Review: Marantz SA11-S2 vs. Marants Black Pearl SA-KI

Category: Digital

There is so much hype and BS about equipment in magazine reviews and websites. In reviewing these two Marantz players, some of this will be discussed in the review. These two players are a perfect example, as a reviewer who reviewed both made comments and comparisons that I find far from accurate.

As a preface, a few comments on Marantz’s history. Saul Marantz designed products in the 1950’s which were state of the art tube designs, and still highly desired by many today. Particularly, the Marantz 7C preamp, the 8 amps, and the the 10B tuner. With the advent of transistors in the mid 1960’s through the 1970’s, Marantz changed ownership to Marantz Japan The receivers and separates they produced in the 70’s were beautiful and exuded luxury and quality. They were considered top of the offerings to their competitors such as Pioneer, Sansui, Kenwood, etc.

In the 80’s, Marantz became more of a mid-fi company, and its high end roots remained dormant for a decade. In the 90’s, Marantz re-entered the high end market with expensive, high end products and introduced their Reference Line, which were designed and built to a standard back to the old days, and have become Marantz’ highest achievement in the modern high end world of audio, and bringing them high acclaim by some reviewers. Their present Reference offerings benefit from an intended trickle down design from their most expensive offerings, most of which contain major design input from Ken Ishiwata, a modern Japanese version of Saul Marantz. Go to Marantz’ website to watch and hear him speak, Read about him. His musical inclinations, meticulous listening and parts selection put him at the top of high end designers who have served to advance the art, pushing the envelope of high end sonics.

I’ve owned the Marantz SA-11S2 for some time now. The S2 is a significant upgrade from the S1, from its new, rugged, metal transport that has no peers in sonics and quality at its price point. This transport, along with the high quality caps, resistors and other parts, in a completely balanced design , puts it in its own class at this price range. It contains the majority of parts and design of the flagship SA-7 S1 player, which is double the price. The SA11 is built like a battleship, weighs 38 pds., and is absolutely gorgeous.

I’m not going to describe all the features, such as the filters, phase reversal, external clock input, etc. I just want to talk about the sound. On my balanced Aesthetix Calypso, connected to my Pass X250.5 amp, I found the sound of the Marantz was its finest running balanced to the preamp, though it sounds nearly as good in single-ended mode.

Operationally, the player has been perfect. The transport drawer is smooth, quiiet, fast, and has given me no problems whatsoever. When one compares the mediocre transports that others companies, such as Ayre at $6,000 use, I scratch your head and wonder about profit margins and the arrogance in this field, designers and companies using $20 transports in $6,000 machines. This truly disgusts me..

As I had no SACD player in the past, I’m now in the difficult process of obtaining them, as so many are no longer in production, though there are many SACD’s still available and being released. Hence, much of my listening was done with plain Redbook discs. There are three Filter choices, Filter 1 and 3 similar, whereas Filter 2 has certain effects some may like and others may not.

I listen for pieces that provide musicality, space, air, imaging, dynamics and overall listenability. No piece is perfect, and audiophiles often forget this maxim. I find every piece has some character of its own, and has its strengths and its less than perfect characteristics.

I had sold my Northstar units out of necessity. With digital equipment, I tend to move on from time to time, as chips, converters, filters get better, with the equipment losing value. I’m not interested in expensive players, because they just are not worth the depreciation, unless you have money to burn.

I compared the Marantz as a transport to the Northstar, a famous Pioneer transport and a Sony DVD player. The Marantz trounced all over them.. It is a dynamic, detailed, full sounding transport made of a solid metal, and as smooth as silk.

I owned a Cullen-modified PS Audio DAC3. The Cullen is a wonderful DAC, and a benchmark in its price range.

The Marantz as a total player has a pleasant, even sound, and is certainly not boring or lacking in the high end, as Fremer would have you believe. It has very good dynamics, bass, midrange, and a lively, but not overbright high end. Dropping the Cullen in, showed the Cullen’s bass to be even more powerful, the midrange more palpable, and the treble highly detailed, more in your face, perhaps more than some will like, and revealed detail like mad. If you didn’t hear the Cullen with the Marantz as a transport, you wouldn’t know you were missing anything.

