|Marantz SA8003 Stereo SACD/CD Player Review|
|Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players|
|Written by Todd Whitesel|
|Wednesday, 21 October 2009|
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Although the compact disc is now 27 years old, Super-Audio CD (SACD) is still a relative youngster, celebrating its 10th birthday this year. Even as sales of redbook CDs have plummeted through the decade and digital downloads have skyrocketed, against the odds – somehow – SACD has clung to life and managed to survive an industry bent on fragmentation and division. The reason is simple: SACD is sonically superior to its redbook sibling, and certainly to any of the lossy (replace first “s” with “u” for more accurate description) digital formats. The discs contain more musical information and can deliver analog-like sound with all the real and perceived benefits of redbook CD. Throw in surround-sound capability and the SACD is a formidable foe in the format war; if it only had the proper support.
I was watching a Youtube interview with longtime Marantz engineer and designer Ken Ishiwata, in which he explained his philosophy toward high-fi products. Ishiwata's assertion is that the music must come first; in fact, he coined a phrase that became part of Marantz's advertising campaign and deeply associated with the company: “Because music matters.” Ishiwata believes a component should reproduce music that touches our emotions, not an easy task considering the multitude of parts comprising a single component. Bringing them together in a musically and emotionally satisfying way is part science and art. It's a complex balancing act that requires thorough knowledge of each part's “character.” Ishiwata likened such parts to the personality of individuals: Some are aggressive, some are laid-back; some are loud, some are soft-spoken, and so on. Knowing the personality of the component parts allows Ishiwata and the Marantz engineers to formulate and sculpt the sound of each product, which explains how certain manufacturers get tagged with a “signature” sound. In Marantz's case, that signature has trended toward warmth with a sparkling mid-range; more on that in a moment. He went on to say that the difference between Marantz and competitors is that the employees behind Marantz are just a little bit crazier about music. Perhaps that's why Marantz is still introducing new two-channel stereo products to a market gone crazy for home theater and digital media players. Yes, the music still matters at Marantz, and the company's recent SA8003 SACD/CD player is proof positive.
For just shy of a grand (MSRP $999.99) the SA8003 occupies a thorny position in high-end audio – a price point that many manufacturers avoid, preferring to jump from $500 or $600 up to $1,200 and beyond. So what do you get for $1K?
Like its companion amplifier – the PM8003 – the SA8003 is a beneficiary of “trickle-down” design philosophy, borrowing technologies found in Marantz's upscale Reference series, retailing for thousands more. Indeed, Marantz's next step up the SACD player ladder is the SA-15S2, with a sticker price of $2,199.99, yet the SA8003 employs the same Cirrus Logic CS4398 digital-to-analog converter found in the SA-15S2 and HDAM (Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module) and HDAM-S2 circuitry. HDAMs are compact, fast, efficient modules that make it possible to use amplifiers in different ways in the signal chain without introducing additional digital noise.
At 17.2 pounds the SA8003 has some heft and comes with a double-layered bottom chassis plate to reduce any vibrations during operation. Its front panel is an attractive blend of aluminum and glass-reinforced resin. Six buttons control SACD/CD playback. The SA8003 sports a headphone jack and companion volume control for listening through earphones. A USB port allows users to connect a jump drive or iPod directly to the SA8003. The player is capable of reading MP3, WMA and WAV files. Though I'm not sure why anyone would purposefully play MP3s – or any compressed audio file - through a high-res disc machine, the option exists. The most compelling reason for the USB is connecting an iPod and letting the player's DAC decode the signal. The files are converted and digitally processed to 16 bit/44.1kHz, connected to the DAC and then converted to analog through the unit's HDAM-S2 circuits.
The back panel is straightforward, with one pair of analog RCA outputs, remote control in and outs enabling the use of a single remote to control the SA8003 and other Marantz components, a coaxial and optical digital audio out for those wanting to add an external DAC and an AC-in for the supplied detachable power cord.
First off, the SA8003 is a very good player of redbook CD. Its strengths are rich, broad sound-staging and deep bass. Overall, I would describe its sonic footprint as mellow and warm. It's a joy to listen to – for hours at a time even – and I never was tempted to turn it off from listening fatigue.
One of my favorite collections of tunes – and one spanning many genres – is the 2006 two-disc sampler 30 Years Of Stony Plain. Stony Plain is a “roots” record label run by music enthusiast Holger Petersen, who started the label in his Edmonton, Alberta, home in the mid-70s. Since its inception, Stony Plains' roster has included Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Asleep At The Wheel, as well as lesser-known artists (at least in the U.S.) such as Charlie Major, Ian Tyson and Spirit Of The West. This two-disc sampler is a wild ride through blues, country, folk, rock and swing. Take a listen to Major's sweeping country-fied slow dance “The Face Of Love” or the booze-laden free-for-all of Spirit Of The West's “The Crawl” for a contrast in drive and dynamics. The SA8003 handles both with ease and makes them sound so good I found myself listening to the tracks again as soon they ended.