Ken Ishiwata - Marantz
Ken Ishiwata is probably one of the most influential personalities in our industry. His engineering talent allowed him to design many great devices and modify Marantz's standard equipment. Amplifiers and CD players signed with his initials are very sought after, and regular models only go into production after gaining his approval. Born in Japan in 1947, Ken Ishiwata is also one of passionate music lovers who had a chance to experience almost every major technology and music format, from tube amps to streamers, from mono recordings to hi-res music files. Privately, he's a very original person who likes to share his passion with other music lovers.
I had the opportunity to talk with Ken Ishiwata many times, not only during various exhibitions and presentations, but also smaller meetings and press conferences. On such occasions we talked about very specific things. When introducing new models, I asked him about the technical details of their design. At the exhibitions with other participants, I savored Ken's music and tried to hear what he described. Each time it was an inspiring experience, but I never had the opportunity to interview him. Until now.
Our love of music is born in different circumstances. Sometimes we bring it out of our home, some of us were directed towards good music by our friends, etc. What was the case with you? When did you realize that it would be cool to do something related to music in your life?
Well, in my case it's started with my parents. They loved music very much, so I was surrounded by all sorts of music, and started learning to play the violin. That was the way my music life started. I was quite good with violin and won several contests, but at same time I was very interested in playing music back as well. That was the way I started to learn about hi-fi. I was also interested in foreign countries and wanted to visit different places but, as you know, Japan is an isolated island thus you could only visit other countries either by airplane or a ship. That meant I had to study hard to pass the governmental examination to get a certain license. What I did was to get the International First Class Radio Operating Engineer license. This exam is very difficult to pass. Every year about 1500 people take this exam but it would be a historical event if more than 10 people made it. It's genuinely this hard. The year I took the exam, there were only 7 lucky ones and I was one of them. The examination process consists of 10 different stages and one has to get more than 90% for all of them in order to pass. I was very lucky to do it. Because of that, I was hired by Japanese shipping company as radio operating officer. I traveled to the USA, Canada, Oceania and many countries in Asia. In the beginning it was nice to experience different countries, but life on the boat was not at all interesting. Then luckily Pioneer contacted me if I could join their European office, since they were going to expand their business in Europe and needed an engineer who spoke English and understood business basics. I was hired and did some work in Japan, for a short period before being transferred to Europe. I came to Europe in 1968. As you may know I joined Marantz in 1978. I was always involved in product developments. However, my relationship with music was already very long when I started working in this industry. I'm always telling people that each relationship with music you have is very unique one. No one has same relationship! You encounter different music in your life and memories you have are often associated with specific music. When you hear this specific piece of music, all those memories are coming back to you, with very strong emotional movements. No other form of art gives you such strong emotional value. Music is so powerful! As we always say, Because Music Matters. Music matters to people.
You are an experienced music lover who has been able to watch the evolution of hi-fi music and equipment - from vinyl records and cassettes, CDs and SACDs to hi-res files and streaming services. And you kept up with all these changes. What remains the same, from today's point of view, and what has changed the most? Which music format is your favorite?
Yes, I was very lucky to be born in the year hi-fi was going to start! From mono LP, stereo LP, Compact Cassette in analogue period as well as CD, SACD and High Resolution formats in digital audio. Actually, digital formats were invented for convenience and possibility of maintaining quality unchanged, but, as you know very well, original music is analogue. In other words, we always need to convert every digital format to analogue for listening. First of all you have to convert analogue to digital for recording then again from digital to analogue for the playback. Of course those conversions are never a good thing, but it i's a necessity. My favorite format is high speed open reel tape, 2 tracks 38 cm/s, but unfortunately not many records are available in this format. So if we are talking about the digital music, SACD and DSD files are my favorite. However, most important thing is always the original recording quality. There are many very good recordings with 44.1 kHz/16 bit format. DSD or 192 kHz/24 bit files don't guarantee highest quality at all, unless the recording itself is good.
What was your experience with audio equipment before you joined Marantz? How do you remember your first days in the company?
As I already described in first part, I started very early with hi-fi. My first encounter to Marantz took place when I was still in high school! I had already made quite large numbers of hi-fi products like amplifiers myself. Actually, I was 10 years old when I made my first amplifier. Of course tube and mono! My friend's father was a real audiophile and had a wonderful listening room. One day, when I was visiting my friend, his father came in and called me to join him in listening room. I knew his room and system very well, but that day the system sounded completely different! This wonderful large orchestra with three-dimensional soundstage was so impressive. The depth reproduced by his hi-fi was amazing. I had never experienced something like that. Then he played a female vocal ant the voice was so real like the singer was just in front of you. Very sexy voice you would never forget! So, I asked him what changed in his system. He pointed at a strange looking, gold product with Marantz written on the front panel. I've never heard of it before. It was the Model 7C preamplifier! This experience changed my point of view regarding hi-fi products. That's why I'm keeping this tradition of sound characteristics as Marantz Sound Identity.
