- Written by Robert Kozel
- Published on 28 June 2010
The Marantz tradition has always been about enjoying music. The Marantz SA-KI Pearl is a limited-edition SACD player from the Marantz Reference Series product line. The "KI" in the product name refers to Ken Ishiwata, who is the actual designer of the SA-KI Pearl. Ken Ishiwata has an impressive biography. He fell in love with music as a young man. He pursued a career in fashion photography following in the footsteps of his father. In the late 1970's, Mr. Ishiwata started his career with Marantz. Today, he is an accomplished violinist, audio engineer, electronics engineer, and brand ambassador for Marantz in Europe.
- Design: SACD/CD Player
- Codecs: SACD, Redbook CD (16/44.1), MP3, WMA
- DAC: Cirrus Logic CS4398
- MFR: CD: 2 Hz – 20 kHz, -0.15 dB; SACD: 2 Hz – 50 kHz, -3 dB
- THD+N: CD: 0.0015%; SACD: 0.0010%
- Outputs: RCA Analog, Headphone, Coax, Toslink Optical Digital
- Inputs: Toslink Optical Digital
- Dimensions: 5" H x 17.4" W x 16.5" D
- Weight: 32 Pounds
- MSRP: $2,999.99 USA
- Marantz America
To celebrate his 30th Anniversary with Marantz, Mr. Ishiwata has created two Pearl products. In case you are wondering about the name, a pearl is the traditional gift for a 30th anniversary. The first product is the PM-KI Pearl, which is an integrated amplifier. The second Pearl product is the SA-KI Pearl SACD player which we will discuss in this review. You can actually see and hear Mr. Ishiwata talk about the KI Pearls himself at a dedicated website for the Marantz KI Pearl products. In listening to Mr. Ishiwata, it becomes very clear that he is passionate about music, and for him, the KI Pearl products are an expression of that passion. While the products make use of the latest technology and engineering available, Mr. Ishiwata's goal is for the listener to truly have an emotional response while listening to music. Let's take a closer look at how Ken Ishiwata's vision has translated into the SA-KI Pearl SACD player.
The first thing you notice about the SA-KI Pearl is the build quality of the player. The SA-KI Pearl weighs 32 pounds and the finish work of the aluminum case is impeccable. The player rests on solid aluminum feet and is built around a heavy copper chassis. The player is finished in silky, matte black which is a definite departure from the traditional champagne finish of the Marantz Reference Series products. I found a short video clip of Ken Ishiwata on YouTube where he explains that just as a black pearl is rare in nature, the black finish of the SA-KI Pearl helps to further make his anniversary products stand out in the Reference Series product lineup. The black finish is definitely attractive and the fine grain of the aluminum top panel adds to the beauty of the player.
The front of the player is organized around a central control panel which contains the disc tray mechanism and a large LCD display. The Power button is centered just below the display, which is typical of the Marantz Reference Series products. The central panel contains a jack for headphones as well as a level control to adjust the headphone volume. The other buttons are DAC Mode, which allows you to use the player as an external D/A convertor, and Sound Mode, which allows you to select between the Stereo and CD audio layers of SACD media. The silver insignia to the top right of the disc tray commemorates "K.I. Signature 30th". On either side of the central panel are small buttons for transport control. On the left side, the buttons are Open/Close, Forward Track-Skip/Search, and Reverse Track-Skip/Search. On the right side, the buttons are Play, Stop, and Pause. The transport controls are illuminated via blue LEDs on each side of the central panel.
Moving on to the back of the player, you immediately notice the copper-plated chassis. As is typical of higher end SACD players, the SA-KI Pearl only supports stereo playback of SACD material and offers one set of stereo RCA output jacks. The output jacks themselves are made from beautifully-machined brass. If I had any complaint with this player, it was that at this price point it should have offered balanced stereo outputs. The SA-KI Pearl does offer one optical input which allows you to connect an external device, such as a media server, into the SA-KI Pearl to take advantage of the player's D/A converter and analog output stage. The player does offer a set of coaxial and optical digital outputs if you should want to bypass the analog stage of the player. The rear panel also contains remote control jacks as well as an internal/external switch which is used to turn on/off the front remote control sensor on the player. The sensor should be turned off if the SA-KI Pearl is being controlled via another Marantz component via the remote control jacks.
