May 15, 2009
Marantz SA8003 SACD/CD Player
As I mentioned in my review of the Rotel RCD-1072 CD player, often a
technologys finest moment is just before that technology is rendered obsolete. That
well may be the case with the CD and SACD formats -- any numbers of excellent players are
on the market today, and theyre perhaps the best ever. In fact, Marantzs
SA8003 SACD/CD player ($999.99 USD) might be the finest CD player Ive ever
Marantz, one of the great names in hi-fi, was founded in
the 1950s by Saul Marantz. He and his designers, Richard Sequerra and Sidney Smith,
produced some of the icons of audio: the Marantz 7c preamplifier, the 8 (stereo) and 9
(mono) power amps, the famous 10b FM tuner, and the exquisite 18 receiver. Since being
sold to Superscope in 1964, Marantz has gone through tremendous ups and downs, but since
its 2002 merger with Denon, Marantz has concentrated on what many call entry-level
high-end audio gear. One can only hope the acquisition of parent D&M Holdings by Bain
Capital, Mitt Romneys former firm, wont result in loss of focus for the
various D&M brands.
At 17-3/8"W x 4-5/16"H x 13-9/16"D and a
hefty (for a disc player) 17 pounds, the SA8003 is far from petite. However, its
front-panel controls are minimal; Marantz must have figured that most functions would be
operated via the remote control. The panel is in three sections, but all the action is the
middle, other than the large power button on the left. The large fluorescent display
flashes more messages than the usual players display, including: Power On/Off; CD or
SACD, depending on the type of disc inserted; track number; icons for Play and Pause; a
series of messages to indicate whether Repeat, Random, or Program play has been chosen;
etc. Just above the display is the disc tray, which operated smoothly and silently. Three
pushbuttons on each side of the display control disc tray Open/Close, Track Skip/Search
Forward or Back, Play, Stop, and Pause. To the lower right of the display is a 1/4"
headphone jack with its own level control. To the lower left is a pushbutton that selects
between Disc Media or whatevers connected to the adjacent USB port, such as an iPod
or flash memory drive. The USB ports output is available at the analog but not the
digital output jacks.
Two small quibbles: On the few other SACD players Ive
seen, the discs title and artist are displayed when the disc is first read, but not
so with the SA8003. And its response to commands was somewhat lethargic, which seems par
for the course for SACD players. It took five seconds or more for the SA8003 to decide
whether a disc was a CD or an SACD; only then would it take any commands.
Around back are two gold-plated analog RCA outputs, coaxial
and optical digital outputs, jacks that permit daisy-chaining of the remote control with
other Marantz components, and an IEC power jack so you can try an alternate power cable.
The remote control itself is quite versatile, seeming
capable of doing everything except butter your breakfast toast. Its long and narrow
but well balanced, and at its balance point even has a depression on its back -- a nifty
and thoughtful design feature. The controls exclusive to the remote include Program,
Repeat and Random play, Automatic Music Scan, and an On/Off button for the digital outputs
(Marantz recommends that if youre not using these, make sure theyre
turned off). There are even Input Selector, Volume Up/Down, and Mute controls for
operating a Marantz integrated amplifier or preamplifier.
Marantz boasts of the SA8003s "low-noise,
low-distortion filter circuits and high-speed HDAMSA2-type output amplifier with the
differential input type HDAM," a toroidal power transformer that "produces less
vibration and magnetic leakage flux," the great capacitance of the power supply,
audiophile-grade film and electrolytic capacitors, and double-layered circuit boards. HDAM
stands for Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Module, a Marantz-developed replacement for IC op-amps.
The HDAMs use surface-mount discrete components, which Marantz claims have less noise and
better slew rates than the ICs they replace.
The interior of the SA8003 is a good example of
21st-century electronics design. The large toroidal power transformer feeds the separate
power supplies for the digital and analog circuits. Several ferrite rings are used to
reduce EMI/RFI. Circuit boards are nicely laid out and made from high-quality material.
And Marantz isnt kidding about using discrete components: though I saw lots and lots
of transistors, I saw only one integrated circuit in the entire machine. All in all, the
SA8003 seems to be very well engineered and well constructed.
I compared the SA8003 to my Sony CDP-X303ES CD player. Both
played through my Linn Majik 1-P integrated amplifier via interconnects from Linn (the
Sony) and Dayton Audio (the Marantz). During my listening I also swapped the interconnects
between the players, but could hear no difference between them. The Linn amp drives my
NEAR 50 Me II speakers, or a newly acquired pair of mid-1970s Wharfedale W60E
"bookshelf" speakers. (My total investment for the latter was $95: $16 for the
speakers at a local thrift shop, and $79 for a replacement tweeter for one of them.) I
enclosed "bookshelf" in quotation marks because the Wharfedales are 25"H x
14"W x 12"D and weigh 56 pounds each -- to which I can attest, having dropped
one of them on a big toe. Each sealed-box enclosure contains a 12.5" woofer, a
5" acoustically isolated midrange driver, and a 1.25" soft-dome tweeter. The
W60Es arent the last word in bass response, being a little loosey-goosey on the
bottom end with the Linn, but their mids and highs are fabulous! Both sets of
speakers were connected to the amp with 14-gauge AR speaker cable.
