The name Marantz has been associated with hi-fl for many years. Started in America by Saul Marantz it quickly established a fine reputation for, among other things, its valve amplifiers. The company has long since become attached to the giant Philips organization, but although it benefits enormously from that connection, not least in recent years from Philips's experience as coinventor (with Sony) of the Compact Disc medium, it remains quite autonomous in most operating respects. That said, though, it does share some design and even product ideas: many readers will be familiar with, for example, the original Philips CD 100 top-loading Compact Disc player or its Marantz equivalent, the CD63. Marantz has its own team of designers who work both in conjunction with, and at the same time quite independently of, the European Philips R & D laboratories.
The Marantz CD-94 is the Marantz equivalent of the Philips CD960 which John Borwick reviewed back in May. Like that model it is the flagship of the range and retails for a correspondingly elevated price. Although many of the technical and operating features are common to both machines, they are also subtly different, an individuality externalized perhaps by the quite dissimilar approach to the cabinet design and layout of controls.
The front panel arrangement of the Marantz CD-94 is very neat and logical. At a casual glance there seem to be very few controls, only buttons for the disc-loading drawer open/close, FTS (favourite track selection), track up and down, play, pause and stop being visible. Second level functions, as it were, are covered by a full-width flap at the bottom of the fascia. These comprise a timer function switch (the machine can be set to go straight into play at power on), ten numeric programming buttons with select, memo, cancel and recall, a headphones socket with adjacent level control, time display (track elapsed, track remain or total remain time), shuffle mode (plays the tracks in random order), A-B repeat (cycles between two user-chosen points), repeat (of disc, track or programmed selection), AMS (automatic music search—plays the first few seconds of each track in turn), forward and reverse search (three speeds, the first two audible) and index up/down. The display shows track number, index number and time, with a 24track 'calendar' showing which tracks have yet to be played (which is helpful with a programmed sequence). The FTS function is a now familiar programming trick by which the machine can be set up to store favourite tracks from up to 226 discs, recalling the appropriate 'menu' automatically each time a disc is subsequently inserted (the memory for this being held even with the power oil).
In addition to facilitating the usual range of programming options, the numeric buttons allow direct track access, which is the quickest way to get to a particular point on a disc. Initial access time is around four seconds, which is plenty fast enough if not quite so athletic as some machines. All these functions, except shuffle, are duplicated on a rather ordinary-looking infra-red remote control. The rear panel carries six sockets, five of them gold-plated phonos. In addition to the normal analogue outputs (fixed level only) there are two digital connectors, one electrical and the other optical (Toshiba type) for appropriate interconnection with external digital-ready equipment The remaining two sockets come into play only when the Marantz CD-94 is connected to a Marantz "Bus Control" system. The main chassis is of die-cast aluminium, as is the laser transport subchassis which sits on substantial rubber mountings for immunity to vibration. A single-beam laser is employed, mounted on the simple swinging arm carrier which has served Philips and Marantz machines so well in the past. The case itself is aluminium with elegant, lacquered wood side panels.
The Marantz CD-94 uses the latest Philips 16-bit digital-to-analogue converter integrated circuit, the TDA 1541, together with four times oversampling. This approach, which is becoming de rigeur in top-end machines, gives extremely good res olution of the digital bit stream, the 176-4kHz sampling rate (four times the basic CD rate of 44-1kHz) enhancing the accuracy and permitting the use of much gentler analogue output filters (third order Bessel types here). Low order filters are advantageous, partly on grounds of simplicity and minimum in-band phase shift and partly because they are much less prone to ringing on transient waveforms compared with the high order so-called brickwall types. The TDA 1541 actually comprises two entirely separate D/A converters in the one 'chip', which means that the two stereo channels can be processed simultaneously instead of time-sharing the same converter with the corresponding II -3t.sS inter-channel delay (which in itself is probably irrelevant but by avoiding it the question is skirted). Very high quality components are used throughout the circuit.
Marantz CDA-94 D/A converter
The Marantz CD-94 is of course a standalone player in the usual sense, but either of its digital outputs can be taken to a digital processor unit (a tape recorder, perhaps, or one of the digital-ready amplifiers which are now beginning to appear) or to a separate D/A converter. Marantz have developed their own version of the latter primarily for use with this player: the Marantz CDA-94. Used thus the player becomes half of a two-box unit like the Sony CDP-552ES/DAS702ES combination reviewed in January 1986. Like that set-up, too, it has high audiophile aspirations.
