Marantz SA-12S1 multichannel SACD/DVD-V/CD player

For more than two years, audio- and videophiles have been hearing about the SACD and DVD-Audio formats. But judging from the number of units sold, far more people have heard about the new formats than have heard them in their own homes. Until recently, I was among that poor huddled mass, but the arrival of Marantz's new SA-12S1 SACD player has changed all that. Is SACD worthy of the hype? More specifically, is the SA-12S1 worth its lofty price tag of $3800? Welcome to the wonderful world of early adoption.

What's New?
The SA-12S1 plays everything but DVD-Audio discs. Its diet includes DVD-Videos, CDs, CD-Rs, CD-RWs, Video CDs, and SACDs. The last—the newest digital format—promises a quantum leap in sonic quality over CD. The SACD technology, based on Sony and Philips' DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recording system, has a much higher sampling frequency than CD.

"Crippleware" is created when features and capabilities are purposely removed from a product, and every SACD player currently on the market is crippled by software manufacturers' security demands. Because SACD has such high resolution, the major record companies have been reticent about releasing titles before the hardware manufacturers could ensure that digital information would be copy-protected. In response to the labels' demands, all SACD players currently on the market lack high-resolution digital outputs; their digital jacks operate only with PCM (CD), DTS, and Dolby Digital material. I firmly believe that SACD will never be widely accepted by consumers until it offers digital outputs. The same goes for DVD-Audio, the other new multichannel-capable, high-bit/high-sampling-rate audio format. It is also similarly limited, though three manufacturers—Meridian, Denon, and Muse—all are introducing proprietary encoded digital links that are usable only with their own surround processors and DVD players.

Because of the analog-only SACD connection, the SACD recordings you can play and how you can play them will depend not only on the SA-12S1, but also on the capabilities of your surround processor or receiver. For an explanation of the most common possibilities, see the accompanying sidebar, "The Many Shades of SACD."

While on the subject of technical limitations: SACD and DVD-Audio require different hardware and software. While it is not impossible to make a player that reads SACDs and DVD-As, few manufacturers have opted to do so. This is unfortunate. The new formats have been pitted against each other, forcing consumers to choose between them, and confused consumers are likely to do what they have always done in such a situation: stay away in droves. I don't blame them.

What's True?
Designed to be Marantz's flagship design, the SA-12S1 has a full complement of technical and ergonomic features. Like most high-end players, it is noticeably heavier at 23 lbs than entry-level models, which typically weigh between 5 and 8 lbs. What makes it such a porker? Not only is its chassis machined from solid alloys, it uses extensive internal metal shielding as well. The SA-12S1's insides are jam-packed with state-of-the-art circuitry: separate isolated toroidal power transformers for analog and digital circuits, premium-grade capacitors in the audio signal path, internal wiring of oxygen-free copper, and 12 high-definition, copper-shielded, fully discrete amplifier output stages. Three dual-differential Crystal DACs perform digital decoding duties, along with a current-conversion noise-elimination circuit and an ultra-low-jitter master clock. Marantz even has a separate transformer just for the SA-12S1's fluorescent front-panel display.

If you want bells and whistles, the SA-12S1's got 'em. Although it's supposed to be an SACD player first and a DVD player second, the SA-12S1's DVD-Video functions are extensive. Not only does it search, pan, zoom, skip through individual frames, and provide parental control and child-lock features, it also has black-level shift and internal aspect-ratio controls. Lacking are progressive component-video outputs—Marantz thinks that most folks interested in an SA-12S1 will already have an external doubler or scaler that will do a better job than a simple internal doubler on a single chip.

As befits its price tag, the SA-12S1 has superb fit and finish. Every edge and button looks and feels carefully crafted, and if there's plastic anywhere, it's well camouflaged.

The SA-12S1 is relatively easy to set up. For audio outputs you have a choice of coaxial or TosLink digital, two pairs of RCA single-ended stereo, and six channels of RCA single-ended analog for multichannel sources. Video outputs include two composite, one S-video, and one interlaced component. Once tethered to your system, the Marantz displays a menu that uses pictographs to delineate its functions. These symbols may look strange to those unused to reading international road signs in places like Mozambique, but after a few moments of befuddlement, reading them should become third or fourth nature.

The SA-12S1 provides bass management in its Dolby Digital mode (if you choose to use the player's internal Dolby Digital decoder), but there is no onboard bass management for SACD playback. This will be less of a limitation for 2-channel audiophiles who plan to listen primarily to SACDs through large left and right speakers than for home theater audiophiles. We know of no surround processor or A/V receiver with multichannel analog inputs that provides bass management through these inputs. To play back multichannel SACD sources properly from the Marantz, you must either use outboard bass management (with an add-on analog bass-management device such as the Outlaw ICBM) or full-range speakers in all the channels you plan to use for SACD.

SACD processing produces a great deal of noise above 20kHz. While inaudible (and well below the level of any ultrasonic frequencies in the program material), this noise could cause some amplifiers to misbehave. To allow for this possibility, the Marantz incorporates a three-position filter: Standard, Custom ST, and Custom All. Standard employs a gradual rolloff in the SACD frequency response above 20kHz in all channels. Custom ST applies this filter only to the center and surround channels, while allowing the response of the left and right front channels to extend to 100kHz. Custom All lets 100kHz signals flow to all five channels. If you have a well-designed high-end amplifier—even if it's not labeled "sacd-ready" or "sacd-enabled"—it should be able to handle the Custom settings with no problem. If you still use an ancient, unmodified Dynaco ST-120, or anything powered by only a single gerbil, you should probably opt for Standard.