Marantz PM-KI Pearl Integrated Amplifier Review 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Marantz's PM-KI Pearl Integrated Amplifier is one of two limited edition components (along with the SA-KI Pearl SACD/CD Player) celebrating designer Ken Ishiwata's achievement with the company in 30 years. For the event, Ishiwata went into the audio lab and reshaped and retooled these two components to his aesthetics and offered them up for a select few music lovers. The KI is limited to just 500 units, making it instantly collectible, and I felt humbled knowing I was among such a wee group who would ever hear these components. Marantz has a Web site (http://www.marantz.eu/kipearl/) dedicated solely to the KI Pearl and its brethren SA-KI Pearl. I'm always wary of quoting and seemingly confirming views of a company's product in question, but I doubt anyone would question Marantz's and Ishiwata's ideals that “... specifications are just facts. We're interested in feelings. The feelings you get when you listen to beautiful, powerful and uplifting music.” I struggle to say it better.

Features

Marantz touts the PM-KI Pearl as successor to the PM-15S2 (an integrated amplifier that retails for $1,100 less than the Pearl but,in my opinion, totally outshines it for looks) with better parts engineered specifically for the Pearl. An HDAM-SA3 amplifier module serves to provide better circuit stability and high-speed processing, but the Pearl is not to be viewed as a sonic “upgrade” to anything Marantz has done in the past; rather, it's Ishiwata's tribute to music and the spark it ignites in the human psyche. That's a heavy charge, loaded with responsibility. What's the verdict? Read on.

Marantz KI Pearl RemoteThe PM-KI Pearl features a robust build and weighs in at a beefy 44 pounds, reinforced with a copper-plated double-layered chassis, 5mm aluminum top cover and large capacity block condenser and dual-shielded toroidal transformer. It's rated at 90 watts x 2 into 8 ohms and 140 watts x 2 into 4 ohms and can drive most any speaker, but like the shy girl at the dance may require some coaxing before coming out of the shell. The PM offers five audio inputs, two audio outputs and a headphone output, covering nearly every playback option. A pair of rock-rugged speaker cable terminals dominate the back panel, flanked by phono-, CD-, Pre Out- and P. Direct In-Jacks along with an amp-mode switch, F.C.B.S. In/Out jacks (more on this later) and AC IN. A detachable power cord is supplied with the PM-KI Pearl, though I doubt most who throw down $3,600 for the amp will stick with the stock cable.

In my review of the SA-KI Pearl, I mentioned being less than stunned by that player's finish, mirrored by the PM-KI Pearl's barely-different-than-all-other-Marantz gear coating. I just don't get it, when this  is supposed to mark 30 years of audio innovation and marked by a 500-only production run, why Marantz couldn't come up with something other than a pea-sized pearl to stamp the product's front panel! The Pearl deserves some truly defining styling to indicate that it's not just a 30-year Marantz special offering, but that a 2-channel hi-fi audio component has somehow survived to tell its tale in 2009. The back of the amp, in a stamped copper finish, is far more eye-appealing than what's presented up front. Do we really need another virtually “black” component in a sea that's already awash in such dressing? I know, Marantz calls it “silk black,” but in my opinion it needs much more silk and far less black. OK job Marantz.

Fortunately, the outer linings aren't indicative of the amp's inner beauty and capabilities. The Pearl sports a dual Moving Magnet/Moving Coil phono stage and constant current feedback phono equalizer to ensure consistent low-feedback vinyl playback. I really like how Marantz accounted for both cartridge designs, particularly since most integrated amplifiers have a moving magnet stage if they have one at all. Since most high-end cartridges are of the moving coil variety, and since the KI Pearl is an upper-end integrated, it makes sense to serve those whose vinyl setups will likely be spinning under moving coil cartridges. With the Pearl, there's no need for an external phono amplifier, regardless of your cartridge preference. Good job Marantz.

I've had opportunity to listen to several integrated amplifiers in 2009, and it seems that most come with default tone settings and no way to adjust if you want. Thus, I found it refreshing that the Pearl – even with Ishiwata's sonic signature firmly engraved – is equipped with bass and treble controls. They are defeatable, surely, but I think many manufacturer's miss the boat by dismissing such options. I personally want adjustable tones, not necessarily to introduce artificial highs or lows into a recording but to compensate for recordings done poorly. Again, good job Marantz.

