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Marantz SA-KI-Pearl SACD Player Review

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Marantz SACD KI Pearl CD PlayerYou could say I was on a roll. After reviewing the $8,200 Esoteric D-05 32-bit stereo D/A converter/pre-amp in early February, 2010, I published another review on digital front-ends, this time on the $26,000 Accuphase DP-700 Precision MDSD SA-CD player in the March Issue. There are reviews of yet more exotic players in progress; but concerned that I have lost touch with a sense of reality, I scouted the net for a more ordinarily priced but technologically competent player to bring some order to my spoiled sensibility. When I was looking for the cost-no-object type of products to review, I contacted manufacturers and importers of specialty, small-production brands that charge a premium for the extreme and exclusive approach in R&D and manufacturing that is just not possible in a cost-driven, mass-production business model. Yet, in my quest for an affordable player, if I merely solicit any large-scale manufacturing outfit for review samples, I will probably not be impressed by the lack of personality and uniqueness in a $200 player created for the cut-throat marketplace. Which company has presence both in the mass market and specialty market segment and has a reputation that precedes it like no other? A few Japanese names came to mind naturally, and I stumbled across many corporate websites for many a night. Worst of all, my review proposal was considered too unorthodox by a few and thus steered clear of, until the thought hit me finally.Therefore, once in a blue moon large corporations like Marantz decides to pull off an act the likes of the SA-KI-Pearl, a project economically negligible to both its board of directors and the consumer market as a whole, and yet of incredible value to its customers.

In either the analog or digital arena, there are few names as revered as the Marantz name, and it just so happened that for the past few years, one Ken Ishiwata was honored by Marantz in a series of special products that bore his name, in celebration of his 30 years of accomplishments. Best of all, the KI-Pearl edition of the products were not extravagantly priced. The prospect piqued my curiosity, my review proposal was considered kindly by Kevin Zarow, and the $3,000 Marantz SA-KI-Pearl SACD player arrived at my door soon after. Marantz has such a rich heritage of digital know-how that even an article of the company would make for an excellent article.

For example, before the proliferation of today’s newer chip companies, such as Asahi Kasei, Wolfson, et cetera, the staple of chip manufacturers were the Philips, Analog Devices, Cirrus Logic and Burr Brown. Even then, electronic giants marketing their higher performance machines knew they had to employ the infamous TDA-1541 chip of Philips’, and then only by featuring the higher-grade “double-crown” version of the chip, namely the TDA-1541A-S2 could a machine claim its rightful place in the hall of fame. The S1 single-crown version, a highly coveted version nonetheless, was employed by Philips in many of its earlier, Marantz digital products (Marantz is now owned by D&M Holdings since 2001), one of the more notable being the CD-94 CD player and CDA-94 DAC.

Despite the proliferation of competitions, the Philips TDA-1541 remained the status quo for any company endeavoring to introduce a noteworthy digital player. Toward the last few years of the 20th century, after producing the milestone CD-12 two-piece CD player, the company took 500 of a final production run of the glorified S2 double-crown chip and put stereo pairs into a final statement DAC dubbed the Project D1. Only 250 or so of these machines were produced and only the native Japanese market had access to them.

I still have the Marantz CDA-94 that I bought in 1989, which despite a burnt out display lamp, continues to function spectacularly. I sold the accompanying CD-94 transport in the mid 90s to help fund my purchase of the CEC TL1, but the DAC continues to serve as testament on the level of finesse Marantz already possessed ahead of competitions in the early days of digital. For me, the CDA-94 represented the beginning of a long and luminous history of trailblazing on Philips/Marantz’s part, one that led to the creation of the present-day SA-KI-Pearl.

This is where Ken Ishiwata comes into the picture. With a goal of bringing more people into the audio hobby, Ken has been introducing higher-performance versions of Marantz’s latest standard models, such as the now-classic and commercially successful CD-63SE that was based on the standard CD-63 II. Nearly a dozen standard Marantz models were upgraded by Ken to high demands throughout the years, and imitators riding the wave of his success and crowning their products with the Ishiwata-coined Special Edition “SE” and later, Original Special Edition “OSE” abounded.

