- Written by John E. Johnson, Jr.
- Published on 20 July 2009
Marantz has been a renown audio company for nearly half of the 20th century. Although it changed hands several times over the years, the quality never wavered from being superb. The average consumer these days may think of mass market receivers when the name Marantz is mentioned, but they also build some of the best high performance products in the consumer arena. The SA-7S1 is Marantz' top-of-the-line SACD player. It is fully balanced throughout - thus having XLR outputs along with the standard RCA unbalanced outputs - and has some of the lowest distortion bench test results I have ever measured. It sounds as smooth as satin whether playing SACDs or standard "old fashioned" CDs, and is built to make sturdy equipment racks creak when you place it on the shelf. Last, but not least, it is beautiful to look at whether it is playing or not.
Saul Marantz (1911-1997) was a classical guitarist before becoming an audio designer, and in the 1950's, when he heard a friend's hi-fi set, he decided to build his own. The first product was the Consolette Preamplifier, in 1952. Although it was successful, the company suffered some hard times, and the company was sold to Superscope in 1964, and then to Philips in 1980. In 2002, Denon and Marantz Japan merged to become D&M Holdings, which is the current situation (Philips had a stake in D&M, but sold their shares to D&M in 2008).
In the 1960's the Model 9 monoblock power amplifier and 10B FM tuner were hot items, followed by the 2200 series of receivers in the 1970's. Of course, in those days, a receiver was two-channel only. There was a brief period where four channel music was a novelty that Marantz responded to with receivers, but that died quickly. I guess we were not ready for surround sound yet. My first "high-end" component was the Marantz 2270, which was a 70 watt per channel receiver. That was a lot of power back then.
Then, we get to the 1980's, 90's, and the 21st century, where surround sound took off and is in most of our homes now. Funny that we were not ready to accept four channels back in the 1970's, but now we are talking about 7.1 surround and height channels, which would make it 9.1. There are some receivers coming soon with that feature. High resolution audio has had a difficult time, because the current generation of young people have their mp3 players with them wherever they go, and even use the attached phone once in awhile, between text messaging.
SACD is one of several high resolution formats, which includes DVD-A, and just recently, 5.1 music on Blu-ray, sampled at 24 bit - 96 kHz or 192 kHz. Sony originated the DSD format actually to archive its library of older music, and it ended up as a consumer format for new (and old) music released for sale as well.
Universal players, such as the OPPO BDP-83 and Denon DVD-A1UDCI, will play all disc types, including SACD, DVD-A, and Blu-ray, along with mp3 if you really must. I think that the generation of players arriving on the shelves which will handle everything might tempt mp3 addicts to try out some of these high resolution discs and suddenly discover what music really should sound like. Also, a company called HD Tracks has a growing catalog of 24 bit - 96 kHz stereo albums for download as FLAC files. It is only a matter of time before other companies jump into this type of high resolution album delivery method. Music production companies who shy away from releasing an album in high resolution format (DVD-A or SACD) because they don't sell enough albums to cover the production costs (making and packaging the discs), will be able to simply put the high resolution version on one of the websites that can sell it to you electronically as a download, eliminating the cost of producing hard copy versions on discs for distribution through the normal channels.
- Design: Two-channel SACD and CD Player
- Outputs: Analog XLR, RCA; Digital Coax, Toslink Optical
- DAC: NPC SM5866A5
- MFR: 2 Hz - 50 kHz, ± 3 dB
- THD+N: 0.0009% (SACD); 0.002% (CD)
- Dimensions: 5.4" H x 18.1" W x 16.8" D
- Weight: 49 Pounds
- MSRP: $6,999 USA
- Marantz America
The Marantz SA-7S1 is the subject of the current review. It's been around for two years and is still their flagship SACD player. A universal Blu-ray flagship player, the UD9004, is in the works, which will have an audio section derived from the SA-7S1. They are just now announcing the SA-KI-Pearl, which is part of Marantz' celebration of Ken Ishiwata's 30th year of design work with Marantz. It is priced at $2,999.99 and has a different chassis, transformer, DACs, signal path, and layout than the SA-7S1, including only RCA unbalanced outputs rather than balanced XLR.
