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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Ancient Audio Lektor Prime
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright LS 36.5; Supratek Cabernet Dual; Melody HiFi I2A3; Eastern Electric M520; Almarro A318B [on review], Raysonic C200 [on review]

EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz; Gallo Acoustics Reference SA
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Bel Canto e.One S300; Coda-Continuum CX and CS [on review]; Raysonic M100s [on review]; FirstWatt 2 x F4 [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro in custom lacquer; WLM Grand Viola Signature MK [on review]; DeVore Fidelity Nines; Rethm Saadhana [on review]

Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Crystal Cable Ultra loom; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular 4-tie with Apex footers
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option, 2 x Furutech RTP-6
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer, Acoustic System Resonators, Nanotec Nespa Pro
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $8,400/pr

When a company of Esoteric's sterling repute backed up by the bulging muscle of TEAC's pro-audio Tascam presence expands a product lineup to well beyond its established core competency of digital source components, ears point and eyebrows raise. The last comparable coup was amplifier legend Krell's invasion of the speaker market. Cynics then whispered of strong-arm tactics on the retail sales floor to increase dealer commitment to the brand. Industry pundits asked whether anyone really needed another speaker make. Krell meanwhile followed up its LAT Series with the Resolution Series and provided their own justification in a hotly contested, badly overcrowded market segment.

Then there's the idealists dealing in abstracts: what could a non-specialist company possibly contribute to truly advance the speaker art? Enter Tannoy which assembles Esoteric's new speakers in the UK. As one of the oldest speaker design houses in the world (their roots go back to early public address systems when telephony was still in its infancy), Esoteric could hardly have picked a more experienced partner to leverage its own lack of speaker production facilities. The fact that Japan remains the biggest specialty market for vintage Tannoys won't be lost on history buffs in this context. It's called going to the well.

Next enter Nippon Kinzoku Chemical Development. Together with Tannoy, a hi-tech fusion background emerges against which Esoteric's speaker project turns into a strategic 3-party joint effort. By itself, that echoes Harmonix's Reimyo project wherein diverse specialists from various companies pooled important key skills. As an engineering-driven outfit, Esoteric views itself as contributing something unique to the loudspeaker craft: 96% pure Magnesium diaphragms for both its new 1" dome tweeter and the matching 6.5" mid/woofer (that includes Mg for the latter's dust cap). Esoteric claims a superior Young modulus for Magnesium to make for the lightest yet stiffest possible diaphragm and produce the fastest, most uncolored and accurate transients. Two thin ceramic coatings over an organic fiber core produce the cone geometry for enhanced self damping and a circular corrugation in the mid/woofer is said to undermine self resonance - Esoteric designed, Nippon Kinzoku fabricated.

Credits for final voicing and project oversight fall on Alex Garner, Tannoy's famed technical director. He specified silver-coated van den Hul wiring for the hard-wired crossovers and opted for high density Birch Ply cabinets with solid, nicely contoured American Cherry side rails and panel veneers. Despite its 35.5" x 8.5" x 10.75" heavily braced, heavily damped 21.5 liter enclosure of mildly trapezoidal cross section, the final weight of the MG-20 thus remains a very modest 30.9lbs. The network combines a 2nd-order low-pass with a 3rd-order high-pass. Sensitivity is 89dB and minimum impedance is 3.7 ohms. In keeping with Tannoy tradition, the circular terminal array sports five posts, four for biriwing, the fifth as a ground post to undercut RF interference.

Seas of Norway already offers Magnesium/Aluminum alloy dome
tweeters and the well-known Excel Magnesium cone woofers with copper-colored phase plugs which reputedly require notch filters to remove very steep but narrow-band breakup modes. Especially the Excel woofers seem generally regarded as high-quality units and carry a concomitantly steep price tag. How unique Esoteric's new drivers really are in this context will be for the speaker design experts to determine. What we can safely conclude about Esoteric's speaker launch are three key items: strategic collaboration with first-rate industrial partners; proprietary, in-house designed drivers; final voicing and assembly by one of the world's foremost European speaker manufacturers. There's no 'made in China' cost cutting apparent anywhere within this ambitious product launch.

