Sound From A Different Age

Marantz TT15S1 Review: This Storied Turntable Isn’t Just a Majestic Machine, It’s Ravishingly Good


November 21, 2017 Reviews By Photo by Hunter Kelley
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I’ve owned a Marantz JJ1200 turntable since high school — stole it from my then stepmom, or liberated it, you might say, from her basement rec room. It’s difficult to fathom it now, but back then the JJ1200 was exotically high-end, the DeLorean of turntables — sleek and Japanese-made, quiet as a nun; just shy of Bang & Olufsen on the design spectrum — and the theft might’ve technically qualified as grand larceny. The statute of limitations expired long ago, however, and today the thing is a mess, all scuffed and scoured as if it had survived a house fire, the silver coat worn to a dull, sluggish lager. I’ve never replaced the belt or stylus. The motor is vintage. I reckon I’ve played it somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 hours, or about 40-times the manufacturer recommended length between replacing parts. But it still runs like a top. It’s a replicant that will outlast future generations.

I’m reluctant to tamper with the JJ1200 because it speaks of something that I can’t quite identify, the archival language of childhood, perhaps, of hardbitten girlfriends and Yo! MTV Raps, of parachute pants and mom’s enchilada casserole, of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster and Tom Berringer as leading-man material. Maybe I’m emotionally frozen at age 14, but 28-years later, I can recall precisely how it felt to play a first LP, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, on the JJ1200. Chuck Klosterman calls Houses Zep’s “best album.” Let me be clear about this: of their eight studio albums, Houses is unquestionably and inarguably Led Zeppelin’s seventh-best album — but it was a perfect choice for me. Something about the simplicity and bombast, the power and vulnerability, of those opening Jimmy Page notes on “The Song Remains the Same,” created this fantastic sledgehammer electro-fuzz as the stylus dipped into the groove, like headlights clicking on-and-off on a dark highway. I knew things had changed forever.

I’ve inadvertently landed on something that has for decades defined Marantz turntables: an obsessive, fearlessly forward-thinking, near-molecular jiggering with sound quality. The company is leagues ahead of everything happening in analog technology.

There was more fun to be had: “Times Fades Away,” “Eat a Peach,” “Rumours,” “Paid in Full,” and “Catch a Fire.” I considered it a sacred responsibility to listen to these records all the way through, from beginning to end, Side A, then Side B. They told stories in a way, and as such were my first windows onto the outside world. To interrupt them by skipping around would be like glancing past Prince Andrei’s death in War and Peace. They demanded your full attention. The JJ1200 was the conduit.

One more JJ1200 memory: After fleeing the Nazis in 1936, Karl Haas, the classical music radio host, settled in Detroit, where he began his great syndicated radio program, Adventures in Good Music. Equally hard to fathom today, but this quiet hour of classical music and commentary was, for a time, the most listened-to radio program in the country. Even to a 14-year-old, it was obvious that what Beethoven and Bach, Haydn and Schumann, Ravel and Chopin were after was the same thing as Jimmy Page: formal invention that evolved and atomized the standards of musical composition. And, well, you know, the lipstick stains of stardom (Ravel, I guessed, leaned towards fierce Polish girls in wool skirts). Which was more-or-less how I came to own Ravel’s L’oeuvre d’Orchestre on LP: the looming possibility (or impossibility, as it turned out) of adolescent sex. I plucked it from the dollar bin one day and set it on the JJ1200. Again, that static-y, imperfect, weirdly assaultive force just floored me.

Marantz TT-15S1

Motor: Non Servo AC Motor
Drive System: Belt Drive (Silicon Belt)
Operation: Manual
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20kHz

Buy Now: $1,500

I can’t quite communicate it here, but in an important way, hearing this record on the JJ1200 — it’s worth recalling this is a work written in the 20th century that feels resolutely 19th century, and was being played on a technological marvel whose basic engineering dates to the year of Ravel’s birth, and in the hormonal whirlpool of a teenager’s bedroom in 1988 — helped me discover what it meant to be in ecstasy and in pain at the same time. It seemed to dig into and unbury the inexpressible dread and misfortune of childhood. I’ll never forget it.

Anyway, for fuck’s sake what’s that got to do with the Marantz TT-15S1 ($1,500)? Nothing and everything. In trying to establish a lineage, I’ve inadvertently landed on something that has for decades defined Marantz turntables: an obsessive, fearlessly forward-thinking, near-molecular jiggering with sound quality. The company is leagues ahead of everything happening in analog technology.