After having it a year, why did I not keep the Cullen? I wanted to have a one-piece player, and keep expenses down, including the cost a top digital interconnect costs. Plus I knew the Cullen would sell for half of what I paid in another year or so, not just because it was digital, but because that is the fate of modded units, no matter how good they are. Plus, the PS unit is rather homely looking with cheap-feeling and looking buttons. As another review on the Marantz here on Audiogon stated, the Marantz reproduces treble sounds with clarity, but not with the brightness and bite of overdefined digital. Walking this tightrope is a difficult feat. It is a welcome relief to listen to less than stellar recordings and hear much of the glare removed. However, with the very finest material, there is a slight loss of detail compared to something like the Cullen.


There is no doubt the limited edition Pearl player is a very good sounding piece, but it does not possess the big sonic superiorities that Michal Fremer says it does. It was built with some expensive parts, but there were compromises made. One, the transformer is a bit smaller, and one hears this as somewhat less bass impact and dynamics compared to the SA11S2. It must be pointed out that the Pearl design is based on the SA15, a less expensive player. That is why the Pearl is not a balanced design. Nor does it have the superb metal transport of the SA11S2. Though its new Xyron transport is rather good, it is not that SA11’s transport. I decided to test this out directly by using the SA11 as a transport and the Pearl as a DAC. It was frustrating that the Pearl lacked a coaxial input, which required me to use a Toslink cable to use the SA11 as a transport. Even with this limitation, it was immediately apparent that the SA11’s transport improved the Pearl’s dynamics, bass and took its sonics to a even higher level. It became more like the SA11 with greater dynamics and punch, more extension both low and high and more clarity, lifting the slight veil the Pearl can exhibit on vocals and other instruments. The piano had more ring and attack. Drums had more guts and drive. The high end became more extended. So much for Fremer’s review.

The high end of the SA11 has more extension and detailing than the Pearl, contrary to Fremer’s opinion. Taking the burden of running the transport away from the Pearl ‘s smaller transport, along with the superiority of the SA11’s transport is responsible for these improvements. I’m quite weary of reviewers whose opinions are so religiously listened to that anything they say is taken as if from the words of some audio god. Believe me, the more years I’ve done of listening and comparing, the more I trust myself than the revered reviewers. I listened to them too many times to find they were wrong, and these turned out to be expensive mistakes.

The Pearl’s DAC section is very good and perhaps has some slight midrange improvements over the SA11, but the SA11 would be my first choice. If the Pearl were equipped with the SA11’s superior transport, transformer, and fully balanced design, it might be as good. But it ain’t, Blanche, so that’s the reality. To be frank, I found the Pearl’s transport much slower at reading and accessing tracks.

Further, the SA11S2 sounds even better run in balanced. Since I heard enough comparison between units to tell me what I wanted to know, it wasn’t necessary for me to listen to the SA11 in balanced, which I know sounds somewhat better. The SA11 Is more dynamic and punchy with better bass, more extended highs, and more detailed with a wider soundstage. The SA11 may lack a bit of the top end filigree of the Pearl, but it is more extended on top, has a wide and deep soundstage (sorry, Fremer, you’re wrong). As a player in this price range and above, I would be very surprised to find anything that can touch it. It is somewhat of a dark horse in this sea of overpriced, cheaply made, and overrated digital equipment that seems to attract nerdy, geeky types, rather than music lovers and listeners.

There is another SA11 member review I encourage you to read. Simply search the forums. The SA11-S2 is highly recommended, and is one of very few machines in its price range that is fully balanced, with multiple filters, a phase inversion switch, and a transport to die for.

Associated gear
Aesthetix Calypso, Pass X250.5, Dali Helicon 800 Mk. 2

Similar products
Listed in review.
I noted that something I stated in the review seems confusing. I mentioned that the Pearl had a slight veil in the midrange, then I later state it may have some slight midrange improvements over the SA11.