Tweeter and mounting plate are an integral structure to improve baffle coupling.

The mid/woofers sports three rather than the customary two leads -- one the ground wire -- and use 10 long wood screws each for superior coupling to the Ply enclosure which is lined with fiber padding.

The crossover is mounted directly to the terminal plate. In keeping with its central gold plaque, this plate uses gold-plated rather than silver screws as the drivers do, expressing admirable attention to detail.

The port features spiral grooves similar to the whirls modern diving fins have copied from whale skins. The overlay shows the mounted metal base with its integral footer system.

The planned introduction of Esoteric's first globally distributed tube component later this year, the AT-100 50wpc KT88 push/pull integrated/amplifier with patent-pending bias system, is further evidence that this brand is flexing its R&D muscle well beyond source components. With the parallel introduction of its own cabling and integrated amplifiers, Esoteric has become a front-to-back system provider. Cynics will wag fingers and cite crass commercialism as they always do. Idealists can counter with how Esoteric is admirably well funded and globally positioned to not endeavor anything less than fully locked and loaded. The firm always brings considerable resources to anything they tackle. One would further assume that they'd not risk their hard-earned reputation for some of the world's finest digital components with a half-baked introduction of their first speakers now.

Lastly, Esoteric did not author a 10-deep loudspeaker line nor any home-theater models. There are merely two music models with the same 1.9kHz crossover transition and a frequency response of 38/44Hz to 44kHz respectively. No he-man specs, no he-man cosmetics but rather, admirable restraint for living-room friendly dimensions, cosmetics and realistic needs. One final audiophile detail is the craftily decoupled footer system underneath the 15mm alu plinth here.

It combines spike action with floor protection and allows easy repositioning without silly audiophile rituals. Resonance controlling steel plates are added underneath the plinth while also serving the dual purpose of lowering the center of gravity for improved stability. There's a (removable of course) grill for domestic harmony and much the same could be said for the choice of front-firing port. It allows for closer wall proximity and thus lessens real estate demands in the typical living rooms that double as listening sanctuaries. While the name Esoteric suggests state of the art and costly, a first inspection of the MG-20 focuses on practicality. Nothing extreme registers to the eye. The wallet will feel the pinch but that's nearly synonymous with this luxury brand. As usual, listening will have to determine the rest.

Recommended setup is unusual in advocating extreme toe-in such that the speakers' direct axes cross between one and three feet in front of the listening seat. What would an all Magnesium listening session sound like? Compared to Aluminum and Titanium, the two most ubiquitous metals found in tweeters, Esoteric claims a superior impulse response for pure Magnesium. Purportedly, Magnesium cones/domes settle down faster for a given input, demonstrating less post-ringing and better self damping for cleaner playback and reduced material-induced distortion.

Whether factual or fancy bullets to help salesmen differentiate the product, I can tell you that the expensive ATD 18W4004 Titanium 7-inch mid/woofer in Volent's cracking VL-2 from Hong Kong was a tremendous performer during its test. Further, it was good enough to end up in Magico's original $20,000/pr Mini. Pop quizzers would equate a diaphragm's material hardness with automatically hard sonics. Based on the Volents, that seems little science and a lot of presumptuousness. Yes, there are poor implementations of metal drivers. They might lend credence to writing them off in general. You certainly expect any speaker diaphragm to hit resonance and breakup, eventually. As long as such behavior occurs out of band -- crossed out, mechanically or electrically damped or notch-filtered -- it should be academic to listeners. Would the MG20s sound metallic by any measure? Let's judge them as loudspeakers, not specifically on the merits of driver materials. Driver contributions we could only truly suss out with fancy parts swaps.

Regardless of any claims for zero material sound for raw Magnesium, common sense tells us that since it's a material, it'll still have a sound of its own. Far more relevant really is the fact that Esoteric took the trouble to use the same material for all its drivers. How often have you seen a Titanium tweeter matched to Carbon fiber rather than Titanium mid/woofers and perhaps an aluminum bass unit? Maintaining whatever signature could ultimately -- and however subtly -- be assigned to a diaphragm material consistently across the audible range seems a more important design concept to push. If we must split the signal into different bands and rely on our ear/brain to recombine them as one again, let those various drivers too speak with one voice to us to serve the cause. And the MG-20s really do.

