Memories, coincidences and revelations: Ken Ishiwata's 30th anniversary

Marantz held a lunch in London yesterday to mark a significant milestone, and launch some special celebratory products.

The occasion? 30 years since Marantz's Brand Ambassador, Ken Ishiwata – the man behind the KI Signature range of products – joined the company. And the products? The KI Pearl SACD player and amplifier, about which more in our news section.

30th anniversary? Well, almost – as Ishiwata mentioned in an overview of his life in hi-fi, he actually joined the company in 1978, having previously worked for Pioneer. But his association with Marantz – and hi-fi – goes back much further.

Discovering how much further involved the answer to one of the hi-fi industry's unfathomables: just how old is Ken Ishiwata?

First amplifier at ten years old

"I was born in 1947, at the same time as the start of hi-fi. The mono LP first went on sale in 1948, but they were promoting it the previous year, and by the time I was ten, and the first stereo LPs were being made, I was making my first amplifier.

"About that time, a friend of mine's father, who was a real audiophile with his own wonderful listening room, invited me round to hear a record by Julie London" – a singer whose music Ishiwata still uses for demonstrations getting on for 40 years later.

"I knew the disc, but as soon as it played, it was like Julie London was there. 'Wow!' I said' 'What did you change?' And he pointed to a gold fascia - it was the Marantz Model 7c preamp" (part of the classic range including the Model 8 power amp and Model 9 monoblocs).

If you can't afford it, copy it...
Ishiwata was clearly captivated, even as a teenage junior high school student, so he did the only thing he could: he borrowed the preamp, drew out a circuit diagram, and set to work building his own. And audio DIYers will be gratified to know that it didn't work – at least until he'd worked out what the problem was – and even then it didn't sound anything like the original.

"I thought, 'Holy **** – what's wrong with this?', and that's how I came understand how much difference you could make with a change of tube, capacitors or resistors, and how even wiring and grounding makes such a difference."

At the end of the 1960s Ishiwata joined Pioneer, one of many Japanese companies largely copying British and American hi-fi designs, and later moved to Europe as a liaison between the local Pioneer operation and HQ back in Japan.

Incredible European products

"Then there were so many incredible European products: these days Braun, for example, is best-know for shavers, but then it made amazing systems, and great tuners – in those days AM tuners, of course."

Another aspect of his work was to improve Pioneer's standing in car audio, then dominated by the likes of Blaupunkt and Becker: "I had to study those products and companies, and feed back to Japan, as then Pioneer was nowhere by comparison."

Oh, and as if that wasn't enough, he was also responsible for the development of the Pioneer PL-12 turntable, considered to be one of that company's classic products. "We had a model called the PL-11, and we developed that to create the PL-12. I remember each one cost us $32 to make!"

The move to Marantz
In 1978 Ishiwata was headhunted by Marantz, and sent to Japan for three months, where he found "The Marantz understanding of amplifiers was way beyond me: the company spent five years training its engineers in the American way of making amplifiers."

But he also discovered some inherent distrust between the European and Japanese parts of the operation: the company had a section of a speaker factory in Belgium entirely turned over to quality control, "and every single product arriving from Japan was unpacked, measured and tested.

"And every single one was rejected. So I went onto the testing line to find out why, and it turns out the people doing the testing were making mistakes – the products were fine!"

The KI Pearl SACD player

In the early 1980s Marantz was sold to Philips, just as the compact disc was about to be launched: Ishiwata says "That was another great opportunity for me: I had been working with analogue audio until then, and didn't know anything about digital. I learned so much from the Philips engineers."

It was about that time Ishiwata was contacted by Marantz founder Saul B Marantz, who said "I have done as much as I can with mono and stereo LPs; now it's your turn to do something with compact disc."

Happenstance and the first tuned products
But it was happenstance that led to the first Ishiwata-tuned products: in the early days of CD, Marantz had 14-bit CD players, whereas most of the rest of the industry was selling 16-bit machines. And as we know even these days, in audio big numbers sell, so 16-bit is better than 14-bit, right?

"So we had this huge stock of 14-bit players, and they weren't selling. Some of my colleagues wanted to dump them on the market for just £100 each, but I said 'We're not going to do that', and instead I spent just £8 apiece tuning them, then took the tuned models out to reviewers and retailers.

"We sold 2000 pieces in two weeks."

The Marantz KI Pearl amplifier

Thus began the tweaking that led to the KI-Signature range, and now to the KI Pearls. So what was the idea behind the new products, Ken?

"Simple: I wanted the people using the KI Pearls to have the same experience I did all those years ago, listening to Julie London on my friend's father's Model 7C preamp."

To celebrate the KI Pearls, Ken Ishiwata has produced a limited edition book and Super Audio CD of unique recordings. This will be given to buyers of the products, and is also available to buy from the KI Pearl website.

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.