Appropriately, TT-15S1 seems to belong to a different age altogether. About what you’d expect, plus a little more, for $1,500. One Amazon reviewer says “you’ll hear detail you’ve never heard before,” which comes close to understating things. The first record I played on it is a favorite of my wife’s – Jeannie Riley’s Generation Gap – a record she’s heard a thousand times. Right away she poked her head in the living room and said, “What’s this?”

The obligatory tech-spiel: the TT-15S1 has a ClearAudio Virtuoso Wood Ebony moving-magnet (MM) cartridge with a 20Hz to 20kHz frequency response and a voltage output of 3.6 mV; an arm/cartridge resonant frequency of approximately 8Hz for “solid bass extension”; a tonearm of anodized aluminum; a silicon-belt drive; a free-standing motor designed to reduce vibration; and a high density, 25mm thick acrylic platter. All of that means very little to me. What matters is sound. And the sound you get from the TT-15S1 stands out as the most ravishingly exact you’ll find in a turntable. What you thought of as sound is somehow newer and grander on the TT-15S1. And by sound, I also mean vibration — like Yeats’s vibration of cells — a tremor-like force that can conjure up visions of the past. The TT-15S1 is also a lovely piece of machinery to behold, cast, like a Lexus LC 500 with its gauzy pearlescence, not nearly so garish in person as it appears online, and almost translucent. Giving Houses of the Holy another listen, might convince you that Klosterman was right.

5 Records to Listen to on the Marantz TT-15S1

The TT-15S1 demands the best in analog recording. Here are five new releases and reissues that measure up.

The War On Drugs, A Deeper Understanding: this Philadelphia band is the brainchild of Adam Granduciel, who’s sort of the brainchild of Roger Waters and Curt and Chris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets. Granduciel’s synth-rock masterpiece, “Lost in the Dream,” was easily the best album of 2014 (there’s no point in arguing, I’m telling you this was it). The follow-up, “A Deeper Understanding,” somehow manages to capture the same warp and woof, lightness and darkness, and electron-particle charge to the heart of its predecessor while sounding still newer and bolder and ever more inventive. I feel justified calling Granduciel the most gifted songwriter of our age.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow: M.C. Taylor’s songs manage to be both strong and pretty, manly and domesticated, extraordinarily simple yet profoundly clever and moving. It’s an odd, blendered boil of folk-country and white postmodern soul, but without any of the pejoratives that usually evokes. Songs like “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind,” which finds Taylor simultaneously at an emotional ebb and high-tide — “I’ve seen darker things than night/so give me the light” — is exactly the kind of thing I want on a post-breakup, long-haul flight, something that passes directly into the bloodstream with the whiskey and Xanax to help obliterate time.

King Krule, The OOZ: A guilty pleasure, admittedly. Yeats read Zane Grey at night to unwind. T.S. Eliot had Agatha Christie. When the sun goes down, you simply need a release-valve, something “to let the half-wit out for a walk,” according to poet Donald Hall, who takes a cerebral vacation with the Red Sox. For me, it’s this ginger Brit mumbler, whose pervasive grimace reminds me of a live-action Chucky. Krule has perfected something approximating rap and ambient nonsense, so idiosyncratically pure and powerful and stylized that in another musician’s hands it would simply crumble apart.

Thelonious Monk, Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960: Recorded in 1959 when Monk was in tip-top form, these 43-minutes of timeless, revelatory music were inexplicably shelved for 60-years – though a few snippets appeared in the French film, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Philipe – until now. By degrees of magnitude, this is like Merlin retrieving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. Things will never be the same. Monk’s “We’ll Understand It Better By And By” is the song of our age, a defiant, heady piano dirge that’s just the thing to see us through the nightmare years ahead.

Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Information Transmission Modulation & Noise: It took me a while to come around to this minimalist, percussive, varyingly melodic, at times maddening incantation of organs and maracas and (I think) alto saxophone. But for two days now I’ve not left my apartment with Reich and Glass bouncing off the walls. It’s been raining continuously, and I’ve remained at my desk, gazing out a window at gutters swirling with leaves, while miles to the south, glaciers meander into the Southern Ocean, knowing when they’re finished, sea levels will rise enough to engulf coastal cities, including my own. Until then, I’ll let America’s two greatest living composers direct my attention to the fading glory of fall. Is that a harpsichord or bagpipes? Bongo drums or someone dropping a body down a flight of stairs? I don’t know, and I don’t care. Just let it play.

Can a $250 Turntable Stack Up to a Pro-Grade System?

A budget turntable doesn’t have to mean a compromise in sound. Read the Story

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