Marantz CD-94 CD player

Let's go back a few years. Well, more than a few, actually. The electronics end of high-end audio consisted of two companies—Marantz and McIntosh. If you were not up to shopping at their stratospheric price level—even though the industry hadn't yet invented components priced to compete with automobiles—you could always fall back on Dynaco, the poor man's high end in kit form. You hooked all this together with two-dollar connecting cables and 16-gauge zip cord purchased from the local electrical supply house, or—if you felt particularly flush—you'd spend a few (very few) bucks more at Fred's Stereo for the cables with the fancy molded plugs. Hoses were used for watering the lawns.

Today, Fred's Stereo sells microwave ovens (but it's still called Fred's Stereo, for reasons best left unexplored). Dynaco is no more (footnote 1), bought out by ESS (which itself is no more). McIntosh remains as a well-built line of up-market American products which never really chose to compete in the high-end game. And Marantz? It was bought out by Superscope, the then US Sony distributors, in the early days of the Japanese consumer-electronics explosion. Production was moved to Japan, though design stayed in the US. While the line continued to do reasonably well, it lost much of its previous identity, certainly in the eyes of audiophiles. Saul Marantz, company founder and one of the founders of high fidelity as we know it, went on to other adventures, successfully helping to establish Dahlquist as a major loudspeaker manufacturer, and more recently joining up with John Curl to produce the Lineage line of vaporware (footnote 2).

The company which retained Marantz's name, despite becoming one of the pack of consumer electronics producers, continued to retain a certain glow from its notable past. An occasional product of interest to the serious audiophile popped out of the mist here and there. Some never made it to the American market; I seem to recall reading about a small integrated amplifier which created a minor stir in the UK. But Marantz clearly perceived their competition to be Yamaha, Luxman, Sony, et al, not Krell, Rowland Research, Audio Research, or even (to use a Japanese example) Accuphase. Meanwhile, on the corporate side, the European Marantz company (except for in the USA) was bought out by Philips, though production remained in Japan. Its CD players, not surprisingly, are therefore heavily based on Philips technology, although the two lines retain their own identities and distribution (footnote 3).

With the 94 series of components, Marantz now appears to be hunting in high-end territory. The line consists of a 200Wpc integrated amplifier, a DAT recorder (not yet in sight on these shores), a CD player, and an optional outboard D/A converter. The last two are the subjects of this report.

The CD-94 is fully functional by itself—the CDA-94 outboard digital-to-analog (D/A) converter is not required, but is claimed, by Marantz, to offer improved performance. It's obvious when first unpacking the CD-94 that this is no ordinary CD player. Compared with the machines based on the lightweight Philips/Magnavox chassis, it's massive—feeling even heavier than its rated 27+ lbs. The weight comes from the extensive use of diecast aluminum throughout, including all moving parts—no plastic transports here. Nor does it depend on mass alone for resonance suppression; the transport mechanism has an elastic suspension system to further minimize any possible effects from structure-born vibrations.

Electronically, the unit appears equally sophisticated: dual D/A converters, digital and analog filtration, heavy-duty power supplies (separate supplies for the transport, display, digital circuitry, and analog output stages—all driven from a large toroidal power transformer), and high-quality parts throughout.

The CDA-94
The separate, optional CDA-94 outboard D/A converter claims an improved degree of electrical shielding, increased power-supply capacity (including separate power transformers for the digital output section, D/A converters, and analog stages), and a number of separate circuit boards for isolation.

Interestingly, no special claims are made for the analog output stages themselves in the CDA-94; presumably they are basically similar to the analog stages in the CD-94. A major feature of the add-on unit appears to be its ability to accept three different digital inputs (one of which is an optical fiber link). In addition, these inputs may be at any one of three sampling rates: 44.1kHz (the CD standard), 48kHz (DAT and Direct Broadcast (DBS) -B mode standard), and 32kHz (the DBS-A mode standard). The correct sampling rate is selected automatically.

Other features provided by the CDA-94 include DAT outputs with a monitor switch, fixed and variable outputs (the variable outputs' higher level and volume control suggest possible direct input to a power amp, though I did not audition it this way), a headphone output with its own volume control, and a phase-inversion switch which, unfortunately, only operates with the variable output, suggesting that the phase inversion is done in the analog domain. Balanced outputs are also available for those able to make use of them; I could not.

The straight CD-94, by contrast, has standard analog and digital outputs, both RCA and optical, plus a headphone output with its own volume control. I won't go into a litany of its other features here—suffice to say it has them all, including remote control and the ubiquitous Philips/Magnavox-developed Favorite Track Selection (FTS)—as you might expect from the corporate tie-in. The only features I can think of not offered by the CD-94 are a CD changer and remote volume control. (But new gee-whiz features no one ever thought they needed are sprouting on new players with each new crop of microprocessors).

Cosmetically, the CD-94 and CDA-94 are both tasteful and devoid of gratuitous Ginza Glitter. Less frequently used controls are hidden behind drop-down front panels. My samples came in the traditional Marantz brushed gold; black is also available.

Both the straight CD-94 and the CD-94/CDA-94 were auditioned using a system consisting of the Klyne SK-5a preamp, Motif MS100 power amp, B&W 801F loudspeakers (without the EQ), and Monster M-1000 and Interlink Reference 2 interconnects and M-1 loudspeaker cable (not bi-wired). The 801s were mounted on Sound Anchor stands. (Sound Anchors manufacture the stands frequently seen elevating the Vandersteen 2Cs, a different model, of course.)

