Last year I visited Ken Ishiwata at Marantz Europe’s HQ in Eindhoven, Holland. This is where he has built a substantial listening room in the basement of an office block, it’s one of the best I’ve encountered and not a bad place to show off the latest Marantz components that Ken had given the Special Edition treatment to. The SA14S1 SE is a DAC and CD/SACD player, the digital to analogue element is at least as important as the disc spinning one because it’s one of the most ambitious KI has worked on. The PM14S1 SE is the matching amplifier, in Eindhoven I heard them with a pair of the Boston M350 floorstanders (that Ken designed with Karl Heinz Fink), which being relatively affordable speakers (originally $2,498) made the sound the system produced all the more impressive.
When the player and amp arrived I was struck by their phenomenally high standard of build and finish, it’s clearly been too long since I had ‘mass produced’ Japanese electronics in the house because I had almost forgotten how well they do the job. This is mass produced by high end audio standards of course, not many companies produce more than a 100 of a given model in a year at the higher price points. At this stage I didn’t know what they cost and guessed that with the advantages of numbers it would be in the region of £2,500, it turned out to be £700 less than that. I challenge anyone to find a component from a boutique brand that matches either for less than three times that price.
Under the shiny aluminium skin they are pretty advanced devices too, the SA14S1 SE is DSD64 and 128 compatible albeit PCM is limited to 24/192 rather than 384kHz found in some standalone DACs. It has front and rear USB ports, the easier access one being an A type for iPod/iPhones, and the rear an asynchronous B type for computers and the like. The other inputs are coax and optical as per usual and output is via very chunky RCA phonos, a volume controlled headphone output is provided on the front. Componentry includes Marantz’s HDAM SA2 discrete output stage devices, and isolation on the USB input to minimise incoming noise from PC sources. DSD streaming is of the DoP (DSD over PCM) variety found in the majority of DSD capable DACs.
The PM14S1 SE is a 90 Watt integrated amplifier with tone controls and a source direct button to bypass them with. It’s not over endowed with inputs but three line plus two tape loops should be enough for most, and there’s an MM/MC phono stage as well. A power amp direct input will come in handy should you fancy a preamplifier upgrade in future and pre out for the opposite scenario. Given that the preamp is generally the weakest link in most integrateds the former is a good idea. There is also a dedicated headphone output on the front with its own HDAM output module that claims to be capable of driving low impedance headphones. Construction is substantial just like the player/DAC, with thick aluminium on most surfaces and superb finish quality throughout. The technology within is based around discrete high current stages with segregated circuitry for each channel, output rises to 140 Watts into four Ohms so its capable of driving most speakers so long as they have a benign impedance.
Both components have been given the Special Edition treatment by Ishiwata which largely consists of “secret refinements” or tweaks as they are known but there are a few physical changes to the standard versions. These include the aluminium top plate, high rigidity feet, chassis damping and RCA shorting plugs for phono input on the amp and digital input on the SA, the latter a tweak that could easily be applied to any product. The amplifier also gets upgraded capacitors and copper caps for its power transistors. SE therefore seems largely to do with enhancing the performance and appearance of the casework, Ishiwata no doubt appreciating that vibration is the enemy of resolution. I have found that a properly isolated DAC improves to a greater extent than a similarly well isolated turntable, which is not what you’d expect, but the accuracy of digital clocks is based on precision of crystal oscillation so anything that reduces vibration is beneficial.
My first attempt at using the SA14S1 SE as a USB DAC was thwarted by the presence of two USB inputs as shown on the display, ‘USB’ for the front input and ‘USB DAC’ for the rear B type connection. Nothing is idiot proof it seems! Using this input with my reference amplifier produced a taut, muscular result with good pace and high transparency – quite a warts and all result that lays bare the qualities of recordings. One that outguns the onboard transport in fact, given a high quality PC server the USB DAC creates a bigger, more three dimensional picture with greater fine detail that makes the CD sound like a pale imitation. It’s worth pointing out that this was with a high end CAD CAT digital ‘transport’, the results were a lot closer with a Macbook Air.