True to his ideal of making good sound available to a wider audience, Ken lent his magic touch to the company’s latest SACD player, the SA-KI-Pearl, in celebration of his 30th Anniversary at Marantz, which was based on the SA-11 and SA-7. Per Ken, “I personally find it more challenging to [create] affordable products rather than cost-no-object products such as the SA-7S1. This way we can reach a much larger audience. I simply want more people to enjoy good music on Marantz components.” It is, therefore, interesting and noteworthy that the company’s most affordable SACD player in the Reference Series, namely the $2,199.99 SA-15S2,was not the basis of the SA-KI-Pearl as one would have thought, but rather it was the SA-KI-Pearl that served as the basis for the development of the SA-15S2!

At the heart of the SA-KI-Pearl was the CS4398 DAC chip from Cirrus Logic, a company with which Phillips, Marantz’s parent company, has been working with since the early digital products. On this particular relationship, Ken has the following to say:

“We have wonderful and longstanding relationship with Cirrus Logic – ever since our Philips days and we worked together with them on many projects, including DSD DA as well as many others. We are very happy with them, the quality of the product and the fact that we have the ability to work directly with them to fine tune the chips we use from them.”

From the expertise derived in developing generations of digital players, including the SA-7 and SA-11, Ken applied his recipe of circuit enhancement to the 32-pound SA-KI-Pearl, such as a doubled-layered copper plated chassis, reworking the ground within to reduce impedance. Components of the power supply and mechanism parts were also upgraded. However, even for seasoned audiophiles like me, the fundamental design of the machine was already impressive. Take the transport mechanism, for example. It is the in-house engineered and built SACDM-10, a state-of-the-art design using a composite called Zyron, made of rigid-rod chain molecules of poly (p-phenyene-2, 6-benzobisoxazole), or PBO. The characteristics of this special material are high tensile strength with modulus of elasticity, which isolates the disc from the micro-vibrations in all drive mechanisms, resulting in a more accurate data stream.

The Pearl was also equipped with the same custom power block capacitor from the SA-7S1, as well as a toroidal transformer and the company’s patented HDAMSA2 output amplifier. The remote unit was a beautiful and thoughtful design, the elegance of which giving credence to the Marantz name. Buttons were laid out logically and uncluttered, although the top five buttons and the bottom three were for controlling the KI-Pearl series of amplifiers as well. Switching functionality from SACD to CD playback was swift via the SOUND MODE button, and transforming the CD player to a DAC was also straightforward via the DAC MODE. The remote also dimmed the CD player’s front panel display, although the purposeful blue ambient lights that flank the sides of the center section added a touch of rare luxury to the package.

The Pearl was equipped with a set of RCA outputs at fixed output level, so it required a preamplifier for coupling with power amplifiers. The preamp in this case being the $12,500 INEX Innovation Photon (review to come), and the additional interconnects INEX’s Photon Link II in RCA termination. Even if Marantz had fitted the Pearl with variable output functionality, its quality would have to be of the budget type due to cost containment measures to keep the Pearl at the current price point, and a good preamplifier would still be needed to exploit the Pearl’s potential to the fullest. In fact, not all CD players with variable output is given an output stage competent to drive power amplifiers directly to very high standards, and it is better in most cases to leave the job to a preamplifier.

The SA-KI-Pearl’s most immediate strength to my ears was the sweetness in the human vocals that made the human voice eminently listenable. The Mezzo-soprano in the Duetsche Grammophon Mahler SACD of The Song of the Earth was full of emotions, and accentuated by an aural liquidity. The lightness and drama in her voice was portrayed with rare sophistication and sustenance that belied the cost of the SACD player. I never heard this level of delicacy from the Sony SCD-777ES in the years I was listening to it, and only a handful of the best tube DACs that I have had the good fortune of using were able to perform similarly and consistently in this area. In fact, this very area of performance is one where even the $8,200 Esoteric D-05 32-bit stereo DAC/preamp that I reviewed recently is found to be working very hard at but did not completely resolve.

Then, there was this special ability of the Pearl in resolving low-level details from SACDs. It was able to convey such a fine balance between a veiling sound and excessive details that put it in a territory all of its own. Airiness of the woodwinds and silkiness of strings were balanced very nicely without driving the bite and sheen of the brasses over the edge, hence me out of my couch. Again, I never experienced this level of finesse and this powerful display of a balancing act from the Sony, which put the Pearl way above its price class.