I began my auditions, and spent the most time, with the CD-94 sans CDA-94. I must say, up front, that I found its sound quality a bit disappointing. I did not come to that conclusion quickly, because the Marantz is, by any standards short of complete digiphobia, a decent-sounding machine. I found it notably free of hardness and glare, although no CD playback I have yet heard is completely free of the latter. Imaging was well developed. Edgy sound, obvious grain, and electronic etching were largely absent.

Still, I was troubled. Nothing about the sound of the CD-94 was offensive, yet certain sonic characteristics were disturbing in a player of its otherwise high quality (and price). At the low end, it went as deep as any other player I have evaluated, yet that LF response was soft and not particularly well defined. No problems were noted from there up to the midrange, but the latter had a noticeably forward quality, the CD-94 sounding subjectively "louder" than a number of other players. This may have contributed to what I perceived as a foreshortening of depth; front-to-back image placement and depth layering from the Marantz were only average. And high frequencies, although not hard and not subjectively "rolled off," were slightly dry and lacking in that last bit of sparkle and openness compared with the best CD standards.

On Nojima Plays Liszt (Reference Recordings RR-25CD), the sonic perspective of the Marantz appeared to be slightly shallow, ambience and air were subdued, and overall realism was reduced by another factor not mentioned above: a slight softening of dynamics. It would be an exaggeration to say that the CD-94 sounded compressed, yet a certain explosive quality—the sense of real dynamic impact from the piano—was missing. In another example, the already somewhat forward-sounding cello on Steven Kates, Cello (Bainbridge BCD6272) sounded a bit more forward on the Marantz, with the reduction of HF openness evident in a subtle curtailing of the resinous quality of the instrument. Finally, on the Telarc Alexander Nevsky (CD-80143), the bass, though deep, lacked real definition. Depth and detailing, especially within the rather laid-back chorus, were subdued. To its credit, however, the Marantz remained clean and unruffled throughout, with graceful handling of orchestral and choral crescendos.

And what about the combination of the CD-94 with the CDA-94 outboard D/A converter? I wish I could say that the addition of the latter substantially changed matters, but it did not. The sonic differences between it and the CD-94 alone were minimal, and appeared to be very much cable-dependent. Using Monster Interlink Reference 2 interconnects (outputs to preamp—the CD-94 to CDA-94 link was optical fiber), I definitely preferred the basic CD-94. The addition of the CDA added a noticeable increment of dryness to the treble. Switching to M-1000 interconnects, the combination was now very slightly superior in the high end. None of the other sonic characteristics were notably different with or without the CDA-94. Unless you feel an urgent need for the switchable sampling rate (all readers with DAT and DBS facilities take note), I feel that your $1800 would be far better spent elsewhere in your system than on the CDA-94. I did not, incidentally, evaluate the adjustable-level output, for reasons which should, by now, be obvious (footnote 4).

Sonically, the CD-94 was outpointed by a less-than-current version of the similarly priced California Audio Labs Aria. The Cal Audio was simply more lively, open, and three-dimensional. But the real surprise for me was the comparison of the Marantz with the latest version of the Audio Concepts/MSB, now based on the Philips 470-series chassis. The MSB does have a small degree of solid-state brightness and, on some recordings, a slightly etched quality, but it is very clean and not at all hard. Frankly, in my system, it seriously outscored the CD-94 in soundstaging focus and depth, inner detail, openness and fineness of grain structure, and tight, palpable bass.

Summing Up
Despite all I have said, the Marantz is a respectable performer. But there are, I feel, better-sounding players out there for less money—in some cases far less. However, none of them are likely to last as long. The CD-94 is built like a tank, beautifully finished, and makes most cheaper machines—and some not so much cheaper—look and feel like Tinkertoys. But Tinkertoys that, somehow, bring this listener greater listening satisfaction and enjoyment. I often found myself wondering, while listening to a new recording on the CD-94, just what it would sound like on the Aria or MSB. When listening to either of the latter, the only thing I sometimes wondered (and not as often as you might think) was what the analog LP sounded like.

The CD-94 has been on the market for over a year now, and I am fully aware that it has been well-received elsewhere, in particular by Stereophile's own Audio Cheapskate, who enthusiastically recommends it. So by all means audition it for yourself, if you can. Conduct your own "Pepsi challenge" with other players (CD players are, unlike phono equipment, delightfully easy to compare, provided the output levels are matched). I only recommend that you listen carefully before investing in what is, in many non-sonic respects, a very appealing product.—Thomas J. Norton

Footnote 1: Although its spirit lives on at Hafler.

Footnote 2: Lineage is apparently defunct, the victim of pre-production failure. The world may not need another line of electronics, but a company with Saul Marantz and John Curl behind it would have made an interesting addition to the high-end scene.

Footnote 3: In the 21st century, Marantz became one of the brands owned by D&M Holdings.—Ed.

Footnote 4: Not obvious? The addition of a volume control, while it doesn't always necessarily degrade the sound, has never been known to improve it.

Marantz America, Inc.
100 Corporate Drive
Mahwah, NJ 07430-2041
(201) 762-6500