The SA-KI-Pearl borrows some of its design elements and components from other players in the Marantz Reference Series. The player itself is based on the SA-15S2 Reference Series SACD player and borrows the power block capacitor from the SA-7S1. At this point, the similarities end, and the design efforts of Mr. Ishiwata take over. The SA-KI Pearl is completely designed by Mr. Ishiwata and the internal components are all hand selected to match his specifications. Once the components are assembled, the completed player is auditioned. This process is repeated until Mr. Ishiwata finds a complete set of components which together achieve his listening expectations.
A look inside the player provides a small glimpse of what makes the SA-KI Pearl unique in comparison to the SA-15S2.
The SA-KI Pearl design includes a multi-layered aluminum case and copper-plated chassis which protects the player from vibration and unwanted interference. The toroidal power supply is covered in a copper-plated shield to minimize interference. The player's transport mechanism is the Marantz SACDM-10 with a XYRON disc tray, which according to Marantz, isolates the disc from micro-vibrations in the drive mechanism. The SA-KI Pearl uses a Cirrus Logic CS4398 24-bit/192 kHz D/A convertor as well as Marantz-proprietary HDAM-SA2 discrete amplifier modules in its audio output stage to optimize performance.
In addition to the premium design and construction, the player offers the ability to play back CD and SACD single-layer, dual-layer, and hybrid-layer discs. The SA-KI Pearl will play CD-R and CD-RW audio discs containing PCM audio, as well as CD-R/CD-RW/CD-ROM discs containing WMA and MP3 files. In case you are wondering, the player will not recognize a multi-channel SACD layer.
The remote for the SA-KI Pearl is also well made with the top of the remote being a solid piece of silver aluminum. While the player has been meticulously constructed, Marantz did cut some corners with the remote by not creating a remote dedicated to the SA-KI Pearl. The remote that comes with the SA-KI Pearl is the RC003SA which is perfectly functional, but contains some keys such as DC Filter, Noise Shaper, Phase Inverter, and External Clock which simply don't apply to the SA-KI Pearl itself. These functions apply to the Marantz SA-11S2 SACD player instead. The remote does allow you to control the input and volume of a compatible Marantz receiver.
Setup and In Use
I tested the SA-KI Pearl with an Anthem Statement D2 processor, a Rotel RB-1080 amplifier, Definitive Technology BP-3000TL speakers, and cables from Cardas and Monster. As for test material, I didn't have to look very far as Ken Ishiwata has also produced a 30th Anniversary SACD to go along with the KI Pearls.
If you like jazz, then you will appreciate the song selections, many of which are very well-known classics.
The arrangements are all done with acoustical instruments including bass, piano, and drums. All of the vocals are performed by European jazz singer Katelijne van Otterloo.
Listening to Mr. Ishiwata's disc on the SA-KI Pearl was a simply delightful experience. The stereo imaging was excellent, and I became immediately involved with the music. On track 1, George Gershwin's classic Summertime, the drum set and the piano sounded wonderfully alive as they played together. On track 2, Misty, there was little escaping the intimacy of the vocals and the piano. I could easily imagine being in an intimate jazz club enjoying the artists' performance. On track 4, the classic How Insensitive, the details, texture, and angst in Katelijne's voice were captivating. The piano complemented her vocals beautifully. On track 6, Edward Kennedy Ellington's Satin Doll, the vocals were incredibly well defined and at one point I could imagine Katelijne smiling at her audience as she sang the song. My experience with the SA-KI Pearl on this disc was superb. Vocals were exceptionally defined. There was excellent depth to the music and the soundstage was very intimate.
For my next test, I took a quick step back to the holidays and put in the CD of Yo-Yo Ma & Friends Songs of Joy & Peace.
Back during the holidays, I was reviewing the Marantz UD9004, and I was especially pleased with how this CD sounded at the time. I was very curious to see if the SA-KI Pearl could bring out some of the magic that I experienced back then. I was thrilled to once again hear this CD come alive. The resonance of individual strings and notes was much more precise. On track 21, Happy Xmas (War is Over), the cello and ukulele performances make this one of the most stirring and soulful versions of John Lennon's classic song. The subtle detail of the strings and the harmony of the instruments were well defined on the SA-KI Pearl.
