Being in business – any business - for 30 years is reason enough to celebrate, but when you've enjoyed a long-running position at the top of your field there's even more cause for rejoicing. That's the story behind Marantz's SA-KI Pearl components, a limited-edition run (500 worldwide) of “gifts” from Ken Ishiwata to those in the audio community who have enjoyed his innovative designs during his Marantz tenure. Ishiwata drew on his vast experience to design what can be described truly as a custom SACD/CD player. The SA-KI Pearl SACD/CD Player (“KI” stands for Ken Ishiwata) in many ways is a summation of Ishiwata's artistic philosophy and his goal to offer a component “to reproduce music exactly as the original artist and the recording engineers intended.” Ishiwata is reported to have personally listened to and/or tested each internal part. Considering the Pearl's extremely limited production, I felt fortunate – if not a little honored – to have not just the Pearl SACD/CD player but its equally limited companion PM-KI Pearl Integrated Amplifier to review as a pair. (A review of the amplifier is upcoming.)
Weighing 32 pounds, the SA-KI Pearl is tank-like in construction and features a 5mm-thick aluminum top panel, a double-layered bottom plate and low-profile aluminum-machined feet. The three work together to minimize mechanical vibrations and keep the player steady and operating smoothly and whisper-quiet. The double-layered, copper-plated chassis is very rugged, but its finish puzzled me. The chassis comes dressed in a brushed “silk black” finish and looks very similar to Marantz's entry-level gear. From the outside, nothing about the player says, “Hey, 30 years went into this!” That's not to say the design lacks elegance, but I find the player's finish almost self-effacing (maybe that was intentional?) and would would have liked something bolder, particularly when the back of the unit features a stylish copper backplate. For a 500-run only component, the SA-KI Pearl deserves dressier clothes. I did like the “look” of the front panel, which sports a clean, balanced design and an array of 16 functions.
There's plenty of beauty under the hood, which covers a large toroidal transformer, low-noise and low-distortion filter circuit, custom HDAM-SA2 analog output circuits, a Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC, the same power block capacitor found in Marantz's SA-7S1 player (the company's $7K reference SACD player) and state-of-the-art power rectifier diode and regulator. The player is compatible with SACD, redbook CD, CD-R and CD-RW. It also supports playback of WMA files at 44.1kHz at bit rates up to 192kbps MP3 files at 44.1kHz at bit rates up to 320kbps. Why anyone, though, would use such a player for compressed digital audio is beyond me. The real star is SACD. By default, the Pearl operates in SACD sound mode, recognizing redbook CDs as encountered. Users have the option to play Hybrid Layer SACDs in either SACD or regular CD mode. This is a cool feature that makes it easy to do direct A-B comparisons between the two sound layers and hear the differences between SACD and CD.
Discs are inserted via an SACDM-10 transport mechanism and Marantz's proprietary Xyron loader. According to Marantz, “Xyron is a composition of rigid-rod chain molecules of poly(p-phenyene-2,6-benzobisoxazole) or PBO. (Now you know why we call it Xyron!) Its high tensile strength and modulus of elasticity helps isolate the disc from the micro-vibrations inherent in any drive mechanism. Thus, Xyron lets the digital circuitry process a more accurate data stream, which, in turn, translate directly into more coherent and pleasing sound.” Some reviewers have commented on the tray's build quality, perhaps expecting a metal tray. I found the Xyron tray to be sufficiently rigid and a bit reminiscent of kevlar. It operates very smoothly and quietly, but don't expect Burmester-like construction.
A discrete, high-current headphone amplifier features upgraded circuits that make the player a real treat for private listening. My time spent listening to the Pearl through Monster's Turbine Pro In-Ear speakers was revelatory. I noted in my review of the Turbines that I'm not a frequent headphone listener but the awesome detail revealed via the Pearl could change my mind permanently. Several late-night sessions with headphones convinced me that this SACD/CD player is also an exciting headphone “player.”
The back of the SA-KI Pearl features two very solid and nicely spaced machined analog outs. Marantz realizes that the purchaser of such a player will likely mate it with beefy high-end interconnects, which can be challenging to connect in tight space. The Pearl also houses optical and coaxial digital outs as well as an optical in, should you use the player as a DAC for a separate CD transport or MD recorder. In DAC Mode, the Pearl can input linear PCM signals with sampling frequencies of 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 64kHz, 88.2 kHz and 96kHz, which are displayed correspondingly on the player's LCD. Remote Control In/Out connectors allow integration with other remote-enabled Marantz audio components. A single AC IN accepts the supplied power cord - standard black cable that can be swapped out for another power cord of choice. Mine was RS Audio Cables' Kevlar Starchord.
A well-apportioned and intuitive remote makes it easy to switch sound modes, DAC filters and navigate between and program tracks. The remote, however, is not exclusive to the SA-KI Pearl; in fact, four of its 27 command buttons cannot be used with this player. It would be nice to see some design tie-in between the Pearl and its remote, some indication that this remote was made specifically for one of only 500 such components. Curious.