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This review first appeared in the January 2008 issue of and can be read in its original German version here. It is herewith translated and presented to an English-only audience through a mutual syndication arrangement with whereby they will translate and publish select reviews of ours while we reciprocate with one or two of theirs each month. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end has a link below it to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of - Ed.

Reviewer: Ralph Werner
Sources: analog - Acoustic Solid MPX, Phonotools Vivid-Two, Denon DL-103, Ortofon MC Rondo Bronce; digital - audiolab 8000CD, audiomeca Obsession II, C.E.C. TL51XR, Fonel Simplicite
Amplification: integrated - Accuphase E-212, Myryad MXI 2080, Dussun V8i; preamp - bel canto PRe3, Funk LAP-2, Myryad MXP2000; power amp - bel canto M300 monos, Myryad MXA2150
Loudspeakers: Sehring 703 SE, Spendor S3/5, Thiel CS 2.4, Volent Paragon VL-2, Zu Audio Druid Mk4
Cables: low-level - Ecosse Baton + Symphony, fis Audio Studioline, fis Audio Livetime, Funk BS-2, van den Hul Integration Hybrid, Zaolla Reinsilber NF; high-level - Ecosse SMS2.3, fis Audio Livetime, Ixos 6006 Gamma, Zu Audio Libtec
Power bar: fis Audio Livetime
Rack: Creactiv & Taoc AS-3, Gerätebasis der Akustik Manufaktur
Review component retail: €3.299 Esoteric SA-10 | €3.499 Esoteric AI-10

Esoteric's new age: The 10 Series
Some folks love for learning what albums other shoppers picked who also bought the albums they're set to buy. I do too but I never really make out. Sure, it's helped me discover this or the other band but it's never become a reliable referral source. Even though extensive background statistics based on cross-referencing thousands of 'musical tastes' promises good tips in principle, I tend to get stuck with "we're sorry to inform you that we no longer carry this item but check with a shop on the Faroe islands". My preferred resource is, then a choice dealer who'll actually ring up those remote Faroe folks. This approach has gotten rather more perfected and, to put it mildly, lastfm's library of musicians and bands is - um, more substantial. Call it Pop + Web2.0 in red-line shape. Better set your cell phone alarm or you won't stop until the wee hours of the next morning.

Naturally, snazzy search engines, day clouds, wikis and blogs aren't the only ways to discover new music. Old-fashioned Listening1.0 works too. Which recently had me wonder. Who, on Howe Gelb's The Listener, was vocalizing with such sexy seduction? The booklet named Henriette Sennenvaldt and her band Under Byen. Duly informed, I headed for my local record shop and presto, score! What a beaut too - sex, noise, tender violin plucks and electronically processed saws, all driven, densely voluptuous and melodically arranged if admittedly a bit eccentric.

There's a lot more to it than just formidable bass. Even a first listen recognizes what I'd call neutral command. Under Byen is an eight-headed formation whose magically evocative soundscapes are necessarily thick. Such music can work even when reproduced as a sort of sonic mash as demonstrated by a Massive Attack concert once. If delivered with the requisite verve, that type of deep sonic immersion can be quite pleasing. Truth be told, the vivisectionist's separation of individuated instruments and small aural flourishes does occasionally detract from aural pleasures, particularly when it undermines the grand gestures to obscure the whole.

Which is exactly what Esoteric's SA-10 pulls off: It precisely and accurately locks each individual event but then integrates it with the big picture. Very high localization power meets grounding into the most abysmal bass. The tunes neither splinter apart into isolated ingredients nor follow the trendy ideal of 'warm analog CD sound' (for which my privately irreverent equation is jitter + valve distortion = musicality). The Esoteric SA-10 is supremely extended, neutral, utterly transparent and without HF irritation or midrange glassiness. This being the case, an artificial injection of warmth seems entirely unwarranted. Analog lovers should simply buy a record player and be done with it.

Tonally, this player is plainly linear and flat. No matter what, I couldn't detect any deviations. While at 3+ large ones, the SA-10's sticker is the lowest in Esoteric's entry-level portfolio aside from the small G-03x master clock, I remember as a student living off such green for six months and still escaping for a quick vacation. Hence this machine had to deliver. Merely nice just wouldn't do. Not that this Volksoteric would or should care one wit about my opinion. It simply went on about its job with stoic perfection, no more, no less. There were no frequency response squiggles villainous ears might love to identify; no extension limitations on either end; no soft focus in the treble and most certainly not down low. The SA-10 is no crooner who romances with subdued charms. Rather, it's a hard-boiled session player whose studio gigs don't ask for artsy edits but playing the right notes as the score calls 'em. An honest worker then. While pointier ears might disagree, I can't for the life of me discern a tonal blemish here.

