The SA-11 series was first launched in S1 guise as the ultimate expression of Marantz's art and craft, but since then has been superseded in this role by the 'Legendary' (sic) series. But there is more than a coincidental degree of commonality in the two ranges. Clearly they look similar - indeed the two disc spinners are hard to distinguish at first glance.

To put some flesh on the bones, the SA-11S2 is basically an updated SA-11S1 or, a simplified version of the SA-7S1 (the £5,000 flagship CD/SACD player which is one of our all-time favourites). The pre and power amplifiers in this month's review plug the yawning chasm between the Marantz £15k Legendary SC-7S2 preamp and MA-95 monoblocks, and the £2k PM-11S1 integrated amplifier. Despite the visual similarity, there are considerable differences as the pricing disparity implies.

The Premium series components are intended to embody as much of the Legendary series engineering as possible, within much tighter price constraints. But there are fundamental differences; while the Legendary series amplifier is fully balanced internally, the Reference series amp is not.

Unbalanced

The preamp (or control amp in Marantz-speak) does have balanced in and outputs and the power amp also has balanced inputs as well as the usual single ended connections. But inside each component, the audio streams are converted to single-ended and processed in this form. The benefits of balanced mode operation - common mode noise rejection - remain available in the circuits outside the amplifier. Internally, however, the audio must circumnavigate the extra circuitry balanced to unbalanced (and complementary unbalanced to balanced) converters.

The SA-11S2 is a direct replacement for the SA-11S1 and uses as much of the technology from the SA-7S1 as cost constraints allow.

It is a two channel only player which uses the new tray module (SACDM-1) developed originally for the SA-7S1, though for cost reasons, the digital isolators from that model are not carried over. In this single component the circuitry is fully balanced internally and includes Marantz proprietary phase error compensation and two four-channel Seiko hybrid DSD/PCM SM5866AS D/A converters.

There is also an input for an external digital clock, an unusual refinement and one we weren't able to try (as it is for third-party clocks). The three output filters from the SA-7S1 are available, as well as the same measures to suppress group delay and out of band noise. The analogue audio circuits are the same as their counterparts in the SA-7S1.The manufacturer is at pains to point out that the SC-11S1 and the SM-11S1 (respectively the control amp and the power amp) draw inspiration and some technology from their counterparts in the Legendary series, but that both are totally new designs.

New features

The SC-11S1 and SM-11S1 can also be operated in unison, effectively as a single component, using a remote trigger signal to link the two. The SC-11S1 includes a new HDAM (Hyper Dynamic Output Module) discrete operational amplifier. Known as the HDAM SA3, it's a complementary cascode push-pull circuit, which uses high-precision surface mount metal film resistors to minimise the signal path lengths, as well as offering improved bandwidth (speed) and relative insensitivity to operating temperature changes.

The design also includes a new internal phono module in which novel measures have been introduced to eliminate the differences in sound between the LF and the HF legs of the circuit, which are normally introduced by the asymmetric nature of the NFB equalisation networks. Volume control is handled by a Wolfson WM8816 variable gain amp, which features unusually low noise and distortion.

A resolution of 0.5dB or better from 0 to -100dB, has click-free operation and an acceleration detection which allows rapid level changes when called for. The headphone amp is balanced and includes a dedicated power amp. A special bi-amp mode is available to drive the preamp as a mono unit, which allows use of additional power amplifiers for biamplified operation, or to help build 5.1 or 7.1 channel amplifiers using additional channels of power amplification. The power supply is a typically high-end design, featuring Schottkey barrier rectifier diodes and custom capacitors, as well as an aluminium encapsulated torroidal transformer.

The SM-11S12 power amplifier embodies many of the same points as the preamp, including the HDAM SA3 discrete Hyper Dynamic Output Module, which Marantz claims is its best yet, and a two-stage amplifier circuit that minimises the effect of back EMF from the speakers - a consistent theme of the design. The current feedback voltage amp, which is the first stage of the amp, is the same as in the Legendary MA-9S2, with the HDAM mods providing balanced to unbalanced conversion.

All three units make extensive use of high-quality, customised components, new 5mm thick aluminium top covers and extensive screening and mechanical damping. Power output is 110 watts into 8 Ohms., doubling into 4 Ohms, or 420 watts into 8 Ohms (mono, in BTL mode). That's 420 watts a side, with the amplifier complement doubled-up.

Sound quality

If we are safe in assuming that what goes into a product has a lot to say about what comes out, this threesome is an absolute winner. There is no gainsaying that the Marantz combination is a joy to use, with few of the usual restrictions. For example, the disc player's display can be safely left switched on with no worries about it polluting the sound. The balanced option makes very little, if any discernable difference to the sound. The only differences we could detect might be attributable to cable differences, though Marantz would probably admit that it's a case of levelling down rather than up.

The design of the amplifier is, after all, fundamentally single-ended on both operating modes. But Marantz has done well to conceal the fact with excellent internal engineering, specifically the newly improved HDAM modules which power the single ended/balanced conversion and vice versa.

In short, if the Marantz was a car, it would be somewhere on the Lexus/ Bentley axis and not - due to the amplifier lacking the necessary reflexes and power - in Porsche or Ferrari territory. There are occasions, however, when you'll be surprised at its turn of speed or, in the audio equivalent, the resolving power and authority it can muster.

Nothing ugly ever seems to emanate from the speakers, unless the recording is truly awful. There is a hint of something special about the sound, giving an effect of polish and grace and of excellent analysis and instrumental separation too. But at 'loud levels' the sound does collapse, like an amplifier whose innards are fit to bust because the volume has been set far too high.

It's also not that easy to distinguish the three components from each other. If forced to make a decision, we would describe the disc player as particularly impressive, partly because it doesn't contradict what we recall of the Marantz SA-7S1 flagship. There is the same slightly relaxed gracefulness and the reassuring feeling that CD sound quality is almost on a par with that of SACD.

It always manages to sound supremely poised and performs the difficult trick of coping with musical gear changes seamlessly. Perhaps this is the true benefit of being a two-channel-only player? Had it been multichannel for the same money, some greater compromises would surely have been inevitable. The CD/SACD player is a remarkably well balanced component. You have some ability to alter the sound using the various filter settings, but we generally preferred the first setting for CD and SACD alike, which we believe gives a more consistent and seamless result, but, of course, the character of your system could influence the results you get.

But it's not easy to criticise the amplifier, either. Really good power amplifiers, of at least moderate loudness capability, are not exactly unknown at prices similar to the SM-1S1.

It goes moderately loud before it begins to loose its grip and balance and you should find it copes happily in quite large rooms at realistic (ie, lifelike) volume levels with speakers of 86dB/watt sensitivity or better. There was certainly no lack of bottle driving this reviewer's reference Mordaunt-Short Performance 6 loudspeakers.

Even more impressive, however, is the SC-11S1 pre, sorry, control amp. A further correction: it was the combination of SC-11S1 and the SA-11S2 that I found utterly beguiling. There is something very special about these two line-level components. In fact the SC-11S1 is no mean phono step-up either. It does just what it says on the box: it's quiet and has
the refinement and slightly understated passion that the Marantz brings to all its best components.

The ne plus ultra combination we tried - of the Marantz player and preamp driving a Denon AVC-A1XV integrated amp (though lower in power output) - acted as an effective proving ground.