Hi-Fi News’ Editor Steve Fairclough recently visited Marantz’s European HQ in Holland to talk to the company’s famous audio guru Ken Ishiwata. Here is the full interview – only available online…
Speeding down a German autobahn at 240km/h in Ken Ishiwata’s BMW sports car you quickly realise that this is a man who seriously knows how to handle machines. But it’s not cars that Ken Ishiwata is famous for; it’s as the technical genius behind the Marantz brand in his role as ‘Brand Ambassador’ for the company.
In person he resembles a sort of diminutive Japanese Karl Lagerfeld with a natty line in clothes and a slick ponytail nestling down his back – basically he’s a man with style. Although in his late 50s he’s full of energy and humour and you instantly find yourself hanging on his every word simply because he talks so much sense in such a knowledgeable way.
No Marantz product – amps, CD players, turntables, receivers, tuners, systems etc – comes to market until it has had the ‘green light’ from ‘KI’. In addition certain Marantz products are hand-picked by Ken Ishiwata for special tweaking before appearing as KI Signature models.
Hi-Fi News recently spent a couple of days in his company, and his listening room, to chew the fat and hear the new Marantz SA7001 KI CD player and PM7001 KI amplifier. The room is in the bowels of Marantz’s European HQ in Eindhoven, Holland and was set up with the aforementioned recent additions to the KI Signature range, plus the TT-15 turntable and a pair of ALR Jordan Note 2 bookshelvers on stands. The new KI CD and amp sounded terrific but before we got down to listening we spoke to ‘Marantz’s Music Man’…
Is Marantz’s relationship with Mordaunt-Short still ongoing?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Yes, Marantz and Mordaunt-Short are spreading our alliance into many countries. We distribute Mordaunt-Short speakers and that’s exactly the extent of the relationship. First of all Marantz started with B&W, then the relationship didn’t work; then we moved to Tannoy, then the relationship didn’t work and now we are with Mordaunt-Short’.
Does the fact that D&M is the overall holding company that owns Marantz affect things as D&M also owns the Boston and Snell speaker brands?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Not in Europe, but yes, in America It’s different. Over here (Europe) you don’t hear much of the Boston and Snell brands. The Mordaunt-Short name is much better suited for the European market’.
Do you have a preferred speaker brand?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Not a brand, but I can pick out a few speakers. Do you remember the original Snell? I like that speaker very much. The founder of B&W – his dream was to come up with a speaker having like a dipole soundstage, no effect on the cabinet, yet dynamics – conventional dynamics. It was very expensive because it was an active system. It was four-way so you needed four stereo power amps or eight monoblocks to drive this with electronics crossover. It was a very expensive system but the performance of that speaker (the Nautilus) was exceptional’.
Is there any possibility Marantz might have any collaboration with Sonus faber at all?
Ken Ishiwata: (laughs) I’ve known the Sonus faber company for many years and they make beautiful speakers. They were looking for a distribution solution in China and because of the fact that I knew China very well I introduced them to the person who used to run Marantz China. He now runs Sonus faber Greater China – that means Hong Kong and China – so that’s the link. I introduced them to this guy and he’s now doing the job very well I have to say. I don’t know if you remember but they had one amplifier called Musica. They’re not allowed to use my name for marketing but I designed that amplifier many years ago because Franco was not satisfied with any amplifier that he wanted to get, so I said “OK, maybe I can help you”. So, I designed the amplifier and I let Franco decide, and then they marketed it’.
What are the plans for the KI line? Is there anything in the pipeline?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Sometimes we (Marantz) launch up to 50 products a year and some are basically designed for different price points, 399 or 499, whatever. But then you find some with big potential – if I see such a product I’ll make a KI version. That’s the condition I agreed with the company. That’s the only way I would agree to commercialise a KI product. It’s like a football player – sometimes you find talent and in a similar way I pick products and come up with them. It’s been quite some time since I found something very interesting but I did with this 7001 amplifier and SACD player’.
So the amount of product in the KI line is literally down to your decision?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘It is, yeah. Because something like that doesn’t happen that often so that’s the reason why you don’t see so many KI products’.