As it turns out, Esoteric's claims for its driver technology were confirmed as dead accurate in my listening seat. The sound was exceptionally clean, precise and stripped of all fuzz and uncertainty. If we remember that music signals are a disproportionate mix of sinusoidal elements and steep transient spikes -- the latter doubly prevalent -- we could nearly predict the MG-20's sound: razor sharp, hyper incisive leading edges hung out to dry as it were upfront and bereft of the clothing of sufficient bloom and tone development. The sound was very metallic, not because I could hear the Magnesium in the cones and domes but because its claimed and apparent stripping action of 'colorations' rendered the final outcome disproportionately transient dominant.

To put this statement into context, the two speaker companies I worked for --
Meadowlark and Soliloquy -- did not use metal drivers. Neither does a single of the many speakers I own come to think of it. Most of those sport old-fashioned paper in fact. Call me a guy on a paper route. What the marketing materials for Esoteric call coloration strikes my paper ears as a vital amount of tone and harmonic content. Stripped thereof, things crystallize and the colorful juice of music somehow freezes and fractures into a continuous sharpness of beginnings. I tried my famous Zanden Audio non-oversampling A/D converter which, like all such beasts, mellows the attacks. I tried direct-heated power triodes. I questioned the Codas' 450-watt monophonic mondo power and swapped in the anti-mondo First Watt F4s with zero voltage gain. I played the cable games, including amorphous alloys and pure Carbon. No matter, the general trait remained stubbornly steadfast, precisely as it should have if this was a real design element rather than the arbitrary result of poor ancillary match ups.

Questioning my own judgment, I ran the fuzzier and warmer Raysonic M100 5881 class A push/pulls with their matching preamp. While things shifted, the relative percentages of ingredients didn't. There still was too much transient information, not enough tone and body. Switching to the very similarly attired DeVore Fidelity Nines -- same number and size of transducers, albeit no metal and one woofer firing sideways for a 2.5-way separation -- instantly reestablished things as I'm used to them.

"I am using the MG10s at home and I like them. I hear detail that I never
heard before. For example, on Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon, there is a piano piece where it's just her and the piano. All of a sudden I hear her pumping the foot pedals which I never heard before. I was using pro monitors and a pair of fine consumer speakers. The latter now sound distant and the former totally disoriented by comparison. The MGs do take some getting used to (about 3 days for me after burn in) because of the prime listening position being behind that cross axis. I found break-in to take at least 250 hours. I use the top connectors only with the bridged wires. I do not bi-amp. I left the ground off as it sounds a bit warmer without the ground in place (at least to me). Vocals and classical music especially
stand out as more real than ever. Even my old Beatles LPs sound clearer. No resonance, no metallic clatter, no coloration whatsoever. We did an A/B comparison at a store about 3 weeks ago. They compared the MG20s with a famous brand whose models list for $12-$14K and were shocked at how much better the Esoterics were. The exact words were "ain't no made in Japan here....." I also did another test last week at another dealer. Bottom line is that compared to everything else at their price points, 7 of 8 staffers preferred the Esoterics."

Mark Gurvey, Esoteric USA's press liaison, kept reiterating getting used to. "Try to get to 250-300 hours on them. I thought they were thin and a bit flat too out of the box. I also strongly recommend the IsoTek burn in disc. We have found that it works very very well. I ran it for a week (repeat mode on track 2) and got very good results. One of the most difficult things to get used to for me is the fact that you are no longer hearing the influence and resonance of driver materials. That alone makes it initially sound thin or flat because we are all so used to the weighted effects of coloration. Paper, coated paper, treated paper, Kevlar, Carbon fiber, beryllium, aluminum, titanium and just about any other driver material all have their own acoustic properties (which cabinet and crossover makers sometimes try to compensate for).

