Pointing out the confusion in the low-end CD marketplace, Paul Miller showed how chaos reigns when too many manufacturers chase those budget bucks. His review of the Marantz CD52 MKII in the January issue described Marantz's latest entry at the £200 price point, noting the risk of rushing to market and issuing a run with naff parts. Which, Paul added, Marantz did manage to catch. Thank goodness my exasperated colleague didn't know that Marantz had another giant-killer hot on the MKII's tail, and costing a mere £100 more. As PM stated, the CD52 MKII he reviewed offers most of the CD52 (MKI) SE tweaks in a standard, non-SE model. How would he greet the (hasty) arrival of an SE version of the CD52 MKII?
Your extra £100 pays for some gold script on the front panel and a few primary internal changes. Note that some of the original (MKI) CD52SE part changes do not feature in the standard, non-SE CD52 MKII because of their incompatibility with automatic component insertion machines; they are, however, ingredients of the CD52 MKIISE recipe.:The basic transformer has been replaced with an improved version featuring oxygen-free copper for the primary and secondary windings; the transformer core uses silicon plates (mu-metal), to raise the saturation level from H8 to H13.
Two Cerafine power supply capacitors serve as the direct voltage feeds to the output op amps; the latter were changed from NE5532Ns to NJM2114Ds for the original '52 SE and then used in the standard '52 MKII. These offer improved capacitor matching after the rectifier and before the regulator, DC decoupling caps providing a clean supply to the analogue circuits. The sonic gains are said to be better bass extension and tightness.
The four Silmic coupling capacitors are inserted back-to-back, said to add a greater degree of resolution for a clean and detailed sound. PM noted that the Silmics have since been fitted to the normal '52 MKIIs in place of the Elna devices.
Aside from the gold label, externally this is the same unit as the normal 52 MKII, one which betrays its price tag because of its flimsy case; it could say Airfix or Revell and you wouldn't bat an eyelid. But this baby is firmly of the school which screams 'It's what inside that counts'. A sturdier case or any restyling would have taken this out of the budget-audiophile category and shifted it up into the mid-market, where Marantz already has machines on offer. Flimsineass aside, it's remarkably well-equipped, with a full-function remote, a tell-all LCD panel, reasonable mechanical operation and subdued styling. Even if it didn't perform above the norm, it could still hold its own on the dealer's shelves. But let me clue you in on how special it is by offering two quotes.
The first comes from a hi-fi manufacturer who dropped by but prefers to remain nameless. After I A/B'd the Marantz for him against a good £7000's worth of high-end digitalia, he said, 'I prefer the vocals on the Marantz'. Which costs less than the coax I was using to connect the transport to the DAC.
The other quote comes from Marantz's Ken Ishiwata, who -- all will agree -- is the kind of person who never wastes words. When he says something, you listen. He said, and I quote him verbatim, 'At last, here's a product which I'm truly proud of.' This, remember, is from a guy involved with some of the best CD players of the past six years, alongside the Marantz Music Link amplifiers, which I reckon will be looked upon as classics in a few years' time.
Anyway, I slid the '52 MKII SE into a system which costs not unadjacent to £40,000. I expected to laugh. Or smile, at the very least. Instead, I sat down. Dumbstruck. I don't know what a standard CD52 MKII sounds like; Paul's review didn't exactly inspire me to kick down the door of the local Marantz dealer, or to send a a bike messenger to Middlesex. If it's as good-but-not-great as Paul described, then the few mods needed to create what I heard are akin to what Carroll Shelby did to the humble AC Ace.
He turned it into a hairy monster called the Cobra.
The CD52 NKII SE is just as dangerous. Why? Because it offers performance so far beyond its price tag that it must be a guaranteed sale to any audiophile who doesn't mind its flimsy build quality. Or, more accurately, to any audiophile who doesn't care what label is on the fascia. But before you cancel your order for a Wadia, look at what it cannot do. (In sonic terms, that is. If you want a CD player that looks like £5000 and has the build quality of a Mercedes, then expect to pay more than £299.)
For starters, there's a mild haze, a slight lack of transparency which keeps you from mistaking it for a Krell or a Theta. Because it features digital output, I was able to assess the CD 52 MKIISE's transport's contribution away from the DAC and output sections; it was not the primary cause of the haze, even though it was easily distinguishable from the Krell MD-20 transport as being less transparent.
Next up, the frequency extremes are not as clearly defined as through state-of-the-art players. The bass is not as rich nor as solid, but we're talking extremely low frequencies; considering that this is likely to be used in systems with smaller-than-Diva speakers, I doubt it will be detected by most candidates for '52 MKIISE ownership. The treble, though, seemed slightly less authoritative than the Krell/Vimak or Krell/Krell pairings, regardless of speaker type used. Er, that's it.
So insignificant are these weaknesses that identifying them borders on the sadistic. Instead, look at the Marantz's virtues. The midband is positively luscious: rich and fluid and warm, like a tube amp or an LS3/5A. The soundstage is full and convincing, with a slight degree of recession at the centre which suggests deeper front-to-back dimensions -- a boon if your system is lacking in this area. And because it's not in your face, the sound lacks aggression, usually the curse of budget gear pretending to be what it's not.
Given the slight failings at the frequency extremes, it's a pleasure to note that everything from the lower/mid bass up through the middle reaches of the treble is consistent, smooth and coherent. It calls to mind the ingredients of classic, affordable, 'small' components: magical mini-monitors like the LS3/5A, Dynaco 35W/channel tube amps, AR turntables, basic Denon m-c cartridges, entry-level Sennheisers, the Audio Alchemy DAC and the like. And so satisfying is its performance, the minor zits obscured by a psychologically applied dab of Clearasil, that you can get away with it when using it out of context. In other words, I've had it in my reference system for a week and haven't suffered withdrawal symptoms.
Which leads me to an announcement: The CD52 MKIISE just may be the biggest bargain in digital hardware available as of early 1993. While it's not a challenge to the high-end aristocrats -- especially if customers want/need more than mere sound quality -- it is good enough to serve as the source for any audiophile who's shallow of pocket, without ever reminding the listener (via the ears) that he or she has purchased something so inexpensive. Add it to an AMC integrated tube amp, whack on a pair of Mission 760is, Celestion Ones or Tannoy 603s and you have a system for under £900 (or a thou if you add some decent cables and stands) which will never let you down in any room under 4x5m square. And anyone who sniffs at the sound is an asshole who likes hi-fi rather than music.