Marantz in the UK--its signature designs anyway--has long been dominated by one man, Ken Ishiwata, whose listed skills include being a violinist, an electronics engineer, a fashion photographer, an audio designer, and who is widely known for his ability to stage a good audio demonstration. He is also known as a music lover ? well it had to happen sometimes even in this business--and let’s not forget his astonishing collection of signature extravagantly bright, colourful jackets. For a long time, he has also been brand ambassador for Marantz, with whom he has long been associated. He is if you like the public face of the company, and the limited edition Pearls are Marantz’s tribute to the man, designed to celebrate more than 30 years with the company, much of which he has spent meticulously developing KI Signature designs based on the standard ex-factory components.
Usually Limited Edition means limited to the number that the company concerned can flog. In the case of the Ken Ishiwata Pearls however the limit is set in stone at 500 units of each unit--a thousand in total--so quite aside from their audio credentials, the units should have collectable value. I am only sorry I am not in the market myself, but anyone reading this who is interested should not leave it too long to decide, even in the current economic climate.
For me, the most intriguing element of the two Pearls is what they are not rather than what they are. They’re not obscenely expensive. Pricing, I would suggest, is firmly commensurate with the engineering, and with the ability of many people to afford them. This makes them very much in keeping with the general run of Marantz KI components over the years, rather than just being tarted up alternatives.
There is much to say about these two units, though in this case as with other high rollers, what they are physically and technically is not the essence of the story. The first thing you will notice is the silky finishes, and the general quality air of fit and finish. They’re also quite heavy for their size, which tends to correlate with power supply attributes and their physical construction, and the general fit and feel of the controls and the rear panel socketry, which is visually impressive.
The SACD player of course is what the name implies: a CD player that is compatible with SACD single layer and hybrid discs, but it is resolutely two channel. There is no multichannel option, which for the majority of users, especially those that count themselves as audiophiles, will not be an issue.
From the CD layer, you can extract a digital output in optical (TOSLINK) or electrical (S/PDIF) flavours. Front panel fixtures and fittings don’t really break with tradition, but there’s plenty of them, including a comprehensive and legible dimmable dot matrix display, and a full set of controls and buttons, many of which are bathed in the glow from the two banks of blue lighting positioned each side of the loading drawer and display. One handy inclusion for those who enjoy late-night listening is a level control for headphones.
More interesting by far is the attention paid to internal build, and the parts that have been specified for the player, which include a 5mm thick top panel, a thick bottom plate and a copper plated chassis (standard fare with Marantz’s better components) and solid aluminium feet. The output stage uses Marantz’s proprietary discrete HDAM-SA2 and SA modules instead of the traditional monolithic integrated op-amps.
The case is described in the literature a ‘bulletproof’ and vibration damped, while the ‘rock solid’ power supply is built around a substantial shielded toroidal transformer. The player has selectable DAC filters (flat is best in my view) and a CS4398 DAC from Cirrus Logic. The player can be used as a standalone D/A converter using an optical digital input.
The amplifier design is in keeping with the disc spinner. It has similar mechanical attributes, including a heavy (low microphony) top plate and base, solid aluminium feet and, as usual for Marantz, the chassis is copper plated, and many of the passive components have been specified based on extensive hand’s on listening, an area in which Ken Ishiwata has long excelled. The amplifier is fully discrete internally, and includes a constant current feedback MM/MC phono input, and a CD Direct input buffer. The power amp can be accessed directly via a rear panel input. Power output is rated at 90 Watts/channel into 8 Ohms, and 140 into 4 Ohms. In common with the disc player, the amplifier has its own dot matrix status display, and there are five preamp level audio inputs. Both units are equipped with comprehensive remote control wands, with a metal top plate. There is just one finish for the player and amplifier ? an appropriately classy pearlescent black.
