This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
The X-03's front panel hints at one unusual feature. The button next to the power mains reads Clock Mode. Think of that as your next $3,000 upgrade, the place the new Esoteric G25U master clock generator and digital upconverter will occupy. From the propaganda sheet for that device, we learn that "the G-25U is a hybrid digital upconverter and master clock generator. As a D/D converter, it can convert digital audio frequencies up to 192kHz, improving sound quality by oversampling and retiming a digital audio data stream. As a master clock generator, it can process word clock signals by its internal, high precision crystal oscillator. This master clock is accurate to +/- 1ppm. (Measured as 1 part per million. Most conventional CD/DVD devices are accurate to +/- 10-50 ppm). A more accurate master clock results in higher accuracy of reading and sending digital data. This often adds extraordinary ambience, imaging and clarity to a digital audio signal. Resampling the digital data stream (up to 32 times), allows for RedBook CDs and DVDs to sound better. This truly upgrades the investment you have already made in DVDs and CDs. Your collection may astonish you once you begin to hear what you have been missing! In addition to user-selectable upconversion, the G25U includes proprietary Esoteric digital filtering. This effectively reduces noise artifacts and allows the digital signal to actually sound more 'analog.'

The above reference to DVD of course only applies when the G25U is connected to a DVD player outfitted with a clock link terminal. The X-03, as we have already established, is an audio-only SACD/CD player.

What should be equally obvious by now? Brain power and R&D resources. When a small UltraFi company dedicated to digital authors a new state-of-the-art contender, don't expect it annually upgraded or superseded by a better machine. Nor does someone larger really want to tackle manufacturing their own digital transport - though Linn has in conjunction with Sony to turn exception to that rule. But very perceptive is the popular "if Sony only decided to throw their combined might behind (insert product category of your choice), they'd reset the bar of what to expect for it" missive.

With its concerted push to become the world's corporate leader in digital consumer audio, TEAC has been doing exactly that. They're now arguably in a position to displace even the very best that a small cottage industry firm stubbornly committed to digital excellence can create - at the very least by offering comparable performance for significantly less. Think manufacturing and distribution scale. As such, the X-03's natural competitor in fact becomes Yamada-San's astonishing Zanden Audio Model 2000p/5000s $43,440 combination -- my personal reference -- or any other bleeding-edge effort within the fistful of price-no-object contenders at the very top of the heap. And the X-03 isn't even the best Esoteric makes. For that, think three boxes.

Though consider the mechanical aspects of the proprietary transport inside the X-03 alone. Most competitors with dedicated transports using the dominant Philips PRO2 should nervously sweat. To compete with the abilities of TEAC's engineering roster and manufacturing brawn has become the quintessential David/Goliath proposition. That's not to say the occasional David couldn't emerge victorious. But Esoteric's substantial product offerings and continuous push at further refinements on a yearly basis makes this more and more unlikely. Even if David survived the occasional encounter or onlookers pronounced the battle a draw - at what price to the consumer does this occur? In Zanden's case and against today's machine, at six times the sticker shock. To invoke the law of diminishing returns becomes silly. Even if the Esoteric lost this particular bout, whatever performance advantage the Zanden still reserved for itself couldn't possibly enjoy an equivalent relational advantage to the price differential.

These and similar ruminations cruised through my grey matter at warp speed as I installed the X-03 in my customary Grand Prix Audio Monaco rack right below the Zanden separates. I connected both sources via Stealth Indras to the Music First preamp, that via Stealth MetaCarbon to the Yamamoto A-08S. I wasn't really worried that the Zanden might be bested. I was preparing for a bite of reality instead. How close would the Esoteric come at a mere fraction of the asking price? Let's face it, $7,200 in the iPod scheme still look insane. Yet if there's one firm in the world right now set to practice trickle-down advances in digital, it's Esoteric. Before we get serious, a bit of levity:

Attorney: Were you present when your picture was taken?
Witness: Would you repeat the question?
Attorney: What is your date of birth?
Witness: July 18th.
Attorney: What year?
Witness: Every year.

Attorney: This myasthenia gravis, does it affect your memory at all?
Witness: Yes.
Attorney: And in what ways does it affect your memory?
Witness: I forget.
Attorney: You forget? Can you give us an example of something you forgot? Are you sexually active?
Witness: No, I just lie there.

[These are from a book called Disorder in the American Courts and are things people actually said in court, word for word, taken down and now published by court reporters who had the torment of staying calm while these exchanges were actually taking place. Brought to my attention by Chip Stern - Ed.]

As we shall see, the Esoteric distinctly doesn't just lie there, something vinylphiles could be prone to expect with a technological tour-de-force in digital. They'd expect detail up the ying-yang, unbelievably low noise floors, exploded dynamic range and mondo transparency. Then they'd ask those weird questions. "But has it got soul? Does it breathe? Does it involve you? Does it express the
musicians' intent? Does it make you feel things?" Such non-techno questions are reminders. Much of what makes audio persuasive isn't yet measurable. Or perhaps some like Vladimir Lamm already know what measurements to conduct but simply keep to themselves. Consider the renaissance of SETs, of vinyl, of "primitive" single-driver speakers. Most of them measure poorly, with vinyl noisier than digital, SETs and speakers plagued by obvious nonlinearities. Yet countless music lovers have invested considerable monies into exactly such systems. When asked why, they respond with answers equivalent to the above non-techno questions. "Listening is more fun. More involving. More communicative."