That said, one is not likely to mistake the Sony or the Esoteric for a player with dynamics as nimble as the Marantz. For one, the Pearl did not sound like the powerhouse the way the Sony carried itself. While not as resolving as the Marantz, the Sony was unmistakably more extended in its spectral makeup as it was more dynamically expansive between soft and loud passages. Complex orchestral passages were marginally more modest in scale via the Marantz, sounding a little restrained when a supposedly blatant of an emotion outburst sounded more inhabited and conservative through the Pearl. This is also the area where the Esoteric proved its ultimate superiority in the modernistic prowess display of force and care.

But the Esoteric costs over $8k, and it is not within most people’s budget. With a little modesty and carefully calculated ambition, the Marantz makes a bigger splash for the investor when put in a system with a penchant for delicacy and tonality, or a respectable splash in one that purports the fulfillment of potentials by squeezing the most from the least dollar invested, or a rather indifferent looking ripple when it is asked to perform to the expectations of a system in which each equipment costs over ten grand. The Marantz has giant-killing aspirations but it is not a giant killer, and its creator did not intend it to be one.

The SA-KI-Pearl aspires to another task: equipping itself with as much tonal variance as possible, so as to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Ken Ishiwata retained the two filter options carried over in the original platform useable in both CD and SACD playback. From the owner’s manual, “Filter 1” on CD playback is described as: “Faithfully reproduces all audio information. Intimate sound image and positional relationship of audio source are clearly reproduced. (asymmetric slow roll-off filter) (*This is the factory default setting)”. For SACD playback, this filter “…is a direct mode that does not perform any filtering of DSD data. The original source data is reproduced without any alteration capturing the sound’s natural texture and spatial dynamic. (*This is the factory default setting).”

“Filter 2” on CD playback “Faithfully reproduces all audio information with distinct audio contour. (asymmetric sharp roll-off filter)”, while on SACD playback it “Faithfully reproduces all audio information. Intimate sound image and positional relationship of audio source are clearly reproduced.”

The old Sony SCD-777ES had four filter settings, and during my ownership of it, I had either spent a good year’s listening to a filter setting I deemed definitive only to find out how much I would not have missed had I changed to a different setting. At first, it was a matter of accuracy versus euphony, then I realized even a softer-sounding filter setting had qualities that would shed insights on a recording. The Marantz has two Filter settings only, but I was still finding myself preferring one over the other depending on my mood. The CD sound did not undergo as dramatic a sonic difference with Filter changes as that of the SACD. Now that I am endowed with hindsight, I would not use Filter 2 at all, not that it is objectionable or inferior sounding, but just that Filter 1 sounded more accurate to my ears. At least that was the case for the two months I spent with the player. In the end, I thought the soundness of the player’s fundamental engineering and its resultant, intrinsic finesse to be far more important to me than the mitigating measures built into it.

Some readers are considering the SA-KI-Pearl either for its potential as a standalone CD transport or a DAC undoubtedly. I found the DIGITAL OUT performance of the Pearl to be less class-jumping as its performance as a whole. The difference of performance levels of the Esoteric when using the Pearl and the 47 Lab PiTracer as transports was not as narrow a gap as I had hoped, and much wider than I had anticipated. But these are empirical conclusions drawn from observations using systems components of which would cost anywhere between three times to over thirty times the Marantz’s retail.

The Pearl’s DAC section proved quite differently. The Pearl was equipped with a lone, archaic Toslink DIGITAL INPUT, which was presumably carried over from the platform of the base model. Although Toslink as a connection is largely obsolete in the high-end circle, it is still a relevant practice in the mass-market consumer sector. Finding both a compatible transport and a cable company willing to fabricate a Toslink cable for this review proved to be more laborious than I anticipated. For this part of the review to be meaningful, I gauged the interest of top digital companies; but asking them to send even their least expensive transport for use with a $3,000 CD player’s DAC section for official review purposes led me nowhere. In the end, I resorted to using the old Sony CDP-508ESD CD player that I bought in 1988, which has none other than the Toslink DIGITAL OUT, and Tommy Dzurak of Aural Symphonics had inventory on his top-of-the-line Toslink cable, the Digital Standard TOS, so he sent a two-meter cable ($178) to me.