Its my opinion that well-designed digital source
components probably evince fewer audible differences among them than does nearly any other
category of audio component. Nothing that I heard in my comparison of the Sony CDP-X303ES
and Marantz SA8003 altered that opinion. But there were slight differences in
As is often the case, I began with Fourplays
"Bali Run," from Fourplay (Warner Bros. 13459), a favorite for its deep,
very percussive bass line, and the other, sharply focused instruments: electric
hollow-body jazz guitar, electric piano, and drums. Through the Marantz, the highs were a
scoche more stark than through the Sony, and the instruments placements on the
soundstage were slightly better defined. In all, the Marantz provided a more finely etched
sound very much in tune with this groups performance. The Sony was slightly
mellower; not bad, just different.
Late in her life, Rosemary Clooney recorded a great album
with John Pizzarelli, Brazil (CD, Concord Jazz CCD-4884-2). Among the gems on it is
her version of "I Concentrate on You." The soundstage was very well defined
through the Marantz: Clooney well out front, Pizzarelli and his guitar just behind and to
the left, the percussion discreetly farther back on the right. There was a nice amount of
air around Clooneys voice, ever so slightly more than with the Sony.
While playing this track, the Marantz unit errored,
something that doesnt happen with this disc when played by the Sony or any of my
other CD players. Yet when I checked the Marantz with a disc that tests a players
error correction, it was the first player Ive had in my home that could negotiate
track 5 (which includes an error of 1.5mm) without severe problems -- there were just a
couple little digital "spits." There must be a piece of dust on the Clooney CD
the Marantzs laser didnt like. But it wasnt a big deal; the Marantz
adequately corrected the error.
Another favorite test track is Paul Simons "You
Can Call Me Al," from his Graceland (CD, Warner Bros. R2 78904). Again, the
Marantz offered a bit more "naked" performance than the Sony. For instance,
transients such as the kick drum sounded tighter through the Marantz than through the
Sony. Simons voice is smack dab in the middle throughout, with the horns just behind
him (had that been the case in the studio, he would have been deaf by the end of the
session -- the horns sound that close). The Marantz placed the singer just perfectly.
"Smooth," by Carlos Santana and singer Rob
Thomas, from Santanas Supernatural (CD, Arista 19080-2-RE-1), had excellent
soundstage width and depth through the Marantz, the brass nicely in the back but
nonetheless distinct, and Santanas guitar wailing out front. Thomass voice was
just as gritty as it should be, and slightly more so than through the Sony. The Sony
seemed to round off the rough edges; the Marantz did not.
At present, I own only one SACD: Steve Tyrells Standard
Time (Columbia CS 86006); I also own the CD. One of its best cuts pairs Tyrell with
Jane Monheit on the old Frank Loesser song "Baby, Its Cold Outside."
Tyrell made his primary contribution to the music industry as A&R director of Scepter
Records, where he brought the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David together with the
voice of Dionne Warwick. He also produced B.J. Thomass hits "Hooked on a
Feeling" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head." He has a great
feeling for the Great American Songbook, but a voice that sounds as if he gargles with
razor blades. However, the sly humor of "Baby, Its Cold Outside" works
well for him and Monheit.
I did some pretty detailed comparisons of this track as
reproduced by the Sony and the Marantz, and found that the latter suffused Monheits
voice with a luster that simply isnt present through the Sony. The soundstage was
superior on the SACD, both in depth and width. The strings just hovered over the
proceedings in a beautiful way. As one might expect of an experienced A&R guy, Tyrell
knows how to surround himself with talent -- not just Monheit, but on the technical side
as well. The recording was mixed by Bill Schnee (who engineered Thelma Houstons
version of "Ive Got the Music in Me" for Sheffield Labs, all the Pablo
Cruise hits on A&M, and a bunch by Huey Lewis and the News) and mastered by Doug Sax
(cofounder of Sheffield Labs with Lincoln Mayorga, founder of the Mastering Lab, and
mastering engineer for albums by everyone from Jackson Browne and the Eagles to Michael
Franks The Art of Tea and Pink Floyds The Wall).
I then pulled out a 1990s recording of Hoe-down,
from the Rodeo suite by Aaron Copland, performed by David Zinman and the Baltimore
Symphony Orchestra (Universal 97002). During that period I subscribed to the BSO and heard
them perform Hoe-down in their home base, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Played on the
Marantz, this recording gave me the sense of being back in the Meyerhoff, as its playback
gave greater depth and more stable instrument placement than the Sony. Again, the Sony
offered a fine performance, but there was slightly more "snap" with the Marantz.
There was something about the sound of the Marantz SA8003
that was unusual, and that was the "blackness" of its silence. I cant
fully describe it -- I cant even tell if my ears and mind were deceiving me -- but
there seemed to be a greater absence of sound between tracks when I played even regular
CDs through the Marantz. I cant figure out what might have caused it. It could have
been perception or mere delusion, but its something to consider.
I truly enjoyed having the Marantz SA8003 in my system. It
may be the best CD player Ive ever heard, given its excellent rendition of detail
without sounding strident, the depth and width of the soundstage, and the relative
"blackness" of the background. While SACD is not the runaway success Philips and
Sony hoped for (a listing on www.sa-cd.net
indicates that there have been 5792 SACD releases; Wikipedias entry on SACD says
there are "in excess of 5000 titles on the market"), if youre interested
in a superb player for both SACDs and CDs, I wholeheartedly recommend the Marantz SA8003.
Granted, its cost is not inconsiderable, and it reads discs slowly and has no text display
-- but for sheer musical pleasure, the Marantz SA8003 shines.
. . . Thom Moon
Price of equipment reviewed