The idea of universal disc players is not new. They've been around in the form of computer drives for a long time, as well as domestic disc players, but the players are usually not quite what you might expect from the description on the tin.
The players, for example, have traditionally limited themselves to CD, DVD-Audio and SACD, while computer drives will invariably include DVD-Video, Blu-ray and baseline audio compatibility in the form of compact disc. They certainly don't get their hands dirty with high-resolution audio.
There are exceptions, however, and the Marantz UD8004 is several steps closer than most to being a truly universal player, though this doesn't mean it will play everything.
It is a self-contained single-box standalone player, which starts out as a high performance audio disc player and includes CD, DVD-Audio and SACD – in both two and 5.1 channel form. It is also a high-performance video player and will play conventional DVDs and Blu-ray discs (for which it is equipped with an HDMI output – v1.3).
It has a number of intriguing extras too, such as the ability to play SD card media, which adds compatibility with MP3s and JPEGs in a form that may be more convenient than using a disc. For example, if transferring audio data from MP3 players.
Marantz has an impressive track record of making high-end disc players to suit both audio (CD, SACD) and video (DVD, Blu-ray) disc formats. This one does both, in a single box, which is almost unheard of elsewhere.
The design is fundamentally a slightly simplified version of the UD9004 all in one flagship, but at a much more affordable price and with similar premium level aspirations. Outside the Marantz stable, there are very few functionally similar options.
Marantz is one of the very few producers that makes its own disc player mechanisms (along with Denon, the other main autonomous element of the D&M empire), and the test player is home to one of the few player mechanisms capable of playing SACD, DVD-Audio and Blu ray discs – the internal software being software updatable as required.
It will also output to other devices in stereo and multichannel across a number of interfaces, including HDMI and a range of good-quality analogue interconnects.
The design supports 1080p Deep Color video, plus Dolby True HD and DTS Master Audio at digital level and multichannel audio (in its various iterations) in fully decoded analogue form.
Other impressive internal hardware includes an Anchor Bay AQBT2015 processor for upconversion of video to 1080p, while audio processing involves a version of the HDAM discrete output stage, which is often associated with this brand. The audio datastream involves sophisticated power supplies and three separate audio boards. Control is exercised by an attractive, compact 'glow key' remote.
Assessing build quality and value is slightly more complicated than you'd expect. First, like all Marantz equipment (especially upper-end players like this), build quality is beyond reasonable reproach, but there is more evidence of value engineering than with other dedicated Marantz high-end audio or DVD disc players and this is part of an inevitable trade-off against the sophisticated internal design and the selling price.
The bodywork is lightweight and even a touch flimsy in parts, although some anti-resonance features are included in the double-layer base. There's no headphone socket, either.
The player is also a little noisy when settling down into its play modes and there is a low-level contribution from the internal cooling fan, though you would only expect to hear a faint rushing sound between tracks in a very quiet room.
The remaining question is does it represent real value? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It performs like the high-end player it is, in both video and an audio context. It does a very complex job extremely well, and at a price that is comparable to single purpose players that collectively perform similar roles.
Audio has a similar level of importance to the video in this case, but it's not our job to cover the video performance in any detail. Suffice it to say, this is a true high-end video disc player as well.
Some of the review period was also spent with this player helping with an upcoming review of Wagner's Tristran und Isolde, playing non-lossless linear cooking-quality LPCM and DTS Master Audio, but although most impressive, the majority of the the audio 'donkey work' is performed off-player.
The situation with audio-only discs is much more straightforward and almost entirely positive. The best audio quality is delivered by SACD, and we had some very impressive results from various titles, including a multichannel SACD of Benjamin Britten music – the same Reference recording issue which includes Peter Grimes Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia, that we reviewed not long ago in a non-SACD transfer, as well as a regular CD of Peter Gabriel's Scratch my Back.
Let's not pretend that the Marantz totally bowled over the opposition – we often give house room to some very fine and costly disc players, which currently includes another design from the same D&M group stable – the Denon DCD-SA1 – a true dedicated high-end CD/SACD player, but the Marantz acquitted itself well on test.
The prognosis is that the Marantz is lean, clean and exquisitely detailed and has a little more punch than a number of SACD players, some of which can sound a tad lazy or laid back. This is no bad thing, but the quality of the output was not totally beyond reproach. There was a hint of granularity in the sound, though the effect is subtle enough to not always be noticeable.
It was no match, however, for the palpably more transparent and sophisticated Denon DCD-SA1. The UD8004 is not as universal as it purports to be. And we were a little surprised to see that it lacks a USB port. But it is about as close to fulfilling the brief for a true universal as you can get right now.
It is expensive, but measured against its capabilities, not unreasonably so. It costs little more than half the price of the flagship Marantz UD9004, for example, which is the parent model from which it (and many of the 8004's technologies) derive.
But if you're looking for a more accessible alternative, some of the recent Sony Blu-ray players (including some models from the BDP-S series) are also capable of playing the high-resolution audio only format, SACD, at a much lower entry price. DVD-Audio is not available, but so what?
By any standards this is an impressive player, which fully earns its stripes for any normal audio (or video) application.
Like many multi-function players it is a little slow and noisy, when attempting to work out what was required of some disc types, but it always got there in the end, while the internal cooling never became a nuisance on test – though it was not inaudible.
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