Most CD players these days are built for consumers who don't want to spend a lot of money, so the chassis is thin. In fact, you can usually lift them with one hand.
Not so with the SA-7S1, unless you are an Olympic weight lifter. This thing is almost 50 pounds. It's chassis is copper plated and all six walls are thick, along with a heavy front panel. The unit is absolutely gorgeous, as you can see if you click on the photo at the beginning of this review. In fact, it is so pretty, I have taken the liberty of practicing my PhotoShop skills with the photos that Marantz supplied for the review, and will present a few of the abstract results here and there.
I suspect that the toroidal power transformer is a big part of the weight, because the output did not change very much when I tortured it with dual 600 ohm loads.
The player uses dual NPC SM5866AS DACs. Remember that SACD, aka DSD (Direct Stream Digital), is presented one bit at a time instead of a group of 16 bits or 24 bits as is the case with PCM (Pulse Code Modulation - CD, DVD-A, and music on Blu-ray discs). Another term associated with DSD is Delta-Sigma, which is the type of modulation.
But we really don't need to concern ourselves with the way the bits are presented. It is the total amount of bits that is important. So, for example, CD is 16 bit, 44.1 kHz sampling, which is 705,600 bits of data per channel, per second. For 24 bit, 96 kHz audio (DVD-A), there are 2,304,000 bits per channel, per second, and for 24/192, it is 4,068,000 bits. And that is for just the one channel. If you are talking about some of the newly released 24/192 5.1 Blu-ray music discs, 23,040,000 bits per second are zooming through the players DAC(s). That 23 million figure is about what a Blu-ray movie has, which includes the image as well as the sound, so the image has to share the bit rate with the surround sound audio, and you won't be getting it at 24/192. More like 20 to 24 bit, at 48 kHz.
For SACD, the bit rate is 2,822,400 bps (bits per second) for each channel, which is very near what it is for 24/96 PCM.
But there is much more to the story than just the fact that the bit rate for SACD is similar to one of the PCM high rez formats. With DSD, the recording engineers can choose a preferred balance between bandwidth and dynamic range, even during the production stage. Also, since the data are handled one bit at a time, there is no processing delay, as there is with handling them 16 bits or 24 bits at a time. Third, decimation and interpolation filters are not necessary with the DSD signal. Fourth, there is more tolerance to bit errors, and fifth, downsampling to a PCM format is easy.
So, what are the problems? Well, for one thing, like all Delta-Sigma modulations, there is quite a bit of noise. However, using certain techniques, the noise is pushed far into a high range of frequencies that are inaudible. But, that noise is there, nonetheless, with the possibility of interacting with frequencies in the audible band. If SACD were perfect, everyone would be using it. Funny that there are notes here and there on forums saying that Sony has abandoned its support of the format, but new SACDs still are arriving on music shelves. What I have noticed is that SACDs tend to be classical music, while popular music favors DVD-As.
The rear panel of the SA-7S1 has the unit's outputs. It has one pair of XLR and RCA analog outputs, one coax and one Toslink optical digital output, and an external clock input, if you so choose to control the unit with a clock in some other component.
The remote control is spartan compared to a receiver's remote control, but there are not as many functions to deal with. It's quite narrow, maybe a bit too narrow for my large hands, but should be fine for most people.
Listening to music played on the SA-7S1 was so pleasureable, I spent entire afternoons, and some occasional mornings, having a great time with my favorite discs. There is an audible difference between the SACD and CD version of the same music (most SACDs have a CD layer). The differerence is very subtle, and is one of having more texture with SACD. Maybe that is one reason SACD discs have not been very successful. The difference is not something that really jumps out at you. It is enough for the audiophile market, but apparently not the mass market consumer.
Russian Nights (Telarc) is a disc that was recommended to me by a friend, and I have to thank him for that. The music is spectacular, and the SA-7S1 made it even more so. Scary Music (Telarc) is such an interesting disc, my wife uses it in teaching her exercise classes (after converting the CD tracks to mp3s and playing them through a PA system - they sound somewhat, shall we say, different than through the SA-7S1). Of course, the Telarc 1812 Overture SACD is a standard for testing performance at the limits of recording capability, and it truly sounded wonderful with this player. I also have the ability to play this disc in 5.1 SACD in our home theater lab, using other equipment which has a bit more distortion. Trying to decide which I like better (the SA-7S1 at vanishingly low distortion vs. 5.1 SACD with more distortion, not necessarily audible, but being a purist . . . .) is moot, since I can listen to the disc in either lab depending on my mood.
