Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Marantz in the 1970's

Here's the finally updated AudioKarma thread on the giant Marantz factory in Chatsworth.  The background story is that after Superscope/Marantz opened this around 1976, they had spent so much money building it, and the market had fallen off since construction began, and costs in Japan had gone so far up, that they were broke and sold out to their foreign partners (a typical story in business, the Taj Mahal Building story).

Add to that my first personal story.  I had lusted after Marantz equipment ever since seeing a 20 in a store in 1970.  But I did ponder many alternatives before deciding what to get to replace my lousy and ill-functioning Dynaco SCA35.  I tried to have the SCA-35 repaired at a repair center on 30th Street in San Diego California in 1973.  The repair person did a bunch of things, but when I got back to my dorm room in Los Angeles, I had the same original problem--a frying noise.

I had talked to that erudite repair person about my choice in getting something new.  He wasn't inclined to see anything wrong with the SCA 35.  But anyway I proposed a Dynaco 120 plus a PAT-5, and a Marantz 2270.  His answer was that there "was no comparison."  I found this answer unilluminating and maddening.  Did he mean the Marantz was so much better?  Or that I shouldn't even be considering such choices?  He seemed to know more but be unwilling to say.  Maddening!

I though the Dynaco more reasonable for the money, but the Marantz seemed nicer somehow.  So when Pacific Stereo in Pomona dropped the price of 2270 to $399 in the summer of 1974, I couldn't resist any longer.  The frying-sound amp had one more chance at repair before becoming my sister's amplifier, but it failed that and was virtually donated when she got a nice reliable Kenwood amplifier that served her for 20 years and perhaps still.

At first, for a few weeks, I hated the 2270.  Among other things I found some of the controls a bit scratchy.  I took it back to pacific stereo for repair.  I got it back a week later identical.  Oh, well, I found after a few days the problem went away.  But also, all along, I was noticing a thin-ness compared to my SCA 35.  The SCA35 tube amplifier was giving me nice rounded out bass, whereas on the transistorized reciever the bass was all dried up.

By a couple months later, I had as much as forgotten that initial impression, and now it seemed, and decidedly so, the transistorized receiver had much tighter and more accurate bass.  Anyway, I was fine with the sound of the Marantz and the whole system I had (Dual 1209 turntable, large Advent speakers, Shure V15 III cartridge) for about 3 years before nagging doubts set in.  And for the first year, I felt like Big Man On Campus as people came and wanted to hear my system, I weirdly brought it all to the girlfriends house over christmas vacation, and so on.  By the second year, I was in the second tier, and so on.

Anyways, it was in the mid 1970's that I was hanging out with some friends of mine back in the San Fernando Valley, and one of them worked at G.A.S, which was located in Chatsworth (as was Electro Research, Quatre, and perhaps other small high end audio companies).  The first time we were driving past the Marantz building on Nordhoff (a street whose name is still familiar from my childhood in the Valley), it blew my mind there was such a big building which I had not remembered from my high school days.  I think I may have been told it was Marantz/Superscope, but that was so unbelievable to me then it didn't sink in.

A few years later when we drove by, I was told only that it was "nothing, anymore."  "What was it?"  "Nevermind."

I think only in 2009 or so I learned and it really stuck that the giant building we had been driving past was the Marantz/Superscope building from reading the beginning of this AudioKarma thread.  Although I knew Marantz had an "A line," whatever that was, and my 2270 was in the "B line", I just never imagined Marantz having such a large factory building in the USA.  Anyway, I was back in LA, and I wanted to drive past the building, but the photos on the AudioKarma thread had gone.  So I went driving around a bit, and saw nothing.  I did find the now mostly re-purposed Harman International campus.  It seemed only JBL had their original offices, other divisions had left and were replaced with marketing firms and the like, and available space.

Anyway, now the thread has been renewed, and the photographs restored later, and now we can see that the address is 20525 Nordhoff Avenue, which is also Nordhoff and Mason (another familiar sounding name), and the address is strangely close to my childhood street address in nearby Woodland Hills.  (Mason was the street at the western end of my childhood subdivision, I recall, the street that ran by the junior high I went to.)

Up until the Millenium, I had just not imagined Marantz being in my own back yard (or, actually, former back yard by then).  They were always in my imagination far away, and I still imagined Long Island City being central, though it hadn't been since 1964, the year Saul Marantz sold out to Superscope after the excess cost of developing and manufacturing the Model 10b tuner (and, also the newer manufacturing plant in Woodside?  I think there may have been a Taj Mahal factor rarely mentioned.).  Marantz headquarters and operations quickly moved out areas around Los Angeles, famously Sun Valley where Superscope was based, with the mass manufacturing moving to Japan, Standard Radio, the later owner of the Marantz name in Japan, until they changed their name to Marantz Japan in 1975.

OK, I did know enough by 1973 that Marantz was now Sun Valley but I figured that was just a distribution hub since manufacturing had moved to Japan.

