Marantz PM-KI-Pearl integrated amplifier Page 3

If you buy a PM-KI-Pearl, be sure to plug your best digital source into the wider-band CD input—when I did, it made a surprisingly big difference. When I used the Sooloos to hear again the few dozen songs I'd just played, the sound took a major step toward a leaner, better-controlled, more focused bottom end; the midrange transparency was noticeably better, the low-level detail was sharper, transients were better defined. Rhythm and pacing improved. It was like going from the tubed to the solid-state output of a CD player equipped with both. Which you'll prefer will depend on your taste and associated gear.

The Pearl produced moderately wide dynamic swings through the big Wilsons and was downright spectacular paired with smaller speakers (see below) but even driving the MAXX 3s, the Marantz managed orchestral climaxes well, and its microdynamic performance was nuanced and effectively drawn. The Pearl dug in to deliver the low-level musical nooks and crannies that enhance the listening experience and help bring to recorded music the sensation of "live."

Played at mid-level volume, the PM-KI-Pearl was completely satisfying, producing round, well-defined, three-dimensional images that emerged from a "black" backdrop. Whatever it gave up in terms of high-frequency air and ultimate detail was more than made up for by its effective portrayal of instrumental textures, such as the pluck of a double bass or the strum of an acoustic guitar. It was better equipped to deal with chamber music and other small ensembles than the big symphonic stuff, but when I ran something like "When I Fall in Love," from Nat King Cole's Love Is the Thing (DCC CD as ripped to the Sooloos), the results were sensational. The Pearl's warmth and generally supple disposition caressed the strings without smothering them, and reproduced Cole's voice as a gentle three-dimensional bubble floating between the speakers; the slight nastiness of the microphone's rising high end was perfectly tamed. I would bet few listeners familiar with the sound in my room would have known that they were listening to the Pearl and not to the big Musical Fidelity Titan.

The real magic was in the upper midband to lower treble, where the PM-KI-Pearl either revealed or induced the "breath of life" in recorded music. Whether it was a transparency that let information through or a kiss of coloration doesn't really matter. What matters is that the Pearl produced a sonic glory in this region that seemed to spread its greatness throughout the audioband without calling attention to itself.

The Glass Bead Game, the latest recording from the minimalist/psych guitarist James Blackshaw (CD, Young God YG40), produced an enormously wide, deep soundstage and, despite the wash of reverb, revealed pinpoint instrumental images and a wealth of mesmerizing, delicate textures that floated effortlessly in space. Yet I could then turn around and put on something intended to shred my ears, and the Pearl would deliver that, too. Its sound was that well balanced.

Recordings with a pristine top end may have lost a tiny bit of luster, but those that are tipped up a bit (a large percentage, unfortunately) were beautifully tamed by the PM-KI-Pearl, and well-recorded female singers shone. Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (gold CD, Verve/Classic V6-4053) produced between the speakers a really nicely developed, believable Ella Fitzgerald. Lou Levy's piano was cleanly rendered, and Herb Ellis's guitar was not lost in the midband-heavy musical mix. The key to getting the best from the Pearl, at least driving the big Wilsons, was to not turn up the volume too high; that way, I could avoid the bit of hardness and exaggerated image size that would result if I did. But this shouldn't be an issue with the kinds of speakers likely to be used with the Pearl.

To test that theory, I borrowed from my home theater, where I use them as surrounds, a pair of Sonics by Joachim Gerhard Anima speakers ($2600/pair, reviewed by Wes Phillips in July 2007). Within the confines of these small, stand-mounted two-ways, the Marantz/Sonics system, costing ca $6000 without source component, produced spectacular sound. What it lacked in bottom-end heft it more than made up in stellar imaging and soundstaging and surprising dynamic punch. The PM-KI-Pearl driving the Animas was a match made in audiophile heaven!

A fine phono stage, too
I set up an Ariston Q Deck turntable, with Shure M97xE cartridge, that had been sitting untouched in the garage the last few years. Cold out of the box, the sound was rich, warm, three-dimensional, and inviting. The day before, I'd played a reissue of the Four Tops' Reach Out (LP, Motown/Speakers Corner) on the Continuum rig through the Marantz, using the new Boulder 1008 phono preamp ($12,000). Of course, playing this admittedly so-so four-track recording on this little front end through the Marantz's phono stage, the results weren't quite as astonishing—but they were plenty good, especially "Benny" Benjamin's machine-gun drums and James Jamerson's popping bass lines. The little 'table and the Pearl's built-in phono preamp did a great job on Levi Stubbs's voice, too, rounding it out while letting the gravel through. This listening experience reinforced my belief that you have to actively work to make analog sound bad.

Sundazed recently reissued Bob Dylan's almost universally scorned Self-Portrait (2 LPs, Columbia/Sundazed C2X 30050). It still has a lot of ridiculous filler, but in retrospect it's much better than it seemed back in 1970. Forty years on, it's easier to cut Bob some slack for going back to Nashville and playing at being a not-very-good mellow-voiced crooner backed by some of country music's best session musicians. He had the money and he'd earned the right. Actually, it takes balls to just turn your back on your audience like this—much as, heading in the opposite direction, he'd done five years before at the Newport Folk Festival when he plugged in. Some of it's laughable, such as his take on Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer," in which he double-tracks his vocal, once as the "old" raspy-voiced Dylan, and once as the lounge-act Dylan—but there are some fine moments, too, and the recording is excellent.

The inexpensive 'table and the Pearl's built-in phono preamp produced a rich, three-dimensional picture, floating a young, 3D Bob between the speakers with impressive stability and convincing physicality.

Invest in a modestly priced turntable, connect it to the PM-KI-Pearl, and I don't hear how you might be disappointed. In fact, you'll be immediately hooked on vinyl. I didn't get a chance to try a moving-coil cartridge, but I assume the results would be equally good.

Happy conclusion
My month-plus with the Marantz PM-KI-Pearl by Ken Ishiwata was a genuine musical pleasure. The limited-edition PM-KI-Pearl is an exceptionally fine piece of audio gear, physically and sonically, and a great value at $3599. It speaks with a coherent sonic voice, and whatever its sins, they are ones of omission. It completely avoided the cardboardy, hollow, and/or etched sound of lesser gear, and did so without masking such qualities in syrupy warmth.

Is the Pearl worth the $1000 more it costs than Marantz's PM-15S2? Sonically, I can't say. Physically, yes—it will give pleasure to the eyes, fingers, and ears, and, as a limited edition, will probably someday be a collector's item. For now, if you're setting up a complete system that you hope you can keep comfortably under $10,000, the KI-Pearl is worth collecting right now.

Marantz America, Inc.
100 Corporate Drive
Mahwah, NJ 07430-2041
(201) 762-6500