Given the cynics’ view of the DVDA/ SACD “format war” I can hear them asking themselves whether this is an SACD player that also plays CD – or a CD player that also happens to play SACD, last nod to a dying format whose protagonists won’t admit defeat? Well guys, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but not only is your original premise wrong but your cynicism is sadly misplaced. This is very much an SACD player, and even if you won’t find Lily Allen or Girls Aloud on the format, SACD releases are going very nicely thank you. But what’s really nice about the SA-7S1 is that it takes CD replay just as seriously. Clear high-end aspirations and a dedicated two-channel topology make this an audiophile player for all seasons – or should that be reasons?
Of course, Marantz started life as one of the founding fathers of the high-end, a fact reflected in the nomenclature of this latest range, the SA-7’s matching amps echoing the designations of the legendary Model 7 pre-amp and Model 9 mono-blocs. The brand might be solidly mainstream these days, but it has always maintained its membership of the high-end community, underlined by occasional forays into the likes of Class A amplification and more recently, serious disc players like the two-box CD-7.
When major Japanese companies decide to do “high-end” the results tend to divide between the laughable and the truly scary – at least as far as the established high-end boutique brands go. The combination of sheer numbers and a serious development budget can create a technological and constructional package that even the most respected specialist manufacturers can only dream about. Just witness TEAC’s Esoteric line if you want to see genuine cost no object engineering – with performance to match. Well, this Marantz is cast from a similar mould, albeit cut from slightly less extravagant cloth. The flagship SA-7S1 tops out the company’s range at a price of £5000, the same point at which the Esoterics start. But, as Marantz are keen to point out, competing players that match the SA-7’s sophistication are generally far more expensive…
Interestingly, the parallels with the Esoteric range are more than skin deep. Both are built around massive, newly developed transports, the SACDM-1 in the SA-7 featuring a die-cast aluminium tray and substantial, extruded aluminium chassis and case; it is impressively fast and solid in operation. Both feature fully balanced audio circuitry and offer inputs for an external clock (although there is as yet no such device in the Marantz range). Both also feature massive, non-resonant chassis construction, although the Esoteric leans towards sheer (extensively CNC’d) mass to achieve this goal, the SA-7 relying on constrained layers instead. Despite being lighter and in engineering terms rather more elegant, they still add up to a machine that is reassuringly solid when it comes time to lift it into a rack.
Digitally speaking, the SA-7 relies on a dualdifferential pair of NPC SM5866AS DAC chips, feeding the company’s latest PEC (Phase Error Compensation) 777f2 digital filter, again arranged in dual-differential mode. This sophisticated multi-purpose chip acts as a digital filter, a DC filter, a noise shaper and an 8x over-sampler. These functions can be variously configured by the user, depending on format: there are three filter/DAC configuration options for SACD replay (including no filter at all), three filter algorithms for CD replay, as well as the option to defeat the noise shaping, DC filter and digital outputs for the latter. Obviously, there is no digital output from SACD. The digital section is entirely ground isolated from the analogue circuitry, which offers both single-ended and balanced outputs. You can also invert the absolute phase of the signal, a function that operates in the digital domain rather than the more usual analogue solution. Marantz have gone to great lengths to develop a single, large transformer for the SA-7, preferring the unified consistency of the source impedance it delivers. Careful routing of the DC tracks for the different circuit sections minimizes interference. The chassis is extensively copper plated and the player stands on handsome, solid copper feet, which were chosen for their sonic qualities as well as the fact that they look pretty. For once, the supplied remote is clearly laid out with well-spaced buttons that include the various filter options and other settings, allowing you to switch them from the listening seat. Incidentally, the user settings can only be changed with the disc stopped. That might seem like a bad thing, but actually it ensures proper comparison rather than knee-jerk responses to tonal shifts.
Unfortunately, as a reviewer, all those options create something of a moving target, so lets get them out of the way now. On SACD, as long as the recordings were well balanced, Filter 1 offered by far the best sound, setting 2 being more precise and focused, but also more mechanical, setting 3 being airy but also vague and diffuse. I also preferred the sound of Algorithm 1 for CD replay, as well as the sound with the Noise Shaping, DC filter and Digital Outputs all in the off position. However, it’s nice to have the options for the less well-recorded discs one comes across, where they can come into their own. But for the vast majority of my listening it was Filter 1 all the way, and no extra sauce.