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Positive Feedback ISSUE44
as reviewed by Arnis Balgalvis
I can remember lusting after Marantz equipment some 50 years ago. At first the object of my desires was the Model 7C preamplifier and the Model 8B power amplifier, then the Model 9 monoblocks. At the time, those were certainly some of the most desirable hi-fi pieces. Back then that was the world of high fidelity with other front runners such as Bozak, H.H. Scott, and Fisher. I was a college student struggling to meet tuition payments and the possibility of acquiring any Marantz piece was a very dim to none prospect. If ever there is a marquee that has survived the test of time, then Marantz is it.
The staying power of the Marantz brand is something that Saul Marantz did not envision when he first launched his company way back in 1953. There is no doubt today that Marantz has earned a firm place in the history of high-end audio.
In the intervening years since its initial heyday, Marantz has had a really fascinating history, hitting some seriously rough bumps along the way. While it took a number of ownership changes and corporate reorganizations for Marantz to get back on its feet and be recognized again as a stalwart in the high-end audio world, the actual credit here goes to one man, Ken Ishiwata, who persisted in the face of the Japanese corporate culture and who was instrumental in leading a program that returned Marantz products to a renowned level.
With all the ups and downs that occurred in the intervening years, it was an auspicious event when, in 2003, the then current brain trust of Marantz saw fit to commemorate the name's 50 year anniversary. Marantz celebrated those initial golden years with the release of the Reference Series by introducing several commemorative pieces using the nomenclature of the original set, but updated from the ground up with today's design knowledge and current components.
This Reference Series was comprised of the MA-9S1 monoblock power amplifiers, the SC-7S1 preamplifier, and the SA-11S1 CD/SACD disc player. Of note are the model designations MA-9S1 and the SC-7S1, two models that recalled the two original Saul Marantz legends, the Model 7 preamplifier and the Model 9 power amplifier monoblocks, revered by many even to this day. This was indeed a momentous occasion for the Maranatz brand because the Reference Series was an emphatic testament to the legendary ideals that Saul Marantz held dear: exciting aesthetics and superb sonics.
In the power amplifier realm Marantz released the MA-9S1 power amplifier monoblocks with the capability of delivering 300 watts into 8 ohms and 600 into 4. It looked exceptionally well and it sounded just great.
About four years later they conducted a total redesign of the MA-9S1 power amplifier and introduced the MA-9S2. According to Marantz, it was: "A major undertaking, the engineers at Marantz tore apart the MA-9S1 and redesigned it from the ground up to be even faster, with less noise, and more authority". While the basic power rating remained unchanged, the S2 version provided you with a whopping 150 Amps of peak current on tap. Noise was lowered and a choke input power supply was implemented. Internally Marantz provided a low-noise toroidal transformer, along with heavy-duty wiring. The cosmetics remained the same as they had been for S1 version.
I had owned and used the MA-9S1s for a couple of years and enjoyed them immensely. But when the S2 was introduced, something told me that I should upgrade. Let me tell you, I sure am glad I did. For one thing, the MA-9S2 is one exquisite piece of equipment. It is a beauty in every sense of the word, and is, in my opinion, even more stunning than any of the pictures that have appeared in brochures and other literature; it is obvious that the fit and finish clearly belongs in the as-good-as-it-gets category.
Maybe it's the gold anodize finish. Maybe it's the retro styling. But for me this amp is a beauty. It has nicely shaped soft lines that blended just right to go with the rectangular front panel so reminiscent of the original Model 9. And it to my eye it graces my listening room with elite elegance.
OK, OK, looking good isn't everything. So, let's see what the MA9-S2 can do on paper.
The Techno Deal
Well, there's that 300 watts into 8 ohms, and 600 watts into 4 ohms for starters, power that is certainly well above the norm.
While developing the MA-9S2, Marantz looked at the internals of modern speakers and realized that the large magnetic circuits along with sophisticated crossover networks can, at times, present large back EMF conditions as well as introduce complex reactive loads that the output of power amplifiers have to handle. These conditions place exceptionally large transient current capability demands on the power amplifier. In consideration of these conditions, the MA9-S2 is capable of supplying more than150 Amps of Peak Current in short but adequate bursts, from a power supply that features a choke input and a double-shielded, low noise toroidal transformer.
