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Before closing, we need to spend a few moments on talking dollars and cents. When the SMc VRE-1 was first introduced, it demanded $2000 less than the Esoteric C03 for close to identical performance (one could argue that the VRE-1 won on ultimate texture but the C03 takes the laurels on bass and dynamics). That made the C03 a tough proposition, with only remote control and user flexibility to make up its extra cost. Today, both have gone up in price but the VRE-1 far more than the C03. Now they both cost exactly $10,000 and the VRE-1 must justify its lack of features in light of what the C03 offers. Tables turned. The Accustic Arts no matter how enjoyable and forgiving ultimately does not play in the same league of transparency nor ability to paint a credible musical picture. That is perfectly in line with its 30% lower sticker shock (in Europe actually 65% lower!).

That leaves the trump card of the Serbian NAT Symmetrical. 25% less than either C03 and VRE-1, it is such a stunning musical performer that it would take the crown on value from the Esoteric and McCormack were it not for operational glitches I have been experiencing lately and am currently investigating with the US distributor. (The unit evidently suffered during shipment despite superb packaging but it is unclear at this time whether my issues are a result of shipping damage or inherent design flaws – considering how well thought-out the piece is, the former seems far more plausible).

Set to zero gain turns the C-03 into a passive. Running off +/- 38-volt supply rails regardless -- Godzillacious for a preamp -- makes it very very active. As a result, there is none of the harmonic bleaching and dynamic wimpiness one expects from traditional passives whenever those are compared to truly superior actives with open-minded ears. Still, Esoteric's C-03 is ultra transparent and truly adept at retrieving subtle ambient cues for that surprising "I can hear the recorded rear wall" type of soundstage panorama. Without fail when the recording allows it, that superimposes a different acoustic on your room. As might be expected then, depth layering is superb. Words like cavernous, intelligible into the far reaches and dimensionally resolved all apply in spades... continue here for Srajan's SideBar.

On that count, the jury is still out until after the review of the NAT publishes, to determine which represents the best value for me and will stay permanently chez Beudot's. But the choice is certainly narrowing down and let's be clear that while the VRE-1 thanks to its i/o transformers offers a smoothness and 3D feeling that remain unrivaled, the C03 comes so close but adds greater dynamics, weight and user convenience that I can't help but declare my preference for the Esoteric even if only by a fraction of a hair. Given that the McCormack garnered an award from me; that Srajan already purchased a C03 for his personal use where it is his preamp of choice for his many single-ended triode amps... Esoteric's C03 wins a Blue Moon Award from two writers for once. Congratulations to the team around Ohmachi-San!

Quality of packing: Typical Esoteric triple boxing, simply one of the best in the industry.
Reusability of packing: Multiple times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: No particular issue but the unit is heavy.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: No issue.
Quality of owner's manual: Comprehensive.
Website comments: Complete and informative.
Warranty: 2 years extended to 3 years by returning warranty card.
Global distribution: See Esoteric Website, available broadly.
Human interactions: Always responsive and helpful.
Pricing: On the high side for preamplifiers but still competitive.
Final comments & suggestions: Not very sensitive to power cords but highly transparent to interconnects and their limitations. The Esoteric Mexcel though pricey is a great match.
Esoteric website