To explain, a piece may excel in the same frequency range in one way, yet be inferior in that same range in another. The Pearl is a perfect example. I can listen to a vocal on it, and that vocal can sound more integrated in terms of the many aspects that comprise the totality of that voice. However, at the same time, the Pearl exhibits a slight coloration and haze over that more coherent vocal. One has to hear this to understand. The Pearl is a great player, but I still think the SA11 is superior, taking all sonic aspects into account. I described these in the review. The Pearl has no larger soundstage than the SA11, in fact, the SA11 has more width and breadth. When a piano rings out on a transient, it bites out as it should, as opposed to the Pearl, that sounds somewhat blunted, without that piano attack that the SA11 is able to do.

Perhaps the Pearl has smoothed some aspects of the sound, and can be more pleasing on medicre or poor-sounding recordings. Again, nothing is perfect, and one piece will sound better on certain material than other material.
Zear, how many hours do you have on the Pearl? I don't hear the haze you're talking about. I own both pieces and find they have a similar sound, though the Pearl is easier to listen to on the high end of lousy recordings. I agree with you that the metal transport of the SA11S2 is a better transport, but the overall result of the Pearl is a very nice sounding player. In the end, it's also system dependent, and both players are great units.
The haze is subtle, but I hear it, and I think there are enough hours on it. Yes, the Pearl can make irritating recordings less irritating, but the SA11 does the same, just not to the same degree. But I believe this is due to the SA11's top end having less roll off.

I do agree with you that both players are wondeful units, with finishing, build quality and features not offered in any similar priced units. The SA11 is foolishly overlooked by audiophiles looking for the latest. Newest is not always the best
Agree. Terrific unit. The SA11 transport was the transport of my dreams. Marrantz really hit a home run with this one. I don't see the Pearl transport anywhere in the same class. Like you, I've had it with DACs and high priced players and decided to settle with something of high quality construction and build like this. I saw one in the classified that has hardly any use in mint shape. It's crazy someone hasn't snapped that one up.
It looks like the picture you posted of the inside of the SA11 is actually a picture of the inside of a Marantz integrated amplifier.
Do you have anything to say about the headphone jack output of the Pearl or any other Marantz unit? Specifically, is it comparable to a decent dedicated headphone amp (eg, Melos, etc) or is that just wishful thinking? What's going thru my admittedly simple mind is this: Could this unit be used as an in home, "semi-portable" source and amplifier for a pair of high end dynamic phones (eg. Sennheiser 650 or 800, Denon AHD 2000, 5000, or 7000, etc.)?
I never had a dedicated headphone amp, and just have some decent dynamic phones. That said, the headphone circuit in either the Pearl SACD or integrated is a discrete design that sounds much better than the common headphone circuits in most units.
Thanks for the info. That's helpful.
How long did yours take to break in? Mine took a very long time, well over 400 hours. I now have at least double that and it is still sounding better everyday. when I first heard it I was not very impressed. After the break in you are correct, it is a steal. A very nice sounding player and I plan on having it for a very long time. It sounds great with McIntosh gear as well. It is a very organic sounding player. I was listening to Traffic low spark of high heeled boys and on the track Rainmaker, I thought the unamplified sound of the kick drum was amazing, almost like in my room in front of me. It was the first time my system has sounded like that.
Roxy54, thanks for pointing out that I posted a pix of the inside of the Marantz integrated rather than the SACD player. It appears there is no method on Audiogon to delete or ad a picture to a thread you started, so I can't do anything to correct this.
Others have said there is a very long break in time, perhaps because of the high grade capacitors used. I noticed an improvement in the first 40 hours or so, but I cannot say if there has been further improvement, because I go through periods of time when I don't have time to listen to my system, and I haven't placed 400 hours on it, like you have.

Your description of organic sounding is right on target. One of the characteristics I noticed in this machine is the naturalness of the sound and the seamless integration from top to bottom of the frequency range. As good as the Cullen DAC is, I can't say that it is as integrated sounding as the Marantz. I guess some reviewers and audiophiles want a treble that is slightly etched and sticks out, and they hear that as superior, but I hear this as a departure from that organic sound that many of us crave, as that is how real music sounds.
I think the reviewer on Audio Revolution got it right on the player. Check out the review at avrev dot com for his complete take on the unit.
Note that the inside picture you posted of the sc-11s1 is the brilliant Marantz preamp, not an integrated amp.