Like many firms, Marantz does its R&D at the high-end and lets the results 'trickle down' to lesser products as the march of technological progress makes them less expensive.

Hence, for instance, the use of the Crystal Semiconductor CS4398 DAC chip inside the Marantz SA8003, one of the highest-performing parts on the planet.

Before we get too deep into the insides, there's a more obvious external feature that demands comment: a USB socket. We haven't seen this before on any separates CD player, but immediately realised that it is an extremely useful and clever idea. Some manufacturers have provided digital inputs on CD players before, but the USB slot is even more useful.

If you have high-quality music on a portable player of some sort, plugging it in to a socket like this makes it instantly available via your home hi-fi, with the considerable advantage of high-quality digital-to-analogue conversion. It won't turn low-rate MP3 files into miracles of high fidelity, but it will certainly extract the most from uncompressed audio.

Well finished deck

That apart, the SA8003 continues the current trend among SACD spinners of offering stereo-only replay.

It does seem to be something of an improvement over similar machines in terms of loading time (a frequent gripe) and loads a CD in about five seconds, which is just about bearable. In terms of build quality it's nicely done, the front a mixture of metal and plastic, but so well finished that it's not obvious which is which, while the whole of the main chassis tray is copper-plated.

The top is thin and a little resonant. Good-quality analogue output sockets are fitted and there are quite a few high-grade components internally.

That said, of course, circuit design is probably more important and here Marantz has a unique attraction in its 'Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module', a configuration used in preference to the more popular op-amp, which certainly gives consistently excellent results in technical terms. Distortion from this player is down among the noise, though susprisingly there's a little jitter in evidence, just enough to be measurable.

Impartial performer

We make measurements of aspects like distortion and jitter as much as anything out of curiosity, but the correlation between very low (but not vanishing) levels of such nasties and subjective performance is weak and uncertain.

At any rate, the jitter certainly didn't seem to be enough to interfere seriously with our enjoyment of this player, which did nothing to dim our enthusiasm for either its maker, or any of the favourite discs we played on it. It is lively, impartial in its musical tastes, detailed and frankly a delightful performer.

If it gives any ground to high-end esoterica then it's in the very finest gradations of insight and, perhaps, also control. In general, though, it's really rather lovely.

Added warmth

It's always a little dangerous to talk about a company's 'house sound', especially in the case of CD players which, on the whole, show quite subtle personality traits, but we've had so much experience with Marantz in particular, that we're more confident than usual in saying that this player does indeed show some similarities to its stablemates.

The sound in question is characterised by a very slight degree of added warmth, a small step from absolute neutrality in the upper bass/lower midrange region. Of course the frequency response is as flat as the proverbial, but our analysis is that the sound is not quite as precisely controlled in that region as it may be and the result is a small, but audible subjective lift in roughly the region occupied by a male voice.

It would be a harsh judge who would proclaim that unpleasant, though. At worst, it leads to a very minor reduction in detail, but it does add a certain 'glow' to the sound and if that's helping Marantz shift players in comparitive demos we wouldn't be at all surprised. In day-to-day terms it's something one gets used to quite quickly and it doesn't grate or irritate in long listening sessions.

Indeed, had we not been using some particularly high-resolution loudspeakers for the listening, we may hardly have been aware of the detail aspect at all.

Adaptable CD player

Low bass is exceptionally well presented for a product in this price bracket, with extension, precision and generous helpings of tunefulness, which all goes to set up a particularly pleasing foundation for
almost any style of music.

In the high treble there's occasionally a hint of congestion, not a big problem, but something we've found before with Marantz players. We suspect this is due to the unusual digital filter the company employs. Ultimate treble cleanliness is possible in digital audio, but unfortunately, it is one of those things one tends to have to pay a lot for!

Most of all, what we appreciated in our brief listening sessions with the SA8003 was the ease with which it adapts to everything from funk to opera, folk to thrash. It has a terrific knack of not just coping with any
style, but playing it as if it was the principal source used by the designers in the final stages of voicing the circuitry.

It can be civilised in string quartets, soulful in ballads and mental in punk, one after the other and with complete conviction: that is perhaps nothing more than a statement of what hi-fi should be about, but it is notable how few components really shine in every area. Some seem a little polite in rock, others a touch harsh in classical, but this one just doesn't seem partial.

Marantz scores another win

We're very impressed with Marantz's ability to turn out great disc players. There are many fine CD players around between £500 and £1,000, but they don't all play SACDs (and our comments above apply equally to both CD and SACD replay), nor are they all as smartly turned out as this one.

The USB input is a clever and useful addition and the player is pleasant to use. Another winner!