Review: Marantz Marantz DV-8400 & SA-14 vs. others CD Player
Marantz DV-8400 & SA-14 vs. Philips SACD-1000 & 963 vs. Sony 9000es vs. Denon 2900
As you can tell, I’m a SACD-aholic. I couldn’t imagine living without SACD playback in my system and can’t believe I thought myself to be an audiophile before being introduced to it. As good as SACD is, I have only 50 or so discs, yet countless hundred redbook cd’s so although I want the magic of sacd playback I absolutely need good CD playback. In this review I have focused mainly on the redbook playback of the machines, as SACD playback I’ve found to have less variability between machines, though in every case I should not that I found the character of each players redbook playback to transfer to the SACD side as well to a lesser degree, especially the flaws. For example, the 963’s poor bass on redbook transferred to the SACD side while being notably open on both formats, the 9000es had a grainy top-end and one-note-bass on both formats, the SACD1000 had prominent bass on both sides, etc.. I’ll add an addendum to the review later when I finish playing with the 5900 if anyone’s interested, which my dealer will let me demo in home for a couple weeks.
Every machine had at least 300hrs of burn-in for each format, all but the 8400 had much, much more, and each where tweaked with various isolation devices and cables, each “optimized” with their various on-screen settings and filters for pure audio reproduction, and I even tried the un-intuitive and less popular settings for giggles. I put at least 3 solid weeks of listening in on each machine. I also re-optimized speaker positions as much as possible with each source, which was a PITA with 125lb speakers on spikes, for sure, but only fair, especially wrt getting the best soundstage, tonal balance due to room interactions and the preferred front row seat. With no further ado, the very lengthy review!
The redbook was, in a word, blah. The most un-involving sound I’ve heard in my home. Lifeless, lacking in resolution, the top-end was objectionably soft whereas the bass was prominent, very strong with lots of slam and a fairly textured, yet it’s the only thing the player nearly gets right, which makes the presentation unbalanced and distracting. I just couldn’t sit and listen to this players haze and dullness on redbook; I would either pick up a book or turn on the tv for background diversion after a few minutes, it was that boring. The 963 is more detailed, more open, with more air, more sparkle and top end extension, though the 1000 offers fuller, more round, simply better bottom 3 octaves. The SACD performance was much better however; it was about 80% of what the SA14 had with the same general tonality, just didn’t image as well, not as extended or “pretty” up top, though nearly as smooth, rich and solid sounding, fairly analog sounding overall, though comparable perhaps to only an entry level TT. This player was very sensitive to isolation and the slow roll filter was clearly superior, just like on the SA14 wrt the improvements heard, with more extension, air and ease. Build quality was so-so. Horrible case and front plate, flimsy and noisy tray, not at all looking like a $2K player from the outside. No PCM out is a huge setback for this player, it needs an external dac in the worst way. Even an MSB Nelson would be a huge step-up IMO, let alone a Musical Fidelity A3-24 or Bel Canto dac (I’ve owned all of these too, among others, and quite a few CD-only players for reference).
Final Grade: I’d give the machine a “C-” on redbook, a B on SACD. I had great hopes for this player, expecting it to sound more like the SA14 given some shared internals, and was greatly let down, so take that into account in my review.
I didn’t have much hope at all for this machine and was impressed with the sound it offered at an insanely low cost, I’d suggest it for newbie’s in an instant, yet it’s nowhere near reference caliber. First off I thought the player sounded best the upsampling off, a sentiment shared by more then a few people I spoke with that had highly resolving systems that fell for this players’ hype. Upsampling sounded gimmicky, very artificial, clearly adding things to the music/sound that wasn’t actually there, in some ways euphonic sounding, if you will, though on the plus side upsampling did open up the soundstage significantly and lower the noise floor. However, I feel the stage is an artificial stereophonic artifact, it’s something not heard in real life, and as neat as it is to hear it’s a characteristic I don’t value too much in hi-fi playback, just so you’re aware of my biases here. Redbook wasn’t objectionable overall, easy to listen to, just nothing special in the grand scheme of things. For the $300 I paid for it I suppose it’s a great value, great entry level player, but not at home in the $10K setup auditioned in.
