Marantz's ambassador is really spoiling us Only the subtle KI-Signature badges distinguish the CD player and amp from standard. Not for those who only like background music Trademark Marantz/lshiwata touches: both the amplifier (left) and CD player use extensive copper plating and beefed-up power supplies With his latest 1(1-Signature CD player and amplifier, Marantz 'ambassador' Ken Ishiwata has created some amazing audiophile bargains, says Andrew Everard.

Where are all the audio personalities?' was the question Marantz asked itself a few years back, gazing at a market dominated by products designed and tuned largely by anonymous engineering teams in backrooms. Its answer to this shortage of character and humanity was to ask technical guru Ken Ishiwata to take its current products and do a 'cost no object' exercise on them, even though, understandably, a few in the cornpan)' took some convincing that a 500 version of a 300 CD player, or a 400 derivative of a 200 amplifier, would be welcomed with open arms and chequebooks.

The rest is a bit of modern audio history: in the relatively few years since the exercise began, the CD63MK11 KI-Signature CD player and PM-66 KI-Signature have sold in appreciable numbers, and 'KSSig' versions of the CD-17 and PM-17 have been launched. Ishiwata himself has (not entirely reluctantly) agreed to requests for signing sessions in hi-fi shops, not to mention travelling the world to, well, almost everywhere except America, where they 'don't get' the KI-Signature thing.

Now, based on the company's Century range, there's a secondgeneration K1-Signature line-up. Gone is the rather dated styling of the old Ki-Sigs - they were, after all, based on products anything up to three generations old - and they've been replaced by the chunkier, flat-fronted Century look. There's also a new KI Signature badge in a smart italic script, managing to be both smaller and classier than either of the old logos. And the best news is that the prices are the same as those of the original KI products: the CD6000KI CD player is 500, the PM60I0KI amplifier 400.

Oh, and Ken Ishiwata, long described as just 'of Marantz', has a new job title. The company recently announced that the new business cards will read 'Ken Ishiwata, Brand Ambassador'.

Marantz CD6000 KI
The CD6000 OSE player is good, but hasn't ever managed to capture the imagination of the audiobuying public as Marantz players of yore did. The KI version, however, is a very different beast: with free-breathing power and clarity designed to make the most of a wide range of music, allied to exceptional ability when it comes to unmasking low level detail, the CD6000 KI Retained from the 'donor' player is the full - floating VAM1201 transport mechanism. It is designed for fast access and high standards of playability, feeding a single-bit conversion system running in dual-differential mode for minimal distortion and low-level linearity. The familiar Marantz HDAM amplifier modules are used in the output stage, and both optical and electrical digital outputs are provided for connection to suitable recorders such as CD-R'VV or MiniDisc decks. The player's dot-matrix display will give readouts of CD-Text when discs thus encoded are loaded.

So that's how the player comes out of the factory - next it gets a near complete strip-down here in the UK, where a series of improvements are introduced starting with mirror-finish copper-plating of the chassis (after it has been reinforced to damp resonances) in the interests of interference rejection and better earthing. The lid is given extra damping, then the electronic fun begins with the replacement of the standard transformer by a bigger, high-quality toroidal, the fitting of better capacitors and copper shielding of the regulation stage.

Marantz PM6010 KI
The PM6010 is a pretty solid base on which to build a tuned amplifier: as standard it delivers SOW per channel, has a relatively simple symmetrical layout, a toroidal power transformer and full remote control of -a complete Marantz system. Frills are kept to a minimum, the amplifier having a moving magnet phono stage, three line-ins and a brace of tape loops with their own monitoring buttons, a sourcedirect button to bypass the tape selectors and balance control, and a single set of fairly solid speaker terminals. There are no tone controls, and no gimmicks.

The tuning that creates a PM6010KI is broadly the same as that involved in modifying the CD player and, again, the work is carried out in Britain. There's an uprated transformer, too, and improved capacitors, plus copper plating for the chassis and shielding of the regulation stage, but this time some work has been done on the phase linearity of the amp, the aim being to improve imaging and stereo focus.

What is the Ishiwata sound? Well, it's also the Marantz sound, and majors on presenting the music free from coloration or overtones, establishing as direct a communication as possible from the recording to the listener. Of course, the standard products have to be built with price constraints in mind, which can limit their ultimate performance: the idea of the 'KI-Sig' programme is to wring from the basic building blocks as much performance as possible. This the new products do - like their forebears - and in some style.
To some ears Marantz equipment, in particular the KIs, can sound a bit bright and forward, particularly when compared with the rather reserved sound of some price-comparable British-made components. If you like your music smooth and generous, not to mention non-intrusive, it's probably best to steer clear of the KI CD player and amplifier: they are definitely not designed to satisfy those who like music merely as a background to other activities.

However, considering that you're reading this in Gramophone, it's safe to assume that the music itself is of paramount importance, so the KIs could be right up your street. The amplifier/CD player combination has that rare ability to demand and hold the listener's full attention; and while its open, revealing nature means that it won't disguise poor recording, if you're looking for strong detailing of both a recording and performance (and want it without breaking the bank), the Marantx pair has much to commend it.

Experience suggests that some running-in will allow the sound of these products to develop, and though the review samples had been used quite a lot before I received them, a few hours' use from cold soon saw the initial hard edge mellow into a crisp, but far from abrasive, treble. Simultaneously the bass, initially a little lean, filled Out to become powerful and well-extended, but without producing any boom or excessive bloom. This is a combination fully able to deliver the power of orchestral basses and percussion without smearing or overhang: dramatic timpani or bass drum interjections have explosive power when required, but the low-end is always tuneful and well-defined.

The midband is pretty magical: whether with solo instruments or voices, the Marantz CD player/amplifier combination just sounds 'right', having a vibrant, natural balance that ensures a highly expressive rendition. Feed the player with the drama of opera - for example with the most recent Solti Don Giovanni (Decca, 10/97) - and together with the amplifier it creates very convincing sonic pictures. It's fine, too, with the Harnoncourt live Beethoven symphonies (Teldec, 11/91) where every section of the orchestra is rendered in exceptional detail, and the sense of a performance comes over in an enticing fashion.

The some is true of the delicious recent Supraphon disc from the newly formed Smetana Trio, which includes Smetana's Piano Trio in G Minor. The recording has a taut, tightly controlled quality and beautiful sense of the studio ambience, with just the right amount of bloom and air in it to place the performers realistically in the soundstage. The piano is presented with a gorgeous mix of scale and delicacy, while the violin and cello sing smoothly but with appealing 'bite'.

Is there a junior/senior partner relationship here? Hardly: strong though the CD player and amplifier are together, as you might expect from same-brand synergy, listening to them separately with components from other brands, reveals that both have that fine combination of freshness and control, power and poise.

The CD player sounds more dynamic and yet slightly less edgy than the original CD-63MkI1 K!Signature, a sample of which I had to hand for comparison, while the amplifier seems powerful beyond its nominal rating. That ensures it's capable of driving speakers of a much higher standard than you'd expect to find on the end of a 400 amp. That said, the combination would work extremely well together with speakers like Tannoy's 550 R3s or even the 230 mX3s. This is hardly surprising, given that Mr Ambassador had a hand in the tuning of both those designs, Marantz being the Tannoy's European distributor.

Like the original KI-Sigs, the two new models perform way above their price range, making them true bargains for audiophiles (and, of course, music lovers) on a budget. Take a listen; it's not hard to hear a personal enthusiasm for music coming through strongly. If you share a taste for music played the way Ishiwata likes it - raising hairs on your neck and delivering the occasional shiver - then you are definitely in for a treat.