Marantz SM-11S1 Reference power amplifier Page 2

Instead, when I powered up the SM-11S1 right of the box, driving it single-ended from Musical Fidelity's kWP preamp (which costs about three times as much), the Marantz delivered a jolt, particularly in terms of its organizational skills. The SM-11S1 produced startlingly clear, well-defined, appropriately compact, and exceedingly well-focused images across and within a generously wide, deep soundstage. If you like looking at your music, this amp delivered impressive visuals.

That was the first thing I noticed because, surprisingly, the Marantz's attacks and decays seemed faster, cleaner, and more effervescent than those of my far more powerful and expensive references, the MF kWs. The SM-11S1's tidy imaging, clarity and cleanness of attack, and effortless, revealing decays into blackness were among its most impressive and reliable qualities.

Beyond that, the SM-11S1 managed to drive the big MAXX 2s from top to bottom without apology. While it didn't grab the big bass bins' woofers with the kW monoblocks' iron-fisted control, its own grip produced deep, well-textured, rhythmically assured bass that never felt on the verge of letting go or turning soft. The Marantz's bottom-end performance trounced that of the admittedly far less expensive but similarly powered (150Wpc) NAD M3 integrated amp, which I reviewed in the January 2007 issue, and which produced somewhat soft, tentative, and extension-limited bass with the Wilsons. While I expected performance similar to but somewhat better than that of the M3 and other amplifiers of moderate price and power, the SM-11S1 continually surprised me with its vibrancy, textural suppleness, and overall tonal and dynamic sophistication.

Once you've become accustomed to the musical finesse of top-shelf electronics, what's usually available for $4000 is either a cardboardy hardness packed with excitement, or a pleasing softness and warmth packed with boredom. When I'm given that choice, it's usually the pleasing warmth that wins out. It's a sad fact of audio—and cars, wines, gems, etc.—that while good value can be had at lower prices, once you've experienced the best, the deficiencies of anything less are all too apparent. But for well over a month, the SM-11S1's all-around accomplished, coherent sound made it remarkably easy to forget that it and not the big MF kWs was driving the system.

The Marantz's clean, fast, revealing, surprisingly transparent, well-organized overall presentation took the most challenging recordings in stride. It managed a stellar rendering of a recent reissue on vinyl of Charles Mingus's Mingus Dynasty (Columbia/Pure Pleasure CS 8236)—an honest, revealing transfer, tape hiss and all, of two large-ensemble sessions from 1959 that can get raucous and edgy when all the players dive in. On the swaggering "Song with Orange," while the SM-11S1 didn't deliver Roland Hanna's piano with ultimate woodiness, or the sax section of Benny Golson, Booker Ervin, and John Handy with all the reediness and brass this recording has to offer—it produced a bit of instrumental blending and unwanted edge—it never turned hard or got confused when the brass kicked in for the near-cacophonous conclusion. Instead, the SM-11S1 kept everything in place and under control while negotiating this recording's subtle microdynamic shifts, which reveal Mingus's pinpoint rhythmic attacks.

Digging into my haul from last August's 1000-LP dumpster dive (see "Analog Corner," December 2007), produced a gem in the boxed set of Liszt's Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra, with pianist Michel Béroff and Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra (Electrola/German EMI SLS 5207). This rich, sonorous, somewhat dark and distant recording demonstrated the SM-11S1's overall organizational skills, impressive microdynamic control, and especially its speed and clarity. In soft passages, a lesser amplifier might have allowed the piano's lower register to descend into the hall's murky recesses and failed to preserve the clarity of the individual notes. The upper register, especially with forcefully struck notes, would harden, step forward, and aggressively assert itself. Instead, the SM-11S1 managed to keep the piano's micro- and macrodynamic attacks impressively consistent while keeping the instrument pleasingly distinct in space from the orchestra.

The SM-11S1's rhythmic drive and speed made listening to rock endlessly pleasurable. If white suburban kids listened to pop and rock instead of rap, they'd be going crazy for the latest Rilo Kiley album, Under the Blacklight (LP, Warner Bros. 18937200-1). Aside from being one of the best rock recordings I've heard since Fleetwood Mac's eponymous Reprise LP, it's a smart confection of great Beatles- and Abba-esque hooks and verses matched to smart lyrics and even smarter rhythms. They do make them like they used to.

