Sound & Archeology: Vintage Marantz

— by William Caraher

In my first post for Part-Time Audiophile, I mused about the relationship between hi-fi and reality, and concluded that anything that encourages us to reflect on the meaning of reality has a place within humanity’s larger philosophical project. (And this should justify my need to spend all available household income on stereo gear. It’s for the good of all humanity.)

These epistemological questions come pretty easy to me in day job, as a historian and archaeologist. I think a good bit about the evidence for past reality. In fact, the goal of the historical and archaeological method is to show how the remaining bits and pieces from the past can tell us about the past. At the same time, we’re pretty committed to the idea that even the best preserved archaeological remains or historical documents are not the same today as they were in the past. In archaeology, for example, scholars have long ago the “Pompeii Premise” which imagined the remains of the Roman town buried by Vesuvius preserved a distinct moment in the past. We now realized that Pompeii was much like our own homes and towns: a pastiche of half-completed home improvement projects, ignored problems, well-kept public spaces, and neglected back allies. All these show signs of wear-and-tear accumulated over decades and the buried city reveals not a single moment, but a generation of past use.

This is all to say that I bought a stereo receiver on ebay this past week. It’s a Marantz 2235B, a classic example of Marantz’s house sound from the late 1970s. It barely worked when I got it in a nondescript box, but after a trip to my local stereo and TV repair shop, a thorough cleaning, a new speaker relay, and some balancing, it now sounds… as good as new? Or pretty darn good? It’s driving a pair of Zu Omen speakers in my living room and providing us with a well-worn approximation of the Marantz house sound of the 1970s.

Ok, I can already hear the eye-rolling and clucking of people who know the risks of buy used and “vintage” hi-fi equipment. A recent trip to a few high-end stores brought with it constant reminders from sales people that “audio has changed a lot over the past decade” whenever I mention equipment over 5 years old much less pushing 35. I did enjoy reading Mal’s report on the Burwell and Son’s room at the California Audio Show which featured restored Altec VOTT which were stunningly modern and vintage. These gorgeous speakers were “reconditioned and restored to meet modern standards”.

In the hour or two before I connected my un-reconditioned and unrestored Marantz to my speakers, I read the blogs that discuss the need to re-cap amplifiers over 20 years old to hear them as they were meant to sound and those who say that modern capacitors do not sound at all like the originals from the 1970s. This is all makes sense to me, of course. Sonic memory being a bit of a tricky thing over the course of a single listening session would be a bit more problematic over 40 years. Complicating thing further, the Marantz itself doesn’t make any sound at all; that’s the job of the speakers and finding speakers that could sound as they did in the 1970s returns us to the same questions confronting the amp. Could they be restored to sound like they did in the 1970s without find some kind of audiophile Pompeii full of new-old stock gear preserved in oxygen free time capsule. At this point, you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m taking about.

So I plugged in the Marantz and my Zu Omens and put on some music. The little Marantz filled the room with a lush midrange and a rolled off treble. It took the potential harshness from the Zus and replaced it with a warm immediacy that was both as engaging as the Zus have ever sounded but far more relaxed and smooth than my 30 years newer Peachtree Decco. The bass was not tight and the lower midrange was exaggerated, but the overall presentation was plausible and attractive. Inspired by Mal’s apologetic review of Zu room, I put in Joe Strummer’s Streetcore and heard the unrefined (unretouched in many cases) character of his voice swell and crack in a new way. Jack White’s plaintiff wails, on the other hand, lost a bit of the immediacy produced by the Peachtree. Paul Simon’s remastered Graceland regained a bit of the grace lost through an antiseptic remastering through this system and the genius of the Mekon’s Fear and Whiskey gained a (possibly misplaced) elegance and refinement.

Was this what Marantz gear sounded like in the 1970s? Was this what recording engineers and producers of albums in the 1970s heard?

Or was this alluring and ethereal sound the fortuitous product of deteriorating capacitors and other electronics, 21st century speakers, a new and un-burned in speaker relay, and some seriously sketchy speaker cables. My Marantz 2235B was an archaeological project and an assemblage of interventions producing something wonderful, mysterious, and engaging. Issues of transparency, fidelity, and reality dissolve into listening pleasure as the archaeological assemblage filled my room with both visceral and intellectually-demanding artifacts of sound

Scot made the implicit comparison between fine bourbon and stereo equipment in a post a few weeks ago. Marantz was famous for its “two martini sound”. I’ll leave it for someone else to tell me whether the lovely receiver playing in my living room now embodies this evocative transferred epithet while I turn it up and listen to the archaeology of sound.