Roy Harris -- Sony and Phillips were the first companies to introduce the SACD medium—players and recordings. I was present at Sony’s Manhattan office, as part of a contingent of (privileged) listeners, to audition Sony’s first top-loading SACD player, the SCD-1. Having lived with the Redbook format for a number of years, the improvement in sound, a consequence of both the hardware and software, was dramatic and unexpected.
Both Sony and Phillips manufactured SACD players for years, but the latter eventually ceased production of SACD players, even as Sony continued its production. Phillips stopped recording SACD disks, and SONY continued manufacturing SACD players, until, recently, as far as I am aware, it produced its last player, the model 5400. Other companies manufactured SACD players, and some continue to do so today. Some of the smaller labels still record in SACD.
Marantz, Ayre, TEAC/Esoteric and perhaps Conrad Johnson are the primary sources for the SACD format. Marantz currently produces at least three SACD players in their line.
My first exposure to a Marantz SACD was an audition of a stereo system of one of Audiophilia’s reviewers, Martin Appel. I visited him several times and was impressed with the sound of his stereo system, on each occasion. I auditioned another Marantz player at the apartment of a mutual friend. The player was part of stereo system which included a Mark Levinson amplifier and Totem Mani II speakers. Again, although the sound of each stereo system was different, I enjoyed both listening experiences.
Considering my favorable impression of the Marantz SACD player, based upon my audition of two systems which I enjoyed, when I became aware of a new Marantz SACD player, I was eager to review it, especially at its price point, $2500.
The player is complex as it includes three modes of operation and a two position filter.
The player accepts Redbook, SACD, and has an external DAC, which can be fed a signal up to 24/192, via its USB , coaxial or toslink inputs.
The filter has two positions. In the default setting, position 1, it elicits maximum resolution, and flat frequency response. Position 2, attenuates frequencies exceeding 100Khz. Quoting from the owner’s manual, position 2, “is characterized by a well balanced smooth sound”.
I will test its Redbook function, comparing the sound in the two filter positions, noting any audible differences. I will then evaluate the Sa-14S1 as an SACD player, comparing the sound of the hybrid layer to that of the SACD layer. Lastly, I will search my small collection of Reference Recording HRx DVrs (24/176.4), and select musical selections that I own in both the high resolution and Redbook formats. I will use the PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport to feed a coaxial signal to the DAC of the Marantz.
This review will be comprehensive and analytic. I will attempt to be thorough and I appreciate in advance the readers’ patience spending the time to read it. Therefore, I will eliminate any technical considerations, and instead, refer the reader to the company’s website for a description of the player.
I was initially informed that the player required from 100 to 200 hours, before critical evaluation. A more recent communication suggested 50 hours was sufficient. I applied an approach which I suggested in a previous review to determine when break-in had been accomplished. I played the Purist Audio Design Break-In disc four times. The disc contains 75 minutes of random frequencies, in a background of white noise. Thereafter, I played several other CDs, varying in musical content for 50 hours. I continued listening until I observed my stereo system sounding relatively consistent for a period of three days. At that point, the player had received 200 hours of playing time. I strongly recommend that potential purchasers provide 200 hours of a musical to the player before assessing its merits.
I also provided about 100 hours of SACD material, in addition to 200 hours of Redbook based music. During the break-in period, I noticed a slight-edge emanating from massed violins. Although, this phenomenon could have been the result of a player that had not fully broken in, I thought of an accessory which might lessen the edge. I applied a CD mat. In this case, a carbon fiber Millenial mat. The edge abated, to some degree, and sound stage width increased, as well. This mat was used, throughout the review, and I would recommend that a CD mat be used with this player at all times.
I have a consistent approach when reviewing all components. I first evaluate frequency response. Then, I examine timbre of instruments, spatial relationships and dynamics. I consider timbre the most important attribute of a sound of a stereo system. I have three CDs which I use to test treble and bass response.
The first is Holly Cole, DON’T SMOKE IN BED, track 1, Alert Z2 81020. The song “I Can See Clearly Now”, opens with a short bass solo. The upright bass sounded very full. Strings sounded dense, and the vibration of the wood body, induced by the plucking of the strings, had more impact than usual. The strings and the body of the instruments could be heard distinctly—a very precise presentation of an instrument. Holly Cole’s voice sounded natural and clear. Sibilance was barely audible.
I next introduced a test of bass response, listening to an electric bass. I selected Bela Fleck, FLIGHT OF THE COSMIC HIPPO, track 4. I first noticed flawless intonation. All notes were very distinct as well as, was the ability to follow the bassist’s fingering of the strings. As the bassist descended the scale, a loud vibration of the wood body was heard, but it did not obscure the sound of the strings.
The next selection is a trio of violin, piano and guitar. It is TWO WORLDS, track 8, Decca 012 157960-2. The musicians include, Gil Shaham, Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour. The composition begins with a strike of a piano key. What was unusual was the first time I heard the action of the piano strings, after the release of the piano key. Next, Gil Shaham has a short violin solo. The violin was extended in the treble, without an excess of energy in that region. I believe Marantz has “pushed the envelope” to provide fundamentals near the top of its range (200 to 3.5 Khz), without introducing peaks.
