Talk of the demise of CD is just a tad premature and to prove it Marantz has built a new flagship...
The timing wasnt ideal. 2 days before christmas and most sane people were more concerned with wrapping gifts and laying waste to the Bristol Cream than the latest CD technology. But the temptation was there, which is why we found ourselves at Heathrow at 6.45am - a time of day when the words 'comfort' and 'joy' didnt exactly sping to mind - to catch the flight to Marantz Head Quarters in Eindhoven.
Most people were off for christmas already, but the Marantz technical guru was still working: straight off a flight back from Japan, Ken Ishiwata was already in his listening room in the grey tower block amidst the Philips complex, and the music was flowing. On the equipment rack stood the reason we were here: the brand new 3500 pound Marantz CD-7 CD player.
It's hardly an exaggeration to say that this one's been a decade in the making. Between projects like the acclaimed KI-signatures series, Ken Ishiwata and his colleagues back at the Marantz factory in Machida, Japan, have been working on an ultimate 'statement' CD player. And now, with the impending arrival of super-CD formats like DVD-A and SACd, was the time to release it, if only to prove that there's so much more that can be done with the good old 16-bit format.
So what's new in this leviathan of a Marantz? Well, the question is more 'what's old', since the player returns to tried and tested multi-bit digital conversion, albeit in the form of Philips' acclaimed TDA1541 devices. But these aren't just any old DACs, but the creme de la creme 'Double Crown' versions, selected from the production run for optimmum performance. And while the transport is also from Philips, it's the industrial version of the CDM-12.3, using die-cast metal where lesser spinners employ plastic, and held in place for transit by a pair of bolts (now there's a blast from the past!).
Then there's the internal construction, with the analogue section mounted on its own copper chassis/shield, and employing a plethora of the top-grade Marant Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier modules (HDAM), and extensive plating (even the feet!) and high grade components throughout. However, if you were to lift out the tray on which the analogue section is mounted, what you would see below is an unusual sight in any CD player. For on a second layer is a brace of Motorola processors, and it's these which are at the heart of the Marantz CD-7.
You see, the new machine does all its digital filtering via Digital Signal Processing (DSP), enabling very high speed adaption to the signal. This has enabled several facilities unusual in one-box CD players, such as twin digital inputs with a fully automatic sampling rate converter, a choice of digital filtering positions and the ability to turn the noise shaping on and off. But while Ishiwata admits that the filter and noise-shaping options are there to keep the Japanese market happy - and that the player's best in the 'Filter 1'-position - he's more enthusiastic about the way this player deals with the nasties inherent in digital recordings. And the biggie is the way it attacks 'pre-ringing'. Look at an oscilloscope trace of an impulse recorded on CD, and you'd see the impulse as a pointly thing, but also a number of little ripples before and after it. These reduce the definition of the impulse, and while it's possible with conventional filtering to reduce those after the signal, until now the ones before (that 'pre-ringing') have been a problem. By harnessing all that processing power the Marantz can get the sound its designers are after without creating phase problems, while avoiding the need for extensive analogue filtering. In other words, what hits the DACs is the right signal, not merely something a load of stuff downstream can put right later.
For all that, the Marantz CD-7 we'll be able to buy here has still had a few tweaks between prototype and production - it isnt quite the same as the Japanese one.' grins the thoroughly European Ishiwata-san - just to make sureit delivers its full potential. And the result is a player that's big, heavy (we know, we carried all 16kg of it back on the plane!) and mighty impressive. Outputs are available either single ended or balanced, the latter making use of the internal design of the player further to reduce noise and interference, but even hooked up via the single-ended outputs this machine has winning style. It looks the business too, the nice touches extending to the action of the main controls buttons and even the way the display fades in and ou with the click of a relay at the press of a button. Simple pleasures...
Was there a christmas 1998? The question only arises because we seem to have spent most of it glued to the Marantz CD-7, listening to what it could do with a huge variety of discs. Feeding Musical Fidelity's X-P100 preamp and a brace of X-AS100 power amps, and running into Monitor Audio's Studio 20SEs and our elderly but still amazing REL Stygian sub, the Marantz CD-7 is as capable of shaking the floor with the big pipes of Bach's Toccata and Fugueas creating a breathtaking image of a solo female voice in the room. There's nothing to call attention to what's being done, but switching back to a lesser player after using the Marantz CD-7 is a bit of a comedonw. All sorts of oddities crawled out of the CD racks during this test, as we moved on beyond currente test favourites like The Beautiful South's Quench and Seal's Human Being. Playing RCA's original cast album of Sondheim's black, black musical comeday Sweeny Told showed just how much drama and detail the player can unearth, from the opening factory whistle shrieks to the great stabs of orchestral writing. Voices have superb character and shape, and even the tiniest nuance is there to be heard.
Just the same is true with a set like the celebreted Trio disc, with the combined voices of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstads and Emmylou Harris providing a stem test of any equipment. It's not a state-of-the-art recording, but on the Marantz there's never a moment of uncertainly about who's singing what, and the effect is delicious!
It's a very serious machine, the Marantz CD-7, and it looks like it'll become as much a one-box reference as is the Marantz CD63 mkII KI-Signature at the lower end of the market. Certainly coming to this machine after last month's tests of the two-box machines from Meridian, Naim and TAG McLaren was no hardship, and with thos digital inputs this machien is just as flexible as a transport/DAC combo, too.