May 15, 2009

Marantz SA8003 SACD/CD Player

As I mentioned in my review of the Rotel RCD-1072 CD player, often a technology’s finest moment is just before that technology is rendered obsolete. That well may be the case with the CD and SACD formats -- any numbers of excellent players are on the market today, and they’re perhaps the best ever. In fact, Marantz’s SA8003 SACD/CD player ($999.99 USD) might be the finest CD player I’ve ever experienced.

Marantz, one of the great names in hi-fi, was founded in the 1950s by Saul Marantz. He and his designers, Richard Sequerra and Sidney Smith, produced some of the icons of audio: the Marantz 7c preamplifier, the 8 (stereo) and 9 (mono) power amps, the famous 10b FM tuner, and the exquisite 18 receiver. Since being sold to Superscope in 1964, Marantz has gone through tremendous ups and downs, but since its 2002 merger with Denon, Marantz has concentrated on what many call entry-level high-end audio gear. One can only hope the acquisition of parent D&M Holdings by Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former firm, won’t result in loss of focus for the various D&M brands.


At 17-3/8"W x 4-5/16"H x 13-9/16"D and a hefty (for a disc player) 17 pounds, the SA8003 is far from petite. However, its front-panel controls are minimal; Marantz must have figured that most functions would be operated via the remote control. The panel is in three sections, but all the action is the middle, other than the large power button on the left. The large fluorescent display flashes more messages than the usual player’s display, including: Power On/Off; CD or SACD, depending on the type of disc inserted; track number; icons for Play and Pause; a series of messages to indicate whether Repeat, Random, or Program play has been chosen; etc. Just above the display is the disc tray, which operated smoothly and silently. Three pushbuttons on each side of the display control disc tray Open/Close, Track Skip/Search Forward or Back, Play, Stop, and Pause. To the lower right of the display is a 1/4" headphone jack with its own level control. To the lower left is a pushbutton that selects between Disc Media or whatever’s connected to the adjacent USB port, such as an iPod or flash memory drive. The USB port’s output is available at the analog but not the digital output jacks.

Two small quibbles: On the few other SACD players I’ve seen, the disc’s title and artist are displayed when the disc is first read, but not so with the SA8003. And its response to commands was somewhat lethargic, which seems par for the course for SACD players. It took five seconds or more for the SA8003 to decide whether a disc was a CD or an SACD; only then would it take any commands.

Around back are two gold-plated analog RCA outputs, coaxial and optical digital outputs, jacks that permit daisy-chaining of the remote control with other Marantz components, and an IEC power jack so you can try an alternate power cable.

The remote control itself is quite versatile, seeming capable of doing everything except butter your breakfast toast. It’s long and narrow but well balanced, and at its balance point even has a depression on its back -- a nifty and thoughtful design feature. The controls exclusive to the remote include Program, Repeat and Random play, Automatic Music Scan, and an On/Off button for the digital outputs (Marantz recommends that if you’re not using these, make sure they’re turned off). There are even Input Selector, Volume Up/Down, and Mute controls for operating a Marantz integrated amplifier or preamplifier.

Marantz boasts of the SA8003’s "low-noise, low-distortion filter circuits and high-speed HDAMSA2-type output amplifier with the differential input type HDAM," a toroidal power transformer that "produces less vibration and magnetic leakage flux," the great capacitance of the power supply, audiophile-grade film and electrolytic capacitors, and double-layered circuit boards. HDAM stands for Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Module, a Marantz-developed replacement for IC op-amps. The HDAMs use surface-mount discrete components, which Marantz claims have less noise and better slew rates than the ICs they replace.

The interior of the SA8003 is a good example of 21st-century electronics design. The large toroidal power transformer feeds the separate power supplies for the digital and analog circuits. Several ferrite rings are used to reduce EMI/RFI. Circuit boards are nicely laid out and made from high-quality material. And Marantz isn’t kidding about using discrete components: though I saw lots and lots of transistors, I saw only one integrated circuit in the entire machine. All in all, the SA8003 seems to be very well engineered and well constructed.


I compared the SA8003 to my Sony CDP-X303ES CD player. Both played through my Linn Majik 1-P integrated amplifier via interconnects from Linn (the Sony) and Dayton Audio (the Marantz). During my listening I also swapped the interconnects between the players, but could hear no difference between them. The Linn amp drives my NEAR 50 Me II speakers, or a newly acquired pair of mid-1970s Wharfedale W60E "bookshelf" speakers. (My total investment for the latter was $95: $16 for the speakers at a local thrift shop, and $79 for a replacement tweeter for one of them.) I enclosed "bookshelf" in quotation marks because the Wharfedales are 25"H x 14"W x 12"D and weigh 56 pounds each -- to which I can attest, having dropped one of them on a big toe. Each sealed-box enclosure contains a 12.5" woofer, a 5" acoustically isolated midrange driver, and a 1.25" soft-dome tweeter. The W60Es aren’t the last word in bass response, being a little loosey-goosey on the bottom end with the Linn, but their mids and highs are fabulous! Both sets of speakers were connected to the amp with 14-gauge AR speaker cable.


It’s my opinion that well-designed digital source components probably evince fewer audible differences among them than does nearly any other category of audio component. Nothing that I heard in my comparison of the Sony CDP-X303ES and Marantz SA8003 altered that opinion. But there were slight differences in sound.

