Marantz SA8003 Stereo SACD/CD Player Review 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Wednesday, 21 October 2009

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.

And as the music industry continues to struggle with illegal downloading and peer-to-peer file sharing, the SACD continues its quiet journey, finding a cozy niche primarily in classical music. Ironically, the SACD is not just super for its sound but could have been the music industry's savior. To date, there are no commercial products available to rip the SACD layer, nor are there SACD blanks on which to burn. The SACD layer is not accessible for sharing, other than via playback on a compatible machine. I'm all for sharing, not stealing. Granted, the majority of SACDs are “hybrids,” composed of a standard redbook layer and SACD layer. In those instances, yes, one can rip the regular layer, but there are also SACD-only discs that can be played on SACD players only. Great sound and protected music? Hmm. Seems like it could have worked? Well, it works for me and other SACD devotees who've kept the faith. As Mark Twain once wrote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” and so are the many dismissals of SACD.

 Marantz SA8003 Front View

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.

Features:

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?

 Marantz SA8003 RemoteLike 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.

Listening

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.

Listening Cont.

Vashti Bunyan's Lookaftering has an intense, personal charm. The music is delicate and airy, and her voice wraps around the songs like fire in a hearth. The SA8003 seems custom-made for such music, reproducing the fragile tunes with loving clarity.

Where the SA8003 excels, however, is with SACD. Pop in one of these discs and the player truly comes to life. One of my favorite group of SACDs features several of Elton John's early albums. Honky Chateau and Madman Across The Water are two standout SACDs in a very good bunch. Both brim with energy and atmosphere you won't find on the redbook releases. The opening barrelhouse piano of “Honky Cat” is riveting; with a keen sense of immediacy and openness that just crushes anything else. Better bass, better drums, better vocals – better sound. 

Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks is one of my favorite SACDs. Through the SA8003, Dylan's “If You See Her Say Hello” was one of the most powerful listening experiences I've had. The despair in his voice toward the song's end is nearly unbearable, and there's a moment when the tempo and rhythm break as Dylan seems overcome with emotion and his body takes over the beat.  

Mobile Fidelity's recent SACD reissue of Foghat's Fool For The City makes another strong case for SACD. The British blues-rockers were at a creative peak on Fool, and the sheer force of the guitar sound coming from Lonesome Dave Peverett and Rod Price is only matched by the revealing detail of the individual parts. As a guitarist, I could hear and “see” the lines Peverett and Price were playing as I listened. Take a “Slow Ride” with the SA8003 for a new take on an old FM radio warhorse.

 

Marantz SA8003 back

 

One generalization about upper-end CD players is that while they can make very good recordings sound great, they can also expose poorer recordings in embarrassing light. My biggest SACD disappointment came with Sony's 2005 retrospective, Big Guns: The Very Best Of Rory Gallagher. Two discs and 24 tracks remastered for SACD. What should be a mind-blowing experience is little more than a choked and veiled mis-representation of Ireland's greatest bluesman's music. As bad as I thought the mixes were, the SA8003 revealed even less to like. A stodgy sonic brown cloud drapes these recordings and squeezes out any life. Rory deserves better.

Jeff Beck's instrumental Blow By Blow is a landmark guitar album, and another SACD reissue that I cherish. Expect better imaging of instruments and spacing. After all, it's what's not happening on tunes such as “Cause We've Ended As Lovers” that makes for such compelling music. Beck's masterful use of space and sound is at the forefront on the SACD mix and comes through on the SA8003.

Donovan: Storyteller is one of Audio Fidelity's early SACD releases, bringing 14 of the Scottish troubadour's best-known songs together under the ears of Steve Hoffman for remastering. The disc's leadoff cut “Catch The Wind” was featured on a GE TV commercial not long ago, but until you've heard on SACD you haven't caught anything. I can describe it only as sound given weight – the music has a tactility that makes it seem like it can be snatched from the air. Played through the SA8003, the song and entire disc are magical.

How Does it Rank?

Compared to my old Yamaha universal player, the SA8003 offers quicker initial reading of discs, better response via remote, much quieter operation and better sense of space and detail. The Yamaha also retailed for about $700 less than the SA8003 and is 5 years old, so I'd expect better performance from the Marantz player. When I put the SA8003 up against Bryston's BCD-1 (MSRP $2,695) player in a CD-to-CD playback shootout, the Bryston came out the winner it with a more neutral presentation and better balance between the low and upper end. But for the same price, you can buy two SA8003s and still pocket nearly $700. Given that the BCD-1 is a redbook-only player, the SA8003's value becomes more apparent. 

Marantz SA8003 Interior

Going USB

I had a bit of trouble with the USB and some MP3 files stored on a thumb drive. After struggling with an MP3 file folder where the player would read only the odd-numbered tracks, it was confirmed by Marantz that the problem was with the files themselves. Unknown to me, the MP3s had also been encoded in VBR (variable bit rate) format, and the SA8003 is not designed to read such files. When I reformatted the drive on a PC and loaded it with WMA files, the SA8003 read and played every file flawlessly.

Marantz SA8003 Front Panel

Though it's not my hobby to putter around with compressed audio, the SA8003 certainly does as much justice to WMAs and MP3s as I could imagine. But as my old boss used to say, “You can put lipstick on a pig but it will still be a pig.” A better use of the port is for playing back uncompressed audio stored on an iPod and letting the signal benefit from the player's DAC. I know my iPod has never “sounded” better than played through the SA8003, although the interface renders the iPod useless for navigating tracks. Users instead have to plod through files using the forward or reverse commands on the remote or player's front panel. A more elegant solution is NAD's C565BEE CD player, which sports a rotary knob that lets users spin through files and folders with ease.

Two other quibbles about the deck: First, it can play two-channel audio only, it cannot playback surround mixes. Second, the player will not display CD text – only track number and time - so if you want to know the artist or track you'll have to refer to the CD packaging. It does, however, display text info from digital files such as WMAs.

Final Thoughts


Maybe it's just my perception, but there seems to be a growing underground of music lovers who are flocking to SACD. I've read plenty of audio forums where members admittedly are buying as many of the high-resolution discs as possible before the format goes belly up for good. If you're of the ilk and like Marantz's Ishiwata believe that music matters, the SA8003 is an all-around performer that should keep you happily spinning SACDs – and CDs - for years.


System Setup

  • Marantz PM8003 (Reviewed)
  • Marantz SA8003 SACD Player
  • Yamaha DVS-5770 DVD-Audio/Video/SACD player
  • Bryston BCD-1 CD player
  • DCM KX-10 speakers
  • Axiom Audio M80 v2 speakers
  • Philips 14-gauge speaker wire

Music Tested

30 Years of Stony Plain Lookaftering CDHonky Chateau SACDMadman Across the Water SACDBlood on the Tracks SACDFool for the City SACDThe Big Guns: The Very Best of Rory Gallagher SACDBlow by Blow SACD

Manufacturer Marantz





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