"Mg does not. We are so used to hearing the speaker that we don't get to hear the true recording. I was very skeptical and disappointed at first. At 300 hours and after using the IsoTek disc for conditioning, I am hearing things I never knew were on the disc because they were masked by colorations."

Affirmative on the IsoTek disc. In fact, I'd used it on Rethm's Lowther DX55-fitted Saadhana as well, with powerful benefits. For reference, I altered the entire setup to hear the Lowthers right after an Esoteric MG-20 session. No active preamp, just Music First Audio's TVC to allow swapping of 2A3 and 45 SET DHT amps. You'd predict the Lowther to be all sizzle and bluster, no fullness, weight and density. Wrong. The Lowther sounded 'normal', the Esoteric lean and hard.

It's at this juncture that I realized my conditioning would be impervious to the distortion-reduction advances Esoteric had engineered. I could not relate to what they called colorations as being in fact colorations in need of extermination. This became the obstacle I couldn't listen around. I was plainly the wrong person for this job. Other experienced listeners have already reached quite different conclusions, celebrating breakthroughs where all I could hear were setbacks. Mark Gurvey tells me The Absolute Sound will have their own report in the January 2008 issue. I'll leave those readers who recognize themselves in Mark's anecdotal evidence above with TAS and whatever other reviews on the MG-20 shall be forthcoming.

Having miserably failed to see the magnesium light, all I will add on the audition score is that vis-à-vis the $2,000 less expensive DeVore Nines, the Esoterics, though being virtual doppelgänger for bass extension, didn't muster the same weight and wallop down low the Americans did. Quite possibly the latter's twin porting scheme tuned to different frequencies as well as the side-firing woofer creates more comprehensive and even room loading. Where the MG-20s could elicit the occasional port boom when the right frequency got hit, the DeVores were free of it. Given that and, far more importantly, what's been discussed above, my conditioning voted for the Nines.

In hindsight, my proven propensity for paper drivers (shared with ScanSpeak's and Audio Technology's top drivers as it turns out) became a conceptual barrier and imprimatur I couldn't cross and erase. Inherent in this disappointing admission is realization too - Esoteric's sound is sufficiently different to perhaps become the counter-point destination for those who cannot relate to the more vintage-style presentation of paper-based transducers. The MG-20s are very attractive, well built speakers. Knowing from a few reviews just how good Esoteric's digital is, I fail to believe that this company's engineering department has tanked their speaker mission. It's far
more realistic for me to accept that this dog has grown too old to learn a fundamentally new trick. This is a rare incident when a reviewer looks desperately forward to being sorely contradicted by a colleague or two. Public humiliation. Bring it on. What a gas.

Thinking back, Accuton-fitted ceramic driver speakers -- say Kharma and Marten Design -- have evoked similar personal responses in the past. Where others hear admirable rise times and tremendous transparency, I hear a lack of timbral verisimilitude, a lightness that's nervous and insufficiently anchored. That's not an external thing of missing bass per se. It's internal to each note, a lack of true substance, evenly top to bottom.

Again, the Esoteric MG-20 does most assuredly speak with one voice from lows to highs. It's simply a question of whether your nervous system will respond to its siren call or resist it like Ulysses. It seems most appropriate to leave it at that and let every traveller come to his or her own conclusion.
Manufacturer's website

Quality of packing: Lightweight single cardboard with foam caps, apparently sufficient due to the speakers' light weight.
Reusability of packing: Can be reused at least once.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy.
Condition of components received: Perfect.
Completeness of delivery: Complete with owner's manual and a third box of the two plinths, their mounting screws and optional spikes plus wire jumpers with pre-stripped ends.
Quality of owner's manual: Basic but sufficient.
Website comments: Has all the necessary specs and basic photos.
Warranty: 3 years.
Human interactions: Quick e-mail responses from Esoteric USA to all questions, including very technical ones.
Pricing: On the expensive side but the proprietary drivers do seem to be the first pure rather than alloy Magnesium units on the market, enabled by a proprietary coating that makes Magnesium stable in this application.
Comments & suggestions: Darker wood finish options perhaps and a matching subwoofer for those wanting true bottom-octave sub bass.