As is often the case, I began with Fourplay’s "Bali Run," from Fourplay (Warner Bros. 13459), a favorite for its deep, very percussive bass line, and the other, sharply focused instruments: electric hollow-body jazz guitar, electric piano, and drums. Through the Marantz, the highs were a scoche more stark than through the Sony, and the instruments’ placements on the soundstage were slightly better defined. In all, the Marantz provided a more finely etched sound very much in tune with this group’s performance. The Sony was slightly mellower; not bad, just different.

Late in her life, Rosemary Clooney recorded a great album with John Pizzarelli, Brazil (CD, Concord Jazz CCD-4884-2). Among the gems on it is her version of "I Concentrate on You." The soundstage was very well defined through the Marantz: Clooney well out front, Pizzarelli and his guitar just behind and to the left, the percussion discreetly farther back on the right. There was a nice amount of air around Clooney’s voice, ever so slightly more than with the Sony.

While playing this track, the Marantz unit errored, something that doesn’t happen with this disc when played by the Sony or any of my other CD players. Yet when I checked the Marantz with a disc that tests a player’s error correction, it was the first player I’ve had in my home that could negotiate track 5 (which includes an error of 1.5mm) without severe problems -- there were just a couple little digital "spits." There must be a piece of dust on the Clooney CD the Marantz’s laser didn’t like. But it wasn’t a big deal; the Marantz adequately corrected the error.

Another favorite test track is Paul Simon’s "You Can Call Me Al," from his Graceland (CD, Warner Bros. R2 78904). Again, the Marantz offered a bit more "naked" performance than the Sony. For instance, transients such as the kick drum sounded tighter through the Marantz than through the Sony. Simon’s voice is smack dab in the middle throughout, with the horns just behind him (had that been the case in the studio, he would have been deaf by the end of the session -- the horns sound that close). The Marantz placed the singer just perfectly.

"Smooth," by Carlos Santana and singer Rob Thomas, from Santana’s Supernatural (CD, Arista 19080-2-RE-1), had excellent soundstage width and depth through the Marantz, the brass nicely in the back but nonetheless distinct, and Santana’s guitar wailing out front. Thomas’s voice was just as gritty as it should be, and slightly more so than through the Sony. The Sony seemed to round off the rough edges; the Marantz did not.

At present, I own only one SACD: Steve Tyrell’s Standard Time (Columbia CS 86006); I also own the CD. One of its best cuts pairs Tyrell with Jane Monheit on the old Frank Loesser song "Baby, It’s Cold Outside." Tyrell made his primary contribution to the music industry as A&R director of Scepter Records, where he brought the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David together with the voice of Dionne Warwick. He also produced B.J. Thomas’s hits "Hooked on a Feeling" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head." He has a great feeling for the Great American Songbook, but a voice that sounds as if he gargles with razor blades. However, the sly humor of "Baby, It’s Cold Outside" works well for him and Monheit.

I did some pretty detailed comparisons of this track as reproduced by the Sony and the Marantz, and found that the latter suffused Monheit’s voice with a luster that simply isn’t present through the Sony. The soundstage was superior on the SACD, both in depth and width. The strings just hovered over the proceedings in a beautiful way. As one might expect of an experienced A&R guy, Tyrell knows how to surround himself with talent -- not just Monheit, but on the technical side as well. The recording was mixed by Bill Schnee (who engineered Thelma Houston’s version of "I’ve Got the Music in Me" for Sheffield Labs, all the Pablo Cruise hits on A&M, and a bunch by Huey Lewis and the News) and mastered by Doug Sax (cofounder of Sheffield Labs with Lincoln Mayorga, founder of the Mastering Lab, and mastering engineer for albums by everyone from Jackson Browne and the Eagles to Michael Franks’ The Art of Tea and Pink Floyd’s The Wall).

I then pulled out a 1990s recording of Hoe-down, from the Rodeo suite by Aaron Copland, performed by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Universal 97002). During that period I subscribed to the BSO and heard them perform Hoe-down in their home base, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Played on the Marantz, this recording gave me the sense of being back in the Meyerhoff, as its playback gave greater depth and more stable instrument placement than the Sony. Again, the Sony offered a fine performance, but there was slightly more "snap" with the Marantz.

There was something about the sound of the Marantz SA8003 that was unusual, and that was the "blackness" of its silence. I can’t fully describe it -- I can’t even tell if my ears and mind were deceiving me -- but there seemed to be a greater absence of sound between tracks when I played even regular CDs through the Marantz. I can’t figure out what might have caused it. It could have been perception or mere delusion, but it’s something to consider.


I truly enjoyed having the Marantz SA8003 in my system. It may be the best CD player I’ve ever heard, given its excellent rendition of detail without sounding strident, the depth and width of the soundstage, and the relative "blackness" of the background. While SACD is not the runaway success Philips and Sony hoped for (a listing on indicates that there have been 5792 SACD releases; Wikipedia’s entry on SACD says there are "in excess of 5000 titles on the market"), if you’re interested in a superb player for both SACDs and CDs, I wholeheartedly recommend the Marantz SA8003. Granted, its cost is not inconsiderable, and it reads discs slowly and has no text display -- but for sheer musical pleasure, the Marantz SA8003 shines.

. . . Thom Moon

Price of equipment reviewed