Inside Track: Marantz, into Tomorrow
David Price speaks to the movers and shakers behind this illustrious brand – about its past, present and future…
“A lot of people when they talk about sound, they speak about bass and high frequencies – but I think the magic of Marantz happens in-between, the magic is in the midrange!” So says Rainer Finck, the company's Senior Acoustics Engineer in Europe. And it neatly sums up the historic appeal of Marantz products, stretching way back to the nineteen sixties with classics like the Model 8B. Even today, many know and love this valve amplifier for its especially beguiling sound. Indeed StereoNET's very own Rafael Todes uses one as part of his reference system, precisely for this reason. Meanwhile, yours truly relies on a TT-1000 turntable – another flagship Marantz, this time from 1980 – to take care of his vinyl replay needs. It, too, is an extremely high-performance design that is timeless in terms of the musicality it delivers.
It's not exactly an industry secret that the Marantz Audio Company was founded in New York in 1953 and named after founder Saul Marantz. Like many hi-fi marques, it has undergone several ownership changes over the years. It was acquired by Superscope in 1964, and then bought by Dutch electronics giant Philips in 1980. There was a brief spell of ownership by Marantz Japan in 2001, and then the company merged with Denon into D&M Holdings a year later. Since then, it's been a sister company of Denon, and Sound United LLC acquired both in 2017. When owned by Philips in the eighties and nineties, Marantz proved well able to clearly distinguish itself from its parent, and that continued with its partnership with Denon. So, as this latest incarnation of Marantz beds in, the question is – where next for the company?
Much water has gone under the bridge since it became part of Sound United, with various personnel changes and, of course, the sad passing of its former brand ambassador Ken Ishiwata, whose time at Marantz precedes even the Philips acquisition. He was its high-profile public face for a long time, but the company is now choosing to let the products speak for themselves more. We're seeing a striking new visual look appearing, one that's genuinely different from the more conservative 'universal Japanese hi-fi separate' aesthetic of yore. And alongside this have come several technological changes and advances that really take the brand and its products into tomorrow.
From L - R: Oliver Kriete, Takumi Murayama (head of amplifier development), Rainer Finck and Yoshinari Ogata (Marantz Sound Master)
Gary Dayton is Sound United's US-based Marketing Manager. He tells me that Marantz is on a mission to expand its appeal. Of course, it's very well known among audiophiles of a certain age – and also to home cinema enthusiasts – but his focus is trying to make the name more visible to people who love music but aren't necessarily into the hardware so much. “When we look at the global marketplace for high performance audio equipment,” he says, “overall it's a fairly mature marketplace. So we're now interested in bringing high quality audio to those who wouldn't normally be interested in it. There's this entire population of luxury consumers who appreciate the sensory delights of so many other things, and I think they've been either not exposed to – or turned off from – high performance audio in the past. So we're trying to position Marantz to make high performance audio an extremely attractive proposition.”
Marantz is going slightly upmarket then, but not so much that it loses touch with its existing customers. “We are emphatically not trying to pivot away from our core specialist hi-fi roots, Gary says. “It's more of a case of going for new luxury consumers, and performance is very much a part of this. We're trying to package it up in a way that appeals to other people beyond guys like us. Our new Model 40n integrated amplifier is a great example. In the States, it's $2,500, yet it has this beautifully machined aluminium chassis and superb textured control surfaces – we paid a lot of attention to how the controls feel; they're smooth and precise with a heavily damped feel.” Gary says it's useful to think about this in terms of someone who's bought their first luxury watch. “You expect a level of premium quality. Great design isn't exclusive of high performance; you can have both.”
