Marantz SA-11S2 Reference SACD/CD Player

Unless you've already acquired a large collection of SACDs, buying a player in 2009 necessitates an act of faith similar to the one turntable buyers faced back in 1992. As with the LP back then, the major labels today have all but abandoned the SACD to such niche players as Chesky, Proprius, Harmonia Mundi, Pentatone, Channel Classics, 2L, Telarc, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Groove Note, and Acoustic Sounds.

Meanwhile, at least for the time being, major labels—even Sony—have gotten back into vinyl in a big way; between them and the independent and reissue labels, there are now far more new and reissued titles on LP than on SACD. It's not even close. A decade ago, who could have predicted that?

SACD enthusiasts counter that with the DVD-Audio format pretty much a bust, SACD is the only high-resolution choice for new classical and music-only surround-sound recordings. Undercutting that argument is the arrival of high-resolution PCM downloads from AIX, Chesky, Reference Recordings, and others, with more sure to follow.

Amid all the confusion arrives Marantz's new SA-11S2 Reference, a moderately priced ($3499.99) player aimed at enthusiasts of two-channel SACD who are looking for a reasonably priced upgrade from a budget-priced CD player, and at audiophiles still unwilling to buy a turntable but who want to start collecting the classical and jazz recordings that comprise the bulk of titles currently available on SACD.

Superb build, lots of features
Despite its relatively modest price, the SA-11S2 features a silky-smooth aluminum SACDM-1 transport designed and built by Marantz, a fully balanced analog audio stage utilizing Marantz's HDAM SA2 amplification modules, a pair of "high-accuracy" Seiko NPC monophonic SM5866A5 Super Audio D/A converters, Marantz's phase-error-compensation PEC777f2 digital filter, a "high precision" quartz clock with linear voltage regulation, and a copper-shielded toroidal transformer. Rounding out an attractive-looking package that looks and feels as if it costs far more than the asking price are a copper-plated chassis with a double-layered bottom, a heavy, vibration-resistant top plate, and a thick, attractively sculpted front panel.

The SA-11S2 has three selectable digital filters, as well as a selectable Noise Shaper, DC filter (with a corner frequency of 1.7Hz), and Phase Inversion (Polarity). The filters differ in how they manage the trade-off between ultrasonic rolloff and timing precision. They also differ in how they manage CD and SACD playback. Filter 1 in both cases is the most traditional; for CDs it provides linear-phase behavior and a sharp rolloff above 20kHz; for SACDs, it provides the widest ultrasonic bandwidth. Filter 2 results in an asymmetrical impulse response with CDs, with the bulk of the energy occurring after the impulse, which is more like an analog system; with SACDs, it provides a sharper rolloff above 100kHz and is optimized for resolution. Filter 3 rolls off the CD's top octave in favor of a shorter impulse response; for SACDs it balances resolution against time-domain performance.

The Marantz player is unusual, particularly at this price, in that it can accept an external master clock running at 44.1kHz, 88.2kHz, or 176.4kHz; this is via a BNC input on the rear panel, which also has balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs and coaxial and TosLink digital outputs.

Using the SA-11S2 was a pleasure. The LCD display is of generous size, the front-panel button layout is efficient, the disc drawer functions with Teflon smoothness, and the full-function remote control is ergonomically efficient (though not backlit).

The transport loads quickly and offers a full range of track-access and programming amenities. I do wonder how many end-users play with all of that stuff, as opposed to just playing a disc straight through. Switching between a hybrid disc's SACD and CD layers can be accomplished in Stop or Play mode. Press the Sound Mode button during play to display the current playback mode (CD or SACD); press it again to stop play and switch modes, then hit Play to begin playback in the selected Sound Mode. Either SACD or CD can be selected as the default Sound Mode, automatically engaged whenever an SACD/CD is inserted.

Playing CDs or SACDs, the SA-11S2 produced consistently warm, reasonably detailed sound. Given digital's reputation (deserved, in my opinion) for cool sound, a generally warm picture can be a good thing. The Marantz delivered inviting sound, especially from SACDs. It produced solid, full-bodied, well-textured images on a relatively compact soundstage. Its overall attack was a bit soft and almost tube-like, while, using any one of the three digital filters, decays dropped off before being fully resolved, though each filter was beneficial, depending on the quality of the recording.

On "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," from the SACD edition of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)—a remix of the original four-track master tape because the original two-channel mix was no longer usable—the Marantz produced the opening drums with a thundering thickness that emphasized their intentionally plodding beat and rendered the trumpet and trombone with a schmaltzy New Orleans street vibe. The guys partying and yelling in the background were fully fleshed out, while the tambourine strokes placed greater emphasis on the skin than on the jingles. Dylan's voice, appropriately nasal and well fleshed out, though somewhat thick and less than three-dimensional, was pressed against the instrumental backdrop. The bass was well extended and a bit soft on the Marantz, but, more important, complemented the rest of the sonic presentation.

Switching to CDs produced similar findings. B.B. King's recent One Kind Favor (Geffen 80011791-02), produced by T Bone Burnett and engineered by Mike Piersante, sounds as if it was recorded in the mid-1960s. In my world, that's a compliment—this album sounds full, rich, and warm, with a wide stage and dynamics reminiscent of the early days of stereo.

Through the Marantz, and using Filter 1 that leaves the CD signal untouched, the sound was a bit too ripe. According to the instruction manual, Filter 3, which produces very short pre- and post-echoes, results in the greatest detail and definition, and sure enough, it tightened up the bottom end and added some much-needed crispness.

I was honored to be asked by Yarlung Records to write the liner notes for Orion, the recorded debut of the young pianist Orion Weiss, and on which he performs works by J.S. Bach, Carter, Mozart, and Scriabin (CD, Yarlung 78873). These beautifully recorded performances confirmed the Marantz's slightly soft attack, warm sustain, and slightly truncated decay, regardless of choice of filter, though this recording was best complemented by Filter 3.

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