My main gripe with this player was, as my friend who also tried the player so eloquently put it, it has “no nuts!” Very weak bass, it sounded bashful and apologetic down low, to get anthropomorphic (sorry!). Bass was hollow, lacked slam, and was rolled off. Bass is important to me, especially given my musical tastes. Bass is the rhythmic driving force of the music, it’s what draws a person into the performance, making a visceral connection and makes the sound more believable, less reproduced, and these things the 963 lacked, which made it hard to appreciate the player. Next to the SA14 it lacked ambiant and inner detail, musicality and natural warmth and richness, which are not things one wants to do without when they have so much invested in a stereo, yet it was as good or better in these regards next to the Sony. SACD playback was pretty good, very open and smooth. Also worth note, the build quality is dismal on this player, cheap inside and out, the worst of the lot. [yes, before you ask, I used the right RCA outputs and settings!]
Final Grade: I almost want to fail both Philips players for the “Tick-Tick-Tick-Tick” noise audible at the listening position! This is unacceptable! Why some folks compliment this transport completely escapes me! However, ignoring the built-in ticking-time-bomb feature of the Philips players, another “C” on redbook, a “B/B+” on SA-CD. Though the lack of bass also transferred to the DSD side it was more open and articulate with more ambient detail then the SACD1000, also a character on redbook it excelled in, hence the slightly higher score, though the 1000 killed it from 160hz down on SACD.
Typical for a flagship Sony product, it’s ruthless on lesser recordings, easy to listen to with great recordings, quite a mixed bag overall. It’s an absolutely killer transport for an external dac, better then the old Theta Basic/PS Audio transports, so its value is high. Mating this player with a good, though not necessarily expensive dac I feel to be a great way to go and would suggest this to many that have a great dac and want to try SACD, where one will have cd and sacd playback with what I’m told is great video to boot. On Redbook, the tonal balance was good, fair PRAT, imaging was good between speakers but lacked depth and solidarity. On the downside it had very loose, “one-note” type bass next to the Marantz machines, it had grainy though well extended highs, it was, on all but stunning recordings, slightly lean in the midrange, overall slightly fatiguing with long listening sessions, not very musical and rarely engaging. It’s very dependent on quality power. It’s a mixed bag for me, I was glad to see it go yet didn’t mind it sharing shelf space when it was here and playing well recorded music. I don’t want to give this one a grade, I’ll take a “W” on this one
BM sucks. You’ll spend hours online trying to figure out how to get low bass out of this player, and once you get it you’ll find it wasn’t worth the hassle! It had a closed-in and uninviting sound, nowhere near as relaxed as the Marantz or 963, thin down low, unfocused stage, especially up top. The Marantz 8400 eats it alive, especially in terms of musicality and soundstaging. It felt it did a less then stellar job with SACD, overall perhaps the worst of the bunch aside from the 9000es and 47ai (if memory serves), though still sounding better then 44.1. It had limited dynamic range on SA-CD next to the 8400, not nearly the air and spaciousness, nor as smooth up top. It sounded more extended with more sparkle but after more listening I’d be comfortable saying the top-end is ragged and diffuse, giving the impression of extension where, though in a way that the recording doesn’t offer, maybe overemphasis in a small range. It’s not very transparent, you can’t see into the recording like you can with the Marantz players, it simply lacks presence and naturalness of lifelike music. It also sounded dull around 5K hZ, the complete opposite flaw seen in the DV8400, so overall completely different sounding. It’s easy to listen to, good for the price, just not as good as the 8400 by any standard.
I should admit that Denon products have never impressed me for music next to comparably priced and modern products from Marantz and other niche audiophile companies, this player being no exception. I’m going to demo the 5900 after all the buzz, but after the 2900 I won’t hold my breath on audio playback fidelity. As much as I pick it apart I would suggest it over the Sony or Philips SACD1000 given the similar $600-700 going rate, but a system/personal taste tossup with the Philips 963 (assuming you have a sub I might give the nod to the 963), and would suggest the more expensive Marantz players over the Denon without hesitation. BTW, sacd playback is much louder then cd playback, so be sure to adjust your levels if you demo this player, it makes a huge difference, makes the sacd playback rather uninspiring and lifeless then first believed, it’s actually a bit analytical and clinical like the redbook side (house sound?), this next to any other sacd player, yet still has an edge over most PCM machines when spinning SACD’s. I must note that I compared this one critically to the 8400 and sa14, so may be unfair in the critique given the price difference, yet I’ve not seen any comparisons of this machine next to “better” or other new machines so thought it might be worth comparing, and I can only offer comparisons to the Philips players and Sony’s by memory, which I hate to do, so take that into account.