While you are listening to the SA-KI Pearl, you have the option to select from two digital filters. The owner's manual describes the filters as follows:
I found that I generally preferred filter 2 for SACD. It seemed to offer a warmer and more intimate presentation of the music. Filter 1 seemed very accurate, but slightly less involving. For CD playback, I frequently found that the default of Filter 1 was just fine. The settings can be adjusted at any time during playback via the remote.
The last feature to explore on the SA-KI Pearl was DAC Mode. Engaging DAC Mode from either the front panel of the SA-KI Pearl or from the remote enables the optical digital input. While in DAC Mode, you cannot operate the disc tray mechanism or any of the transport controls. The SA-KI Pearl can accept linear PCM with sampling frequencies of 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 64 kHz, 88.2 kHz, and 96 kHz. When the player properly processes a digital input, the front panel display will indicate success with a message such as "D In: 44.1 kHz". If the player can't process the signal due to excessive jitter, the front display indicates "D In: Unlock".
For my tests, I connected the SA-KI Pearl to my Apple TV and the player consistently had no trouble locking onto the digital input signal. I was disappointed that I had to manually turn on the player from the front panel in order to use the SA-KI Pearl as a DAC. Since the SA-KI Pearl does not offer a standby power option, there is no real way to automate the process just using the remote. Turning on the power manually, however, was a small price to pay for how great the SA-KI Pearl made the Apple TV sound. I consistently preferred to hear the Apple TV running through the SA-KI Pearl, despite the more than capable D/A stage in my Anthem Statement D2 processor.
For listening tests in DAC mode, I really concentrated on the vocals. On the Melody Gardot Worrisome Heart album, I was delighted with the SA-KI Pearl's ability to image Melody's sultry vocals. The details in her voice were exquisite and the piano and saxophone seemed very real. On the Michael Bublé All of Me album, there was incredible depth to his voice. The orchestra sounded amazing and the entire presentation sounded so alive. On the Georgia on My Mind track, you could really feel the passion in his voice. I would have been hard pressed to tell you that I was listening from the Apple TV. My last examples were some of the classics from Frank Sinatra himself on the Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years album from The Reprise Collection. The clear placement of vocals and instruments on The Best is Yet to Come, and the movement of the instruments between the left and right speakers on Love and Marriage made me wish that I could go back in time and experience this amazing performer in all his glory.
On the Bench (JEJ)
At 1 kHz, THD+N for CD was 0.016%, while for SACD, it was 0.017%. In both cases, the distortion is primarily second order.
At 10 kHz, distortion for CD was 0.057% and 0.018% for SACD.
The results for 19 kHz, 20 kHz combined test frequencies are shown below. There is a visible B-A peak at 1 kHz for CD and SACD at just above 100 dBv.
The IMD measurements were 0.006% for CD and 0.15% for SACD.
The measured frequency response for CD was 20 Hz – 20 kHz, -0.2 dB, and for SACD, it was 20 Hz – 30 kHz, -0.50 dB. In the first graph, you can see the slight difference in the high frequency rolloff between Filters 1 and 2.
The jitter spectrum (graphs shown below) for CD mode indicate an average of about 7 ps (picoseconds or trillionths of a second), when a signal was playing, except at the lower end of the spectrum where jitter was up to a level of 50 to 100 ps. Notice that jitter was much higher when using the Toslink output as compared to the coax output. We have shown this same phenomenon with another player, so it is expected that, in general, coax digital outputs will exhibit less jitter than Toslink digital outputs, and you should use coax in your digital connections when possible.
Listening to the Marantz SA-KI Pearl SACD player was a truly enjoyable experience. I think Mr. Ken Ishiwata would be very pleased with the emotional enjoyment that his player brought into my home. As for recommendations, it really depends on what you're after. While the SA-KI Pearl is a terrific two-channel player, I did miss the ability to play multi-channel SACD media. On the other hand, I was really pleased with the ability to use the SA-KI Pearl as an external DAC because it can really help you get the most value from this player. From a price and performance perspective, you should also compare the Oppo Digital BDP-83SE, which delivers an equally pleasing analog performance, significant additional functionality, better bench measurements, and is available for less than a third of the price. No matter what you decide, the SA-KI Pearl is well worth the listen.