The SA-7S1 is an absolute dream to operate. It responds instantaneously to all commands, loads CDs quickly, and performs all its functions far better than any other piece of digital gear I’ve ever owned. The drawer opens and closes with authority; it’s all metal and does not wobble or jiggle like the cheap plastic ones when you insert or remove a disc. In the world of high-end, we often have to settle for quirky gear that performs erratically at best. We are sort of resigned that it just comes with the territory, and that’s a shame. It’s so refreshing to get a piece that actually operates in a way commensurate with its price tag.
I’m in love with the remote. It’s heavy, sturdy, made of hard aluminum. It looks great (classy!), and feels fantastic in your hand. It’s well laid out, and the player instantly responds to your commands. What more could you want?
That said, the unit does have a few minor inconveniences. The first is that the phase inverter button is not available on the remote, you have to push the button on the unit’s front. Second, you have to stop the disc in order to switch between the various filters and other selectable items detailed above, so there’s no way to instantly A/B between them (but that's the same on my Sony, so maybe it just can't be done on-the-fly). This adds to the frustration of trying to hear the differences between them.
Speaking of the filters, after a lot of playing around, my initial feeling is that Filter 2 is preferable. It seems to be a bit sharper and crisper than the other two. The unit is so new and I am still in the process of getting a baseline, it’s kind of folly to try to detect the subtle differences between filters, but I had to pick one at the outset, and so I’ve settled on number 2, FWIW.
First Impressions Day 2
Straight away, I can tell the SA-7S1 is a very high performer. Anything that it can’t do at least as well as my RAM modified Sony XA9000ES (which I have put back in my stack so I can do A/B’s against the Marantz) falls well within the range that can be corrected by complete burn-in (except one, which I’ll point out shortly). Anecdotal reports so far indicate the SA-7S1 has a protracted burn-in period (300+ hours).
My first impression is that even without burn-in, the Marantz does about 25% of things better than my modified Sony, 50% at least as well as the Sony, and 25% not *quite* as well (but again, these fall within the range of what can be corrected through burn-in, so they are minor). I expect fully burned in, the stock Marantz will come to outperform the Sony in virtually all areas except one.
There’s no getting around it, the hot-rodded Sony simply has bigger balls than the Marantz. It’s capable of greater heft, slam and punch. The output level of the Marantz is also several db lower than the Sony; I have to turn the volume knob on my amp from 10:00 to 11:00 to get equal levels. Not that the Marantz is feeble or weak, but the Sony delivers the dynamics in a powerful way thanks to the Audio Consulting output transformers I had installed by RAM. When I have the Marantz modified, I will have the output transformers installed, so they should equalize in that department.
The Marantz outperforms the Sony in unexpected ways. I’m used to hearing blacker backgrounds, higher resolution, better dynamics, etc. when I upgrade, but the Marantz’s secret weapon is more subtle than that. The SA-7S1 is simply more revealing of subtle shifts and shading of tone than the Sony. In fact, it makes the Sony sound almost monochromatic, while the Marantz is in full glorious Technicolor.
Which is not to say that the SA-7S1 is *colored*-- it’s not. It’s surprisingly neutral which is why it allows all the instruments to sound more distinct and more like themselves. As I wrote earlier, because of the HDAMs, I was expecting the stock player to be kinda mushy and warm and fuzzy, maybe even soft-focus, but it’s not. OK, there is a *touch* of extra warmth, but it is the kind of thing that can easily dissipate with burn-in. The Marantz is incredibly resolving, but not in a shove-it-under-your-nose intrusive way. It took me until today to realize that it’s even more resolving than my Sony, even though it seems so much more subtle and natural. I’m hearing all kinds of things I’ve never heard before. It’s a champ at making sense of complex mixes with dozens of separate audio tracks. Each element holds together and remains intact. If you choose to, you can follow any instrument or element in the mix all the way through and it won’t get lost or buried, smeared or garbled.