In terms of comparable older models, there's going to be a slight price rise – but that's a function of inflation. There will still be a broad spectrum of models, as it's also important for the brand to attract customers from a moderate price range. “We would very much like to attract people into our brand, and then give them lots of opportunities to upgrade their systems and/or add to them”, he explains. “From a volume and revenue perspective, we'll still lead with our mid-priced products. If you look at our portfolio now, we see a lot of people buying SR5015 and SR6015 surround receivers, and PM7000 and PM8006 are popular integrated amplifiers for us. We certainly sell fewer PM-10s and PM-12s than the lower priced stuff – it's not at all Marantz's ambition to go so far upscale that it makes people squirm, but I do think that it's important that our products cost enough that they can justify their performance and style. I don't think we're ever going to be an impulse buy…”
Gary says that there's always going to be high-end products “where our engineering team really gets to spread its wings”, but he reckons the real challenge is trying to capture the “essence of Marantz” in the less expensive products. Again, that doesn't mean bargain basement. “Of course at some point we have to draw the line. If you go too low, you attract the wrong kind of customer – we never want to be the kind of brand where you simply walk down the aisle at Best Buy and compare features… this one has five more watts, that one has one more TOSLINK input, etc. When you buy Marantz you have to have an appreciation of the different elements that make a quality product other than just the spec sheet.”
It's fair to say that much of the general buying public isn't aware that Denon is Marantz's sister company, but some cynical hi-fi journalists have expressed concern that the two brands will end up being the same beer in a different bottle, so to speak. It's an odd point, considering that many car brands are part of larger automotive groups, for example, and don't end up being anything near the same. But still, Gary is keen to point out that Marantz and Denon have a truly symbiotic relationship – but are a long way from being two sides of the same coin.
“Marantz is differentiated from Denon by – to a large part – our sound quality. I don't think anyone would say that we are absolutely neutral – there's a subtle but pleasing 'patina' that once you hear in a Marantz product, you can never unhear. It makes listening to music or movie soundtracks such a joy. Much of this comes from our approach to digital-to-analogue conversion, and our HDAM discrete preamplifier circuits are a big part of how we're able to achieve that. You'll find that almost all our high end products use toroidal power transformers, where it's much more common to find EI core transformers in the Denon products. There are some commonalties, where we develop key technology platforms together – things like HDMI and DSP processing for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X – but once you take the output from these platforms we get to refine our individual sound quality.”
Rainer Finck (Sound Master)
It makes sense to share expensive licensing such as Dolby and DTS, thanks to the economies of scale that they bring. Indeed, it's in respects such as this that many smaller manufacturers are excluded from producing products with this functionally because of the cost to include it in their equipment. Yet as far as the end user is concerned – i.e. the listener – what really counts is the sound quality, and that's where Marantz and Denon strongly diverge, as Oliver Kriete, European Product Manager for Sound United, explains. “It's also important to mention that we have separate engineering teams working on Denon and Marantz to keep the old DNA for both brands”, he adds. “Although we share some tech on the AV side, on the hi-fi side we have dedicated sound engineers for each brand.”
Rainer Finck adds that it's not just in pure engineering that Marantz is its own company. “In Japan we have what we call a 'sound master' for Marantz and for Denon. For Marantz it is a gentleman by the name of Yoshinori Ogata. Our designers and engineers work closely with him to get the sound that we think is right for Europe. Because of all the CE regulations that we have for Europe, we have different circuitry for the different regions. We started with Marantz a long time ago, where Ken Ishiwata set up all these procedures – we got samples sent to Europe from Japan, and Ken did the listening and I was also involved, decades ago. We would then discuss the outcome with the sound master in Japan, Ogata san. In the end it's a lot of team work to get the finished product correct!”
Yoshinori Ogata (Sound Master)
Gary Dayton adds, “We see various people on AV specialist forums panning us for being a large conglomerate selling the same product under different marques, but that is simply not true. Each of the brands under the Sound United umbrella is managed independently, and we get to make our own decisions about the products. Every brand has their own product leader and gets to define their own products specifically – whilst getting to share some economy of scale advantages.”
One of the defining aspects of Marantz's transition into the twenty-first century has been to engage with Class D amplification. It has been a controversial move as far as the company's many aficionados are concerned, some believing that the technology simply isn't as good as the brand's historic use of Class AB, and even – at times – Class A. Yet it's something that the company has been very careful about – feeling that it wasn't worth jumping on the bandwagon that started at the beginning of the noughties. Instead, it slowly began to release new amplifier designs using Class D, and continues to do so.