Hooking the PM14S1 SE up to a big pair of Dali Epicon 8 speakers produced a big, smooth and slightly overt sound that did a nice job when fed the output of a Transfiguration Proteus moving coil cartridge on an SME 20/3 turntable. This system produced good image depth and plenty of detail especially through mid and top. It’s not the most powerful amp on the block and this speaker prefers a bit more grip than it offers, but the Dali is in another league pricewise (£11,500). There’s no shortage of bass however, and richly textured bass at that.
Switching to the still slightly over specced PMC Fact 8 speakers (£6,495) resulted in a cavernous image from the DAC source, and a highly articulate and dynamic soundstage with ‘St Louis Blues’ as sung by Stevie Wonder on Herbie Hancock’s immaculate Gershwin’s World. Here the bass playing is very solid and Wonder’s voice leaps out of the mix in very convincing fashion. Spinning some DSD reveals the quality of backing vocals on Ryan Adams’s ‘Rescue Blues’ (Gold, Universal). The song sounds like ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ by the Faces but the use of the choir is inspired and the Marantz pairing let’s you know as much and more. Switching to the same piece on PCM produces a stronger main vocal image but is otherwise pretty close. With a Mozart piece on DSD from the 2L label the system reveals phenomenal openness, scale and the slightest hint of leading edge grain – strings could be a little softer but that has long been an issue with digital audio. Another DSD to PCM comparison was made with Kraftwerk’s ‘Man Machine’ from Minimum Maximum, here the PCM delivered greater stereo solidity and distinctly more depth of image. In fact it sounded excellent.
With the coax input being fed by a Cyrus Stream X network streamer the musicality of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ came to the fore. The relative crudeness of the sixties recording is not hard to hear but the quality of playing is more obvious and you can hear why this piece is considered a classic. The USB connection to the same original source as the Cyrus used – Melco N1A – produces a richer and more dynamic result but not one that’s any more engaging. I also contrasted the SA14S1 SE’s DAC with a Benchmark DAC2, the latter delivering good groove but less richness of detail and finesse. By contrast the Marantz’s sound is distinctly open and more three dimensional but seems to produce less separation with DSD at least.
I also tried the PM14S1 SE with a different speaker, the Bowers & Wilkins CM10 S2 floorstanders, this seemed a happier match as the warmer balance of the speaker makes for a precise but less etched sound than the relatively unflattering PMCs. The combo producing excellent immediacy alongside plenty of power and good low level detail, kick drums have real kick and bass lines bring the term ‘slam’ into play. As ever the key to a good system is finding a good amp/speaker match. Now tracks had a magic that previously eluded them and allowed me to close my eyes and suspend disbelief. Playing discs via both Marantz Special Editions revealed a detailed soundstage with good depth, it also became apparent that the remote works even when it’s well off axis. I tried the various filter settings on the disc player as well, these are subtle but filter 2 seems the most engaging, allowing for a good live feel to the music and taut bass lines that give it plenty of pace. A recent release on SACD, How Deep is the Ocean (Yamina, Opus3), made a good case for the format with impressive presence thanks to oodles of low level detail. It’s a live recording by a label with a reputation for good sound that this title reinforces. An ECM release of Arvo Part’s Dei Profundis underlined the SA14S1 SE’s capabilities with room busting image scale, it brought to mind why churches are big, a big sound is akin to the voice of God and thus more likely to produce religious experiences such as those we audio enthusiasts live for, no preaching required.
I have to say that I was impressed with this pairing from Marantz, on build quality per pound sterling terms they are unbeatable and if you like a rich and detailed sound they are very hard to equal. There are more gripping electronics available for the price but few that offer this much refinement and flexibility in such superb metalwork.