The toroid power transformer relies on a newly-developed "dual hemisphere" design with acoustical isolation augmented by silicon steel and a damped aluminum case. This greatly reduces internal vibration and sets the stage for finer resolution of sonic nuances. Shottky barrier diodes provide rectification for the power supply for the voltage amplification stage to eliminate subtle ripples that can negatively impact overall clarity. Finally, the storage capacitor bank, so important for the current amplification stage, is 50% larger than that used in the S1 for even more prodigious, yet superbly, controlled bass response.
The MA-9S2 power amplifier is implemented with a fully balanced circuit topology from input to output, featuring Marantz's Custom HDAM-SA (Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module) Modules for the input stage. Next, a symmetrical eight transistor current mirror circuit stage feeds the triple push-pull output stage that consisting of 12 power transistors. Internally the MA9-S2 relies on Heavy Gauge Internal Wiring and employs Custom Extruded Aluminum Heat Sinks.
What You See…
In the tradition of the original Marantz Model 9, the front panel of the MA9-S2 contains a "high-precision" power meter to monitor the amplifier output. This meter, roughly 2 inches in diameter, is positioned in the center the stylishly barren front panel. The meter can be switched off if not needed with a front panel switch. Also placed on the front panel, just slightly below the power meter, is a rather large, round push-button power ON/OFF switch. A selector switch for choosing the balanced or single-ended inputs can also be found on the lower portion of the front panel.
The rear panel provides two RCA connectors for two single-ended inputs (one positive polarity and one inverting polarity) and an XLR connector for the balanced input. Also implemented is a rotary switch for attenuating the input in steps of -3dB, -6dB, -9dB, -12dB, as well as a "mute" position for shutting off the input signal. The "mute" position is very handy when changing input cables since the amps do not have to powered down during this task.
For speaker wiring the MA9-S2 features a double set of very robust WBT connectors allowing the user to accommodate bi-wiring, if desired. How robust? Well, these connectors easily accommodate the very substantial spades on my Tara Labs Omega speaker cables.
A male IEC connector appears on the rear panel for connecting an A.C. power cord. I used the standard A.C. cords supplied by Marantz and got the best results when I used the Black Noise A.C. Filter distributed by NuForce.
Each MA9-S2 is 18" 1/16" wide, 7 13/16" high, and 17 3/4" deep and weighs in at a substantial 82 lbs.
The MA-9S2 monoblocks have been in my system for the last 18 months. Since I own the amplifiers, this has permitted me to use them without any time constraints like those, for example, that are usually in place with a loaner for review purposes.
I must tell you that the reliability has been perfect during this time with nary a whimper or a hint trouble. Nothing happened even when there have been times when the MA-9S2s were subjected to some pretty nasty situations.
Those were the times when I forgot how high the volume setting was from having played a previous low level track, where I just about got blasted out of my listening chair. All the amp did on those occasions was to shut off and, upon resetting, continue as though nothing had happened. I must add that this has happened very rarely.
The amps, as substantially built as they are, are still sensitive to the manner in which they are supported. Yes, they sounded just great when sitting on their standard feet on the tiled concrete floor in my listening room. But when I supported them on the Avalon Apex stainless steel cones or the Ayre Myrtlewood blocks, I heard subtle, but significant to me, sonic differences. I am sure there are other means of supporting 90 pound amplifiers that will yield pleasing results for each individual owner of said equipment.
Let me make one thing clear at this point: the S2 version is a very emphatic step up in performance from the S1. Even though the S1 performed in an exemplary fashion, the S2 bettered it in just about every way.
To be sure, the power rating remained the same, but the manner in which this power is provided is now much more accomplished. The MA-9S2 was more open, faster, cleaner, and delivered better controlled and more extended lows.
But those kinds of generalities apply to most good and, yes, even great products. What I appreciated about the S2 the most was the sense of freedom and effortlessness it provided for my system. Be it a demanding treble excursion, midrange complexity, or a low frequency growl, this amplifier remained clearly in control. It seems that no matter the musical complexity, no matter the dynamic demands, this amp has the ability to take everything in stride.
I was able to use the MA-9S2 monoblocks with three sets of dynamic speakers: the Avalon Acoustics Eidolons, the Esoteric MG-20s, and the Revel Salon2s.
In addition, I have heard the MA-9S2 amps drive King Audio's ‘King' electrostatic speakers at my friend's Lew Lanese's place on several occasions. Lew has been reviewing equipment for many a year and is currently a contributor for Stereo Times.