Still it had seemed to me that Marantz was respectable right up to the time I bought one, by the summer of 1974, and by late 1975 they were possibly behind Sansui and Pioneer.  Real hifi was G.A.S. or Audio Research.  In fact, when I worked at a high end shop in San Diego in 1978-79, current production Marantz was lumped in with all the asian brands into something derogatorily called "mid fi."  No one mentioned (or even seemed to know about) the A line Marantz components made in USA (until the ending of Superscope, when the SM-1000 was actually built in Japan instead of back at the Superscope factory).

But I had sort of heard about the A line briefly, not enough to know anything about it really, and in a backhanded way, in the fall of 1975.

Hearing that I had bought a Marantz receiver, my then G.A.S. employed friend wanted to have an amplifier comparison.  This was in the fall of 1975.  So I brought my 2270 receiver, he brought his SAE clone, and there may have been something else, to somebody elses apartment.  I can't remember much about this except that I myself couldn't hear much, if any, differences between my 2270 and my friend's clone of the SAE Mk XXXI, designed by James Bongiorno.  But others didn't seem to find my receiver very acceptable.  Sonically I recall they criticized the bass, and the dynamics.  This was attributed to damping factor.  Then afterwards, the main thing I remember amazingly clearly (though I didn't understand most of it at the time) is a little bit of conversation:

Friend: "Do you mind if we take the cover off?"

Me: "No, go right ahead.  I did that the first day."

Friend takes the cover off of the Marantz, and some other guy takes a careful look.  (Was this other guy Andy Hefley?  That's likely, he was a good friend of my friend, though it could have been someone else from G.A.S.)

Friend: "Castor?"

Andy: "No, B Line."

Me: "What's a bee lion?"

Friend: "You wouldn't understand."

And so it went.  I didn't really understand the A and B lines until I read about it on The Vintage Knob or some other website decades later.  The A line was the Superscope-era Marantz line built in the USA, and the most famous designer of A line amplifiers during the 1970's was Mike Castor.  These were the likes of the 250 and 500 amplifiers.  The B line were the Japanese made products at lower prices, like the 22xx series receivers (at least most of them).

I didn't understand, but this was the beginning of the end of my honeymoon with my Marantz.  From then on, it wasn't the shining light, it was the slime I had mistakenly fallen for in my ignorance.  Audiophilia nervosa had started setting in.

Now I look on this whole situation a bit differently.  The then-infamous "B-Line" components were actually pretty good.  They were robustly built (as Marantz ads of the time liked to show) but not indestructable: I burned through one set of output transistors around 1979 and got them replaced.  But generally speaking these units were solidly built, with good transformers and decent circuits mostly.  I felt the phone preamp decent, the line preamp only adequate, and the tuner and power amplifier very good for an inexpensive receiver.  For quite awhile now the B Line components have enjoyed highly collectible status and often sell at prices higher than "high end" components from the same era.  People seem to feel better about them now than they did then.

Also I think what my friend and Andy and others were on to at the time was bogus.  There was this feeling that fully complementary circuitry as laid out by James Bongiorno was fundamentally way better.  Now many people have dumped the fully complimentary approach and have gone back to the quasi-complementary amplifier outputs used in the earliest B Line components.  Why?  Well with the wisdom of much time, it appears the quasi complementary outputs might actually work and sound better.  Or if not better, perhaps not enough different to worry about much.  And that was what I myself though I had heard in 1975.

But thinking back, something else is pretty clear too.  My high end audio friends were a bunch of snobs.  That may have rubbed off on me also, but I think I wasn't really much of a snob until I myself worked at a high end store in San Diego and learned the terms "mid fi" and so on.

(As far as quality construction, the very top Sony equipment starting with the F line like the 3200F amplifier and 5000F tuner, then the top ES models up until the last super CD players, such as the X779, are models of superb construction and, I believe mostly, longevity, etc, far surpassing my Marantz receiver.  The two earliest SACD players, the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES were overbuilt to the max, but I believe certain design problems led to them not having the same reliability as earlier units.  Since then, Sony and Pioneer (Sansui sadly no longer exists) aren't what they used to be.  While perhaps the SCD-5400ES player (is that still sold new?) was the best performing SACD player if not CD also, and CD about as good as Sony has ever done (I have a peculiar like of the 1 bit interpretation as opposed to the sigma delta, so I don't believe this, and I think the final X779 and 707ES may have been better for CD's), but they are not overbuilt in the same way as that now golden era of Sony products, perhaps 1966-1996.  As far as Woodside, the 20B tuner was a marvel, though not always appreciated, but a friend of mine had a Model 23 (?) receiver, the smallest one, and the FM tuner it had was terrible compared with my 2270 being perfect--then.  It was then that I no longer regretted, though I should have, getting one of those...they looked fancier and were made in USA, but Woodside models weren't available for long.  I'm not sure that any were any were even as good as their Japanese counterparts, except perhaps, the Model 19...oh oh boy did I lust over that for a year before finally deciding only to buy the 2270.)

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