Funny thing about the English language: being in the center of something (as in "the center of attention", "taking center stage", "a centrist news organization") is generally considered a good thing. Being in the middle, however ("the middle of nowhere", "the middle child", "getting caught in the middle") is not. The middle is seen as a bland, problematic place inhabited by those unwilling or unable to reach for one extreme or the other.
In audio, the pejorative nature of the middle is found in the term "mid-fi". No one can tell you what "mid-fi" is, or where "mid-fi" ends and "hi-fi" begins, all we know is that no one wants it. No audio companies set out to make "mid-fi" gear, no one goes into an audio dealer asking for a "mid-fi" component. Personally, I think audiophiles cooked up the term to mean, roughly, "gear that costs less than mine".
If we replaced the term "mid-fi" with something less disparaging, "center-fi" perhaps, it could be usefully used to describe a company like Marantz. The engineers at Marantz are fanatical about sound quality, but unlike boutique manufacturers, they are also concerned with getting their wares into the homes of as many people as possible. To pull this off, Marantz has had to become masters of compromise and trade-offs...making design decisions and part choices that have the lowest possible impact on sound quality, while at the same time having the greatest possible impact on cost. This, I've heard several engineers tell me, is a bigger challenge than building great sounding gear where the cost is no object.
In general, Marantz' components are not the least expensive you'll find, but they are far from the most costly. It's this obsession with the center of the audio universe that has always attracted me, so I was thrilled when I heard about their new SA8003 SACD Player, and even more thrilled when they offered to send me one for review.
a New Thing
On the Surface
The remote is good and I loved the placement and size of the critical buttons (play, next, pause, etc.), and I would love the thing even more if I could use the volume and input selector functions on my Parasound preamp (only Marantz equipment is supported). The "other function" buttons sit in a cluster at the top and didn't work quite as well for me. I used the "repeat" function fairly often, but never got used to the button's placement and had to hunt for it each time.
Overall, the SA8003 seems a bit sluggish in its response to controls...even basic functions went into effect a second or so after pressing the button. It actually queued music faster than my Sony SCD-CE595 (see Scott Faller's 2005 review (click here), but the Sony feels quicker because it responds instantly to its controls. Another quibble: CD- and SACD-Text are absent on the SA8003. I have grown accustomed to seeing album and track titles when I put discs into my $150 Sony (or, for that matter, the $300 Marantz CD5001 I reviewed back in June (click here). Marantz apparently felt that, since this feature has no affect on sound quality, it was okay to leave it out. I'm of the mind that, since this feature has no affect on sound quality, but increases my joy in using the player, it could just as easily have been left in.
Don't Buy A Porsche For The Cup Holder
The USB input is powered by an NEC uPD63901 microcontroller (designed for use in car audio head units), and it enables the SA8003 to play MP3, WAV, WMA and AAC files directly off a USB hard drive, pen drive, or iPod (it does not function as a USB DAC, as connecting a laptop to the Marantz with a USB cable does nothing). The uPD63901 does its own D/A conversion, so files read from the USB input completely bypass Marantz' CS4398-based digital section (and cannot be output via the Marantz digital outputs). The USB signal still benefits from going through the SA8003's discreet analog output stage, but overall the USB sound is not quite up to par with what the SA8003 does when playing a shiny disc. Of course, this hardly matters unless you are using full-resolution WAV files, the only lossless format playable on the Marantz.
A more significant misfire is the user interface. Devices connected to the SA8003 via USB can only be browsed one line at a time on the Marantz' front panel display. This works well enough for a flash-ROM based pen drive with a few files on it, but it all but eliminated the convenience and joy of using my 60GB iPod. Only about one-third full, my iPod has over 180 artists on it... listening to one near the middle of the list required as many as 90 clicks on one of the Marantz' "folder" buttons, a significantly more cumbersome process than the iPod's own interface, which is disabled when connected to the SA8003.
I recently bought a decent turntable, and while I'm far from considering myself a vinylphile, I've had a lot of fun over the past few months picking up loads of LPs on the cheap. One haul included a clean copy of Avalon by Roxy Music, a gorgeous recording that I completely missed in my own punk-fueled tour of the 1980s. Its evocative soundscapes seemed a natural fit for the vinyl medium, but I was moved by it enough to pick up the SACD (I'm trying to buy as many SACDs as I can these days, before the format disappears altogether). Played on the Marantz, the Avalon SACD had all of the engrossing musicality of the vinyl (and none of the rumble or dust pops), plus a good deal more detail and delineation between the instruments.