What are your feelings with regard to any potential for HD-DVD and Blu-ray for audio?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Today’s idea of high-definition picture is just enough but with Blu-ray you can make so many layers and you can reach about 300 gig out of that disc, so then the possibility is interactivity. So, actually film, for example, you can have so many different stories. You can start with the same story but how the film ends you could change completely. So, from the creative point of view it can get very exciting and imagine you, as the viewer, will have the chance to change the story. The possibility is just a matter of the size of the disc space and Blu-ray allows you to do that. So, I think there’s a lot of potential because something has to progress. Just having a high-definition picture is not, in my opinion, enough to “long last”. Look at LP, how long we used that. CD. All those had 20 to 30 years of life and if they are formatted so are the limitations – you have a problem. Especially today technology advances so much, so fast. In my personal point of view they should define the new-found format of the disc considering all the possibilities. So, only from that point of view I’m in favour of Blu-ray. Also, once you have that sort of capacity if you want to you can come up with completely different audio options. You’ve probably heard about PCM. DVD-Audio is 192kHz at 24 bit so 192,000 samples in one second and each sample is using 24 bit even on silence. What a waste! That sort of converting music into digital is stupid. You can come up with a much better system having very high sampling, let’s say 500k, but you allocate the number of bits depending on the dynamics of the DV sample’.
Do you think that SACD and DVD-Audio are dead in the water?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Every format is dependent on software companies. We don’t see any DVD-Audio discs in store, do we? So, that means death. At least with SACD it’s a small section but when you go to the record store you see it. Surprisingly the section of LPs is bigger and it’s getting bigger. You’ll have noticed that one-and-a-half years ago we introduced an LP player (the TT-15) because I could feel when I went to the record shop that LP was going into bigger sections, so I said: “This is the moment, let’s do it”. So we came up with it because let’s face it, we serve the consumer. Whatever the source is we must offer the possibility of playing it. In one company I think we are the only one that offers all the possibilities – from LP, Super Audio CD, even DVD-Audio if you want to. We cover that. That’s our job. Coming back to the disc format if we can come up with a completely different way of converting DVD-Audio/PCM is too much wasting data. So, if we can come up with such a floating system, and not fixed bit, giving the number of bits in accordance with the music, and very high sampling, you can make a wonderful system’.
What is your feeling on surround-sound systems? Are people buying music to hear on surround-sound systems?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘The majority of people buying surround-sound is for home cinema, but people buying home cinema receivers doesn’t always mean that they buy home cinema speaker kits. Many people only end up with one pair especially due to space and wiring – all those things are troublesome for the consumer. How often do the majority of people watch films? They listen to more music out of such a system than watching films. That’s also the reason that in the last 18 months many people came back to two-channel. Maybe you heard about it – the shift of product sales from multi-channel to, gradually, two-channel is happening. So you’ve started to see that the two-channel market is much stronger now, which is very encouraging I have to say. Another point is because of the fact that all of the American standard holders, like Dolby/DTS, always come up something new all the time (which is not necessary) those people are making money out of hardware companies so we have to have all those logos on receivers and each logo represents how much we are paying (laughs). The problem is because of those things we have to make integrated circuits – they caused all those different standards. Degrading the quality of the music is obvious. So, when you hear just a simple, straightforward two-channel CD player and amp combination, which is very low priced, compared to a mid-priced home cinema system playing music there is no comparison. So, that’s what is happening. I think people have started to realise what they had before, so they are coming back’.
HFH: In the light of the recent Sony BMG copy-protection case recently do you think that kind of copy-proof software is required for downloadable music?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘The copyright issue is very difficult. It isn’t only for music I have to say but everything… even the computer programs. I was talking earlier about China and I was talking about the girls who work in the factory and how much a CD costs, and how much you have to pay there if you buy an official copy. My point is I cannot just judge humanity and the living standards of different countries are all relative. So, in China piracy is the only way people have access to the computer with music or software. It’s a very difficult issue and I understand, if you created something, that making copies is stealing. But the biggest problem is the price levels – like a CD or DVD disc, how much have you got to pay for one disc? I think they have to have a sort of a system that due to the average income of each country puts a different onus. Otherwise it’s not fair and it’s become completely impersonal. I think to have such a copy-protection system is a good thing and is understandable from their point of view of how to protect them, but then I think we have to go a couple of steps further to reinforce it so everybody can agree and respect this. That step isn’t there today’.