Marantz has a deservedly strong reputation for its disc players, and this one will only enhance that notoriety. As a CD player it has muscle and drive, as well as the ability to reproduce musical dynamics. There is little or none of the flattening of perspectives that some players exhibit. It’s all very together, which is exactly what you would expect at the price.
SACD adds another layer to the player’s capabilities. I should add that SACD does not always necessarily sound better than Red Book CD, but when done well, it really does do something that CD can’t quite match, adding an extra level of detail and poise to the sound. The bass is even more powerful, and the treble more open and lively, with a sparkle that compact disc can’t match. The Marantz bought an SACD recording of Beethoven Strings Quartets No 10 and 11, played by the Tokyo Quartet, to life with a vividness and passion I have never previously heard from these players, certainly not on disc. As a Red Book CD, the same performances lack some of the SACD layers’ grip and poise. They don’t quite have the same energy, and layering of sound.
The amplifier is clean and full sounding and again it excels at the extremes of the frequency envelope. The bass is undeniably potent, with a train-like drive, and real depth to match. The treble is has the kind of quality that is often associated with valves, but it doesn’t have the sloth and lack of grip that sometimes (note the caveat ? and yes, I could name names) goes with it. The Marantz style is easy on the ear, and when required has an unusual subtlety and softness, but it doesn’t mask detail. On consideration the point about the amplifier is not that its treble is necessarily superior to the rest of the audio band, because it’s seamless across the whole gamut. Another point worth noting is that the sound stays consistent across a wide volume envelope. Voicing doesn’t change significantly when the volume is turned up, within reason anyway, and this quality, this lack of consistency in many other designs is much more common than many people think.
The main limitation of the disc player is that it cannot derive a multichannel output from SACDs which, as noted earlier, may not be an issue for some. However, Sony’s latest Blu-ray players can stream a multichannel output from SACD via HDMI. This may not be an optimal technical solution (the jury’s still out on this), but it will take a lot of the complication out of configuring a multichannel systems using an HDMI equipped AV amplifier, of which there are a number of excellent sounding examples. The Marantz will only output an analogue output from SACD, though it can provide a digital output from CD. You can do your own math here.
The amplifier in my view is the more striking proposition of the two. It sounds in keeping with many of the better Marantz amplifiers over the years, with a quintessential house style of warmth and grace, without ever sounding sloppy or lacking in precision. In practice it seems more powerful than the numbers suggest. It worked well for example with Mordaunt Short Performance 6LE. And it is well equipped, without being excessively weighed down by gadgets that are more likely to undermine performance than enhance it. But both Marantz units are immaculately presented, and beautifully made, and both will suit musical ends in a way that many others simply don’t. Buy them before they are all gone!
SPECS & PRICING
Playback formats: CD, /CD-R/RW (incl WMA and MP3 files), SACD
Selectable filters for CD and SACD
Copper plated chassis and shielding
Headphone, Coaxial and optical digital outputs
Dynamic range: 112dB (SACD), 100dB (CD)
Frequency Response: 2Hz-100kHz (SACD), 2Hz-20kHz (CD)
THD+N (@1kHz): 0.001% (SACD), 0.0015% (CD)
Signal to Noise ratio: 110dB
Silk Black Finish
Dimensions (WxHxD): 440x419x127mm
PM-KI Integrated amplifier
Number of audio inputs: six
Phono stage: MM, MC as standard
Audio outputs: two
WBT speaker terminals
Copper plated chassis and copper shielding
RMS power output per channel: 90W (eight ohms), 140W (four ohms)
Frequency range: 5Hz-100kHz
Damping Factor: 100
Input sensitivity: 240mV (line), 2.8mV (MM), 0.27mV (MC)
Signal to noise ratio: 89dB (line), 87dB (MM), 75dB (MC)
Silk Black Finish
Dimensions (WxHxD): 440x444x127mm
Price: SA-KI Pearl SACD player - £2,500
PM-KI Pearl integrated amplifier - £2,500
Tel: 02890 279830