SACDs on the SA8003 surpassed that of my Sony SCD-CE595 (of course, at 7x the price, it darn well better). Paavo Järvi and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's stirring take on Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to Orchestra [Telarc SACD-60660] came off less congested in busy orchestral passages on the Marantz, and Analogue Productions' release of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willy and the Poor Boys (CAPP 8397 SA) had more impact and excitement due to increased dynamic range. The difference between the two units on Redbook CD was not as dramatic, but the comparison did reveal a touch of top-end grain in the Sony, as well as slightly better dynamics on the Marantz.
Comparing Redbook performance on the Marantz to SACD on the Sony was interesting. Most hybrid SACDs don't really work for such a comparison, as the SACD and Redbook layers typically have different mastering... Terence Blanchard's Let's Get Lost is the only recording in my collection that I am assured (by Jim Anderson, the recording engineer for the date) that the Redbook release is identical to the SACD except for the resolution. Each player had different strengths and weaknesses, but they were difficult to pick out. For example, the Sony demonstrated a more extended treble with a touch of edginess. The Marantz seemed smoother up top, but largely, I believe, because of its subtle roll-off in the treble. If I had to pick a winner, I'd give the nod to the Marantz for overall musicality and involvement, but it was very close.
I wanted to make sure I wasn't drowning myself in SA8003-love. I mean, this couldn't be the best sounding SACD player in the world. Even Marantz has more models above it than below it in their line-up. I brought the unit over to a friend's house to compare to his EMM Labs CDSD/DCC2: an SACD-capable transport/DAC combination that clocks in north of $20K, and some consider the finest digital reproduction on the planet. Typically, comparing components to others well out of their weight class helps me to find imperfections that I would otherwise miss. Not so here. I don't mean that the Marantz equaled the state-of-the-art EMM Labs gear...it didn't, but comparing the two didn't reveal any sins of commission in the SA8003's sound (except the warmish top end, if you consider that a sin).
The first track we played, "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" on the aforementioned Terence Blanchard SACD, elicited some discussion about which player we preferred. Some liked the smoothed-out highs of the Marantz, feeling that it made some of the peakiness in the trumpet and vocals more palatable. I thought the EMM units gave a slightly more realistic presentation, but picking a favorite was not obvious. Switching to Redbook, however, demonstrated more clearly the advantages of the EMM Labs combo. A 1960s Connoisseur Society recording of flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata sounded great on the Marantz, but the EMM Labs took it to another level: the soundstage tightened up, dynamics were improved, and I no longer heard it as a great recording, but a great musical performance. I left that meeting with a deep respect for the EMM Labs gear, but pretty enthusiastic about the SA8003 as well, considering what it could do for less than 1/20th the price.
In an effort to compare the SA8003 to something closer to its own price range, I brought it to another friend's house to run it alongside his Benchmark DAC1 PRE ($1575, see Dick Olsher's review of the non-preamp version (click here). For some reason, the piano and trumpet on Let's Get Lost (Redbook version this time) on the Marantz sounded a bit boxy and congested to me in comparison to the Benchmark. I can't explain this, as it never sounded that way on any other system I tried it on. Perhaps it was the SA8003's top-end roll-off, revealed only because of the outstanding resolution of my friend's Linkwitz Orions; or maybe it was a synergy issue with my friend's passive preamp. In yet another inexplicable deviation from what I had come to expect from the Marantz, it actually sounded brighter than the Benchmark when playing a symphonic piece: Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. I heard it as a bit of edginess in the strings, my friend heard it as a spotlighting of certain woodwinds. While we both agreed the Benchmark was certainly the more accurate unit, he didn't think the Marantz was any less enjoyable, but I found the Benchmark a more musical performer.
Horses for courses. When I got the Marantz back in to my home system, it made more of the same gorgeous, enthralling sound I had heard at first, and it continued to do so for the remainder of the review period.
Bottom line, if all I can find to carp about in the SA8003 is the user interface, you can bet that what we're talking about here is a nice player indeed. Still, I'm enough of a cheapskate to feel that, for a thousand dollars, an audio component ought to flat-out thrill me in all areas, not just sound, so I don't mind knocking Marantz around a bit for leaving off a few niceties they should have known better to put in. But I also don't feel the slightest bit hypocritical about giving the SA8003 a solid recommendation, because for the sound that it delivers, it deserves it.
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