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Product Review - Marantz SA12-S1 Multi-Channel SACD/DVD-Video Player - April 2002

 

John Kotches, Editor PC/Home Theater

 

 

Specifications:

DSD:
6 Channels Maximum Output
MFR: 2 Hz - 50 kHz
Dynamic Range:  114 dB
THD @ 1 kHz:  0.0008%

CD:
Frequency Response: 2 Hz - 20 kHz
Dynamic Range:  100 dB
THD @ 1 kHz:  0.0017%

Common:
Analog Output Level: 2.0v

Physical:
Size:  5" H X 18" W x 15" D
Weight:  24 Pounds
MSRP: $3,799 USA

 

Marantz Corporation, http://www.marantz.com/hifi/america/index.html

Gentlemen, Start your Engines

This product arrived on my doorstep in the depths of a Chicago winter, and on a blustery, snowy day the delivery driver pulled noisily up to my home and deposited this relatively heavy beauty on my front porch.  Before I could say "lickety-split", he had already headed back for the safe confines of his truck.  Meanwhile I was left to brave the elements for a lengthy two-step trip to retrieve the box, and bring it in where it belongs.

Unpacking the player, I was immediately surprised at the heft, given that more and more players are weighing less and less.  No worries about the bad back for me, it isn't that heavy!

Unpacked from its pristine white box, it is a welcome site - a multi-channel SACD player, which I'd been dying to get my hands on.  It's here, it's here!  Woo Hoo!

I set about my usual procedures - photograph first, connect later.  If I didn't do this, I'd never get the photos completed.

Taking a peek under the hood, and at the tail lights . . .

There are a couple of ways to go about handling D/A conversion on a multi-channel player.  First, you can use a single multi-channel DAC for decoding, saving overall cost, and increasing convenience for engineering.  There are a number of players with quite excellent sonics that use a multi-channel DAC.  The next level for DACs is to go to a discrete DAC for each channel.   Because DACs are manufactured as either stereo (two-channel) or multi-channel (5.1, 7.1), a single two-channel DAC chip can be configured to handle the positive portion of the waveform in one channel and the negative portion of the waveform in the other channel, for one audio channel (e.g., left front), which is called differential mode (otherwise known as balanced).  This allows for a lowered noise floor as compared to running a DAC in single-ended mode (one D/A converter channel per audio channel).

Want to go all out, and really get a hot-rod performance?  Go with a dual-differential DAC configuration.  In dual-differential mode, a pair of stereo DACs is used for each audio channel.  In this players case, that means a dozen DACs (5.1 is 6 channels, including the LFE). A photo of the inside of the SA12-S1 is shown below. It is packed with DACs.

Marantz SA12-S1 Interior View

In the picture you can see a dozen objects clad in copper.  These are Crystal Semiconductor CS-4397 SuperDACs.  They are capable of handling D/A conversion duties for DSD (a.k.a. SACD) as well as PCM out to 24bit/192kHz sampling.  On the right side of the picture you will see a pair of transformers, one assigned to analog domain tasks, the other to digital domain tasks.  Note:  While the DACs employed are capable of decoding at the sampling rates required for DVD-Audio, this player is not DVD-Audio capable. That is a marketing decision, not an engineering limitation.

The back panel has another interesting adventure, and a pleasant surprise awaits us . . .

Marantz SA12-S1 back panel

Unlike most multi-channel players, where an attempt is made to fit the 6 (or more) outputs into the smallest possible amount of real estate, plenty of room is made for the multi-channel output panel of the Marantz, which spans about 1/2 the chassis width at top/center.  Audiophiles rejoice, because at last multi-channel connectors can be placed far enough apart that the fire hoses can be used for interconnects.

There is also a configurable filter to the left of the multi-channel outputs, with 3 positions:

Below this, a TosLINK and S/PDIF via Coaxial output are available, along with two sets of stereo analog outputs, a component video output, S-Video, and composite video outputs.

Usability of the Remote

We are applying the tenets of remote design that have been laid forth in our DVD benchmark here. 

Button Access:    The buttons are decently spaced, and their groupings are logical.

Minimal Number of Buttons:  36 buttons are about average for a DVD-V player in my experience, but most of them are rarely (if ever used).

Distinctive buttons:  As this picture shows, the transport control buttons and the numeric keypad have identically sized buttons, and the lesser used buttons have identically sized buttons.  There is no differentiation between Play/Stop/Pause/Forward/Back etc.

Appropriately sized buttons:  See the previous comment, as buttons are not appropriately sized for task.

Good tactile feedback:  With the exception of the joystick, all buttons have excellent feedback and responsiveness.   The joystick was troublesome, and it was far too easy to unintentionally go in any direction but your intended direction.