The SM-11S1 brought out all the snap and pop to this glossy but depth-charged and full-bodied recording, digging down deep with considerable authority and extending to the upper reaches with great clarity and enough suppleness to produce rock-solid, three-dimensional, finger-snapping instrumentals—and, between the speakers, an airy, reach-out-and-touch-it apparition of lead singer Jenny Lewis's voice that managed to cut through the mix without turning hard or edgy. In fact, the SM-11S1 never sounded hardy or edgy—unless it was reproducing a hard, edgy recording.

The SM-11S1 will never be confused with a warm-sounding tube amp, but neither will anyone come away from listening to it with a head full of clichés about solid-state sonic signatures.

Only when I returned to my big Musical Fidelity kW monoblocks could I assess what I'd been missing with the SM-11S1, which was mostly around the margins of dynamics, harmonic structure, authority, stage size, and the quality and quantity of the bass. But the Marantz might actually have been marginally better than the kWs in its speed and clarity of attack and the precision of its decay. That was the quality that made listening to it over the long term so pleasurable, and meant that I didn't miss the power and authority of the bigger monoblocks.

The biggest gap in performance between the two models was between their abilities to sustain—the Marantz could not hold on as long to notes and events before the decay set in. That's where lesser amps that are "fast" can begin to sound cardboardy, and start missing nuances in the music. The SM-11S1 never turned noticeably cardboardy or two-dimensional; it did, however, overlook a layer of nuance that only the very finest source products can produce in the first place.

Marantz's secret weapon
How does a relatively large company such as Marantz, which probably derives most if its revenue from home-theater gear, manage to make such a finely tuned piece of audiophile kit as the SM-11S1—or the equally accomplished and dead-quiet SC-11S1 preamp, for that matter? The company's secret weapon in the fight for good sound at reasonable prices is the utterly noncorporate Ken Ishiwata, who, working out of his listening room in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, fine-tunes all Marantz designs aimed at discerning audiophiles.

Ishiwata told me that while he didn't expect the greatness of the SC-7S2 and MA-9S2 from the lower-priced combo, when he received a prototype of the SM-11S1, he was disappointed with its performance. Working with the Marantz engineers in Japan, he came up with a series of improvements that brought the sound to a level Ishiwata felt should be possible for the asking price. Once that was accomplished, running a pair of SM-11S1s in bridged mode with the SC-11S1 produced "incredible speed and control," he told me. "That was fun," he said. Unfortunately, I never got to hear what a pair of SM-11S1s could do. But even one was good enough.

Reviewing audio components that aren't as good as what you've become accustomed to living with is usually not much fun. But it's what you have to do if you hope to remain informed about what the industry is doing overall, and what kind of value it can offer for the buyer's buck. In fact, the more expensive the gear you own (or borrow on forever-and-a-day "long-term loans," which I don't), the easier it is to lose any sense of value. Sometimes it takes an exceptional product to return that perspective to you.

An exceptional product such as the Marantz SM-11S1 Reference. Once it had settled into my system, the SM-11S1 was so accomplished at driving the Wilson MAXX 2s—a $45,000 pair of sensitive speakers that nonetheless demand high current—that it became all too easy to ignore its presence, sit back, and just enjoy listening to music. And while the SM-11S1 couldn't exert an iron grip on the Wilsons' massive bass bins, it drove them well enough that it's probably safe to say that the SM-11S1 delivers enough power and instantaneous current to happily drive most loudspeakers with which it's likely to be used.

Considering the SM-11S1's superb build quality inside and out, its fit'n'finish, its fully balanced architecture, the fact that it can be bridged for use as a monoblock—and, of course, its dazzling sound as a stereo amp—it's difficult to imagine that any company other than one big enough to take advantage of economies of scale could produce such an exceptional design for $4000. The SM-11S1 is one of those "get it while you can" products that comes along all too infrequently.

Earlier, when I mentioned a complete audio rig costing "upward of $20,000," I imagined a system consisting of the Marantz SM-11S1 Reference, the matching SC-11S1 preamp, and a pair of, say, Focal 1027 Be or Sonus Faber Cremona M (etc.) loudspeakers, for a total cost of around $17,000. Add a moderately priced SACD/CD player and/or a turntable and you've got one rockin' and good-looking system. Thanks to products like this, reasonably priced, high-quality, two-channel audio is looking—and sounding—better all the time.

Marantz America, Inc.
100 Corporate Drive
Mahwah, NJ 07430
(800) 654-6633