Following the violin solo, there is a brief solo from Lee Ritenour, playing a nylon-string acoustic guitar. One can follow the action of his fingering. I noticed a “slight” error in intonation, which I had not heard on previous auditions. The sound of the strings was dense and dead—typical of a nylon string. I own a 6 string Gibson acoustic guitar which is equipped with nylon and steel strings and am quite familiar with the sound of an acoustic guitar.
The next CD is an excellent test of dimensionality. It is probably considered an audiophile recording. I am referring to TEST RECORD 1—DEPTH OF IMAGE, OPUS 3, CD 9000, track 5. I set my Radio Shack meter at 70 DB. The softest passage measured 60 DB. When the symphonic band reached a crescendo, the meter registered 92 DB. Solo instruments included a piccolo, trombone and bassoon. The booklet accompanying the CD provides a description of instrumental placement and timbre.
The bassoon was situated behind the left speaker, slightly to its left, at the rear wall. The piccolo and trombone—both near the rear wall, were positioned behind the right speaker. The piccolo did not sound harsh or shrill. For those interested, its range is from 630 to 5 Khz. The Bassoon was extended in the bass and I believe reached its lowest fundamental, which is 55Hz. All instruments were located far from the listener and did not exhibit obvious timbral errors.
The last selection is one of two CDs I would use to judge instrumental timbre. Solo instruments are located close enough to a listener to facilitate evaluation. This recording is among my top 5 orchestral CDs, with respect to sound quality. It is Prokoffief’s “Peter and the Wolf”, narrated by Sir John Gielgud, with the Royal Philharmonic, on an obscure label, ACUM, number 2044464-201. Instruments from each ensemble are represented. Specifically, one can hear a flute, clarinet, oboe , bassoon, French horns, strings and tympani.
What I observed was a natural presentation of each of the above, without any observed faults in their timbre. This CD is a better test of timbre than the OPUS 3 CD, because the instruments are closer to the listener and easier to notice errors, if any. I should note an unusual occurrence, namely the decay of the tympani, following the last strike of a mallet, which was manifested by a metallic sound that persisted for a few seconds.
During my audition of the aforementioned musical selections, I varied the two position filter. Its affect was negligible and insignificant. I could not ascribe any sonic differences between position one and two.
This selection completes my evaluation of the Redbook function.
Listening to SACD Discs
I selected three tracks from a Telarc classical sampler, SACD SAMPLER 4, and compared the sonic characteristics of the hybrid and SACD layers. Its identifying code is SACD 6009.
The first selection was track 9, a twentieth century work, the 4th movement from Higdon’s, “Concerto for Orchestra”. Listening to the Redbook layer, I observed instruments positioned at my back wall, deep into the orchestra. The performance envelope was large and vary spatial. One could detect percussion instruments in the foreground and background, all positioned far from the listener. The lateral soundstage spanned the length of the rear wall. Each instrument could be distinctly detected as was decay from some instruments while others were playing.
Listening to the SACD layer, one could appreciate increased spacing between foreground and background instruments, greater separation between instruments, and greater decay time. Instruments sounded more full-bodied, more resolved and more easily to identify. The spatial envelope increased in size, and some instruments sounded physically larger. Some percussion instruments which were not audible on the Redbook layer became audible on the SACD layer. Finally, there were greater dynamic contrasts.
The next selection, track 10, was the movement “The Fairy Garden”, from Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite”. Listening to the Redbook layer, the perspective of the orchestra was mid to rear hall. Instruments were positioned behind the speakers near the rear wall. The lateral sound stage was wide. The sound of the string section was gentle. This was a quiet passage, devoid of volume differentials in the loudness of the orchestra. The sound of a violin solo slightly favored the string tone relative to the sound of the wood body. One could observe percussion instruments behind the other orchestra sections.
Listening to the SACD layer, one should notice greater texture in the sound of the string section, and an ability to identify the material composition of the strings—either gut or nylon. This created a fuller sound to string instruments. The orchestra sounded more full-bodied and there was an increase in instrument separation. There was greater presence of upright basses and, as a result greater extension in the bass region. While the Redbook layer did not provide dynamic contrasts, the SACD layer revealed them.
The third and last selection was “Pines of the Appian Way”, from Respighi’s “Pines of Rome”, track 11. Prior to listening to this track, I set my Radio Shack meter at 60 DB. Listening to the Redbook layer, you initially hear an orchestra playing very softly. It sounds positioned behind the rear wall. One then hears an oboe as the orchestra gets louder. It is difficult to assess its timbral accuracy, as its position is very distant. Shortly thereafter, a bassoon is heard. There is sufficient space between the two instruments to easily identify the timbral differenced between them. Next, one hears the presence of an organ, I then increased my setting of the meter to 70 DB. The orchestra got louder, so I set my meter at 80DB. I heard the brass section solo briefly. At that point, I could discern that the orchestra sounded full-bodied, the tympani sounded forceful and provided a solid rhythmic foundation. A cymbal crash occurred several times. It sounded sharp, as if one heard only the edge of the cymbals rather than both cymbals. I have noted that most orchestral cymbals are not well recorded, so I am not surprised at observing another cymbal whose timbre was inaccurate. When the orchestra reached its loudest level, my SPL meter registered about 82 DB.
