Expert review and test of the Marantz SA-14S1 Special Edition Super Audio CD Player by Australian Hi-Fi Magazine. Free pdf included.

Marantz prefers to call its SA-14S1 Special Edition a ‘Super Audio CD’ player, rather than an ‘SACD’ player. It’s obviously read the consumer research which reveals that few people these days know what an SACD player is, the format having done its dash back in the last century.

Such people would not realise that an SACD player not only plays back ordinary CDs but does so better than most CD players. So someone who owns a huge collection of CDs is not going to look for an ‘SACD’ player when trying to replace or upgrade their old ‘CD’ player… which means that Marantz is missing out on a huge pool of potential buyers.
Surely such a person’s friendly hi-fi dealer would give them a heads-up on usability? I’m sure he (and it’s usually a ‘he’) would if such a person were buying from a hi-fi dealer. Regrettably, with the boom in on-line sales, many buyers won’t be in this position… they’ll just be buying from a web page. So whereas an ‘SACD’ player wouldn’t catch their eye, a ‘Super Audio’ CD player might just do the trick.

Despite trying to increase the SA-14S1 Special Edition’s appeal by clever titling, Marantz has missed an obvious marketing strategy by basically ignoring the fact that the SA-14S1 Special Edition can also be used as a high-performance DAC for playing back hi-res audio files. Just connect it to your computer, feed it some hi-res tracks and away you go…

The Equipment
Marantz has certainly done its best to make the SA-14S1 SE (I think we’ll just call it the SA-14SE from here on in, to save on ink), because it’s built on pretty-much the same chassis as most other current Marantz products, and uses the same front panel.

And why not? It’s a most attractive front panel, as well as distinctive, because it’s not the ‘flat face’ used by most manufacturers, but has two scallops dished into the face where some of the controls are located. These scallops don’t only bestow a distinctive appearance and provide homes for the controls; they have also allowed Marantz to provide some hidden lighting so you can see the controls in low light conditions. The lighting (subtle blue, by the way, the photographs really don’t do it justice) also enhances the appearance of the component under muted lighting conditions. And just in case you were wondering, the front panel is as solid as it looks… Marantz builds the SA-14E in its own factory in Japan.

The controls in the scallop to the left of the front panel display are the Eject button, and the Fast Forward/Track Skip and Fast Backwards/Track Skip controls. The controls inside the right scallop are Play, Stop and Pause.

Underneath the front panel display are (left to right), a Type A USB input, a Disc/Input button (about which more later), a Power On/Off button, a headphone output (6.35mm) and an Output Level control.

The front panel USB input says ‘Made for iPod’ so it accepts the obvious—including iPhones—but of course it can also accommodate ordinary USB sticks containing MP3 (inc. VBR), WMA, AAC or WAV (16-bit/44.1k or 48k) files. As well as being able to be used for audio, this front-panel USB connection will also charge your iDevice, even after the player has switched itself to standby (which it does automatically after 30 minutes of
inactivity unless you instruct it to do otherwise by using the options built into the playback menu that are accessible via the remote control).

This front panel USB input will not play back hi-res files. For that you have to use the Type B USB input on the rear panel, to which you connect your computer. This input accepts up to 192kHz/24-bit PCM and DSD (DoP) DSD2.8 and DSD5.6 files. In order to do this though, you’ll need to download a dedicated driver (a free download) from Marantz’s website and load it onto your computer before connecting it to the SA-14S1. (But not if you have a Mac… only Windows machines need the driver.)

As for the disc tray above the front panel display, as well as playing back ordinary CDs—and SACDs—it will also play back home-recorded CD-R and CD-RW discs coded with either Red Book audio files or with WMA, MP3 or AAC files. When playing back such discs the Marantz offers all the normal transport options, and playback is enhanced because the SA-14S1 will display CD-Text on discs that contain this information. The tray operates perfectly, and silently. But it has a curious black flock-like covering that makes it a tad hard to see where you should place the disc under low-light conditions and if you do misplace a CD (or SACD), the surface is so ‘grippy’ that you can’t just easily nudge the disc into the correct place.