Have you got any specific future plans for the KI line and Marantz?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Our company started as a sound specialist for music and when you look at the Marantz logo we always have “Because Music Matters”. That explains everything – that’s who we are. We will never change that. In my opinion hi-fi started with the mono audio LP, that was introduced in 1948. This mono LP compared to the previous format, 78rpm, saw a quality step so huge that many enthusiasts started to make equipment to make a better sounding system and that’s the way hi-fi started in the early 1950s. Then ten years later, in 1958, the stereo LP came and again a lot of people made an effort making stereo. Whenever I do a presentation I always hear people say “What is stereo?” Do you know what stereo is? Because you have two-channel, left and right, in the early type of stereo at the end of the ’50s and the early ’60s it was like table tennis – ‘ping pong’. The ball is hitting one side of the table and then moving to the other side so you hear the pong, pong, pong on the left and right speakers and they call that stereo. For me that’s two mono – two mono recording, you have two microphones capturing mono sound. Because stereo is from old Greek – it’s panoramic reproduction, so it’s three-dimensional. You must have width, depth and height. Unfortunately not many people really know what stereo means, but that’s the real stereo’.
What can we expect next from Marantz in terms of high-end audio?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘We always try to do high-end and bring it down to the rest of the ranges, so it’s what we call a “top-down” approach. This year we are redefining our high-end again so we are going to come up with new monoblocks, pre-amplifiers and SACD. Once that is introduced the following year it will trickle to the rest of the ranges. So, I think that’s what’s going to happen in the next five years – bringing in something unique, again at a different level, and then bringing it down to the rest of the range. But because today we cannot forget about ease of use and compatibility with the way of people’s lives we must have a different kind of concept suiting today’s lifestyle. That’s the way we are facing and this year we are going to bring a very, very new type of amp which I cannot tell you about (laughs). I can show you this amp later and talk about it. Today’s way of life has changed completely so we have to think about what kind of features, really convenient features that benefit the end consumer, we can bring in. We are sound specialists but we do not forget how people live today’.
Does the ‘trickle-down’ technology mean the new CD player (SA7001) and the new integrated amp (PM7001) are an improvement in any way or is it brought down/shared technology?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Put is this way. Recently if you look at speakers, the speaker market is very polarised. B&W did so damned good a job that they became the number one world speaker brand. Unfortunately some of their speakers are very difficult to drive so when they introduced the original 801 and 800 we, Marantz Japan (a distributor of B&W) we had a lot of problems driving those speakers. Krell, Mark Levinson didn’t do the job. We studied the speakers and so we came up with the proposal of a different way of designing the power amplifier to drive and we made those monoblocks at that time. That technology used is now coming to the PC level. So that’s what we are doing’.
We are coming close to the 50th anniversary of stereo (in 2007) – will there be any plans to celebrate that in any way?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Three years ago we celebrated our 50th anniversary because the Marantz company started in 1953, so we did that in 2003. But the most famous Marantz amplifiers are called Model 7, Model 9 and Model 8 so, yes, we may consider doing something unique. Who knows? Yes, why not? That was an exciting period. I wish today was like that time’.
Are we likely to see any revisits of classic Marantz products?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Some time ago we did a replica of the Model 7 amp but the biggest problem is the tube. We started to make a product and then we got a shipment from China that wasn’t, in terms of the quality of tube, at all in line with what it was supposed to be. So, we had to give up continuation of that project. We initially accepted orders from people and we ended up with 8000 orders for the Model 7, 7000 orders for the Model 8 and 10,000 orders for the Model 9. We thought we could do that in one year but because of the fact that tube wasn’t there it took us three years to do this and we said “there’s no way we can run serious production this way”. That’s the unfortunate situation. To run it in a proper production number is very difficult. If the quality of the tube is much better then, yes. Another thing is the reliability of the tube was also not the same as what we are used to. Some of the tubes I saw (from China and Russia) it was just unbelievable how bad they were. Also, the basic manufacture, basic materials and control of materials, and control of how to manufacture everything was incredibly bad. The truth is we sent back 90% and whenever those tubes aren’t meeting the specification at all people don’t want that. The biggest problem with tubes is that used on amplifiers they have a special charm and sound characteristic so I can understand that some people want that. I understand it’.
