Marantz SA-KI Pearl SACD/CD Player Review - AVRev.com
Marantz SA-KI Pearl SACD/CD Player Review 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Monday, 14 December 2009

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.)

Features


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.

Marantz SA-KI Remote 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.


 

Listening

I was enthusiastic in my review of Marantz's SA8003 SACD/CD player, a sultry performer that borrows technology from higher-end players and offers high performance for its $999.99 price. At $2,999.00, one can rightly expect more – a lot more – from the Pearl than the SA8003. What you get is rich, smooth and involving digital playback that had me again championing SACD and even CD. The Pearl offers whisper-quiet performance and operated flawlessly during my time with it - reading  every disc – SACD to CD-R – offered. Smooth as velvet with a tube-like liquidity, the SA-KI Pearl has the Marantz “sound” in spades. It's extremely easy on the ear, never harsh or fatiguing, an excellent choice for those whose digital “threshold” is low. The SA-KI Pearl also has a refined edge that teases out the inner details of recordings with ease.

The Pearl has two selectable digital filters each for SACD and CD. For SACD playback, Filter 1 is a direct mode option, with no filtering of DSD data. Filter 2 isn't clearly described by the user guide, stating it “Faithfully reproduces all audio information. Intimate sound image and positional relationship of audio source are clearly reproduced.” My experience with Filter 2 is that it boosted the signal and I actually preferred it to the direct mode option. For regular CD, the player offers two filters: Filter 1 is an asymmetric slow roll-off filter; Filter 2 is an asymmetric sharp roll-off filter. I was unable to detect any appreciable differences between the two and left the factory default Filter 1 on for critical listening of redbook discs.

Marantz SA-KI Rear View
SACD

The innuendo-laced cover of “Big Ten Inch Record,” from Aerosmith's Toys In The Attic, has always attracted me with its R&B shuffle and lascivious reading by Steven Tyler. I thought I knew the tune, but it wasn't until the SA-KI Pearl cracked the musical shell that I finally heard the chunky rhythm guitars that are rather buried in the mix and the full squawk of Tyler's harmonica and saxophone by an unnamed guest.

The Moody Blues' A Question Of Balance has been in heavy rotation lately. It's the fifth in the Moody's amazing run of seven albums starting with Days Of Future Passed and ending with Seventh Sojourn. The SACD version of Question is padded with six bonus cuts, including alternate and original mixes of tunes including the remarkable “Question.” Justin Hayward's vocals and John Lodge's bass and Graeme Edge's cymbals had a sheen not usually heard. The original mix of “Minstrel's Song” sounded studio-live. Voices emerged in a gorgeous mix, and I loved the bold presence of Graeme Edge's drums and cymbals. Hayward's country-esque guitar lines on “It's Up To You” shimmer with a sunny Southern California vibe. This album was as good as I've ever heard through the SA-KI Pearl, crushing any SACD playback and equaling any vinyl experience I've had.

Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks has long been one of my favorite SACD releases. The high-res format brings out even more emotion in Dylan's voice and distills his guitar strumming into crystalline notes and chords. I loved hearing Dylan's pick running against the strings on “Simple Of Twist Of Fate” and the deep soundstaging of his voice.

Miles Davis' Black Beauty: Live At Fillmore West is a double-disc set from 1970 of the horn master exploring the outer edges of jazz with a backing cast of keyboardist Chick Corea, saxophonist Steve Grossman, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moreira. Davis and band fire up then-recent compositions from Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way and take them even deeper into the cosmos of jazz-rock. The re-interpretations are jarring, mysterious and sometimes frightening. Grossman, particularly, sounds possessed, delivering cascades of notes from his horn as flames of sound dance around him. This is not “easy listening,” even with the smoother SACD presentation, but the Pearl was able to take the raw and often violent sounds and smooth them without softening the impact.
 
Redbook CD

One of the more curious CDs that's come my way this year is Patrick & Eugene's Altogether Now: Birds Bees Flowers Trees. I had never heard of the duo before, but the album cover's retro South Park- meets-Partridge Family artwork hinted at something fun within. And that's what this 14-track disc is all about. Imagine They Might Be Giants, Leon Redbone and Sesame Street collaborating on a soundtrack for an imaginary film, and you might get something like Altogether Now. The quirky arrangements are upbeat and irresistible. When Patrick & Eugene ask the deep questions, such as “What's your favorite ungulate?” on the zoological samba “Llama,” it's impossible not to be hooked. I can't imagine these twisted tunes sounding better than through the SA-KI Pearl. Percussion features heavily, and the silvery ring of triangles and bells shine through continuously.

I keep coming back to Jade Warrior's remarkable 2008 release, Now. These prog-rock veterans are enjoying a well-deserved rebirth thanks to the strength of such music and a digital recording that still wows me with each listen. I've now heard this disc in several very good CD players, but the SA-KI Pearl trumped them all for its imaging, sustain and making the instruments sound convincingly live. The dynamics and sounds emerging from the acoustic guitars on “Talisman” are tantalizing.

I've been starting most of my December mornings with the Overture from Mozart's The Marriage Of Figaro. The exultant music gives me a needed boost of optimism when outside wind chills are well below zero and winter has, at least astronomically, yet to officially begin. The performance in question comes from a 1968 recording of the Berlin Opera Chorus and Orchestra directed by Karl Bohm. The CD was sourced, obviously, from analog tape and according to Deutsche Grammophon, original-image bit-processing results in “added presence and brilliance, greater spatial definition.” It's all that, and this Figaro seems the perfect marriage with the SA-KI Pearl, which brings out the music's elegance, beauty and warmth. A gorgeous performance given golden (make that pearly) wings by Marantz.

Marantz SA KI Pearl SACD Player
Final Thoughts

The SA-KI Pearl is a testament to Marantz's and Ishiwata's ongoing quest for true music reproduction. It rich, opulent sound won me over and kept me feeding it disc after disc in anticipation of what hidden audio treasures might be revealed. Most important, I wanted to listen to the player and enjoyed listening to digital like never before. For SACD and CD, buy this component for the sound and revel in an audio experience that few others will. The SA-KI is a rare Pearl, indeed.

System Setup


Marantz SA-KI Pearl SACD/CD Player
Marantz PM-KI Pearl Integrated Amplifier
Klipsch WF-34 floorstanding loudspeakers
RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Interconnects (1 meter)
RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Loudspeaker Cables (8 ft)
RS Audio Cables Kevlar Starchord Power Cable (6 ft)
Manufacturer Marantz





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