Track playback from disc need not necessarily be contiguous. You can program up to 20 tracks for replay in any order, play back tracks at random, have a single track repeat, have a programmed list of tracks repeat, have a whole disc repeat, and you can combine random or program play modes with the ‘all repeat’ mode to extend total playback time far beyond that usually possible. Some of these modes can also be used when playing back discs coded with MP3 and WMA files—but not all; programmed play, for example.
Internally, Marantz is using Texas Instruments’ DSD1792A monolithic CMOS integrated circuit which contains stereo 24-bit delta-sigma DACs using 8× oversampling, as well as all the support circuitry required. It can optionally provide digital attenuation (down to –120dB in 0.5dB steps), digital de-emphasis, and has two digital low-pass filter options (sharp or slow), which Marantz implements and are able to be accessed using the remote control.
Filter 1, according to Marantz’s manual will, when playing back CDs: ‘Offer a short impulse response for both pre-echo and post-echo. Suitable for large-information-content audio. Produces a deep sound image with clearly defined positional relationships of the audio source.’ When playing back SACD, Marantz says this same filter: ‘Precisely reproduces high resolution audio that has large information content.’

Marantz says of Filter 2’s operation when playing back CDs: ‘This is a long coefficient FIR filter with asymmetric pre-echo and post-echo in the impulse response. Resembles analog sound quality.’ And when playing back SACDs, Marantz says it: ‘Attenuates portions that exceed 100kHz. Characterised by a well-balanced, smooth sound.’

The rear panel of the SA-14S1 has two digital audio inputs (one optical via Toslink, the other coaxial via RCA) that accept up to 192kHz/24-bit PCM signals, so you can also use it as a DAC if you like, as well as the aforementioned USB input. There are also two digital outputs (one optical via Toslink, the other coaxial via RCA) that you can use to output a standard 16-bit/44.1kHz digital signal to an external DAC (that is, you can’t output an SACD bitstream if an SACD is playing).


There are only two analogue outputs (via RCA). There’s also a remote control input/output that connects to selected Marantz amplifiers (one such being the PM-14S1 SE), so a single remote control can be used to control both components, plus some other useful functions. Some might question the omission of balanced analogue outputs, but it’s not really a deal-breaker, because although balanced lines make good sense on professional components where cable runs are very long and there’s lots of electrical interference, they’ll make little or no difference in a home installation with short cable runs and minimal electrical interference.

In times past, the SA-14S1 would have been labelled as a ‘Ken Ishiwata Signature’ product and carried the ‘KI Signature’ label on its front panel, because it has had additional design input from Ken Ishiwata, who started with Marantz as a designer, but now works mostly as a brand ambassador, introducing new models to Marantz’ dealers and distributors. Some of Ishiwata’s handiwork is obvious on the SA-14S1, such as the massive top plate, the high-rigidity feet, the specially damped chassis and the use of copper fixings. Other modifications specified by Ishiwata, such as upgraded capacitors and superior HDAMs, are hidden from view.

So why is the SA-14S1 a ‘Special Edition’ model, rather than a ‘KI Signature’ model? Basically because Ishiwata is not putting his name on Marantz products any more, but the SA-14S1 SE is still essentially a ‘Signature’ product, except that it’s labelled ‘SE’ rather than ‘KI’ or ‘Signature’. Indeed when you open the box to unpack the SA-14S1 SE, the first thing you’ll encounter is a gold-lettered and embossed ‘Congratulations’ card that says ‘This Special Edition has also been created with the insight of Ken Ishiwata.’

Listening Sessions
I kicked off my listening sessions with a stack of SACDs, starting with Tania Maria’s Come with Me, and that track was an eye-opener, with the Marantz delivering the difficult syncopated rhythm with absolutely perfect timing, and the jingle of the tambourine so immediate it seemed it was being shaken just above the left speaker. The difference in the projection of the sound-field into the room between the CD and SACD versions of this track was telling, with the SACD’s projection being clearly superior, plus the drum sound was depthier.

Firing up Roxy Music’s Avalon, Bryan Ferry’s distinctive baritone as he sang the opening line ‘Now the party’s over’ was instantly identifiable… always the hallmark of great sound. The Marantz also reproduced the ethereal shimmering that gives real feeling to the true meaning behind the track. The purity of the sound with female vocal was amply demonstrated by the sound of Eva Cassidy’s voice on Fields of Gold (with the Marantz’s clarity also revealing the somewhat over-miked guitar sound, but at the same time exhibiting wonderfully accurate imaging.)

