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Positive Feedback ISSUE 53
SA8004 SACD Player
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
Short version: If you need one box that plays CD and SACD discs, can function as a DAC, has USB inputs on the front and back that you can use to connect computers, hard drives, memory sticks and portable music players, includes a headphone jack, is built very well, sounds excellent and is priced under $1000, you should probably buy the Marantz SA8004.
I mean that. This is one of the most versatile components I've come across in a long time. It's also one of the most consistently satisfying disc players I've heard regardless of price: always musical, pleasingly airy, notably rich, and detailed but not fatiguing. As a bonus, the headphone jack is on par with entry-level standalone amplifiers. I spent the first two-thirds of the review period enjoying it with my Sennheiser HD580s before I realized I better get my butt in gear and start testing its other capabilities.
In my main system, it handled everything from classical SACDs to Cat Power with liquidity and class. As I've come to expect from Marantz players, this one excels where most of the music lies—the midrange. Like its little brother, the CD5003 (reviewed here) there's great presence and weight to vocals and instruments, but even more so. Where the CD5003 glosses over the slightest inflections, the SA8004 presents them in a way that isn't self-consciously 'detailed' in an audiophile sense but rather, in a manner that just makes the music seem more real.
That alone will sell a lot of people, but the SA8004 also reaches high and low with excellent balance. It's much snappier and more rhythmic than I remember from older Marantz players, perhaps purely by virtue of its high resolution but just as likely due to its overall musicality. The noise floor is also really low (though less so through the headphone jack) which helps move the music along with authority.
Depending on the disc, it was difficult to differentiate between SACD and CD. Pure DSD recordings were usually noticeably better in SACD mode, though not always. In most cases, if someone snuck in and switched to the CD layer, I might not have noticed. That made me suspicious about whether Marantz slacked off a bit in engineering the SACD section knowing that faculty would see only occasional use on most units.
Compared to older SACD players I dug out—a Sony SCD-CE200ES that no longer reliably reads SACDs, and a Pioneer Elite DV-45a that has never missed a beat—the Marantz had a solid edge in terms of detail, finesse, overall liquidity, soundstage accuracy and in particular the spatial extremes. So, while Marantz has seemingly advanced SACD playback over the years, my conclusion is that they've advanced CD playback even more dramatically, virtually closing the gap between the two at this price point.
With so much inherent goodness, the added features feel like freebies. Take the DAC, for instance. I hooked up the aforementioned Sony as a transport and the Marantz did wonders. I also plugged in my old iPod via the front-panel USB jack. To now, this is the best sound I've heard from it. I don't keep music on my computer so the rear panel USB jack went untested but since both signals flow through the same electronics I don't expect major differences. I also put some media files on a USB memory stick to test out the front panel input and they sounded fine though awkward to access since the LED display on the front panel is the only interface.
The SA8004 is handsome, curvy with a few retro touches here and there. Quality is excellent without the fashionable, and often unnecessary, overbuilding typical of the new school. Inside, there's liberal use of copper shielding. Marantz attributes 'part of the magic' (their words) to a disc tray made from a material called Xyron that they claim 'virtually eliminates micro-vibrations.' It looked like ordinary plastic in an ordinary transport to me but it did feel more rigid and flex resistant. The remote control is ordinary: ergonomically fine, not overly cheap, acceptable but uninspiring.
There's no CD text display for some reason, a feature you'll find on much cheaper machines including Marantz's own $349 CD5003 (reviewed here). I didn't notice until the review period was almost over so I guess I didn't miss it much. Previous generation players in this series reportedly developed problems reading certain discs, though it seems Marantz corrected this problem long ago. There wasn't a single hiccup while it was in my possession. And if all you need is a CD player—no SACD capability, no headphone jack, no DAC or USB inputs—the $995 Rega Apollo (reviewed here) is slightly superior in terms of openness, resolution and rhythmic drive.
Is this the value champion right now in terms of performance and versatility for under a grand? I won't argue with anyone who thinks so. It's my kind of machine: classy, unpretentious, well-built, pedigreed and enjoyable day in, day out for what should be a very long time. I can picture a retired doctor buying this to match his classic, vintage Marantz gear. I can picture a spoiled college kid asking for one as a gift and perching it next to his iMac. Then again, I can picture almost anyone who values music buying and enjoying this—myself included. Ed Kobesky