Marantz PM-KI Ruby Integrated Amplifier and SA-KI Ruby SACD Player with DAC

Truth or Beauty?

Equipment report
Integrated amplifiers,
Disc players
Marantz PM-KI Ruby Integrated Amplifier and  SA-KI Ruby SACD Player with DAC

Male voices are handled equally well, whether Sinatra at his saddest on Only the Lonely, Matthias Goerne at his darkest in Schubert ‘s Winterreise, or Paul Hillier at his most ironic on Bitter Ballads (all three on CD from Reprise, Decca, and Harmonia Mundi, respectively). A favorite I’ve owned since I first got into quality reproduction back in the Sixties is the collection of sea songs and shanties by the male chorus of the Robert Shaw Chorale (RCA vinyl and 16/24 via Tidal through NAD’s M50.2 into the SA-KI’s DAC). This splendid program remains as entertaining as the day I bought it, whether for the eye-popping virtuosity of “The Drummer and the Cooke” or the melancholy strains of “Shenandoah” (in one of its best arrangements by the near-legendary Alice Parker). Shaw pioneered a method of getting choristers to pronounce words properly, and you can track virtually every word, even at the all but frenetic tempo of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” I’ve heard some setups come a cropper on this number (especially on the vinyl), but the Rubies sailed through it without blur or smear. This is by any standard a really superior recording of a small chorus, ideally mediating atmosphere and focus, with imaging that lets you enjoy the antiphonal effects in, say, the rounds as the tunes are passed from one section of the group to another.

PM-KI phonostage: Ishiwata is particularly and justifiably proud of this phonostage, which eschews chip-based op-amps in favor of discrete circuits. Fed by an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze in a Basis Vector IV/2200 combination, it gives you wide dynamic range, very low noise (I really had to crank it to hear any, even with an mc as low output as the Ortofon), and plenty of meaningful detail. One of the first things I put on was the DG recording of Bernstein conducting the entire string section of the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Op. 131 quartet, a desert-island recording chez Seydor, one I use every time I review equipment. I was astonished. The string tone was drop-dead gorgeous, the back to front layering something to behold, with great separation of textures without sacrificing the gestalt. The plucked strings made me sit up in my seat. When it was over my first note read, “What life and vitality there is here!” 

A sometime rap against Ishiwata’s designs is that smoothness takes precedence over drive: put paid to that by spinning Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, which I did one afternoon and found myself riveted through all four sides. As everyone must know, this was for Jarrett an occasion fraught with frustration: the piano, although a Bösendorfer, was not in good condition and frantic last-minute efforts by a tuner didn’t come close to making a silk’s purse out of it. Jarrett reluctantly consented to do the concert and in the event it turned out to be a great occasion, perhaps his signature achievement in recording. No, the piano doesn’t sound particularly good, but in the face of musicmaking of such commitment, fire, and inspiration, it just goes to show that it’s artist, not the instrument, that really matters. Jarrett’s various vocalizings are easily discerned through even the loudest, thickest passages and the presence of the audience is palpable.

A new album by the jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson (one of Diane Krall’s favorite collaborators) called Songs and Photographs, in which Wilson sings and plays songs of his own devising, is a recording of state-of-art purity and truth to timbre: It isn’t audiophile spectacular, rather just unobtrusively right (Joe Harley the producer, Michael C. Ross the engineer). The transparency is such you’d be forgiven for thinking no electronics were used in the recording. (The drum kit here will certainly test your system’s mettle if you wish to lay a heavy hand on the volume.)

SA Ruby SACD and CD: I might as well lay my cards on the table and admit that all other things being equal I think well-executed DSD is the best recording medium on the planet, indeed the best ever devised. It lacks the colorations and the speed—and thus the pitch—instabilities of even some of the very best vinyl reproduction (likewise analog tape, though tape’s instabilities of pitch are far less egregious than vinyl’s); it is source accurate with the widest dynamic envelope, the lowest noise and distortion, and the highest neutrality. When I reviewed the Reference Series SA-11S3 I judged it the best SACD player I had ever had in house. That was six years ago. I’d have to lie to say that my sonic recall is so infallible that I can pronounce the Ruby superior. What I can say for certain is that the Ruby gave me the best SACD reproduction I’ve had in house or with which I’ve had long experience since the SA-11S3, and it might be even better. As I’ve already described its performance on several SACD recordings, let me add only that all the recordings I typically use for reference and reviewing purposes were reproduced superbly. A powerful new recording by Susanna Maliki, a strong up and coming conductor, of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite (BIS) allowed the SA to show off its imaging capabilities and its dynamic range. Freddy Kempf’s recording (BIS) of the “Moonlight” and “Pathetique” sonatas brings the piano into the room in a powerfully persuasive way. The same is true of Angela Hewitt’s very different sounding instrument, a colorful Faziolli, in the Bach Toccatas (Hyperion). And one of the most exciting recordings I listened to during these evaluations was Jordi Savall’s La Folia (Alia Vox): a riot of colorful olde instruments thrillingly performed in a magically atmospheric setting. 