You are of course famous, among other things, for modifying standard models and turning them into much better, special editions. When did it start and how?
As you know by now, I started working on hi-fi products from a very young age and the experience I gathered had taught me a lot. After hearing such an amazing sound from the Model 7C, I wanted to have it, but of course it was too expensive for a high school student. So instead I asked my friend's father to lend me this preamplifier and he agreed. I took it home, opened the product and found out how the circuit design was done. And, as you can guess, I started making a copy of the product. It took quite a while since some of parts were very difficult to get, but anyway I managed to get all the parts and built one copy. I was so excited when I finished making it, thinking about the wonderful sound I will get. I switched on the product and tried to play one of my LPs but no sound came out at all! I knew just a little bit of electronics but not at such a level to realize that the Model 7C's circuit was complicated and also very tricky since it was third stage amplification. What I didn't know was that the amplifier I built was oscillating. Wiring was of course not exactly the same as in the original model. I found this out by doing some serious study on amplification. Finally I managed to make it work, but another dilemma started - the sound was not at all the same as in the original model. First thing I tried was to swap the tubes. Marantz used Telefunken tubes and I had ones made by Toshiba. This made a big difference. Then I started to change the capacitors and resistors. They all made a difference in sound. I finally understood that making hi-fi products is not easy at all. In order to succeed, you have to pay attention to every detail. I was very lucky to find this out when I was very young. It certainly helped me to make good sounding components.
Marantz is a company with a rich history, different divisions and acquisitions along the way. Even today we are able to see traces of this, because the company has branches in the US, Europe and Japan. There are even several different Marantz pages on Facebook. Why did this happen and what were the effects?
Here again I was very lucky to experience so many different owners of company and influences they made. The first one was Superscope buying the Marantz brand from Saul Bernard Marantz. It coincided with the time we changed from tubes to transistors, so a completely different technology. Superscope decided to go to Japan to find a partner who is capable of producing high-quality components at a low cost. They found a company called Standard Radio Cooperation of Japan. That was the original Marantz Japan. So, pure American to Japanese industrialization happened. I wasn't there at the time. The next one was Philips, of course European. It coincided with the introduction of the CD format. Marantz was very lucky to get very high-quality digital audio technologies from Philips. As I was the only Japanese engineer who spoke English, I had to be involved in all detailed discussions with Philips' engineers. This way I learned about digital audio. I had no idea about it back then, I was a pure analog person. As you may remember, Philips and Marantz were the only companies using technology called oversampling (4x Oversampling Technology) and I soon found out this was contributing very much to the wonderful soundstage these players had. You remember my experience with Model 7C, huge three-dimensional soundstage of a big orchestra. I started to bring it back together with a sexy, warm voice character and somehow implement this sound into Marantz CD Players. This tradition is still there today! Luckily for us, so many music lovers in the world noticed all those activities and sound experiences of Marantz products. They are creating the social media content and contributing not only to the reputation, but also to the actual business of Marantz. I'm very happy to say we now have a very good reputation and image almost all over the world with Marantz.
After the acquisition by Philips, some things must have changed in Marantz, but the company also received a lot of new technology, with an opportunity to launch the first commercial CD player. Did it accelerate the development of Marantz and make it the company we know today?
Well, all of a sudden Marantz became a very strong digital audio specialist! However, this only happened because we knew and understood analog technology and sound. Combination of both digital and analog technologies and know-how made Marantz very unique. The company was always perceived as an amplifier specialist, but now a lot of people think of Marantz as a CD player specialist. And it's not without a reason.
During the Philips era you received the Brand Ambassador title and I heard it's quite an interesting story. Was it difficult for them to determine what was your role in the company?
Well, before I didn't need any title. If you mentioned Ken Ishiwata, people knew what I was doing for the company, but with Philips it wasn't that simple. The HR department visited Marantz, had a special interview with me during which the manager asked me what was my title. I told him I don't have one and I don't need one neither! But he insisted I should have a title. Then he asked what I did. I explained everything and then he said, well, indeed we don't have a title for such function, we will study this and come back to you. I haven't heard from him for several months and all of a sudden he called me and told me that they couldn't find a good title so they asked an outside agency to come up with a title for me. And they were told to call me Brand Ambassador. My involvements in the company were so wide and indeed the Brand Ambassador title was quite a good way to let people understand what I did. Since then, this title became known and has been used with other people even in other industries.
