By Lam Seng Fatt
Hi-fi legend Ken Ishiwata has passed away at 72. A note from his family stated that he passed away on Nov 25, but early reports did not specify the cause of his death.
Ken spent much of his time with Marantz and was its brand ambassador for many years. Indeed many Marantz components had ‘KI’ added to the model names.
I was the proud owner of the Marantz CD63 II KI CD player, which was in my system for many years. These ‘KI’ components were specially tweaked by the sifu Ken himself.
Ken was admired by hordes of audiophiles who respected him for his knowledge and contributions to the hi-fi industry.
To mark his passing, AV2day is republishing two articles from the UK Marantz website (www.marantz.co.uk).
“Music is the highest form of art. It is also the most noble. It is human emotion, captured, crystallised, encased…and then passed on to others.”
— Ken Ishiwata
Ken Ishiwata is probably the single most influential personality in today’s high-end audio industry. Universally acclaimed for his remarkable talent in conceptualising stunning sound reproduction, his views and visions are avidly reported by the world’s HiFi press – and avidly consumed by the world’s music lovers.
For more than 30 years he has been combining his love of music with his conceptual engineering design approach to create unparalleled high-quality audio products.
Ken Ishiwata has been intimately exploring all newly-designed Marantz units. Only after his approval are they introduced to the world so that other lovers of music can experience the moment.
Occasionally, a unit comes along which he senses ‘has more potential’. He then sets about optimising the protégé. This means more than simply substituting key components with more expensive pieces; it involves careful selection and subtle mixing, testing, listening and testing again. Searching for the ultimate combination. In his words, ‘Like any musical performance, all the players must understand and be capable of fulfilling their role. Nothing more. Nothing less.’ When harmonic unity is achieved, a new KI Signature unit is born.
Some of the famous KI products of the past
The KI Pearls are extra special KI Signature units. Developed to celebrate Ken’s 30 years with Marantz in 2009, they celebrate a sublime love of music and express human emotion in all its richness.
Why Pearl? Because pearls are the traditional gift to celebrate a 30 years anniversary – symbolising love, happiness, affection, and generosity.
The word “Pearl” today is a metaphor for something very rare, very fine, and very valuable. And, although pearls are considered as gems, there is also something very organic about them: they’ve been shaped (not constructed) into a whole of perfection.
Interview with Ken Ishiwata
KI: “I suppose you could say it started when I was 10 years old – that’s when I made my first amplifier and I had built quite numbers of amplifiers since. When I was in high school I had a friend whose father was an audiophile. When he found out that I was a violinist and loved listening to records he invited me to his listening room. He said “Ken, you must hear to this. It will change you.” He placed an LP on the turntable and cued the pick-up arm. The sound from the speakers that I was already familiar with was very different that day. The voice of Julie London was much more alive, closer, and sexier. I had never before experienced recorded vocals in such a warm and intimate way. I was extremely moved by the event. I looked at his system and noticed a curious champagne-gold face plate with a brand name I had never heard of. It was ‘Marantz’ and the amplifier was the Model 7C. I didn’t know an amplifier could make such a fundamental difference. The music that came through it moved me so much that even today I can vividly remember the emotion and exhilaration of that special moment.
That was my first encounter with Marantz, and I became very curious about the Model 7C. It was obviously too expensive for me, so I persuaded my friend’s father to lend me his. I took it home and investigated every detail, and then started to create a copy of it. That was the day I entered the fascinating world of HiFi design. A world of minute intricacy but one also of holistic wholeness.”
Q: What were the main challenges of copying original Marantz Model 7c?
KI: “At that time, Marantz designs were very tricky and what I found most challenging were the sophisticated circuitry designs. The thing with the Saul B Marantz Model 7C is that if you are not careful, it oscillates. The oscillations happen at much higher frequencies and that was the main challenge. I also began exploring my wiring technique, and how all the components were best be soldered. I studied these, and many other elements, using the Model 7C as my blueprint. It was the start of my conceptual design technique. Eventually, I came to appreciate how all the different elements work together to interpret the sound signal not just as an electronic function but in a much rounder, complete and beautiful way.”
Q: You say “not just as an electronic function but in a much rounder, complete and beautiful way.” How do you measure quality?
KI: “Of course we have instruments. But these can only measure ‘sonic parameters’ in a static way. Instruments can only measure instantaneously – it’s like taking a still photograph of a dancer: it is precisely accurate but shows nothing of the dynamism, speed and rhythm of the dancer. Music is also dynamic. Its tone, volume, pitch and intensity continuously change. That’s why every time I work on a product I measure its quality by referencing a piece of music that I absolutely know sonically and perceptually from its original source. Only then can I relate the character of each component as part of a whole.
It is essential to understand what quality in original music really means. I believe this is the only way to reference the design process. You can’t just take a commercial CD as a reference point, because you can’t know the authenticity of its origins. At Marantz, we understand this importance as an absolute necessity.”
Q: So assessing quality (and improving it) all depends on your understanding of the relationships of the sonic characteristics.
KI: “In principal yes, but in reality the characteristics are never the same. The context changes our perceptions of sound in relation to our environment. Of course we have documented methodologies in approaching and developing our designs but sometimes we have to use completely different components in order to get the results we want. There is no ‘set formula’ for design. For example, if someone referenced my tweaking on one unit as a guideline for the design of another, they will fail. Because the sensitivity of the component combinations produce the unique characteristics that make the product interesting. Take a football team in this instance. You may put together 11 of the best players in the world but that doesn’t mean that they are going to win. It is exactly in the elements of these players that a true sense of harmony must be sought and in the same way. A good Hi-Fi engineer must be able to understand this.”
Q: You obviously love designing audio sets – do you love it more than music?
KI: “No. I love music more than anything. I believe music is the greatest form of art that humanity has ever created. Music communicates directly with your heart. It connects with your emotions. Creating a lasting impression. Music is timeless.”
Q: You have created the KI Pearls to celebrate your 30 years association with Marantz. What makes them so special?
KI: I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s such-and-such a component combination, or the copper plated chassis, or something else. But as I’ve explained it is how all the different elements work together – as one holistic system. Why were the Beatles so special? Was it John and Paul’s song writing? Or was it Ringo’s earthiness or George’s mysticism? Or something else? No it was all of these characteristics – and the fact that they all worked together as one. If you changed one element the whole of the band would have been affected.
Q: Finally, what do you think the future of High-End audio will bring?
KI: It will bring what it has always brought: emotion.