The last disc in the photos below is an DSD remaster of the most successful jazz recording ever made, called Kind of Blue, with Miles Davis on trumpet. I can imagine it is the most successful, as I have three copies myself, one on LP (remastered at 45 RPM), one on CD, and the third on SACD. The SACD comes closest to the analog sound of the LP, minus the pops, ticks, and surface noise, but the visceral connection between listener and music is a separate phenomenon when you play LPs. I don't think any digital format will ever actually make LP aficionados toss their turntables and LP collections. The controversy goes on, and on, and on. We have an article series on this topic ourselves. When CDs first arrived, I was so enthralled, I (gasp) gave away my turntable and LPs. Part of that fascination was the fact that the music was digital, and going into that world of digital was going "high tech". That in itself was part of the motivation in those days. I tearfully regret giving my LP collection to the local St. Vincent de Paul charity. In that collection was a complete set of Beethoven's works, and most of the LPs had not been played (my interest was mainly in the nine symphonies at the time). Some lucky %*@# laughed all the way to the cashier's desk I suppose.
I now have a pair of turntables, both of them high performance, but I limit my LP music collection to jazz. What I have found is that LPs sound more congested when there are a lot of instruments, such as a classical orchestra, than CDs, and certainly with high resolution recordings such as SACD. To get the most out of these high rez discs, it is important to use a high performance player, and the Marantz SA-7S1 is certainly in that category.
Violins are a good test for separating the high frequency nature of the instrument from the rest of the orchestra, such as this SACD of Mozart Violin Concertos (2L38SACD).
Choral music is also a stress test, in that you have so many instruments (the human voice) in the same frequency range. Do they sound mushy, or do they sound distinct? It's the latter for the Marantz player (2L43SACD).
And finally, percussion, with its cymbals that have very high frequencies. This new release (2L39SACD) has synthesizers, natural percussion instruments, and to top it all off, a soprano human voice. This disc in particular is one I recommend for showing off your system, as it has a typical dual layer with SACD on one and CD on the other. But, in SACD, it is somethinge else. The Marantz just blew me away with the sound. No overly sibilant cymbal crashes. Just clarity as far as the ear can hear it.
The bottom line on my listening tests is that the SA-7S1 is sinfully smooth. It's like the difference between satin and cotton sheets. Or between grocery store ice cream and the high-butter-fat tongue-smackin' stuff I get at The Marble Slab (Chocolate Swiss with pecans and crunched Heath candy bar bits in a waffle cone that is dipped in melted Heath bar). When the distortion is as low as it is with the SA-7S1, there is not much more one can say than it sounds like whatever is recorded on the disc.
On the Bench
I have so many graphs to present, what I will do here is show the CD test followed by the same test using SACD. I utilized a 22 kHz bandwidth for distortion measurements, except where the X axis goes out to 50 kHz. I used Filter 1 for all tests, except for the frequency response curves where I show the results for all three filters. I also present the graphs for a 100 kHz load and 600 ohms load, both channels driven. The yellow graph lines are the left channel, and the red lines are the right channel.
At 1 kHz, recorded at 0 dB (the highest level of digital recording), the harmonic peaks were almost non-existent, both for CD and SACD, and for 100 kOhm vs. 600 ohms. In fact, if anything, there was a bit more distortion with SACD and its noise level was a little higher. For the SACD, there was a second and third order harmonic peak, while for the CD, it was just a third harmonic. This is significant only because even-ordered harmonics are euphonic - that is, they are pleasing to the ear - while odd-ordered harmonics are very irritating, especially higher order harmonics.