Analog doesn't suffer digital jitter. But it does suffer from speed instability. Add-on motor controllers for turntables have proven time and again that very small improvements in speed stability (i.e. timing fidelity) are clearly audible. In fact, a core feature of Grand Prix Audio's new Monaco turntable is a novel and integral DSP-controlled speed control. It purportedly outperforms previous offerings elsewhere by a substantial and readily measurable margin and is said to be audible already during idling, as a completely steady-state rather than slightly motorboating noise. Digital transports too can make more of a difference than seems sensible. That makes Esoteric's rather heroic efforts in developing superior CD drive systems and sleds all the more impressive. 47lab's famous PiTracer popularized the concept of how necessary perfect perpendicularity of the laser pickup to the "binary groove" was. Esoteric's technical descriptions of their transport assemblies recall certain of the PiTracer's solutions in integrated form. In other words, mechanical integrity -- of which the X-03 veritably reeks -- could have far greater justification in a digital source component than mere bling and pride of ownership. Naturally, my listening impressions won't be able to quantify which aspects of the X-03 are responsible for specific performance parameters. I'm offering these thoughts as mere bylines and considerations. Which finally brings us to the performance commentary.

Compared to the clock-linked Zanden and using our -- now sold-out -- 6moons sampler of select m.a. recordings tracks, the differences were mostly restricted to the Japanese separates sounding tonally fleshier and taking the 'audible space' factor of organic holography farther still. Microdynamically, I thought I might have to call it a wash. Ditto for base-line transparency. What the Zanden did was add a degree of contrast ratio for somewhat stronger 'image pop' against the background of audible space (a calling card of Todd Garfinkle recordings which often occur in monasteries and other highly reverberant settings.) Then I remembered Marc Mickelson's March SoundStage! Editorial. In it, he tackles the subject of balanced connections. He opines that particularly with digital, balanced seems nearly always preferable. And not by an insignificant margin. This from a reviewer who has reviewed more Esoteric models than anyone else in North America and attached that commentary particularly to his exploits with Esoteric machines.

In went a balanced pair of Crystal Cable Reference. Whoa! "That sounds a lot better. What did you do?" I'm not making this up. Ivette, sitting in the other half of the room on the bed and behind a book, spoke up. "I just changed over to the balanced connection." Like Mickelson predicted, not subtle indeed. This even after redressing output levels to account for balanced's greater output voltages and not inserting an equivalent run of Crystal Cable Reference single-ended interconnects to level the cable field. Had the Zanden's clock-linked advantage been obliterated? Just about. The only area where I felt I could somewhat reliably identify the Zanden now was with tonal color. Bass clarinet and accordion on Sera Una Noche's stunner "Nublado" [M052A] had a bit more inner texture, perhaps a somewhat more pronounced tonal kernel. Having played the clarinet for more than 15 years, I can merge into its tone more so than with other instruments. I nearly feel I'm playing myself, seeing the fingering, knowing which tone on the scale is being played. But I also got suspicious. My separates now seemed perhaps a bit softer overall than the Esoteric. The latter appeared to resolve a bit more energy and air on the struck triangle decays during the interlude before the main thematic refrain recurred.

Time to descend into the dungeon of hairsplitting? Actually, it didn't take too many A/Bs before I concluded that the most overt distinction between the two machines -- the quality that stood in the foreground of my attention -- was increased dynamic range with the X-03. Belonging to the "no crossover over the widest possible bandwidth" cult, I fancy dynamic motility very highly. I tend to forgive loudspeaker frequency domain squiggles well before I tolerate dynamic laziness. Accordingly, once I had locked onto the enhanced dynamic envelope of the Esoteric -- it made bigger waves and more pronounced micro ripples -- I couldn't overlook it to concentrate on other persnickety minutiae elsewhere. For me, a lot of musical persuasiveness is tied to dynamic motion. Think of the musical fabric as a bedsheet hung from a cloth line. The more it ripples and flutters in the breeze, the more lively the experience. The Esoteric, it turned out, was - um, sexually more active than the Zanden. (And yes, Your Honor, I was present when the above picture was taken. It's supposed to simulate the wind of my dynamic visual.)

Comparing the two "Nublado" renditions, the esoteric version struck me as the more virile, the Zanden's texturally perhaps even more refined (though as already admitted, for a listener of my biases, that seemed nearly secondary). One last item I elected to deliberately focus on before this track wore out its welcome? Decay lengths. When I first received my Zanden DAC review loaner, I heard its magic right away. But I didn't fully understand how it did what it did until one special listening session in the zone. That had me see that unlike all other digital I'd previously listened to, the Zanden didn't clip fades prematurely. Rather, it let the very fine spider webs of decay gossamer live longer. It was this very quality which I eventually began to think of as analog feeling (rather than 'sounding' to stay clear of vinylphile wrath).

