Marantz PM-KI-Pearl-Lite Integrated Amplifier Review and Test Report
I can almost hear the gasps of dismay when audiophiles take their first look at the Marantz PM-KI-Pearl-Lite. They’ll look at those tone controls on the front panel and say: ‘Tone controls? On an audiophile amplifier? Ken just has to be joking!’ And it isn’t just that Marantz has put bass and treble tone controls on the Pearl Lite… it’s that it’s also had the temerity to add a midrange tone control as well. I don’t think I’ve seen one of those since… mmm, well… not for a long time. (And for baffled readers who might be wondering about that reference to ‘Ken’, the Ken those audiophiles would be referring to is none other than Marantz’s own ‘brand ambassador’, Ken Ishiwata, who gets the final say on all products produced by Marantz, and even gets to ‘voice’ those Marantz products bearing his imprimatur—such as his Ken Ishiwata ‘Signature’ products—by selecting specific parts for use in the amplifier. Ishiwata also gets to ‘voice’ the models bearing his initials, so the ‘KI’ that’s part of this amplifier’s model number shows that this amplifier is one of the products that has benefited from his input.
So how is it that a ‘golden-ear’ signed off on an amplifier with bass, treble … and midrange… controls? You really don’t have to look any further than a single button elsewhere on the front panel: the ‘Source Direct’ button. Push this button and the tone controls disappear… at least they become invisible to the amplifier’s circuitry, so the amp essentially becomes a ‘purist’ audiophile amplifier at the push of a button.
But are tone controls really as bad as audiophiles suggest they are? Who was it who originally proclaimed: ‘Thou shalt not use tone controls!’ and was gratified when the world listened? That’s two questions, and I have two answers. The first is that having tone controls is no bad thing: in some cases, being able to make minor tonal changes can be decidedly advantageous. You can use the bass tone control to add some bass to a speaker that’s a bit bass-shy—either by design or because you’ve put it in a position in your room in which it can’t deliver maximum bass—or you can take away some bass from a bass-heavy speaker, or one that has of necessity been positioned in a region of your listening room that results in an accentuated bass response. The treble control can be used to ‘tame’ a recording that has too much of it (many recording engineers have very poor high-frequency hearing, and compensate for it by adding treble when they master albums) or to increase treble response to compensate for a tweeter whose high-frequency response rolls off prematurely (and that’s a lot of them!). As for that midrange tone control… well, we’ll get to that later in this review.
The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. It’s true that many of the tone control circuits used thirty or forty years ago were ‘cut-price’ versions that boosted some frequencies excessively, and were likely the major reason tone controls got a bad name. But that’s no longer the case and hasn’t been for about the past two decades. Modern tone controls now use sophisticated circuits that boost (and cut) only those frequencies that require it, leaving all other frequencies untouched.
The Marantz PM-KI-Pearl-Lite Integrated Amplifier (which I think I’ll hereafter refer to simply as the ‘Pearl Lite’ in order to save a few trees, not to mention the wear and tear on my computer keyboard) presents a solid, no-nonsense front fascia to the world. If we ignore the tone controls, there are really only seven controls on it. Of these, the power on/on switch, the volume control and the input source selector (with positions for Phono, CD, Tuner, Aux/DVD, Recorder 1, Recorder 2) are absolutely essential. The others control speaker selection (two buttons that allow you to connect and use one or two pairs of speakers and operate them independently, or simultaneously—or, if you’re listening via headphones, not at all), channel balance (a rotary control with a centre detent position), and internal signal routing: ‘Source Direct’ and ‘Power Amp Direct’.