The old Sony player performed like new. Quiet and smooth. Serendipitously, it coerced a level of performance from the Pearl very nearly equivalent of that of the SACDM-10 inside the Pearl itself. Low-level details extracted by the Sony were at least 75% of the performance of the Marantz as a whole. Dynamic contrasts were excellent but not with the same spectral cohesion as via the Marantz’s own transport, thus sounding less refined. Tonal sophistication was also reduced by a noticeable margin and instrument separation was practically non-existent. Considering the fact that it was a twenty-two years old machine running through a cable not exactly broken-in, the results were actually better than I could’ve hoped for. My only quibble, of course, is with the sole provision of Toslink as the only digital input on the Pearl, since it already offers both a coaxial and Toslink DIGITAL OUT.

I also did a little experimentation with an Aural Symphonics treatment product called ioGEL. ioGEL stands for input-output GEL, which is a synthetic compound that you apply on the ends of your ST glass or Toslink optical cable to eliminate air gap between the input-output diode and the cable’s connectors. A little bottle retails for $95 and I can’t see anyone using more than 10% of it in his lifetime in a normal system. But if you need to use a Toslink connection, then aside from getting a good cable such as the Digital Standard TOS, putting the ioGEL to use is only good sense. The difference between before and after application of the ioGEL, even in the context of the Sony CDP-508ESD, was unmistakable. Instrument separation was kicked into gear, and there was more tonal distinction between instruments in large ensembles. It was as if the gain had jumped up a notch.

Conclusion

The Marantz SA-KI-Pearl SACD player exceeded my expectations for a $3,000 machine, especially during a time when I also started auditioning a $29,000 tube DAC in for review. Consider the fact that Ken Ishiwata chose to offer a component more easily affordable to a wider audience, it is fortunate that the Pearl did not sound like budget equipment. It never presented itself as more dynamic or extended than other DACs I’ve heard, but then again I have been listening to very competent designs lately, the most affordable of which was the $8,000 Esoteric D-05 32-bit DAC/preamp, and yet I couldn’t tear myself away from listening to this Ken Ishiwata concoction.

One of the Marantz SA-KI-Pearl’s most compelling qualities to me was its delicate tone. The player interprets the CD sound as fresh and uplifting, soft in texture and steadfast in composure. Music took on a fragility that connotes an obsession toward detail. It was this fragility and discretion that lent the SA-KI-Pearl that expensive sound. It’s not very often when one finds a recording that was artistically and sonically superior, and then have a multi-national electronics giant developed a sub-$10,000 CD player that can reproduce the recording competently. This may sound trivial to most, but trust me, it is an occurrence quite rare.

The SA-KI-Pear also represents a conundrum, one that defies what a product in its price class ought to be capable of. The SA-KI-Pearl is priced such that audiophiles don’t have to spend a good deal in this economy to attain high-end performance, but it is a mistake to expect audiophiles with budget system can reap all that the SA-KI-Pearl can offer. It was commendable for Ken Ishiwata and Marantz to embark on this project and to have created such a beautiful-sounding player for $3,000. If the SA-7, one of the original forms of the SA-KI-Pearl, were given to an outside modification house to upgrade to its present performance level, the resultant product would have cost more than twice the price, I’m sure.

The audiophile hobby is many things to the lot of us. To me, it is not always about just getting the biggest bang for the buck, although many will benefit from products that fall into that category. I am looking for that ultimate experience which can only be derived from a system of superior engineering and craftsmanship. It would be nice if it is also affordable; but in many cases it is akin to wishing an original Picasso can be had for mass production copy prices.

Only when wealthy audiophiles paces the SA-KI-Pearl through their mega systems will the Ken Ishiwata concoction gets the spotlight it deserves. Ken has a track record of producing his own versions of Marantz CD players, and his fans attest to the quality of his work and the invaluable contribution he made towards their musical satisfaction. People continue to chime in on forums about their KI versions of Marantz CD players of the 80s to this day.

The SA-KI-Pearl has such category-defying level of finesse as to set a new standard in the $3,000 range. Financially, it would’ve made more sense when such incomparable talent as Ishiwata were to apply his lifetime’s worth of expertise into perfecting the likes of the $6,999 SA-7S1 Reference Series SACD player instead, and making the next SA-KI-Pearl a $10,000 tour de force. But I am thinking in terms of a smaller, specialty operation, a far cry from the corporate resources of Marantz. Whereas it would make more business sense for a small but technologically competent company to offer its service for a premium, the slim profit margin obtained in selling an improved version of a medium-priced machine would also exhaust the company’s resources and serve to put it under.

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