For this session, I actually had to relinquish the relative complexity of the "Nublado" track. I instead cued up "Jovanke Jovanke" from Krushevo [M044A], a wistful Macedonian folk tune worked over by two crackerjack guitarists. With less macrodynamic swings on hand and merely two instruments, I got to remain more steadfastly fixated on those elusive decay trails. (The deliberate setup involved should tell you that by now, I was indeed descending into that dungeon.) I determined that the greater textural softness of the Zanden was indeed a function of elongated decays whereas the Esoteric's more virile demeanor, besides dynamic cojones, also involved somewhat crisper transients. Mind you, language makes more out of these matters than the ear will perceive without great deliberation. You'll hear slight differences in the far less fixated mode of pleasure listening (the mode you're expected to be in at all times as an end user) but I suspect you'd be hard pressed to identify what, exactly, makes them so.

All this by way of acknowledging that while not perfectly identical, both source components performed on the same level. By the time I transitioned to large-scale orchestral, the Zanden's ace of harmonically slightly more saturated colors had to face the Esoteric's ace of greater dynamic volatility. This was especially impressive on Bruckner's massive "Scherzo" in his epic Symphony No. 9 [Chicago, Solti - London 417 295-2]. For meditative exploits in the Kavi Alexander WaterLily vein, the Zanden's take on the proceedings proved ravishing. Motown fare and Jurassic 5 slammatronics gained from the X-03's extra vigor and amazing bass heft. It's easy to overgeneralize these genre characterizations. They point at something real that's nowhere near pronounced. The dynamic disparity is the most obvious item.

In the end, this juxtaposition proved a surprising fellowship of equals. Considering the above-covered pricing gap, what else needs to be said? The Esoteric goes about its bleeding-edge business without reliance on valves or the sprawl of four boxes (the Zanden separates each tether to a dedicated power supply). And the X-03 plays SACD, something I didn't fully investigate since for all intents and purposes, that's a mostly abandoned format in the software domain. It is vitally relevant that you run this player through its balanced outs. Consider this a mandatory "tweak" to get all of what you paid for. This brings to mind Chris Johnson of the Parts ConneXion. His Ultimate mod to the popular Denon universal machines involves conversion of single-ended to fully balanced operation. It's something the stock DACs are already capable of. Besides adding tubes in his mod, much is made of balanced's superiority.

Outside the somewhat slower than usual TOC protocol and a very small mechanical self noise, Esoteric's X-03 doesn't raise a single nit on either the features, finish or performance lists. It clearly belongs into a small and elite league of players. For those who shop there, it means you're done - off the hamster mill of endless upgrades. Should that diehard cockroach of a bother resurface eventually, Esoteric has you covered with the G25U outboard reclocker without having to dump your original machine. Even this $3,000 stepping stone keeps you well below other denizens in this peak-performance circle.

Perhaps more important even? The X-03 only responds in the affirmative to any of those questions asked earlier by our imaginary SET friends. There's nothing frigid, clinical or cold about the Esoteric's handling of 1s and 0s. There's no video circuitry that's redundant for music interests. There's no switchable filters, choice of upsampling rates or selectable dither settings to confuse matters. For all the technological pizzazz under its hood, this machine's got soul (and certain number crunchers clearly don't). This was my first experience with an Esoteric digital machine. Call me solidly impressed. I have a sneaking suspicion that for the money, you currently won't be able to do better. Just as REL's specialization on subwoofers soon gained it universal acclaim, Esoteric's exclusive focus on digital source components seems similarly bent on domination and victory. It puts a lie to the popular notion that major Japanese corporations have mastered mass-market receivers and televisions but lag badly when it comes to bona fide HighEnd products. Bull crap!

Esoteric's X-03 is UltraFi plain and simple. Their Japanese corporate angle simply means exploded scale of operations, not evil empirism. That translates into more attractive pricing than small cottage industry players could survive on. In my books, that's a very attractive constellation of savoir-faire, industrial resources, core competency focus and audiophile execution. It mandates an award. It also mandates a sincere thank you to Mark Gurvey, for contacting me with this opportunity at making the X-03's acquaintance. I remember Stereophile's John Marks confiding once in some e-mail that he thought Esoteric was the undiscovered crown jewel amongst high-performance digital. After the X-03's showing, I have to concur. If Esoteric can issue such a blatant all-around winner well below $10K, what, one wonders, will unlimited funds buy you in their very best separates? I dare not speculate. For today and in the still dear but more sane reaches, the new X-03 deserves a big applause - for statement-level performance; for being built like the proverbial tank (which could well be part of the reason why it performs so well); and hence, for practicing the spirit of realsization (a term that signifies performance standards as set by benchmark precedents but delivered for significantly less money). For those who don't believe in that concept, stay tuned for a followup with Esoteric's G25U external reclocker slaved to the X-03. It'll report on the performance headroom that remains to be harvested by adding a second box to this astonishing SACD/CD player.
Manufacturer's website