Grade: C+ redbook, B SACD
In short, for anyone willing to spend up to the $1100 or some odd dollars for such a machine, it’s the only DVD based machine that I’d recommend to anyone into music, well worth the dollar difference over the competition. As to its virtues, it offered a stunningly deep soundstage with more air around instruments then any machine I’ve had in home, an area where it even eclipsed the SA-14, having openness and spaciousness akin to the Musical Fidelity A3-24 dac, a dac which I enjoyed immensely with a Theta transport but ultimately sold in favor of the SA-14 some time ago. The hi-fi freaks out there will love this player’s imaging abilities. Its bass was second only to the SA-14, it trounced all over the other DVD based machines, being deeper, tighter and more articulate with more texture then the competition. It has great rhythmic drive, very toe tapping and musical, its bass articulation and imaging capabilities have to be part of its stunning quietness, in turn its dynamic range, which on paper in the spec sheet is remarkable and apparently not exaggerated. It’s does a good job with ambiance and low level detail, fabulous reverberation information to cue in on hall size and shape, better then any other dvd player by a mile, all of which shocked me as the other players completely missed these things, keeping them as strictly good mid-fi components in my book. Again, this is all relative to my reference and preference.
The 8400 is a bit laid back however, just a little though (way laid-back before broken-in, so be patient!), so make sure your system isn't too laid back to start with if you decide to give it a try. I should not that my amp is very aggressive and forward, and it doesn’t need to be said that system matching and synergy is always key, ymmv, etc. That said it’s still the only dvd based sacd player that I would personally recommend, the other dvd players have very obvious flaws or shortcomings that I myself could not live with. It has some other faults worth mentioning in the hi-fi context as well, though not faults next to the other dvd players, only faults in the absolute sense next to more expensive gear. It images are flat and, next to the SA14, hollow. It lacks the midrange richness and warmth and topend sweetness of the SA14 and a few other $3K+ players/dacs+transports I’ve had. Main fault next to the other sacd/dvd machines to my ears is a soft topend, being not as extended as the 963 or especially the sa14, yet it was smoother then the Philips and Sony machines while not as crisp, clear and smooth as the SA14 (which itself some folks find soft but I’d call just right in my system). It’s slightly bright (around 5K I’d say), and that mixed with the slightly recessed midrange make for a notable problem compared to reference quality cd players, but it’s a flaw easier to live with then those had in the other machines, at least for me, but others will object to this I’m sure. Also, It’s not an ‘analog-like’ sounding player or ‘tube-ish”; it’s unmistakable as digital, granted it’s good digital, yet still has the digital edge and feel, as do all the dvd players, yet it doesn’t sound like it has a dvd player built in with the associated grundge that the other players carry as baggage, notably their high noise floor.
I respect its redbook, but don’t love it, just as I respect Wilson speakers and the 777es, among many other products, but don’t love them. I’ve picked this player apart more thoroughly then any other, only because the lack of review information available (as noted by getting a ton of emails about this player, which prompted me to write this review), as all the other machines have been thoroughly both trashed and praised. I didn’t wish to take the time to write what others have already said, yet still wished to give some the essence of each machine as I hear it, identifying difference and similarities for others that may be familiar with another mentioned machine.
Grade: B+ for redbook, B+ for SACD.
Yes, it’s an old player but it’s one that was neglected in the audio press and didn’t get the credit or attention it deserves! As good as the 8400 is, and it's very good for a dvd based player, I truly love the sound of the SA14. It's the most analog and natural sounding piece of gear I've ever heard, it fits my system and musical tastes perfectly. I’ve taken to finding the perfect piece of gear with the same type of approach for finding a perfect women; neither exist, there is no perfect woman or piece of gear, but if you look hard enough, gain enough experience and make enough mistakes you can find the woman, and system, that is perfect for you, which is what really matters. The sa14 isn’t perfect, it’s perhaps not the best at any one aspect, but it’s perfect to me and its flaws I can ignore or deal with elsewhere in the system/room.
