An Upgrade to an Upgrade
- the Upgrade Company Rules Again!
I have spent far too much time thinking about what to write in this article, and how to write it, instead of actually doing it. I am finally to the point of fulfilling obligations after setting priorities at home, work and Positive Feedback. In 2010 I realized I voted Product of the Year to the Upgrade Company for the Signature Upgrades they did to my Marantz SA15S2 SACD player and PM15S1 Reference Integrated amplifier before I actually did the review of the original modifications. In late summer 2011 David Schulte, President of The Upgrade Company, emailed me to let me know they had an upgrade to the modifications they did in 2010. So what did I do? I did the same thing and voted the upgrade one of my products of the year for 2011 before actually writing about it. The upgrade to the original modifications was so significant; I felt it had to be Product of the Year. But how can I tell my readers about something that has been done months ago and give a reasonably credible comparison? Through the magic of extensive note taking, and hours of listening, and trust in your reviewer… that's how.
Even though a decent amount of time had gone by since the original modifications, I was a bit surprised that The Upgrade Company had an upgrade to the original modifications. This kind of caught me off guard. How could they improve the great work that had already been done to my gear? I really shouldn't have been surprised. I have read of similar circumstances with gear they have modified for other people. If The Upgrade Company has an improvement, they will let their customers know about it. Well the gear was sent off to Michigan and back it came in no time. I dutifully broke them in and took extensive notes. But how can I compare an upgraded product to the old one when it is the old one that was actually upgraded? In other words, how could I compare it to itself after the upgrade? And no I don't have exact copies of stock Marantz units lying around for comparison's sake. Actually plugging these units in after I got them back from Michigan, un-broken in, and the differences were quite noticeable. Remember my gear is on seven days a week and quite a few hours a day. So I am very familiar with their sound. Trust me.
As it states on the Upgrade Company website, their work is proprietary. So no peeking after the seal is placed on the back of the unit. My experience with the first modification was so positive that the method or mechanics of their work were not in question. In talking to other gear heads about the mods, questions arise as to the parts and methods of the work. Again, I refer them to the sticker behind each unit stating that if the seal is broken, the warranty will be void. That's good enough for me. I trust what has been done to my units from The Upgrade Company. To coin an old phrase, "the proof is definitely in the pudding."
Most gear I have reviewed elicits the response to write about it in a fashion that breaks down the sound in the usual audiophile formula of bass, treble, soundstage, etc. But with my Signature Marantz gear, the urge to describe the sound in a more "holistic" manner overwhelms the will to do it any other way. Because that is the way the music sounds from this gear, whole. Sure the bass reproduction is solid and deep and textured. The treble is very clean, extended, and artifact free. The midrange is accurate and uncolored. This solid-state pair also does a fine job of reproducing the tone, color, and dynamic shadings of the music. With the new upgrade all of these qualities rose to a quite noticeable level. Interestingly for me though, the modifications and especially the upgrades don't really seem to elicit the typical audiophile responses mentioned above. In fact I truly believe the great strength of the upgrades is the absence of unwanted unnatural artifacts such as grain, glare, and colorations that make the sound of my gear deliver music in a non-fatiguing, liquid, and organic whole. Music is now reproduced in an unexaggerated way with realistic tone and again with a grain-less purity that is rare in high end audio regardless of price. I know, that is saying a lot of any audio product. And my credibility is at stake here. I'll give you one of many examples. Listening to Neil Young's cut "On the Beach, from the album of the same name, the music went past great stereo to "hey that sounds like a real band playing in front of me" effect. It sounded like the music was coming from a bass amp, a guitar amp, and a real drum kit and not a stereo effect. Try listening to live music sometime. Live music is so naturally sweet, with lightning fast transients and thunderous dynamics and organically whole. I think you will be amazed at how different it sounds to our stereos. Yet lesser recordings are reproduced for what they are. This modded Marantz pair also has the ability to reveal the minutest characteristic in wire, speakers, or source component changes. Compared to this, I think most of my audio life I have been listening to hi-fi.
My Margules U280 SC tube amplifier has many musical qualities. It's quick, dynamic, dimensional, revealing, and slightly sweet. Hey it is a tube amp, and a very good one at that! Since I have been listening to my Signature Edition Marantz pair, I have hooked up the little Margules once in over a year and a half. Talk about solid state done right, this is it. And believe me; this is coming from a tube guy. I know part of this is due to the sheer convenience of the Marantz pair. Remember in my original article I stated that I have had it with hair shirt audio. Not that the Margules is hair shirt. It is just not as convenient. David Schulte and company have definitely closed the gap between tube and solid state. Not only that, on the SACD player the difference between playing CDs and SACDs is also narrower than in the stock version of this player. And due to the fact that the SA15S2 can be used as a transport or a DAC, I have used both a Sony Blu-ray player and a Play Station 3 as transports using this outstanding DAC section to watch movies in a 2.1 system.
Another benefit of the upgrade is the fact that for once in many years I am musically satisfied with my gear. That is, I have no desire to buy something else. I look at ads and read reviews and that is about as far as it goes. I am too busy playing with my gear. It just seems so futile chasing your tail. That is not to say that I won't buy other gear in the future. The nagging question I have is wondering what The Upgrade Company would have done if I would have sent them the likes of an Audio Research or a McIntosh instead of my Marantz gear.
With the Upgrade Company's method of replacing parts instead of changing the design, the old phrase "parts is parts" just doesn't hold water in their world. The Upgrade Company achieved what I think couldn't be done. They improved on an already fine upgrade. They have also succeeded in keeping me off the "gear" merry-go-round for quite a while. Well done.
PS, About the same time I got my gear back, David Schulte gave me a tip. Apparently a power cord with reversed AC polarity makes a noticeable improvement when used on the PM15S1 amp. Since I have been shamefully slow to do that experiment, I will have to get back to you with that one. Thanks everyone for your patience.