Jacintha Abisheganaden’s great cover of Light My Fire (on ‘Jacintha Is Her Name’) was notable not only for her voice, but also for the fabulous flute sound, plus the skin sound of the bongos (both strangely fixed firmly in the left channel in complete contrast to the bass and guitar, equally firmly fixed to the right). The SA-14S1 also came up with the goods on Eleanor McEvoy’s take on the Jagger/Richards classic Mother’s Little Helper, McEvoy’s voice being revealed exactly, and the kick drum sound too.

As noted earlier in this review, one of the main reasons for buying an SACD player—even if you don’t own any SACDs—is that they play back ordinary CDs to a much higher audible standard than most CD players, so I also played through a stack of CDs. The clarity it gave to John Cale’s amazing Macbeth, from ‘Paris 1919’ was revelatory. What can be a cacophony of sound on a lesser machine was plainly illuminated by the SA-14SE.
Even on plainer, less musically complex fare, such as the lead-in track I Banged a Communist on Biddlewood’s self-titled album, the sound of Bridget McArthur’s bass and Tali Harding-Hone’s guitar come across as just plain more realistic-sounding than when played back on a CD player—even a very good one. 

The same is also true of the drum sound on Young and Foolish, as well as the authentic sound of the syncopated hand-claps. The bass playing on this track is truly inspired.
Then there’s the way the Marantz played Turnover’s fabulous album ‘Peripheral Vision’. Whereas this US band’s first album was more punk, they took a completely different direction, leaning towards dream-pop, with their second and with such success that I have Peripheral Vision still on constant rotation two years after it was released. Every time I spin it up, I’m caught by the slow-burn build-up of the intro track (Cutting My Fingers Off), and always impressed by just how tight this band is, despite the number of times I’ve played it back. It’s rare to hear such musical discipline these days. They also come up with some really inventive sonic ideas to flavour their songs (as in Dizzy on the Comedown, or Threshold) but ultimately it’s the toe-tappingness of everything they play that is the single most compelling reason I keep listening.

The SA-14S1 proved no slouch as a DAC either, no matter whether I was using the coaxial input or the USB. Listening to Winds of Change’s ‘Work of Art’ album at 24-bit/192kHz I judged that the reproduction was as good as I’ve ever heard this album sound, and this feat was then repeated for all the hi-res material I auditioned. The absolute reality of the sound of the finger snaps that kick off Listen to My Love For You is jaw-dropping… and then wait until you hear the acoustical barrage that follows. I do need to warn you that you really need to watch your playback volume levels when playing this album. It’s almost too dynamic.

By now you’re probably wondering which filter setting I preferred: Filter 1 or Filter 2. I haven’t mentioned it so far because so far as I’m concerned, there is no definitive answer. With some music I preferred Filter 1, with other music I preferred Filter 2. Even more confusingly, my preference sometimes changed with the same music depending on the format I was using to play it back so that, for example, I preferred the sound of Filter 1 when playing the SACD layer of Come with Me but that of Filter 2 when playing back the CD layer.

Conclusion
This is a classy, brilliantly-engineered SACD player, whose design was tweaked by Marantz’s golden-eared guru, Ken Ishiwata, before being built in Japan by one of the world’s most famous hi-fi manufacturers. And since it has a ‘go’ price ‘way below what you’d expect for the quality level on offer, what’s not to like? Finally, of course, there’s the not insignificant achievement of it winning a prestigious Sound & Image award for ‘Best CD Player of the Year (over $1,000) 2017–2018’. #


Laboratory Test Results

The output voltage from the SA-14SE was plenty high enough to drive any integrated amplifier, even high enough to drive a power amplifier directly if that’s your preferred set-up. As you can see from the tabulated results, Newport Test Labs measured 2.37 volts on the left channel, and 2.35 volts on the right, with the very slight difference meaning that there was a channel imbalance of 0.06dB. Not enough to be audible.



Channel separation was impressively high, even up at 20kHz, where CD players typically find it tough to deliver, at which frequency the SA-14SE’s result was in triple digits (101dB). As you can see from the tabulated figures, separation improved to 125dB at 1kHz and 126dB at 20Hz. All these figures are light-years more than will ever be required to deliver maximal stereo performance.  Channel phase errors were also low 0.53° at 20kHz, 0.02° at 1kHz and non-existent down at 20Hz (0.00°).



Linearity errors were very low, once more, as you can see from the tabulated results, varying from non-existent (at –60dB) to a maximum of 0.09dB (at –80.70dB).