The Pearl features a CD Direct Input Buffer Amplifier mounted directly after the input jacks for premium SACD playback. So I probably should give the PM-KI some credit for the SA-KI Pearl's excellent performance with SACD. Should you choose, the PM-KI can serve strictly as a power amplifier by employing the unit's power amplifier direct input. And should you have another $3,599 (or more) to spend, a floating control bus system (F.C.B.S.) makes it possible to connect up to four PM-KIs for linked operation and applications including complete bi-amping (two units) or 5.1 multi-channel connections (three units). If so, as they say in Australia, “Good onya.”

Listening

I liked this amp's sound and works immediately. The PM-KI Pearl is an extremely quiet and smooth operator. When the unit is powered on, there are no loud clicks or other such “on” indicators bursting forth like I've encountered in other products – and for good reason. For approximately 8 seconds, after being powered on, a protection circuit mutes any sound while the amplifier's circuits stabilize. Once stabilized, audio is enable. Although I used the remote 90 percent of the time to make adjustments during playback, I'm fond of the Pearl's large rotary volume knob, which can be adjusted in increments of 0.5dB and demonstrated accordingly on the amp's display. A matching rotary knob on the component's left selects audio source. In my review of the SA-KI Pearl I focused on that player's fantastic playback with SACD, which can be attributed to the player and the amplifier on stage here. For this review, I want to concentrate on the PM-KI Pearl's sound with redbook CD and vinyl LP.

A group of music-loving friends and I spent a memorable session with the Marantz. They were very interested in hearing how such a high-end component performed, and I'm always curious to see how non-audiophiles react to expertly designed gear. I picked “I Talk To The Wind,” from the recently remastered 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King, for a shared audition. The song has always been alluring, with its wisps of woodwinds, tinkling percussion and plaintive vocals, but the studio efforts of Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson and Crimson's Robert Fripp have taken the track to newfound heights of Crimson-ness.

Marantz KI Pearl Rear Connection Panel

The in-studio-like presence of Greg Lake's voice, sustain of Ian McDonald's flute and jazzy touch of drummer Michael Giles are presented as new in this remarkable remaster – at least I thought so. Then as the tune began, I watched my friends' faces, first locked in deep concentration; soon, smiles spread across each face. The sound was addictive – joyful even – but I didn't want to influence the moment and sat to the side making no eye contact with anyone. When the song ended I asked, “What do you think?” Smiles again presided, and answers such as, “Cool,” “Wow,” “How much?” and “I don't think I want to hear anymore or I won't be able to listen to my own stereo,” soon were issued. That says a lot, but to qualify, what I heard was deep soundstage, revealing detail and a lovely Marantz smoothness bordering on tube warmth.

Van Morrison's greatest unknown album is surely 1974's Veedon Fleece. The record contains no radio singles or familiar point of musical reference and is comparable to Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, where the “rock” singer turns crooner. Play “Linden Arden Stole The Hightlights” for the unsuspected and bet $5 that the vocalist in question can't be fingered in one guess, and you'll go home $5 richer more often than not. The green fields of Ireland are painted ever greener on “Fair Play,” where Morrison is as mellow as he'd ever be, inspired by the emerald homeland and thoughts of Oscar Wilde and Thoreau. Imagine the countryside leavened fresh by rain and an arcing rainbow piercing the clouds with sun to follow, and the mood is set. That vibe was brought out beautifully by the PM-KI Pearl, with just the right mix of clarity and energy.

Morrison's recordings have, on the whole, been on the top end of audio, and if via the Marantz, the atmospheric “Country Fair” doesn't put a lump in your throat I can't help you. As well, the spitfire acoustic guitar that opens “Bulbs,” an offhanded baseball-inspired shuffle, burned with electricity (excuse the pun) and verve. You don't associate Van Morrison with drums, but this track was driven spectacularly by Allen Schwarzberg's in-the-pocket groove. Or check out the plaintive “Come Here My Love” that puts Morrison in your listening room, emotion spilling forth from his voice. Best I've heard it.

