DSD Gets Reprieve with Mid-Priced Stereo Deck
by John Gatski
In the mid-1990s, the SACD (Super Audio CD) was hyped as the replacement for the 16-bit CD — with its high-resolution, Direct Stream Digital (DSD) 2.8 MHz sampling/1-bit technology. The new audio encoding/decoding scheme had several advantages over 16-bit PCM: theoretical 100 kHz frequency response, increased dynamic range and significantly lower overall noise than CD.
Fast forward 10 or more years, and the scenario is less rosy. Sony, the prime proponent and co-developer of SACD, has all but stepped away from major SACD release initiatives on software and just a few players remain in their lineup. SACD fans have to thank various small labels and other electronics manufacturers, such as Marantz, Denon and a handful of audiophile high-enders, for sticking with the format.
As a high-resolution audio enthusiast, I am glad that Marantz offers the Marantz SA8003, a quality audiophile SACD/CD player that sits in the $1,000 price range. It offers enough audiophile features and performance to satisfy the purists, but is not so overpriced that aspiring high-res buffs, or someone who wants a nice CD player, won’t be intimidated.
The Marantz SA8003 is a basic SACD/CD player with a few modern bells and whistles, including USB connection for iPod, and WMA and MP3 disc playback. It sports a torroidal power supply, audiophile-grade capacitors and resistors that are also used in Marantz’s high-end SACD players. The SA8003 plays only stereo SACD layers, not multichannel 5.1 channels found on some discs.
The heavy-duty, dual-layer chassis and outer cabinet weigh in at 17 pounds. On the front panel, the SA8003 is cleanly laid out with a minimalist array of front panel buttons — just the way I like my audiophile players. Buttons include power, play, pause, track advance, track back, disk tray open/close, headphone amp volume, headphone jack and disc media/USB mode button. The USB port is smartly located on the front panel, as is the headphone amp.
There are numerous front panel lights and indicators for CD, SACD, MP3/WMA, USB input, track, time, digital output/on or off. The remote duplicates the essential functions, but adds more functionality with random play, program modes, digital output on/off, display on/off, and text on/off for iPod or WMA discs. Curiously, the Marantz does not support the static or scrolling text function of SACD. Hmm.
The back panel includes audiophile RCA jacks, external remote control jacks for linking of other Marantz products and digital audio output jacks — SPDIF optical or RCA coax. The beefy analog output jacks are nicely spaced to accommodate the better, sometimes larger, audiophile cables.
I set up the SA8003 in my main listening room. Components included Pass Labs X350.5 MOSFET output amplifier, Bryston 14B SST bipolar out amplifier, Pass Labs XA-30.5 Class A MOSFET output amplifier, Legacy Coda High Current preamp, Audio by Van Alstine SL preamp, and Rogue Audio Model 99 Magnum tube preamp. Most of the music was played through a set of Legacy Focus 20/20s and Thiel CS3.7 loudspeakers.
The amps were connected to the speakers via Alpha-Core solid-silver speaker cables; Alpha Core solid-silver interconnects linked the SA8003 and the preamp. All the power cables were from Essential Sound Products, a small company that makes relatively inexpensive, high-end, no-noise AC conduits right here in the U.S. I also used an Essential Sound Products power strip.
For comparison purposes, I also listened to SACDs and CDs on my reference Esoteric DV-50 ($5,000), a Yamaha SA-2300 MKII ($1,200) universal player from 2004, and a five- year-old Pioneer DV-578A low-cost, universal player ($200) to get a sense where this player fit, sonically, into the DSD-playback pecking order.
The Marantz has a nice feel and build with an easy-to-use remote and functions. Most people are going to play SACDs and CDs, which is exactly what I spent most of my time doing during the review. First up was the DMP title Quality of Your Silence — The Steve Davis Project – a nice jazz recording with a focus on percussion with accompanying guitar, piano and saxophone, engineered by Tom Jung in the late 1990s. The SACD disc showcases instrument space and excellent transient response from cymbals and Steinway piano.
The SA8003’s musical timbre was accurate, and the sense of space around the instruments was quite good. It had a better sense of space and transient response than the Yamaha SA-2300 MKII universal player, which was a recommended player for the money; the Marantz just offers a better presentation. The imaging was not quite as wide and deep as the Esoteric, but you would expect a $5,000 player to have some advantages over a $1,000 unit.