Overall THD+N at 0dB was 0.05% and you can see the output spectrum at the level (Graph 1) shows second and third harmonic distortion components at –108dB (0.00039%) and –105dB (0.00056%), plus a fifth at –115dB (0.00017%). Some other components are present, but they’re all at or more than 125dB (0.00005%) down. These all appear to be analogue components caused by driving the output stage to it maximum level, which is never going to be the case when playing music, which is recorded at much lower levels to ensure there is no clipping on peaks.

This would seem to be evidenced by Graph 2, which shows output at –10dB recorded level, which is still quite high. On this graph, you can see there’s only a single harmonic distortion component (the second harmonic) at –114dB (0.00019%).

 

Reducing the recorded signal level a further 10dB, to –20dB (Graph 3) sees even this single component drop further in level, to –126dB (0.00005%).


At –60dB (Graph 4) we begin to see artefacts from the digital-to-analogue converter in the noise floor, but all of these are more than 120dB down, or less than 0.0001%.


Distortion performance at extremely low recorded levels was exceptionally low, as you can see from Graph 5, which shows an undithered sine wave at a level of –91.24dB. There is a second harmonic at –108dB (0.00039%), followed by the next three higher-ordered harmonics at –118dB (0.00012%). All others are below –120dB (0.0001%). Although these are all low, they only occur at all because the test signal is not dithered, whereas music is dithered.

The result with a dithered test signal at almost the same level is shown in Graph 6 and you can see there is no distortion visible in the output of the SA-14S1 at all—just the noise floor, and that’s at –140dB right across the audio band. This is a superbly low noise floor that’s 10dB to 20dB lower than I normally see. Total overall wideband noise was 107dB unweighted, improving to 115dB A-weighted—both excellent results.


CCIF IMD was measured for both settings of the Marantz’s two user-adjustable low-pass filters. The result with Filter 1 is shown in Graph 7 and you can see high-level IMD components at 24kHz and 25kHz, a regenerated 1kHz signal plus signals at 14kHz and 16kHz.

With Filter 2 selected (Graph 8), both the high-level IMD components and the in-band signals disappeared completely. Only the regenerated 1kHz signal remained, and this was down at –118dB (0.00012%).


The same general level of performance was demonstrated with a single 20kHz sine wave at maximum recorded level (0dB), as you can see in Graphs 9 and 10. When using Filter 1 there is a high-level signal at 24kHz as well as in-band components, whereas when using Filter 2 these disappear completely.


You can see the effect of the two filters on the Marantz SA-14S1 SE’s frequency response in Graph 11, with Filter 1 rolling the response off quite slowly, whereas Filter 2 cuts it off incredibly steeply. Neither filter’s action starts cutting in until above 14kHz. The Marantz’s frequency response is ruler flat from 2Hz up to 2kHz and only –0.1dB down at 14kHz. Overall, with either filter, the Marantz’s frequency response is 2Hz to 20kHz ±0.1dB.

The two different filter slopes are shown rather more graphically in Graphs 12 and 13, where you can clearly see the shallow slope of Filter 1 (Graph 12) vs the sharp cut-off of Filter 2 (Graph 13).


Newport Test Labs also tested the Marantz SA-14S1 SE’s performance as a DAC, using AES-17 standard digital test signals (24-bit/48kHz). The tabulated results reveal excellent performance across all the standard tests, with non-linear interchannel crosstalk figures in particular being commendably low. Channel separation was, rather curiously, just a little bit less than when using 16-bit/44.1kHz test signals, as you can see in Graph 14, with a little bit of variance depending on whether the measurement was L–R or R–L, but either way, separation was greater than 100dB below 6kHz and better than 90dB at 20kHz.

Interchannel phase, on the other hand (Graph 15) was virtually identical to the results measured by Newport Test Labs using 16/44.1 test signals.


THD+N vs Frequency at 24/48kHz is shown in Graph 16 and you can see the Marantz SA-14S1 SE returned excellent results across both channels for both 0dB and –20dB signals.

THD vs Level (Graph 17) was also an excellent result, as was the result for jitter susceptibility (Graph 18).

The Marantz SA-14S1 SE’s performance with square wave and single pulses has been shown for both filter settings. With a pulse signal you can see the difference is in the level and extent of the pre- and post-ringing. With square waves you can see that the overshoot is almost the same irrespective of the filter used, but that there’s much more ringing with Filter 2 than with Filter 1.

Marantz’s SA-14S1 SE returned outstanding performance in all three of its operating modes: as a CD player, as an SACD player and as a DAC. #  Steve Holding