Soundstaging: This player is big in all dimensions. While laterally very broad, the immense depth casting will be the subject of true fascination. Even in height -- admittedly a somewhat esoteric subject -- one gets the sense that rather than a flat roof above the speakers' baffle edges, there's a kind of dome. This translates as added dimensionality even though with breadth, width and height covered, we've already run out of proper dimensions. Regardless, this extra dimensionality factor of "Om Vinteren", a 12-minute dream by the Danish octet, became simply stupendous and significantly more acute, a quality not to be confused with...

Localization focus: This relates not to the size and boundaries of the soundstage per se but the organization and sorting of instruments and sounds within it. Here the Esoteric goes about its business with such precision as to be downright scary at times. Think millimeter-obsessed virtual stage reconstruction where nothing wanders, blurs or obscures. The SA-10 even differentiates between up and down. Just slightly off center left in the second layer rings a cymbal one meter high, in the third layer behind it a hi-hat attack occurs 30cm higher and 10cm off to the right. All this is standard protocol with the Esoteric and when delivered at such a steady clip, a true luxury.

You must be familiar with 3D CAD animation for automobiles that are routinely shown in television commercials. Semi-transparent green drafts of cars revolve around their central axis and that's how you must envision the Esoteric SA-10's holographic abilities. I occasionally sensed that if I could just stalk the sound unnoticed, it'd stand still and I'd be able to inspect it from above, below and any imaginable lateral angle. Needless to say, sounds never do stand still but the illusion of utter spatial solidity was one the SA-10 prompted routinely on the right recordings.

Will everyone fall for this? Won't some holistic philosophers in the high-end secretly suspect artifice? One can't ever satisfy everyone. The Esoteric SA-10 simply bypasses philosophical discussions and projects holographically mastered albums with laser precision into the playback venue. In an interview, Mrs. Sennenvaldt called her music a bit "too much", presumably to indicate that excess itself becomes compositional style and substance. Her music deliberately attacks the subconscious. During the first two minutes, I thought "that's a bit intense" but quickly relaxed into a "let's go with it" and then I was gone hook, line and sinker. The ecstasy of the morphine addict. Play loud!

Jawohl! With the test subjects of Esoteric AI-10 integrated and SA-10 SA/CD player, I first used only the spinner with amplification by Funk LAP2 and Bel Canto e.One M300 monos over the Zu Druids for a quick sound check. Why suffer involved system adjustments if fun was aplenty and outdoor sun didn't beckon to elsewhere? Such fun became quickly apparent in rock-hard bass runs that explored true subsonics with pitch definition and recoil as though to express peak athlete disdain for upper-bass love handles. Clearly, the Esoteric SA-10 doesn't pretend at low bass with extra padding two octaves higher. Why cheat when your concrete foundation is pillared deeply underground? That this would benefit the Danes of Under Byen was self-evident. The path to the subconscious sneaks through the deep.

For illustration, watch a David Lynch flick without bass. If I recall correctly, certain bonus tracks of his Mulholland Drive DVD do indeed juxtapose a scene with and without low-frequency soundtrack. Ever since then, I've known that the ears are watching too and that Lynch's suggestive imagery is fed by frequencies well below 100Hz. Ditto for Under Byen's
music. Their low bass is the black hole around which stately revolve the sonic vista - and black the Esoteric does very well.

Details: To pick up the pace and avoid boredom, one word shall suffice - first rate. I won't swear to first sightings never heard before. Not really. It was more the combination of excellent resolution with the abovementioned image focus which added relevance to minutiae which otherwise linger in meaning limbo. Despite such resolution, nothing turned agitated or nervous. The SA-10 is far too grounded for that. Besides, it seems to outright detest jittery, hyper-present (pseudo-analytical) renditions.

Dynamics/Timing: The Esoteric SA-10 is dynamically astute and evidences no issues differentiating between extreme voltage jumps or minimal level fluctuations. I was at outright hello with Zappa's Yellow Shark where a few mean kettle drum beats and the SA-10's iron-fisted infrasonics and ready willingness to go real loud gave me quite the scare. Which gets us from tympani to percussion and timing and thus, the twins of impulse response and rhythmic fidelity. One giveaway of this player is its exceptional speed or immediacy on transients. This befits drums and percussion as well as guitar and harp plucks, piano and cimbalom hammers. While some won't care, such details present music with the kind of jump factor that involves the heart just as it should be.

Timing of course transcends leading edges to include sustain, decay and release. This segues into perhaps the sole minor weakness of this machine. After extensive A/Bs against Fonel's Simplicitè (review forthcoming), I concluded that particularly on piano runs, as precise as the Esoteric captured attacks, it also foreshortened note decays just a bit. The instrumental afterglow wasn't quite as embodied as over the Fonel. At first I was undecided, citing the Esoteric's somewhat more open and clearer treble as the reason for the perception difference. I ultimately locked the decay issue on a Tord Gustavsen piano trio number where the Simplicitè simply went farther to fluidly connect individual notes whilst the Esoteric focused on the individual notes. Make no mistake though - such distinctions required extensive comparisons to become sweaty reviewer neurosis rather than relaxed music consumption.