Do you think Marantz should have any relationship with the iPod at all?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘Well, we know that many Marantz product users use iPods and they already connect them to one of our products in their homes. Indirectly that will influence us as well. There are ways to make the iPod sound better through encoding. Yes, there are many possibilities that we can think about but we have to think about other areas of life as well – there are so many others things too’.
Would Marantz go down a licensing route with iPod?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘The biggest problem is licensing is very expensive because they (Apple) are asking for a very high percentage (10%) of the retail price. So, imagine if you have a £1000 unit using this feature (iPod compatible), you have to pay £100. So, we have to add that on the cost and usually the cost of a product is one-third or one-quarter of the retail and then 10% of retail has to be added on – the cost is very high. That’s the reason many people are avoiding these licenses’.
What are your thoughts on the future of audio and the hi-fi industry? For example, in ten years will everything be digital?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘The LP is still there and also new LPs for DJs are very popular. Young people who go to discos and hear those discs want to play them back in their house. So there are still going to be a lot of LPs and a lot, a lot, a lot of CDs. I think those are the two major formats that will exist for a couple of decades. Think about how many CDs there are out there in houses – there’s no way you can scrap that! The compatibility will always be there, plus from musical recording to making CDs is a very simple method today so I think they’re still gonna sell a lot of CDs. Of course they are selling music through the net as well so the amount of money spent by people on buying music has increased drastically (because CD sales didn’t drop that much). If you think about how much people are buying through the ’net it’s really surprising for me but in my opinion it’s a positive point. People still want music as a part of their life. I think music is the greatest art created. Music is the strongest art that can move emotion in people. No other art can do that. That’s the reason why there’s so strong a connection’.
Do you have any favourite pieces of music?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘I started as a musician with a violin so my variety of listening to music is so wide that I can appreciate most music (laughs). Some of it I still have difficulty with but I can appreciate bit. So, I don’t have any particular thing. Whatever is a good performance will steal my heart, especially at a concert’.
As somebody who designs audio equipment, do you have an ultimate goal in design or have you ever gotten close to that?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘If we had the same tastes you would have a problem – you would start fooling around with the same girl (laughs). So it’s the same for the taste for sound as well. You can’t really have “this is it”. When it comes down to the sound character I leave it down to the individual’s taste because they have to know what they want, but our job is scientific accuracy. If you have a soundstage any system you play back should be able to precisely reproduce that. Those fundamentals are a must for me. For example, with this pair of this amp (PM7001KI) and this SACD (SA7001KI) I paid extra attention to the soundstage and I think we’ve made quite a big step. With sound characteristics what I’m trying to do with a single product when you have low frequency to mid-high frequency I try to bring the speed the same, not to have imbalance in the speed. So then the harmony of whatever the music you play back with that amplifier or SACD is till intact. That’s what I try to do’.
Is there any one particular product you’ve developed that you’re most proud of?
Ken Ishiwata: ‘I think it’s always the product that people buy and from that point of view I think in Marantz the best selling CD player ever was the CD63 Mk II KI. The number we sold was unbelievable worldwide – I think we sold almost 300k – and that was really very unique. I know from a purely scientific point of view that CD player was not neutral but it was very musical, very balanced. People recognised that and then it got very popular. I think we sold almost 300k (units). That player was very popular so we could just continue producing it’.
KEN ISHIWATA’S CAREER
1968 • Came to Europe to work for Pioneer
Early 1970s • Left Pioneer and worked for the company that was military market representative for Sony, Pioneer, Minolta and Canon.
1975 • Set up business as a fashion photographer
1978 • Joined Marantz as Technical Coordinator
1979 • Took additional job working in speaker development
1980 • Became involved in product development for total Marantz range
1986 • Appointed Marantz Senior Product Development Manager
1996 • Appointed Brand Ambassador for Marantz