Marantz Reference SA-KI-Pearl SACD/CD player Page 2
The SA-KI-Pearl's default playback mode is SACD, but you can switch to the CD layerand, of course, it plays standard CDs, as well as data discs containing Windows media files and MP3s. Its optical digital input will decode datastreams up to 24/96, assuming you have a TosLink-equipped source (such as a recent Macintosh computer). Of greater use to many will be the Pearl's ¼" headphone jack, which connects to an internal high-current headphone amp with discrete volume control. Two digital filter settings are available for both SACD and CD playback. Filter 1, the default for SACDs and CDs, does nothing in SACD mode. Filter 2 seemed to be a level booster. In CD mode, Filter 1 provides a slow, asymmetrical ultrasonic rolloff, while Filter 2 provides a sharp asymmetrical rolloff. Whatever the measured differences, I could hear no differences between the two filters in CD mode. I left the SACD mode set to Filter 1.
The supplied remote control is well laid out and easy to use, but it's not backlit, and it includes a number of function buttons not applicable to the SA-KI-Pearlincluding one, labeled Phase Inverter (absolute polarity), that I wish did work. But given Ishiwata's "purist" intent and the Pearl's single-ended circuits, adding polarity inversion would most likely compromise the player's sound. The omission makes sense.
The $3000 SA-KI-Pearl seems to offer less than the $3600 SA-11S2 SACD player I reviewed last year: single-ended outputs only, vs the SA-11S2's choice of fully balanced or single-ended; a Xyron vs aluminum disc tray; Cirrus's all-in-one DAC chip vs two monophonic Seiko DSD DACs; the omission of phase inversion; and other things the SA-11S2 has and the Pearl doesn't. Of course, only one thing is truly important: Which sounds better?
Listening to SACD
On the KI-Pearl section of the Marantz Europe website, Ken Ishiwata writes, "As with amplifiers, you cannot judge a CD player by analysing its specifications." Ain't that the truth? Well, my own experience tells me it is, though the folks led around by measurements, who think that humans are basically repositories of unreliable perceptions based on defective senses, will never be convinced otherwise.
I feel sorry for such peoplelike the reader who recently suggested that I heard differences between two amplifiers that measured similarly because I was "in a bad mood." Right. For two months? When I look down a long stretch of railroad track, I know the two rails don't come to a point, even though they look as if they do. I've filed that fact away in my personal database, and somehow, each time I board a train, I remember it. So I don't panic.
But however the SA-KI-Pearl measures, it definitely did not sound the same as the SA-11S2. The Pearl produced a far more involving, lively, detailed sound. Though its transient performance was faster and cleaner, it managed to be just as free of grain and etch as the SA-11S2, which seemed to achieve that desirable result by softening and warming the sound.
The Pearl was also free of the SA-11S2's slightly syrupy overlay, which produced a warm, rich, relaxed tonal balance and an attack character that was "a bit soft and almost tube-like." Instead, the Pearl was refreshingly lighter, tighter, and faster, and definitely more involving. While the SA-11S2's decays "dropped off before being fully resolved," the Pearl's were far better resolved at low levels.
Not surprisingly, the SA-KI-Pearl's perceived resolution and especially its transparency, appeared to be far greater. I returned to the reference tracks I'd used for the SA-11S2 review: The Pearl delivered "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," from Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (SACD, Columbia), with far greater clarity and resolution, beginning with the opening syncopated drumswhich, while still sounding appropriately deep and resonant, were less lumpy and thick, and were easily placed and separated within an acoustic space instead of blending into one another. Dylan's voice stepped forward of the instrumental mix and, because it now sounded less muffled and thick, was more convincing and of a more appropriate size. Instead of sounding merely pleasant, the recording was now more visually enticing without becoming overdetailed.
The SACD of the Bill Cunliffe Trio's Live at Bernie's (Groove Note GRV1009-3) also sounded cleaner, faster, and more exciting, in great part because of the piano's faster, cleaner percussive attack and the improved shimmer of the cymbals. The disc had greater soundstage focus, and with the drum kit splayed across the soundstage, the visual excitement was greatly enhanced, as was the artificiality of the spatial presentation.