For an intermediate bill of sonic health, the Esoteric SA-10 (SA)CD player is a definitive benchmark which sets such high standards in all aspects to make it the ideal reviewer's tool and yardstick whereby to measure deviations in other machines. To my chagrin, temporariness intruded since this loaner would have to return to its makers...

Granted, this conclusion wasn't entirely blue-eyed and unexpected given that Teac's luxury arm of Esoteric embodies the ultra high end of digital as perhaps no other firm. Heck, these are the folks who offer mono converters. Absolute must-haves, mono DACs. Shouldn't this require addition of an external master clock like the G-01 to go the distance? 14,000 extra euros in this context wouldn't exactly gild the lily.

Sadly, I'd anticipate significant domestic protest over any "honey, I need an atomic clock so let's cancel our holidays for the next two years" proposition. Still, I'm tickled that such exotica exists, more tickled still that this firm's know-how eventually trickled down to components like the SA-10 which remain within reach of us mortals.

With sonics mentioned, let's inspect the user interface and a few technical bits which present certain unexpected items, albeit cosmetically hidden since the SA-10 arrives in timelessly stark trim. Its eight frontal controls are elegantly integrated into the trim
strip which also accommodates the narrow disc tray. Two blue LEDs live above the left power button and the right play decal and centrally between them resides the sizeable, well legible and equally blue display which can be dimmed in three stages or extinguished - a true purist's solution. Noblesse oblige, the enclosure is immaculately finished and assembled from 4-5mm aluminum panels. Which gets us to the back...

... and joy over connectivity options à la analog RCA and XLR outputs ( with 10cm distance between left and right channels no less - engineering with brains, no miserly futzing with narrow WBTs). Not that I could cotton to great differences between symmetrical/single-ended feeds though I slightly preferred the RCAs for a degree more sheen on female vocals. Which could have been a function of cables even though I did use equivalent Ecosse Symphony runs. Interestingly, both outputs deliver the same 2.2V, with balanced not twice the voltage as might be commonly expected.

The digital outputs are twinned as well for Toslink and coaxial. On to the unexpected. First, an earthing screw. For analog sound? Surely not. This traces back to Japanese power delivery peculiarities, making it mostly irrelevant for non-Japanese listener though it might be a viable option to connect various components to a single chassis ground point. More interesting is the "word in" socket. This accepts an external master clock to further increase the player's internal 25pmm (parts per million) clock frequency accuracy. Before you faint over 14,000 euros, 3.5 big ones would suffice. Enter the AI-10, the SA-10's companion full-featured integrated amplifier which -- more on it later -- includes a 1ppm clock.

Not for nothing was the spinning 10 dubbed SA. It also plays SACDs. My predictions about this medium came true and I never became an adopter. The medium is in its deaths throes now if not buried already, hence my CD-only commentary. Under the lid, one discovers three items: circuit boards stuffed with surface-mount devices; a transformer sizable enough to suit an integrated amplifier; and a transport sled not as extreme as Esoteric's ultra models but clearly derived from the same gene pool and here dubbed VOSP for Vertically-aligned Optical Stability Platform. Due to this sled assembly's innate height, one appreciates the necessity for the SA-10's chassis height. No slim-line profile is possible here but then, who wants to spend 3Gs for a thumb-high machine?

The sled is centrally mounted and in conjunction with enclosure rigidity and three-point footer coupling, Esoteric touts data retrieval uncommonly unaffected by vibration and resonance effects. The laser pickup too is inspired by Esoteric's massive sleds and claimed to always lock precisely to the center of the data groove to render off-axis corrections mute. As the theory goes, the less servo correction the laser assembly requires, the less error correction interpolation is invoked which lowers transport jitter to result in a more precise conversion of binary data string to analog signal. Conversion is via twin 24/192 Cirrus bits, one per channel. The dual-mono theme continues with the output stage to suggest that the stunning soundstaging of the SA-10 is at least partly a function of very high channel separation.

Flipping through the owner's manual, I realized an earlier oversight, i.e. the option to switch between two digital filter settings, one steep, one shallow. I frankly didn't expect much difference between the steep (narrow) and shallow (wide) settings and while it didn't entail a wholesale transformation, it was readily
audible not just to the creaky chair obsessed. In fact, my prior minor criticism relative to shortened decays had to eat humble pie since in the wide setting, it no longer was the case. Alas, it's really two aspects which the filter switch affected: The tonal balance took a small step toward warmth while image focus moved one step toward 'organic flow' and away from holography. As though I needed further proof to be sold on the SA-10, this option to slightly shift the sonic quality with filter settings pushed me over the edge. For Jazz, I preferred "wide"; with highly artificed but immaculately crafted soundscape wizardry à la Under Byen, I got more mileage out of "narrow".