful about who I'm demonstrating to. It all depends. The majority of them were audiophiles. You know how audiophiles are. [laughs]


KI then played me samples of tracks like "Mademoiselle Chante Le Blues" from Patricia Kaas, The Dolly Rockers' "Diamonds", and "Antissa" from E.S. Posthumus—not typical selections you'd expect to hear from an audiophile. The legendary Ishiwata-san truly is full of surprises.

Our chat left me feeling inspired and enlightened. He's one of those people you meet and think, "I hope that by the time I am as old as this man, I can accomplish even but a fraction of what he has done." He is one of the true greats of this industry. In my view, his dedication to high-end audio places him well beyond the traditional jurisdiction of the sonic courts as we know them.

tonykaz's picture

I've seen a number of interviews with this man, they've been like fatherly advice types of pontificating.

This time, KI gave you a seemingly "Honest" evaluation of the High-End Audio Business.

1.) High-End is "tiny". So very true, it's smaller than the smallest part of the 3 Trillion Dollar Transportation Industry ( windshield wiper blades ).

2.) Vinyl's future is dismal. The DJs are the leading proponents with cheap turntables & Garage Sale vinyl comprising the niche market dominance. I hadn't realized the significance behind the DJ in all of this ( somehow I thought it was from the work of A.Dudley ) hmm.

3.) Vinyl quality is dismal ( for the most part ). I experienced this when I was in the High-End business of Importing, Retailing & Manufacturing Analog stuff ( 1980s ). KI seems to realize that it's still rather horrible ( despite the over-the-top promoting from the Audio Press ). Analog Vinyl is much more a Cultural thing than a Quality thing.

Of all the Audio Industry interviews I've heard or read ( over the years ) , this one Interview stands ABOVE all the rest. Well done!!! Especially for the new girl on the block. ( well done to JA, too )

I hope this sort of Magic continues,

fingers crossed

Tony in Michigan

ps. I once owned a vast collection of Vinyl, most (99% ) of which was rubbish, only a tiny bit was presentable for demo. purposes with that bit needing a Koetsu Rosewood to do it justice.

la musique's picture

Very good interview Jana,
I also love Patricia Kass. I have most of her CDs and some are truly worth having.
She sings in French, German and English. Her orchestration is always top notch.
Keep up the good work.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent as always- Jana.
You have been in the presence of true (audio) greatness in Mr. Ishiwata. Keep writing!

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Wimbo's picture

and he's always been very approachable.
He advised me on how to modify my MA6"s back then, so I could drive my ESL63's better and it worked a treat. I think he was using the same Electrostatics in the 80's as JGH.

stereophilereader's picture

oh dear....

argyle_mikey's picture

RIP indeed, a great man.
My personal Marantz history started in 1981 with a PM310 Amp, from the dodgy period mentioned in Jana’s interview. Pretty champagne colour and flashing lights but not much substance.
Then a CD63 and a PM66Ki (the man himself !) which was the first time music began to sound real.
A CD10 followed, which sadly had to go when money got a bit tight. Built like a tank.
The highlight though was a PM16 amp bought from Germany - he was right about the good stuff being difficult to find in the English-speaking world. My favourite amp bar none, I even got the “where’s the subwoofer ?” comment once with that. Krell-like power for a fraction of the cost.
Stereophile has swerved Marantz over the years, which is a shame - they made some very musical sounding gear. But it was good to see this moment acknowledged.
RIP Ken.