Some audio engineers devote the most attention to power supplies, others carefully select all the parts or spend time developing their own software, fighting unwanted resonance and a million other things. What parts of audio electronics are the most important in your opinion? In other words, what aspects of hardware design will give us the greatest sound benefit?
Unfortunately, it's not so simple. Everything is important! Buying so-called expensive audiophile components doesn't guarantee good sound. Many engineers copied what I did in Marantz products but they didn't know why I was using those specific parts in very specific places of each product. I'm always saying it's like a football team. Putting a world class players together doesn't mean the team will always win. It's the same with hi-fi products because there are so many different components inside them, and every one of these components has a different sound character, just like every football player has different personality and skills. It's very important to achieve a harmony, and simply putting together a lot of good components doesn't make the team work perfect. Often we have to pick a certain component with a specific sound character to counter balance the sound. And we are doing this with every single product we design! This became a very unique thing about Marantz as well. You'll be surprised how extensive the sound tuning process is in our listening room.
During your presentations we often see speakers twisted hardly towards the center, and we heard that in such an unusual setup the channels are swapped so that the sweet spot is very different and more listeners can experience something special. Is this the kind of speaker placement you also practice at home?
As you know, the original stereo reproduction with a pair of speaker is based on an equilateral triangle. Then top of this triangle is your sweet spot. And this works out nicely in most cases. However, when you are performing demonstrations, there is no way everybody can sit in this sweet spot. Therefore, on such occasions I'm making a very wide sweet spot by twisting speakers extremely so that the sound from left and right speaker crosses far in front of you. However, at home we don't need to have such a wide sweet spot, so no - usually I don't listen to music like this.
As a Brand Ambassador, you do a lot of things related to Marantz's image, from presenting the equipment at the world's largest shows to making films about the flagship 10 Series. Which of these activities are the most pleasant for you, and which are the most demanding?
The development of a product like the 10 Series doesn't happen very often. We can do that only once in 10 to 15 years. This means we have to make sure our products are well presented and perform very well when you are presenting them. It's not easy as people may think. You have to go into details to get the maximum performance from your products. First of all, making these components look and sound like absolutely top quality products is already very hard. You don't know how much time we have to spend to achieve the performance level we want. Sometimes big delays can happen, due to not reaching the quality level we wanted to get from the product. Those are not pleasant things at all, but we have to make sure we reach the quality level we originally intended to get to. The most pleasant thing is the time the end consumer comes back to you and tells you how happy they are with the product. These are the moments I really feel our efforts are well paid off.
Marantz is one of the companies making practically everything, from budget stereo systems to hi-end devices for the most experienced audiophiles and music lovers. With such a wide price range, isn't it becoming a problem to choose the perfect model for each customer?
It's true, it's not an easy thing but you need to have a certain business size to be able to have enough development capacity. This is the cost for the company. Of course we can limit production to hi-end models only, but this means our total business will become smaller, and this would push us to reduce our development capacity. I personally believe we are having just a well-balanced business size given the development capacity. This way we will be able to reach more satisfied customers. However, we always need to look into that area very carefully to optimize our operations.
Today's Marantz catalog is a bit like two parallel worlds - stereo and home theater. When we see a new two-channel amplifier, it's almost certain that the next step will be the introduction of a new receiver or processor with the latest decoders and features. Is it possible to join these two worlds together?
The market is parallel, I must say. Still more people want home theater than two-channel stereo systems. Unfortunately, the requirements are quite different and it's almost impossible to join them together. I will just give you one simple fact. The home theater business is increasing numbers of channels continuously! Then you talk about new decoding and features to be added on top of it, where stereo requires pure and simple configurations. They are completely different from every angle.
When you announced the cooperation with Denon, some audiophiles feared that all new devices would be identical. So have both companies been able to retain their character after forming the D&M Holdings?
I'm sure you already know both identities are well kept separately. In Japan we also have Denon Sound Manager and Marantz Sound Manager with dedicated listening rooms for them. Especially for two-channel stereo products, there is nothing similar between the two brands, I must say.
The recently launched Marantz models are compatible with the HEOS multiroom system. Does this mean that Marantz will also make its own wireless speakers and other devices to expand this ecosystem?
No, just because of the fact network features are required for Marantz, we've taken D&M original IC for the function. That's why it become compatible. But this doesn't mean we will make the same product portfolio as Denon.
How will our audio equipment look like in ten or twenty years? Do you expect some major changes, or are we going to finally stick with what we have already achieved for some time?
You can look back and see how the evolution happened. Very much influenced by people's lifestyle, I must say. On the other hand, many basic things are influencing the costs. As we are serving consumers, we will always be influenced by costs, all the economic consequences. However, my personal wish is to dramatically change things. Unfortunately I'm not so confident about this...