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Marantz SC-11S1 Control Amplifier / SM-11S1 Power Amplifier Review Print E-mail
Thursday, 17 June 2010
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Marantz SC-11S1 Control Amplifier / SM-11S1 Power Amplifier Review

ImageLast month, I wrote about the Marantz SA-11S2 SACD player and felt it was another superb component from a company with an excellent track record in audiophile gear.  I was so impressed with the SA-11S2 that I arranged for a review of two more components in the Marantz Reference series.  I had it on good word that the SC-11S1 preamp and the SM-11S1 power amplifier were very special and competed with components positioned much higher in price. I needed to hear them for myself. Marantz shipped review samples of each unit. Needless to say, I was anxoius to set them up and didn't waste any time.

The SC-11S1 and the SM-11S1 are both beautifully built and finished in champagne gold; the same finish used on the other components in the Marantz Reference series. To say the build quality is impressive is the understatement of the decade. Robust power supplies and battleship casework make for a combined weight of nearly 100 lbs. It’s not just the exterior of these products that are impressive as there is advanced, proprietary technology working on the inside as well. These are also two of the most user friendly and customizable high end components I have ever encountered.

SM Front

The SC-11S1 preamplifier, or control amplifier as Marantz likes to call it, retails for $3199 and offers a plethora of user customizable settings, inputs, and features; most selectable by the supplied remote control. The SC-11S1 has six single ended inputs and two XLR inputs. There is one set each of Preamp Out RCA and XLR outputs. The unit also includes a headphone jack, defeatable tone controls and a few other cool, user friendly features, such as selectable Illumination Lamp to shine light on the buttons and switches in a darkened room. Overall, the SC-11S1 has a very neat, tidy, and ergonomic layout with a useful set of functions. The paper manual is extensively comprehensive and offers many set-up tips. The manual is also available for download on the Marantz website for more detailed information about the SC-11S1.

The SM-11S1 power amplifier, retailing for $4499, also offers single ended and XLR connectivity and an old style "port hole" display which provides a variety of information,. There is a speaker selector switch because the SM-11S1 has 4 pairs of high quality binding posts on the rear panel. The power ratings are 110 Watts into 8 ohms and 220 Watts into 4 ohms. For those who crave even more power, two SM-11S1 units can be configured for mono block use, doubling the power!

SM Rear

Set Up and Listening:

I decided to install the SM-11S1 first with my Audio Research SP16 tubed preamp. I am intimately familiar with the preamp and wanted to introduce one new variable at a time. I also used Kimber KCTG and DH Labs silver interconnects for consistency, as they have been in my system for a few months now. All connections were single ended. Thiel CS2.4 speakers were used for an upcoming review, so they were first up. I also had a pretty good idea of their sound quality as I had used them for several weeks with a tube amp.

I really don't like audio reviewer hyperbole, but this is one of the few times I can honestly say I was blown away. Specifically, I have never experienced such a controlled, natural, detailed and musical presentation from a solid state amplifier with out a hint, I mean not even a minute trace of dryness, sterility or edginess. Highs were silky smooth, sweet and presented with gobs of air. The SM-11S2 did not have a trace of any mechanical or electronic sound.  As a tube loving audiophile, I can honestly say this amplifier would be an easy transition for me if I chose to give up tubes all together. During long, extended listening sessions, I now realize I never once concerned myself over whether I was listening to a solid state or tube design, as the music was always front and center. The tonal balance was so ideal, it was almost frustrating. All audiophiles by nature find something to complain about, or one aspect of the sound they wish they could tweak. Not this time. Bass, mids, and highs so wonderfully occupied their natural space that I wanted to change nothing. I then installed the SC-11S1 in place of my tube preamp.

I made sure to queue up a wide variety of music to see if the Marantz combo would retain its exquisite balance across multiple genres. First up was Works in Progress by the late, great genius Tim Buckley. This release was a posthumous collection of alternate versions, out takes and unheard compositions. The tracks on this CD were mixed from the original multitrack tapes and really sound amazing. The Marantz components allowed me to hear the depth of the performances, and again showed there is not a hint of dryness or transistor haze. This particular disc can trip up some systems, as Buckley’s voice is so full of nuance and so unique.  Lesser systems obscure certain details that give the listener cues into Buckley's vision. Little things like distance changes from the vocal microphone and lip purses are important to understand Buckley's intent.  The Marantz setup handled this disc wonderfully.


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