Rainer explains: “The decision to go towards Class D was made nearly three years before the 2016 press conference. The intention was to do new flagships, to come up with something new. We considered it only after we got our hands on this specific technology – that is used on the PM-10, the PM-12, the KI Ruby and of course the Model 30 – we used it because we found it was to a certain extent superior to what we did before. Our previous flagship was the SC-7 preamp and MA-9 monoblocks – a physically very big and heavy combination. By contrast the new PM-10 has two monoblocks in one housing, plus one preamp with a linear power supply. It was the most economic way to build it in one box, and of course has the shortest signal path that you can get…”
Marantz Listening Room (Eindhoven, Netherlands)
He continues: “It's better value because you don't need three nice boxes, just one – so you get the biggest bang for your buck. We should not forget the economics of this. Class D is small, but not cheap – we get a lot of power and performance out of it, but it is not so affordable that we could build, say, a PM6000 with it. That's why the Model 40n has conventional technology, whereas the more expensive Model 30 doesn't. As soon as we get the engineering samples of any new design, we benchmark it against the predecessors – that ensures that you get an evolution. A lot of people when they talk about sound, they talk about bass and high frequencies – but I think the magic of Marantz happens in-between, the magic is in the midrange. It's very much the Marantz sound.”
Oliver agrees, explaining that: “The decision was made to leave Class AB behind in some cases, because Class D technology evolved in such a way that we were able to say it was finally acceptable for Marantz. It wasn't the Class D we had known previously, but had finally evolved to a solution we could accept.” Interestingly, this bears out my own listening. Both the company's flagship PM-10 and Model 30 integrated amps have that subtly euphonic character – one that you can hear in all the company's amplifiers stretching back to the early nineteen eighties. It's fascinating that this continues despite the use of radically different technology to achieve it.
Oliver Kriete, European Product Manager for Sound United
Looking forward, and the company is well aware of where it's going. “We have a really exciting roadmap of two-channel hi-fi products coming up in the next few years, not only from a design perspective but from a sound quality viewpoint. As we put more products out, there's ever increasing detail and nuance”, says Gary. Oliver adds enigmatically, “…and new components and new solutions are coming into the game.”
The idea is to develop products that fit into Marantz's HEOS' eco-system, making more ways that high-quality music can easily be accessed around the home via the internet. “We're exploring the idea of products that are far easier to fit into secondary or tertiary listening rooms around the house,” says Gary, “and streaming of course is going to be at the heart of it. We want audiophiles to become aware of Marantz as the premium audio company, so should they be very satisfied with their first purchase we want them to think of us for their next audio needs, so that means adding some music in the bedroom that nicely integrates with their stereo or home theatre in other rooms, that's great.”
Marantz Japan Reference System
At the same time, Marantz is not throwing its heritage away. “We're not looking for radical changes, we just want to open it up to a wider audience”, explains Oliver. “We will absolutely continue to support physical disc formats”, adds Gary. “For example, one of the strongest performing products over the last year has been the CD6007, a great bang-for-the-buck CD player that's not too expensive but sounds good. It's amazing isn't it, that in 2022 Compact Disc remains popular enough that we can sell premium silver disc players that aren't connected to the internet at all – such as our new CD 60. That speaks to the popularity of physical media in general. As for me, growing up as a teenager I did nothing but make mixtapes for girls – which eventually got me a wife! So it's great to be able to provide amazing products for people, however they listen…”
So the plan is to introduce a wider array of network-attached music playing devices while not forgetting legacy music formats. Twenty-five years after the death of its founder, Marantz continues to be a proud company with much to be proud about. It has played a significant role in the development of hi-fi over the years and sees itself continuing with this mission. To do this, it must continue to innovate while still supporting popular legacy formats like CD, SACD and, of course, the vinyl LP.
“As new products come out from Marantz, it will be easy to see features that were inspired by products from the past”, says Gary. “There's a bit of a notion that because Marantz is owned by a big corporate entity, that we've lost our soul. Wrong! We are all audiophiles to some degree or another, and deeply passionate about music listening. We're excited about what we're making and want to share it with a broader audience, the notion of being able to turn people on to outstanding sound quality is what drives us. In business terms, Marantz was carefully restructured in a way designed to protect us from being sidelined within our wider group. We are a distinct company that knows who we are, where we have been – and where we want to go in the future.”
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.