Just when I thought I'd heard the best of the Pearl partnered with CD, it took me higher. On a whim, I put on the 2006 remastered version of Boston's Don't Look Back. Anyone familiar with the band probably knows of mastermind Tom Scholz's initial studio wizardry, recording the album proudly with “No synthesizers used. No computers used.” Although the remaster does involve computers, Scholz and remastering team preserved the original recording's analog integrity. I can't listen to “A Man I'll Never Be” without a deep pang of regret for vocalist Brad Delp's passing in 2007. The man was the voice of Boston, but I was cheerily gobsmacked hearing the song through the Marantz setup, which offered it up with an intensity I had yet to enjoy. Yet another example of good digital sound thanks to the care taken with the original recording. Good job Tom Scholz.

It's been my luck lately to have “extra” gear from the same manufactures to review. This time it was Marantz's TT-15S1 turntable and what seemed a perfect match for the Pearls. The TT-15S1 comes stock with a Clearaudio Virtuoso cartridge. Keeping with the Boston theme, I went with “We're Ready,” from Third Stage. As expected, the LP needed more volume to bring it line with digital, but once at that level it simply kicked digital's butt. There was more “round” in the sound and felt rather like a rush of warm air flowing through the room. It's a sound tough to approach outside of SACD or the very best digital recordings. A broad soundstage and sense of the organic - that's analog, and if you cherish vinyl the PM-KI Pearl is there for you.

For some reason I had not pushed the PM-KI to volumes where my wife politely says, “I'm going downstairs now.” On a Monday night where I found myself alone there were no such restrictions, so Ratt's Out Of The Cellar seemed an appropriate vehicle to wake up the speakers and hear the Pearl at concert-like levels. “Back For More” was the golden child for this run, and, again, the Marantz delivered a clean, involving and gloriously loud version of this hair-metal gem. Robbin Crosby's opening acoustic riff and arpeggios have never sounded better, and Bobby Blotzer's ride cymbal rang full and true.

One of my goals as reviewer is to introduce folks to gear and music, perhaps something brand new, that will make their leisure time way better. So, let me share a piece of music from a band called Teaze and their album One Night Stands that few outside of Teaze's homeland of Canada have even heard. Teaze had a strong run around Toronto in the late 1970s and early '80s but were truly a band ahead of their time. They had a sound that would have blown people away in 1984, but in 1978 punk rock and disco had the public's attention. Lead vocalist Brian Danter's range is frightening, and I'll throw out the cut “Heartless World” as the greatest unheard power ballad (in the truest sense of “power”) ever. Danter hits a note some 5 minutes in that still astounds me. That intense high was thrown at me with a punch that George Foreman would respect.

Lastly, to spotlight not only this amp's engaging sound but its suave phono stage, I'll call out my favorite Tony Bennett album, the 1965 travel-themed If I Ruled The World: Songs For The Jet Set. Here, Bennett took “Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words)” and turned it into a late-night lover's last call forever and sent “How Insensitive” into eternal bossa-nova bliss. Those are just two highlights from a record that upon revisiting says, “Yes, Bennett did rule the world,” if only more were listening. Well, listen now and listen good – you'll have no other choice – and hear the opening aeronautic sweep of “Song Of The Jet” like never before.

Marantz KI Pearl Angled View
Final Thoughts

After listening to the Pearl amplifier and SA-KI SACD/CD player as a team I can't imagine separating them. My guess is that the 500 lucky purchasers of one Pearl will also want the other. Ken Ishiwata may not be coming to your house for dinner, but he'll make sure the music sounds good for you and your friends. And why wouldn't you share? As Ishiwata rightly confirms, “Music is the highest form of art... there is no other art that can touch your heart like music.” This amp touched and stole my heart, not by its looks, but from the inside out and how it made me feel.  I'm guessing it will do the same for you.

 
System Setup


Marantz PM-KI Pearl Integrated Amplifier
Marantz SA-KI Pearl SACD/CD Player
Marantz TT-15S1 Turntable with ClearaudioVirtuoso Wood Moving Magnetic Cartridge
Klipsch WF-34 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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