I have no way of measuring the performance of electronics, but this phonostage sounds really quiet and unusually low in perceived coloration and distortion. Perhaps there is something to the DC-servo equalization Marantz makes a point of using in preference to what it calls “conventional” RIAA equalization with its “negative feedback.” Offhand I can’t recollect a better built-in phonostage in any integrated amplifier. I don’t like to evoke quality in terms of price, because I find the correlation inexact to say the least, especially when it comes to electronics. But I’ve heard separate phonostages costing three-to-four grand that are no better, some not as good. About the only criticism I might tentatively advance is perhaps a slight foreshortening of depth (slight enough that I wouldn’t want to put any real money on it), which I also noted on digital sources. It may seem odd to be raving so about a built-in phonostage in a unit with looks and design as contemporary as this one and that has a matching disc player, but there it is. Before I move on, let me reiterate how involving the presentation always was. I put on the Belafonte album only to spot check a couple of things, but wound up listening through two of the four sides.
Late in the review process David Chesky provided me with some hi-res WAV downloads of his newest album The New York Rags for solo piano. This was my first experience of high-resolution downloads and they put my jaw into my lap: clean like I’ve rarely heard clean, powerful, vivid, stunningly registered all up and down the scale. The CD version, good in and of itself, simply pales by comparison—and I do mean pales, as in deficient in color, timbre, tonality, and sheer force. I also downloaded a variety sampling from HDtracks and was similarly floored, in particular by a Reference Recording of the Minnesota Orchestra playing “Dance of the Tumblers” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, staggering in its realism, clarity, dynamics, and transparency. (As noted, the SA-11S3 would not read any of these files off a flash drive, so I played them through an Oppo BDP-105 universal Blu-ray player.) Suffice it to say, this is a brave new world I will be exploring in the future. In the meantime, the PM-11S3 fully rose to the occasion of these stellar downloads, as I have no doubt it will with any sources sent its way.
Turning to the SA-11S3, the “sound,” what there is of a distinctive personality, that is, came as no surprise because I’ve been using Marantz’s much lower-priced SA8004 player ($999, TAS 211) as my primary source for SACDs and CDs (though usually feeding it into a Benchmark DAC1 for the latter). The 8004 sacrifices a small amount of detail and absolute resolution for a presentation of great naturalness and musicality. It’s a player I never tire of listening to. The SA-11S3 offers more of the same, though it has state-of-the-art control, neutrality, and resolution (which means you needn’t have any concerns about retrieval of detail). It also costs four times as much, but we all know this doesn’t make it four times better because that’s not how high-end audio works. It’s merely better: thickly scored passages, for example, appear a little more well-ventilated as it were; the presentation is subjectively more transparent; there is better grip. As for SACD sources, I’ve been hooked on the format since it was introduced and have had occasion to use several very fine SACD players in the years since.
This new Marantz is one of the best I’ve heard anywhere and unquestionably the best I’ve had in house. One of the last things I played was the Anonymous Four’s Gloryland. Never have I heard it reproduced with greater purity, presence, or throat-catching beauty.
I spent a lot of time comparing the filters before I read the company’s description of their sonic characteristics. What the literature describes is pretty much what I found: Filter 1 more accurate and neutral, Filter 2 softer, less resolved, but easier to listen to, especially with older recordings that are bright or plagued with early digitalis. I reached the point where I could tell with fair reliability which was engaged without looking, but it took some time and great concentration. In other words, there is no night-and-day difference, their effects instead subtle enough that outside the reviewing context I wasn’t inclined to make a fetish of determining which I preferred every time I slipped in a disc. Filter 2, the more “analog”-sounding one, evokes the sound of my 8004, while Filter 1 is closer to the 8004 going through the Benchmark DAC1 (which I still regard as Red Book reproduction second to none).