The Marantz CDA-94 is styled to match the Marantz CD-94 exactly—indeed it uses the same cabinet and subchassis. It has provision for three digital inputs— one optical and two electrical—with a send (record out) and return (monitor) for a digital tape unit. Input and monitor switching is controlled from two small rotary switches situated behind the front panel flap. A headphone socket is fitted as before, again with an adjacent level control. The only other controls are an absolute phase switch and a large knob which adjusts the level from gne of the stereo analogue outputs. The CDA94 has automatic sampling rate switching, so that it will select the correct parameters for 32, 441 or 48kHz inputs and process them accordingly. The display is simple and shows the selected input and tape monitor status plus the sampling rate in use.
The rear panel has phono sockets for the two electrical inputs and recorder signals as well as a Toshibatype fibre-optic connector. There are three pairs of analogue stereo Outputs: conventional unbalanced phono sockets for fixed and variable level plus professional XLR Type X2 balanced (fixed level) at the standard 600 Ohms. Inside, the Marantz CDA-94 clearly smacks of the no-compromise approach. No less than three mains transformers are employed, one each for the digital input/output section, the D/A converter section and the analogue section. Each of these is built on a separate circuit board using very high quality components, and each is heavily shielded. In essence, absolute phase has to do with whether the loudspeaker cones move outwards or inwards for a given impulse. Some people seem to show a sensitivity to this difference, finding the reality of the signal enhanced or degraded accordingly. Since there is no way for most users to tell how many phase inversions have taken place during the signal's complex journey from microphone to loudspeaker, some provision for adjusting it 'to taste' can therefore be helpful. (By the way, the diagrams in the brochure and on the player itself indicate that this switching is done after the analogue filters, whereas the brochure text claims that it is done in the digital domain—not that it's of any great import.)
Assessed on its own, the Marantz CD-94 turned in the impressive performance I had expected of it, having known and owned players from this stable in the past. On JB's test bench it passed all the tests with ease; clearly this is Marantz's best player yet. Perhaps impressive is the wrong word, though, for in a sense the sound is remarkable more for what it doesn't have than what it does. It doesn't have any kind of treble emphasis or the kind of grittiness which some listeners associate with digital sound, indeed it doesn't seem to impose any kind of sonic signature of its own at all. The result is as smooth and detailed as the source signal, with the stereo soundstage tangibly intact and stable. It is a fatigue-free sound which encourages long-term listening and indeed its subtlety is such that time is needed before these qualities are fully apparent. At £799 the CD94 is expensive but it is beautifully built, sounds extremely well, is kind to difficult discs (unimpeachable tracking of our 'fault' test disc) and a pleasure to use.
What you actually gain by spending a further £799 is very hard to quantify. Of course the money may be seen to be better spent when a DAT recorder is similarly connected; then, a D/A unit of known quality would be common to the system. Again, the test bench results were superb in every way, with exceptionally good signal-to-noise and crosstalk figures.
On the face of it, all the Marantz CDA-94 adds to the Marantz CD-94 is a volume control and a switch for absolute phase but on careful audition further refinements to the overall sonic performance do become apparent. The two units can be connected either via the coaxial electrical link or the fibreoptic coupler. The differences here are more subtle still and although I favoured the latter it is difficult to see that this can be due to anything else than some quirk of the grounding arrangement which it overcomes (with the coax connector the machines' chassis are 'tied' together whereas the optical coupler keeps them separate). It should be stressed, perhaps, that when making A-B comparisons of such subtlety it is imperative to make sure that both absolute phase and level correspond exactly. Failing that, the subjective results simply cannot be trusted. Level matching by ear alone, which is the norm, is not nearly sensitive enough.
With the Marantz CDA-94 in circuit there is an increased sense of resolution. Tiny details—bows on strings, fingers on fingerboards, tonguing noises on a reed, and so on—which had been heard before are still more clearly discernible. The ambience around a well recorded ensemble is just a bit more tangible. To use that corny cliché, it is as though one more thin veil had been lifted between performer and listener. This kind of refinement would be masked by all but the most capable of ancillary equipment but for the audiophile whose £1,600 CD player matches an appropriately specified system it could be significant and at any rate the Marantz CD-94/Marantz CDA-94 combination should be heard. For most of us the lone £800 Marantz CD-94 would more than pass muster, sitting as it does among the best players currently available.