Ken Ishiwata was undoubtedly one of the greatest characters to grace the modern hi-fi world. He was a huge personality, yet emerged from a time and a place – postwar Japan – that had little time for such exuberance. It wasn’t ego that made him stand out from the crowd, but rather his immense passion for music, hi-fi and design. Indeed Ken was actually a quiet, gentle and modest man who sometimes seemed uncomfortable with his transition into something approaching hi-fi’s very own rock star.

The most important special modifications that Ken Ishiwata ever did were to budget Marantz CD players, however. “The high point of my career at Marantz is without doubt the Ken Ishiwata Signature CD player series”, he once said. “The CD-63 KI Signature is a classic – many hi-fi reviewers still keep these in their collections. It’s not the most neutral sounding machine, but it has a very special sexy sound. What many don’t know is that I did these modifications to many Marantz products, going back to the LD-50 loudspeaker system, at the end of the nineteen seventies.”

Ken’s first job at Marantz in 1978 was solving the problem of misunderstanding between the Japanese engineering group and European quality control department. “I learned so much by doing this, then I turned my attention to loudspeakers, and then electronics.” He had been building both since his early teens back in Japan, so was very much in his element. Indeed Ken crafted his very own copy of the iconic Marantz Model 7C preamplifier, having borrowed one from his father’s friend to reverse engineer. He couldn’t afford premium components so used the cheapest generic capacitors, diodes and resistors he could find. “I was so shocked to discover it didn’t sound anywhere near as good as the real thing!”, he once told a group of journalists. “That was down to component quality.”

When asked to look at Marantz electronics in the late nineteen seventies, Ken realised that the sound wasn’t at all like the classics of the fifties and sixties. “So I began to talk to Marantz Japan about this and involve myself in the product design. This led to me starting to work on CD players. Compact Disc came in, and things changed forever. Actually, the new Red Book CD standard wasn’t good enough for really high level sound, but we understood that it had to be set where a big company could make a product at a reasonable price. At the time, I didn’t know anything about digital audio at all, so it was fantastic to learn from the masters at Philips. It informed the knowledge and experience behind my Special Edition CD players.”

The original Philips CD100 – the company’s first-ever silver disc spinner – was a good machine, but when the Marantz version came out, it had some modifications to improve it further. “We made some changes to the power supply and in the digital filter. We were very happy with the results. To be honest, rival machines like the Sony CDP-101 were no comparison! Then, technology progressed and Philips eventually came out with their 16-bit, four times oversampling chips. At that time, we had about three thousand CD-45s sitting in the warehouse in the UK, and the managing director asked what we were going to do with them. ‘Maybe we should sell them for ninety-nine pounds?’ The marketing manager didn’t want that, but it seemed like we had no choice. So I said, ‘Wait a minute, I am going to modify these 14-bit machines, and I’m going to make the most musical CD player available, and then we’re going to sell them for fifty pounds more!’ We finally decided on a limited edition run of two thousand. I did my modifications and took a prototype to a classical musician friend of mine, and he was amazed. So it came out – and they all sold out within two weeks. We said, ‘what a pity we didn’t have more machines to modify!’ That was the birth of the Special Edition.”

From then on, there was no turning back, and Marantz enjoyed a purple period in the nineties when it defined itself the purveyor of budget audiophile products that sounded better than their price rivals. “After the CD-45LE, we did the CD-65 and CD-75 Special Edition, and then every year we had a new model – like the CD-50SE, CD-52SE, CD-63SE, CD-67SE and CD-6000OSE. Each generation didn’t have a new chipset – until 1989 when Bitstream arrived – because fundamentally the digital filter was working very well. But we did change the mechanisms, the CD100 had a CDM0 type mech, and the CDM1 followed. This was the original swing-arm transport, complete with diecast parts. These had better trackability compared to the linear tracking designs the Japanese manufacturers were using. But this did have its problems – it was heavy, and the position control was done by servos which required high current, and this affected the noise floor. We ran with swing-arms through the CDM3 and CDM4 right up to CDM9. After that, it was linear, parallel-tracking like the Japanese. Those early Philips/Marantz machines always sounded very different from the Japanese rivals because they had better swing-arm transports and superior 4x oversampling DACs and digital filters. Even our S/PDIF chip was better – that early Philips S/PDIF chip was the best one ever made.”

Ken Ishiwata, 1947–2019