While Ishiwata’s commitment to DSD/SACD is absolute, he is the first to admit that Red Book properly implemented can be nearly as good, which this new player demonstrates to a fare thee well. As with the SACD playback, so with the CD: this is the finest reproduction I’ve heard from any single-unit player I’ve ever owned or had long experience with. Does this owe to the converting of all PCM to DSD? I have no idea (see sidebar for more on this), but the clearly observable differences I routinely hear between Red Book and SACD of the same source were with this player narrower than I’ve previously experienced.  

As with the Reference SA-11S3, this new Ruby has a pair of filters for Red Book reproduction, described in manual this way: 1: “Very precise soundstage and smooth tonal balance.” 2: “Neutral tonal balance—slightly brighter than Filter 1.” You couldn’t prove the superior imaging of 1 over 2 by anything I played, but 1 does sound a smidgeon smoother and 2 a tad brighter. But they are close enough that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t identify which was which on unfamiliar material (this was not the case with the filters on the Reference player). One of my notes suggests that percussive instruments, like a piano, sound a bit more percussive on 2, a bit less so on 1. (Neither filter is a default, meaning that whichever is engaged upon turn-off will be engaged upon turn-on.)

KI Ruby DAC: The built-in DAC here is so good I doubt that most prospective buyers will feel the need or the desire to move beyond the player itself once they add a music server. I spent a great deal of time using this DAC for streaming, both from my computer and, better still, an NAD M50.2 music server, with results that were essentially limited only by the quality of the source material. Indeed, at least half or more of my evaluations consisted in streaming Tidal or Qobuz routed through KI’s on-board DAC. The quality of reproduction was always at least as good as the highest CD quality and frequently better if the file was hi-res or MQA. I also listened with great pleasure to hi-res downloads. Among the very best sound I got regardless of format were downloads of DSD files, typically superior to the best vinyl. The DSD file of Jacintha’s Johnny Mercer album (Groove Note) was unsurpassed in my experience for sounding as if I had a direct connection back to the source.

Six years ago I began my review of Ishiwata’s Reference Series by observing that it was impossible not to be impressed by them. The same is true of these new Rubies, yet I would also add that it is equally impossible not to be impressed by the value they offer. Think about it: You have a 100Wpc amplifier (typically 150W or more); a preamplifier with a phonostage and a number of useful features; and an SACD/CD player with a built-in DAC that together will handle virtually every digital medium for the playback of music in the home—all of superlative performance, plus quality of build, parts, manufacturing, and workmanship that cannot be faulted. While at $3999 each they cannot be considered inexpensive, in the increasingly lunatic world of high-end audio pricing they certainly represent amazing value when you figure their sonic performance invites comparison on an absolute scale and leaves virtually nothing to be desired. My personal reference electronics are so good—McIntosh C52 preamplifier with DAC, Benchmark DAC1, Benchmark AHB2 amplifier, Phenomena II phonostage—that I’m always happy to return to them when reviewing duties are over. These new Marantzes haven’t changed this, but they are so good that should I ever decide to simplify my system without serious compromise, they would rank very high on any shortlist (my annoyance with certain aspects of their ergonomics notwithstanding).

Meanwhile, I was nearly finished with this review when I read the announcement that Ken Ishiwata is leaving Marantz because, I was told by the importer, that at nearly eighty Ishiwata has decided it’s time to retire. If this is true, then the KI Ruby Signatures become in effect his valedictory designs. Should this turn out to be the case, they are surely as fitting a valediction as he could desire, realizing as they do his highest and most cherished ideals in the reproduction of music in the home. {Editor's note: We were saddened to learn that Ken Ishiwata passed away last November.}

Specs & Pricing

Marantz PM-KI Ruby integrated amplifier 
Power output: 100Wpc, 8 ohms, 200Wpc, 4 ohms at 0.01% THD, 5Hz–50kHz
Inputs: Three unbalanced, two tape loops, one phono, power-amp in, all on RCA jacks
Dimensions: 17.32" x 5" x 17.83" 
Weight: 34.61 lbs.
Price: $3999

Marantz SA Ruby Super Audio CD player with DAC
Frequency response: SACD 2Hz–50kHz at 0.0008% THD, CD 2Hz–20kHz at 0.0015% THD 
Inputs: Optical, coaxial, USB-A (front), USB-B (rear)
Outputs: Single-ended, balanced, optical, coaxial
Dimensions: 17.32" x 5" x 16.5" 
Weight: 37.7 lbs.
Price: $3999

100 Corporate Drive
Mahwah, N.J. 07430-2041

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