Fits well in a single hand:  It's slim and tall, and fits nicely within a hand.

Right/Left Handed:  Will work fine for either hand dominant individuals.

Backlighting:  Nope.  Nothing.  Impossible to use in a darkened room, as the buttons aren't distinctive, and their is no backlighting.

Indication of Mode:   Not applicable to this remote.  It is a dedicated function remote to control this DVD player.

Standard Naming:  Conventions for names are followed for transport buttons, but labeling for typical menu navigation menus is confusing.

Player feedback:  Visual indicator of command received can be displayed, but the angle wasn't as large for this remote as other player remotes are.

The remote feels almost decadent in my hand, with a nice heft and an elegant brushed champagne finish.  Unfortunately, it isn't at all usable in a darkened HT environment.  In addition, while the buttons are logically grouped, they are identically sized, meaning you can't feel out which button you're about to press.  The joystick control was touchy, and took a lot of practice to get comfortable with its action.  While looking good, and feeling nice in my hand, the remote doesn't function as well as I would expect.  Perhaps I'm just being tough on remote controls these days, but they should have gotten it right by now.

Usability / Configuration of the Player

Marantz uses a series of icons to identify various configuration parameters and text-based prompts within.   I found this somewhat cumbersome, as it was necessary to consult the manual when first receiving the player to properly configure.   I prefer setups that are self explanatory, maybe because I'm a typical guy!  Manual?  What would I use that for, wallpaper?

No surprises in the Video arena, although  a setting for blacker than black (a.k.a. 0 IRE) was not locatable.  This is an interlaced player, and 0 IRE is beyond the scope of the NTSC standard, so this is technically correct.   Most of us are used to interlaced players which allow for adjustment of having 0 IRE.   Other options include the ability to center the image, to minimize overscan and/or pixel cropping.

Digital output is configurable, and allows for digital output shutoff (Off setting), PCM which allows stereo CD and DVD-Video PCM tracks to be sent digitally, and All, which adds DD/DTS output capability.  A night compression mode is available for internal DD decoding to decrease dynamic range.

Sound Mode allows one to define the default SACD presentation (Stereo or Multi-Channel).  If multi-channel is your default, and not available on the disc, it will play the disc in stereo.

The Marantz display can be dimmed or shut off entirely, which is excellent for a light controlled environment.

Bottom line on usability and configurability is about average.

Configuring for Multi-Channel Playback

One of the hottest topics around the multi-channel High-Res community is digital bass management and time alignment, and its absence from many of the players. The Marantz SA12-S1 has no bass management for any decoding format except Dolby Digital. For DD-encoded films / music videos, a 120 Hz crossover is implemented for small speakers. However SACD, CD and even DVD-V at 24/96K will require an external device like the ICBM, or alternatively, well implemented bass management in your receiver should your speakers not all be capable of full range response. Regardless, this does not address time alignment, which means you aren't hearing the full capabilities of the system unless you're lucky enough to be in a room where all speakers are equidistant from your listening position.

The lack of bass management for DSD is understandable - there are no "Off the Shelf" algorithms for bass management or time alignment for DSD - this bitstream does not lend itself to DSP as readily as PCM
does. The only multi-channel SACD players with bass management that I am aware of in the marketplace as of this writing are the Sony players. But for those Sony players, I am uncertain if the crossover is done algorithmically in the digital domain, or via a high pass / low pass filter pair in the analog domain.

The more I  experience though, the more I realize that the only way we're going to get this right, is to have digital transmission to the processor/receiver. But that is a copyright protection issue which will not be solved soon.

Now that I'm off my soapbox, let's talk about decoding on this player.  The SA12-S1 can decode Redbook CD (16/44.1), Linear PCM on DVD-Video discs up to and including 24bit/96kHz, and Dolby Digital.  Bass management and time alignment are available only when playing back Dolby Digital.   Rather than inputting distances from the speaker to your sitting position, the archaic method of calculating your own delay time is used.  While this is workable, it is not acceptable in this reviewer's eyes, given that the software to convert between distances and time is simple enough for a firmware algorithm to handle.  Crossover frequency for bass management is on the high side, at 120 Hz.  This is probably better left for the processor/receiver anyway, as it will also have finer gradations of time adjustment.

Like it or not, Redbook CD, Linear PCM from DVD-Video discs, and SACD have no bass management capability whatsoever.   If you happen to own a 5.1 satellite and sub configuration with very limited low end response, you will almost certainly require the use of Outlaw Audio's ICBM-1.   Otherwise, you might find yourself lacking an octave or two of bass from the main speakers during playback of multi-channel SACD.   This depends entirely on the mixing selections made by the engineers and producer of the recording.

Click HERE to go to Part 2


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