Next, I tried a couple of titles from Ambient Recordings, a small label that makes very nice SACD recordings of jazz and classical. Gene Bertoncini — Body and Soul is a very nice nylon string recording made direct-to-DSD via Soundelux tube microphones, EMM Labs DSD A/D and Alpha Core silver interconnects.
The Marantz presented the nuanced harmonics of nylon guitar very nicely with more energy in the upper register of the picked notes than the Yamaha SA-2300 MKII. Versus the Esoteric, the Marantz timbre reproduction was no slouch, but the Esoteric was a bit more defined, but I only noticed the difference when going back and forth in direct comparison. Again, the Marantz reproduced the nuance and textures of the guitar quite accurately. For $1,000, the Marantz is a bona fide audiophile SACD player.
I popped in some classical music. First up was the classic Telarc digital recording of Mahler — Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony (with vocal performance by Kathleen Battle and Maureen Forrester). It was originally recorded at 16-bit/50 kHz on the infamous Soundstream PCM digital recorder developed in the 1970s. The recording was transferred directly to DSD for the disc.
Despite 16-bit and 50 kHz sampling, these old Soundstream recordings are extremely dynamic and full sounding with great impact on the tympani. The vocalists’ performances were full, dimensional and up front in their presentation. With a good SACD player, such as the SA8003, the harshness that leeched out of the original CD is nil with the DSD version.
I also listened to a more recent classical recording: The Fry Street Quartet — Joseph Haydn — String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 77/String Quartet No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 9. Recorded by Ray Kimber of Kimber Cable fame and mastered by Graeme Brown of Zen Mastering, the recording has a live feel with tremendous detail and imaging. In particular, I noticed how rich the violin and cello tones sounded, not artificial — just like you hear them live in a good room.
The Marantz SA8003 handled the Fry Street Quartet SACD nicely. Imaging was spacious, and those high-res string textures were there in spades. For classical music (mostly what comes out on SACD these days), this player is perfect for those who have a modest music gear budget.
I played numerous pop discs, both CD and SACD, and found the SA8003. quite capable in those genres as well. Bass was tight and deep. Transients were clear and smooth. Karen Carpenter’s haunting voice on The Carpenters — Greatest Hits SACD came through clearly as did the extra resolution of the drum cymbals on several cuts, including “Superstar.” On Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” from the Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy SACD, the Marantz did a fine job displaying the multitrack instrumentation and the detailed backing vocal tracks.
After playing all those gorgeous-sounding SACDs, it’s hard to listen to 16-bit, let alone the MP3 and other lossy compressed formats used in mainstream home and portable playback. Nonetheless, I did play some MP3-transferred discs and connected a later generation iPod to the Marantz. As expected, the MP3s and WMA-formatted recordings have the life is squeezed out of them, but the Marantz plays ‘em as good as any other mid-priced audiophile player — maybe better with its high-quality converter.
The iPod material I played was a step-up over the MP3 discs because I transferred tracks from the MacBook Pro at the linear 16-bit, 44.1 kHz spec. The Marantz takes the digital output from the iPod and upconverts the signal through its DAC, which gets you more resolution than a stock iPod’s playback.
There was nothing really to complain about with the SA-8003. I applaud Marantz for putting in a headphone amp; most companies have abandoned onboard headphone amps. But it is not as revealing as other onboard HP amps I have used. The HP amp good for general purpose monitoring, but with my high-end AKG 701s and Ultrasones, the imaging seemed rather diminished compared to my reference standalone Benchmark HP2 amp — or the Yamaha SA-2300 MKII, which has a nice headphone signal path.
For SACD and CD playback (the iPod connection and playing of lossy MP3 discs are merely added features in my book), the Marantz SA8003 is a sonically rewarding player that gets a little hand-me-down design from its more expensive siblings. For those who have a considerable SACD investment and want to upgrade from an older player, it is one to seriously consider. Newer converters and better parts selection enable Marantz to create sonic textures that are better than very expensive high-end players from a decade ago. The Marantz is a much better sounding player than the $3,000 Sony SCD-777ES from 10 years ago.
If you have a grand to spend and you plan to stick with SACD, this player gets our nod — and a Stellar Sound designation to boot. For more information, go to www.marantz.com.