With the three dynamic speakers in my house, the MA-9S2s never displayed any deviation from exceptional performance. Each of these 3 loads was powered, as far as I'm concerned, without reproach.
With the electrostatics the MA-9S2 had a hesitation—believe it or not, they were underpowered! This was a not a case where the amp could not handle the load complexities that an electrostatic speaker presented, but rather because the King Audio speaker is quite a bit less sensitive than its dynamic brethren. So, the MA-9S2 merely shut down on a couple of occasions when Lew and I asked it to play beyond its capabilities. No harm to the amp, or the speaker.
But omitting these exuberant and unreasonable demands on our part, the MA-9S2 provided the electrostatic speaker with a drive signal that resulted in some of the most transparent, detailed, and immediate musical passages that it has been my pleasure to experience. Small wonder then, that Lew has been using the MA-9S2s to power his King Audio electrostatics for the last couple of years.
While understandably not quite as delicate and airy as the electrostatic, the performance of the MA-9S2 driving dynamic speakers was equally exceptional. I am, however, not going to kill the messenger here, the MA-9S2. Give it the right transducer and the amp will deliver the whole musical package with every nuance and inflection exceptionally well preserved.
The Avalon Eidolons could replicate the sophisticated images and soundstages that they are, among other things, famous for. The Esoteric MG-20s displayed their state-of-the-art speed and transparency in spades. And the Salon2s thrived on the clean power delivered by the MA-9S2s by replicating an outstanding combination of the above virtues and added an ability to convey the power and drive behind the music in as thrilling a manner as I have experienced in my listening room.
Playing a Tommy Emanuel CD (Tommy Emmanuel, Endless Road, Favored Nations Acoustic FNA5070-2) where Tommy uses several different guitars during the course of the CD, the MA9-S2s displayed an ability to reveal the differences between the various guitars that Tommy selected. The differences were instantly obvious as he made changes for each track.
I am delighted that DALI, the speaker company, decided to put out The DALI CD, In Admiration of Music. I would rate this disc as one of the best test CDs ever if only because of track 11. Not available anywhere else, this track contains some of the most natural and uninhibited dynamics and impacts ever captured on CD. And let me tell you, the MA-9S2 monoblocks showed their mettle and blasted the music in a most unbridled manner possible while still retaining all the remarkable soundspace and reverb that this recording has captured.
Playing Ray Kimber's IsoMike recording of a string quartet (Beethoven String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No.4, Fry Street Quartet), allowed the MA-9S2s to reveal their tender capabilities when it came to dealing with the sophisticated nuances and intonations that Ray has captured on this disc. The resulting presentation was relaxed and enjoyable because the necessary minutiae were revealed to be credibly proportioned.
The same was also true when the similar dynamics and nuances were presented in a jazz piece that Winston Ma has managed to collar in his CD What A Wonderful Trio! Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, FIMDXD079. I feel Winston has outdone himself and is a leader in displaying how much information is possible to be captured in that lowly 16/44.1 Red Book format using his 24 bit 352.8 kHz DXD technology.
For me this CD contains exceedingly exciting dynamics when, for example, the piano seemingly explodes having been forcefully pounded by Tsuyoshi Yamamoto in his more exuberant moments. And yet the tender tonality is revealed when he can caress the keys most gently at other times. This CD also has captured some of the most scintillating renditions of cymbal sounds in my experience.
How do I know this? The MA-9S2 monoblocks told me the whole story.
This amplifier is equally at home with large scale orchestral works. Here one of my favorite CDs is the JVC XRCD2 recording of Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherezade, (Rimsky-Korsakoff, Scheherezade Op. 35, Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony, JVC JMCXR-0015). It's all ever so much there: the spaciousness, the air, the extreme dynamic excursions during the storm, the tender mercies of the violin solos, and the walloping blasts of orchestral complexities. No matter the demands, the MA-9S2 remained very calm, cool and controlled.
Sounds like the MA-9S2 is doing everything possible with the greatest of ease? Absolutely, under the circumstances of my system and my room, that is the case.
In my experience this is the best amp that I have ever in my system. It surpasses the Spectral DMA-180, the Mark Levinson ML-332 and the Rowland Model 12, power amplifiers that I have owned and used over extended periods.
The Marantz MA-9S2 power amplifiers have served me exceedingly well and I recommend interested parties to give this product a serious listen. You are most likely to find out, like I did, just how enjoyable and satisfying a product this powerhouse of an amp really is. Arnis Balgalvis