I think one of the reasons the player seems more subtle is that it makes the Sony sound almost compressed dynamically like a modern CD, so that smaller sounds are a LOT smaller on the Marantz, but still fully audible and complete. In fact, that’s a great analogy-- the Marantz sounds like an old Japan first pressing CD with all it’s dynamic range intact and a slightly warm, but generally unfutzed-with sound, while the Sony comes across as a more in-your-face, compressed and EQ-tweaked remaster. I’m exaggerating the differences, but you get the idea.
The noise floor on the Marantz is very very low, the background is quite black, but not pitch black as on my Sony. Again, this falls well within the range that can be corrected with burn-in, and obliterated altogether by mods.
The Marantz is incredibly clean (but not clinical like the Krell SACD Standard for example) and “un-digital” sounding. It revealed some grain inherent in my Sony I had not noticed before. Some gear can overly smooth things out in a clearly artificial fashion; the Marantz just lets it flow in a natural, liquid way. In my listening notes when A/B-ing, I wrote that the Marantz almost makes the Sony sound slightly “transistor-y” and mechanical. By eliminating that artificiality, the Marantz lets you get more lost in the illusion that you are listening to an actual performance rather than a recording. I dread that awful and almost useless word “musical”, but the Marantz is probably more “musical” than the Sony, which sounds more “Hi-Fi”.
On Music Direct’s page for the SA-7S1, it trumpets the player’s “unfatiguing” sound. That to me can actually be a red flag. That can be code for “boring” and “dull”, or even (gasp!) rolled off in the high frequencies. But the Marantz pulls off that near impossible trick of giving you that dizzying high-end extension without hurting your ears. IME, the only way to achieve this is by making the treble response immaculately clean and free from etching, grain, or grit. You only ever really seem to get this with the best (and more expensive) gear. The Marantz treble goes up, up, up, but inexplicably does not assault the ears. Nice. There is, however, a slight twinge of sugary sweetness to the highs, but it’s easily forgivable.
But that easy-going nature doesn’t come completely free. Electric guitars, for example, just aren’t as satisfyingly crunchy and gutsy as they are on my Sony. Instead, you get to hear all the subtle shadings of tone inherent in the guitar that are otherwise missing on the Sony. So, it’s a toss-up. I think musicians would love the SA-7S1 because it clearly reveals all the subtleties of their playing, the way their instruments are tuned, and the overall tone/timbre of the particular brand and model they chose to play on that song. But head-bangers might miss some of the crunch of unfettered electricity from amps that go to 11 that the Marantz can’t quite deliver.
Bass response on the SA-7S1 is fine and well balanced, but doesn’t quite have the same grunt force of the modified Sony. I could easily see some people calling the hefty bass on the Sony slightly intrusive, but that is strictly a matter of taste and system tuning. The bass of the Marantz is very well balanced and in perfect proportion to the rest of the sound; if you are looking for a source to goose your bass response, it won’t do that, at least in stock form.
The soundstage size of the Marantz is wide and deep and spacious, definitely bigger than that of my Sony. The Marantz spreads the sound out further left and right, but you are not quite as close to the performers as you are with the Sony; you go from the front row to about the tenth row (still nowhere near the back of the hall, though). The Marantz images very very well; when you close your eyes and listen, every musician is clearly delineated within their own space. Interestingly, on the Marantz (thanks I believe to its better handling of dynamic range), singers seem to take a step forward from the rest of the band, and this adds to an increased sense of depth to the soundstage.
To sum up my initial impressions, the chief adjectives I would use to describe the stock Marantz are “refined”, “nuanced”, “precise”, “clean”, “coherent”, with “accurate tone and timbre”. I recognize those aren’t necessarily the most exciting audiophile terms, but those are its strengths.
I’ve decided I’m definitely keeping the player and will have it heavily modified. I will report back in a couple weeks after the burn-in process is through and detail any changes. Of course, once the unit comes back from the mod man, I’ll add a new full report to this thread.