Marantz SA-1 SACD player Page 3

Tasting and Judging
"The Compact Disc was a good idea," proclaims a booklet found in Sony SACD recordings. "This is even better." I smiled wryly, like Chairman Kaga on Iron Chef. In any case, SACD is obviously a maturing format, from the evidence of the 20 or so SACD-only discs on hand, not to mention a goodly number of dual-layer discs.

Auditioning made it clear that the SA-1's sound was extremely transparent. For instance, the player showed very little sympathy for any playback chain anything less than stellar. Only the right cables (Cardas Golden Reference balanced or TARA The One/Air One single-ended), the right preamplification (Mark Levinson Reference No.32), the right amplification (Krell 350Mc monoblocks), and just the right speaker cable (Cardas again) would do the trick through our JMlab Utopias. This was something of a pain in the ass, but I sensed from the start that it was worth the chase, and so applied myself to the task.

I started with the SACD-only edition of Bruno Walter's 1959 recording of Mozart's Symphonies 38 and 40 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony SRGR703). Revered though the "Prague" may be, it's No.40, K.550, that does it for me. From the first moment of the first movement I sat entranced, mouth agape. Notes: "Massed strings are particularly well served. The engagingly sweet highs are nonetheless very finely delineated. It's very liquid and dead-on acoustic, the strings so real in that slightly piercing way that can be heard at a live event, yet still sweet and attractive. So deep, so wide, so transparent—the air and tonal color are extraordinary!" I closed my eyes and settled in. The truth is, I haven't listened to a complete symphony on record in years. But from the first notes, I had no choice but to listen through to the end, completely bound to my listening chair.

I like to kid myself that I'm pretty jaded, but listening to this SACD proved an over-the-top musical experience. Clarity, coherence, and palpability usually come at some slight cost with most other audio devices. Not with the SA-1. I've enjoyed components that take over the acoustic space of our listening room before, but never so comprehensively as this! In fact, listening to the Andante of K.550 completely redefined "transparency" for me.

At symphony's end, I sat and thought about what I'd just experienced. I realized—"oh, the howah"—that there wasn't a single element of the presentation that didn't wipe CD's clock. Scale, dynamics, imaging, air, bass, midrange, highs—more, better, best! Whew.

I turned next to the Steve Davis Project's Quality of Silence and played my favorite track, "One Two Free." I've mentioned the acoustic bass and drum work found here in other reviews, but comparing the CD to the SACD stood my hair on end. Notes: "Utterly free of artifacts, thrilling, tight, and impactful—just so damn acoustic!" There's some mighty deep bass in this track that chuffles out of the speakers as Davis stomps his kick-drum pedal. Tom Jung of DMP explains that it's produced by Davis' heel thumping the raised platform on which the drums are set. More notes: "I've never heard it sound so visceral before! 'Transparency' as an ascribed quality of audio no longer exists; SACD goes beyond 'bracketing' concepts such as that. It's alive in front of me beyond any ability to describe!" Linear and wideband, the frequency response didn't jump out at me in any particular way, however exemplary in every aspect.

Want to listen to a fun dual-layer recording? Try Monty Alexander's Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley (Telarc CD-83469-SA). Call it Island Music, Marley with a jazz twist. It's an excellent recording, each piano note precise, clear, and tonally full, zero overhang anywhere, the whole presentation coherent beyond belief. No, the music isn't very challenging, but in my view, music can (should?) convey love-of-the-moment as well as deep intellectual profundity.

The bass was tremendous—very controlled, tight, extended, and powerful. The organ sounded open and happy on top, per my notes, sweet but oh-so-clear, fresh as a mountain stream. While this recording is pretty awesome in CD mode, after I'd heard it in SACD mode, the CD level lost something of that wonderful clarity and transparency. Notes: "Again, there's not a single sonic parameter where SACD doesn't kill CD!"

The Very Tall Band, with Oscar, Ray, and Milt, is one of my favorite Telarcs. Cue up "Bass Solo Medley" and close your eyes. Some jackalope starts coughing a few seconds into the track and the poor hack never shuts up, but for sure you'll feel like reaching for a napkin to wipe yourself down. Switching to the CD layer on the Marantz, the coughing head was still fairly startling, but turning to the music—yes, I know, it's about the music—I found the sound slightly thicker, more veiled, less coherent in some elemental way. The presentation was still attractive, although I preferred the Accuphase and its upsampled 16/44.1 processing. In general, at higher listening levels, CD was slightly less refined than SACD, a bit harder to take. Not that the sound turned hard—it was just harder to listen to cranked way up. In fact, rather surprisingly, I preferred single-layer SACDs or CDs in comparison to their dual-layer equivalents in all the players. But ultimately, there was no comparison—SACD was that much better.

Kind of Blue made the Krells run kinda hot! Notes: "With the SACD version there's a limitlessness to the music: a wide and very deep soundstage, soaring tonality, horn ripping but still sweet, very communicative." Switching to the Sony SBM CD on the SA-1, I found it less wide and free, but still possessed of an abiding and powerful bass line. Everything about the presentation was "good," but I lost something of the excitement and involvement.

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