This is superb performance, with the noise being 130 dB below the signal which was recorded at 0 dB. There was only a 0.6 volt drop when going from the 100 kOhm load to the 600 ohm load, which indicates a top notch power supply. The Y axis reads in dBV, where 0 dBV = 1 volt. Voltages greater than 1 volt read as positive numbers on the Y axis, such as the 3.6 volts in the above graph reading as 11.1 dBV. Voltages less than 1 volt read as negative numbers, such as the -99 dBV harmonic peak at 2 kHz being 0.000001 volt, which represents 0.001% distortion. The other harmonic peaks in that graph, such as the one at 3 kHz, add to the value at 2 kHz, plus calculated noise values, giving a total THD+N of 0.006%.
Using a combination of 19 kHz and 20 kHz sine waves as the test signal yielded the following results:
In CD mode, there were more IM peaks surrounding the 19 kHz and 20 kHz input peaks than in SACD mode, although they were quite low in any case. There was no B-A peak at 1 kHz for either CD or SACD. However, note that in CD mode, there are some significant peaks at 24 kHz and 25 kHz, as well as some smaller peaks above 38 kHz. This is the first time I have seen such peaks with CD tests (although I have seen them reported in reviews in other publications). They are not multiples of the input signals, and are probably an aliasing issue. It indicates that there is no filtration above 22 kHz (the analog frequency limit of 44.1 kHz sampling). Although these peaks are all above the standard audible band of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, the human ear does not have a brick wall filter at 20 kHz. It is just an "average" limit based on thousands of tests of human hearing. A very young person could likely hear those peaks at 24 and 25 kHz, and it can affect the perception of sound in the 8 kHz area. In any case, with reference to SACD performance, there is essentially a complete lack of IM peaks surrounding the input signal peaks, and this is extremely impressive. Again, just a slight drop in voltage between the 100 kOhm load and the 600 ohm load.
Shown below is a graph of a different SACD player, in CD mode, using the 19 kHz and 20 kHz sine wave test. This is the sort of result I am used to seeing. Note the fall in the noise floor above 22 kHz, illustrating the active filtration. The results with the Marantz almost look like aliasing in reverse, where frequencies below the Nyquist Frequency (1/2 of the sampling frequency, which in the case of CDs is 1/2 of 44.1 kHz, or 22.05 kHz) are mirrored in frequencies above the NF.
Based on the anomalies I found with 20 kHz and 21 kHz signals in CD mode, I also ran the test using a combination of 5 kHz and 6 kHz sine waves (sine waves that are close together, like the 19 kHz and 20 kHz test). The results are seen below. Note that the out of band peaks are at a higher frequency (38 kHz, 39 kHz, and 49 kHz) than they were when I used 20 kHz and 21 kHz. So, it would seem, the lower the frequency of the input pairs, the farther out into the inaudible area the extra peaks appear.
Shown below are the results for the IMD tests. For both CD and SACD, the performance was excellent. There were no visible side peaks near the 7 kHz input frequency, so the resulting IMD value was very, very low in all cases. I often see harmonic peaks at 14 kHz and 21 kHz with this test, and there are none here, either with CD mode or SACD mode.
Here are the frequency response graphs. In the first graph, in CD mode, I only tested one channel, so that it is easier for you to see the differences that the three filters make on the response. For Filter 1, the response drops off at 18 kHz, with filter 2, it begins a sharp rolloff at 10 kHz, and with Filter 3, the rolloff begins to be steep at around 7 kHz. I asked Marantz about this, and they said that Ken Ishiwata designed these filters to emulate the response in some of his earlier players. When I was listening, and turned on Filter 3, I expected it to sound like an AM radio, but in fact, it sounded very nice, with enough high frequency material to be pleasing. Kind of laid back, and not in your face. It should be noted that most of the energy in music is between about 60 Hz and 6 kHz, so perhaps that is why the steep filter was not that noticeable.
For SACD, the response was down 0.5 dB at 20 kHz, and down 1 dB by 30 kHz. The filters made only a very slight difference in the response. With the 600 ohm load, there was about 0.25 dB rolloff at the low end, for both CD and SACD, beginning at 80 Hz
The Marantz SA-7S1 is the smoothest sounding SACD player I have ever heard. Part of this is due to the choice of filters, but mostly, it is because of the vanishingly low distortion that the unit produces. No question, it is a pricey player in today's market, but such high performance never comes cheaply. For those who can afford the best, you just read about a player that should be on your short list.