None of the dvd players except the 8400 had an edge on the SA14 in any way, not even close on cd, though sacd playback was more competitive. The 8400 has a couple slight edges stereophonically if you sit and really listen; you can hear a marginally better soundstage depth with clearly more air around performers, it's quieter too, yet the SA14 has much rounder and richer images, better top end extension and clarity, overall more ease, and again, it sounds like a very good turntable, very analog, smoooooth yet detailed, no offensive digital fingerprints, and that's on the CD side, which was shockingly close to its SACD playback! I felt it bettered the MF a3-24 dac, Bel Canto dac, Sony scd777 and Jolid JD100 on redbook overall, just to name a few other popular players. It has some flaws that hi-fi freaks can point out next to other stupidly expensive gear (bit of midrange fog, doesn’t sparkle up top as much as some, and some feel the bass too prominent, though that’s mainly a personal taste issue), but when it comes to hearing the music, and more importantly feeling the music, the SA14 makes an emotional connection unlike any other I’ve ever heard, even more so then the 777 Sony on both formats, it makes the music a living, breathing entity. It not euphonic, not in the least, it's just natural to my ears. Listening through (rather then to) this player is an experience similar to cruising in my 68 GTO convertible, to slipping on a favorite pair of old jeans and a t-shirt to watch a Lakers game in the bar with old friends, eating a favorite food with a beautiful woman while listening to live music in a cozy club. It just feels right, it feels natural, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and it connects me with the rest of the world while letting all cares and troubles behind. The player is completely believable, in two words, natural and musical.
The Sharp tray used on this piece is an absolute gem. Very smooth operating, dead silent, overbuilt to say the least. I had it in my hand; it has to weigh a solid 5lbs! (the Philips trays can be measured in ounces, construction cost in pesos). The Marantz/sharp tray is very well built, great parts used all around, which no doubt contributes to the sound in a big way. The build quality, inside and out, is quite good, no op amps, all discrete, great dacs! There is room for improvements inside, of course, and surely it’s a great platform for upgrades. Why start with garbage inside when you can start with a solid player like this I keep asking myself! When the ver2 hits the streets I’ll give it a listen, but for the price difference I think sending the ver1 off for professional mods will be the best option at the $2K price difference that will be a factor! Then again, I’m only curious to hear other components and I’m not feeling any urge to change this player any time soon, definitely a keeper in my system, with my musical tastes (diverse and biased towards the esoteric, as you see below), yet I ramble, so will shut up!
Grade: A- for redbook, “A” for SA-CD.
-Full range Von Schweikert VR3’s (w/mods)
-PS Audio HCA-2 or Bel Canto evo2 or Coda Continuum
-PS Audio PCA-2 or Musical Fidelity A3cr pre
-Marantz SA-14 as reference player
-Cabling all DIY with v. high quality wires and connectors (WBT, silver solder, DH labs, etc, both balanced and SE interconnects where applicable)
-Dedicated power lines
-PS Audio power cabling throughout
-Monster 2500 PC for the digital and pre
-Various Room treatments
-Various Isolation devices
I listened to at least 50 discs on each machine, repeatedly for many favorite albums, and here’s a short list of various performers on CD and SACD used, having most every recording from the artist available unless the title is listed:
Beck, Floyd: DSTOM, Diana Krall, Era: The Mass, Shaggy, Allison Kraus: Live, Santana, Al Di Meola, LAGQ, Mahler, Orf, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stones: box set, Kinobe, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Billie Holiday, among others that escape me!
Radiohead, Portishead, Lamb, Gorillaz, Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man, Stereophile test disc 3 (used for setup and level matching), Emilina Torrini (sp), Dido, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jethro Tull, Bob Dylan, Ian Anderson: Divinities, Massive Attack, Hooverphonic, Morcheeba, Goldfrapp, Nina Simone, Ella, Satch, Evanescence, Beck, Peace Orchestra, Daughter Darling, Sigur Ros, Verve Remixed vol 1 and 2 (great music!) to just name a few.
I love and used to play the blues and jazz in a couple of bands (saxophone) but don’t listen to it often at home. I wish to evolve my musical tastes and knowledge rather then stay fixated on a limited segment as many audiophile choose to do, in having 572 versions of the same song, which is cool, to each his own, but it’s not where I’m coming from in my tastes, so be sure to take my review accordingly. Feel free to ask questions and add comments. I’d especially like to hear others reviews that have had 2 or more of the same components in their systems.--Michael
Marantz DV-8400 & SA-14 vs. Philips SACD-1000 & 963 vs. Sony 9000es vs. Denon 2900