When I listened to the SACD layer I noticed several changes. There was greater space between instruments. Brass instruments had greater definition and sounded more realistic, as to timbre. The oboe and bassoon were more fleshed out and therefore more realistic in timbre. I could hear the clarinet more distinctly, whereas it was indistinct on the Redbook layer. Brass instruments were more detailed and natural sounding. A triangle which was inaudible on the Redbook layer became audible on the SACD layer. The tympani sounded more precise, revealing the sound of tightly stretched skin, as well as being positioned deeper into the orchestra. Dynamic range was unchanged.
Listening Results—HRx Format
My collection of high resolution recordings includes 4 DVRs, from Reference Recordings. They call it the HRx format. It is 24/176.4. I own two full length discs and two samplers. I obtained Redbook discs containing the same musical selections as that of the HRx discs. I located three discs in both formats.
The first selection was taken from the Redbook disk, YERBA BUENA BOUNCE, track 11, RR 108. It is a collection of Gypsy Jazz music. Essentially, the Hot Club of San Fransisco, a jazz quintet, is trying to emulate the sound of the Hot Club of Paris, which featured Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt.
The recording was very clean. The sound of the violin favored its strings relative to its wood body. However, the wood body was audible and not obscured. I noticed a steady, sprightly rhythmic pace, supported by the rhythm guitars and acoustic bass.
Switching to the HRx version, taken from the HRx SAMPLER 2022, track 13, I observed greater emphasis on the wood body of all instruments, and a slight extension in the bass. Overall the quintet had more weight, and the violin strings sounded thicker.
The second selection was taken from the Redbook recording, BELLS FOR STOKOWSKI. The music was composed by Susato—“Bergette”, a movement from “The Danerye”, RR 104, track 2. Instruments were arrayed behind my speakers at the rear wall. The sound of the ensemble , The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, was warm and full bodied, facilitated by the percussion instruments, which also helped to create contrasts in dynamic range.
The HRx version was taken from HIGH DEFINITION DISC 2008, track 2. I noticed several changes as the sampling rate increased. Brass and percussion instruments had greater weight, but slightly less focus. Their sound was rounder and more full-bodied. Dynamics and space between instruments were unchanged.
The last selection was the third movement from Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances”. The Redbook disc was RR 96, track 3. The listener’s perspective was that of mid to rear hall. The cymbal did not sound sharp and the sound of string instruments was not fatiguing. One could hear chimes positioned in the background, at the rear of the orchestra. Thus one could perceive the space between the chimes and all other sections of the orchestra.
The resolution of the Marantz player enabled the listener to hear the sound of a small bell recorded at a very low level. One could also hear the xylophone, also in the background, but in front of the chimes. Thus one could hear three layers of instruments. Overall, the presentation was smooth and not lacking in bass.
The HRx version was a selection from High Definition Disc 2008, track 8. Instruments sounded fuller, rounder and there was an increase in dynamic range. Percussion instruments had greater impact and weight. Resolution increased, exemplified by enhanced clarity of a small bell, recorded at a low level, and greater texture in the sound of the xylophone. Finally, there was greater extension of bass frequency.
The Marantz SA-14S1 was balanced in frequency response, highly resolving, very dimensional, capable of reproducing a very wide dynamic range, very focused, revealing of instrumental texture, and presenting the natural sound of instruments, whenever a recording maintained timbral integrity.
The player is very sensitive to recording quality, and is suited to stereo systems that are balanced in frequency response, and relatively free of other distortions, as it can reveal flaws intrinsic to other components. The player does not produce euphonic coloration, liquidity or bloom. Considering the beauty/truth continuum, I believe it lies close to the truth. I could not detect any flaws, so I would consider it virtually neutral.
Its level of clarity and focus have been unsurpassed by any digital hardware that I have heard both from my own stereo system and at audio shows.
I cannot imagine any other CD player, or transport and DAC combination attaining any more music from a recording, without inducing imbalances in frequency response, especially excess treble energy. I think Marantz has pushed the envelope by creating a balance between high levels of resolution and a lack of audible coloration.
When listening to the higher sampling rate formats, bypassing Marantz’s transport and feeding a signal directly to the DAC, there was a similarity in the changes in sound that ensued from each format, as described below:
Greater fullness, greater bass extension, greater dynamic range, greater instrumental texture, and greater space between instruments (SACD only).
At its price point it should satisfy the preferences of many potential purchasers who value resolution, and are willing to forego liquidity and bloom—characteristics of some tubed DACs and CD players.
The Marantz SA-14S1 SACD Player
Manufactured by Marantz America, Inc.
100 Corporate Drive, Mahwah, N.J. 07430-2041
Source: Manufacturer loan