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|My father owns a small roadster. He loves to chase the one-lane switchbacks along Western Norway's fjorded coast for some white knuckle fun. His Mazda Miata's manual soft top can't be opened or closed while driving. A Cypriot friend of mine instead owns the Lexus equivalent with retractable hard top. "Watch this" he told me as he pulled the gleaming car out of his garage for my first time. Slyly pushing a button on the cockpit while watching me with hooded eyes for extra effect, thirty-some concealed motors began whirring and the roof folded away like a jigsaw puzzle in a hatch that opened and closed to receive it. The whole operation can be performed while driving. Naturally. But it takes a lot longer than my dad's manual latch'n'release vinyl roof.
The P-03 seals its drawer mechanism against the outside world with a miniature metallic cover. When you press open, that cover retracts and then moves up and out of the way to eject the sled. Observing this mechanical marvel in action and in reverse thereafter speaks of Lexus sophistication. And together with TOC protocol, it takes a lot longer than amphetamine-crazed plastic pistoleros elsewhere. The first time you press fast forward, you'll discover another trick feature of this über transport. A double arrow confirmation on the display accompanies the musical gait picking up a few notches. Pressing the same button again elicits higher scan speed and pressing it a third time higher yet. Pressing it once more resumes normal speed. Not only is this transport massive, it's been endowed with extra functionality. Both slow and fast scans are audible so you can follow to the intended portion of a song without guessing. Slick.
As you first fire up the P-03, an out-select command on its display alerts you to set up the lock protocol with the DAC. Simply press the next-track button, shuttle through the options and establish electronic link up. This is but the first of many subsequent customization options. For best RedBook performance, select Dual. It connects you to the aforementioned L/R channel feeds on paralleled AES/EBU cables. It'll elicit a Dual DSD confirmation on the D-03. You're now listening to CD upsampled to SACD.
If you don't run the G-0S as master clock, you'll want to clock-sync the P03 and D03 together next with a BNC-to-BNC coax. If you upgrade to the external Rubidium clock later or right away, both transport and converter will connect to it instead. See below diagram.
|In that case, Esoteric recommends setting the word frequency as high as possible - 176.4kHz. I don't believe you need to be unnecessarily spendy on the clock-signal cables. When I reviewed the X-03 and G-25U last, Esoteric had included some generic BNC-terminated patch cables. It suggests that for this application, it's unworryanted to go with designer cables.
Of course you could drive yourself nuts exploring the numerous options of clock frequencies and whether to run the DAC's filter or not. Welcome to the bespoke world of Esoteric.
For review purposes, I naturally pursued the best-case scenario - DSD upsampling and a balanced connection from DAC to Supratek preamp. When eliminating the G-0S from the chain to report on its efficacy, I switched to clock sync between P-03 and D-03 for the duo's best-case equivalent.
And while break-in in certain quarters is considered a figment of our collective audiophile imagination, you'll think differently with this gear. It's not all that impressive at first and clearly matures over the first 200 hours.
Being source components, break-in needn't be audible. Simply set the trio aside, select endless repeat and walk away - until the day comes which you've circled in red on your calender, denoting that two weeks have passed since you first looped one CD to eternity and back. Incidentally, whatever set-up and setting choices you make are committed to memory and recalled on power-up. There's also a factory reset protocol if necessary.
|The last decision to be made concerns the converter's ability to disengage its digital filter. I preferred it off most of the time, for reasons we'll get to momentarily. Especially if you run a detail demon like Mark & Daniel's Maximus Ruby with the unusually endowed power response and dynamic displacement of its Air Motion Transformer 5-octave tweeter and SuperXmax woofer, you'll know right away what Esoteric is on about with this trio: Resolution. The amount of high-frequency information and the soundstage localization cues associated with it are key. By comparison -- at least prior to the latest SuperClock upgrade, a very hush-hush development requiring extensive modifications which, to my knowledge, have only been heard yet in a small circle of Hong Kong Zanden aficionados -- the Zanden Model 2000P/5000S combo with the I²S clock link is soft on top. In fact, it's softer in general for a more midhall perspective. The Esoteric is more nearfield experience instead.
|This doesn't imply a forward projection of the soundstage. It remains suspended in an arc well behind the speakers, exactly where it belongs. Neither does it imply undue sharpness or etch. Instead, it's the quality of separation within the soundstage that denotes more closeness if real life were the reference. The Zanden does mimic a seat subjectively farther removed than the actual listening seat. In average-sized rooms, that tends to be no more than 12 feet. Accordingly, the Esoteric is factual. If you sit 12 feet away from a live performer, you're in her extreme nearfield. However, many listeners at home fancy a slightly more ambient-mixed blended perspective even though their actual speaker/seat distance really doesn't translate to mid hall in real life. For that type of listener, the Esoteric -- especially when mated to very dynamic treble as the Ruby puts out -- can be drier and sharper than they're used to. How things get individuated within the sound field could then also translate as more analytical. This is less a function of textures -- or more accurately their lack -- than psycho-visual. You see more distinction on stage than you might expect.
Having the benefit of dimensional fluidity (for lack of a proper term) that is always cast by the phenomenal Supratek Cabernet Dual preamp from Australia with its valve-regulated direct-heated 101D triode augmented by 6SN7s, I didn't at all object to this subtle shift. I enjoyed higher separation power and fetching textures. Inserting Music First Audio's Passive Magnetic -- a TVC using Stevens & Billington attenuation transformers -- confirmed the implications. Bereft of superior thermionic action now, the shift increased. Things became a tad too dry for my tastes. Turning off the D-03's digital filter operates like a very subtle soft focus. Hence I preferred it in this particular setting. With my customary Zu Definition Pros however -- they harken back to a time when tone was king and desire for hyper resolution still an uncoined concept -- engaging the filter was the ticket. It added - um, definition.
The Esoteric trio injected virtual MSG to spike up the dynamic ingredients of Carmona's stew. It was served up extra-spicy Szechuan. Granted, it's impossible for a guitarist fronting symphonic forces to be as intelligible, loud and separated in an actual concert hall. Enter mixing console trickery and microphone placement. It's on the recording, make no mistake. As such, you want to get it off the recording, hear it. And the Esoteric extracted the enormous staging, the seamless layering with the muted trumpets in the far distance, the scatting singers and Juan's sharp tocas and flashing arpeggios upfront, the English horn in the middle bracketed by the string sections all with aplomb. The appropriate word is scale - spatial and dynamic scale. It's a core competency of these components.
Take audience applause, how it lights up an auditorium to telegraph size with reflections and decays. Or how, on a George Dalaras production, the singer points his mike at the masses during a song's refrain. Instead of hearing him sing it inches away from the transducer, you hear the microphone's attempt at capturing the extreme farfield, with the slight time lags this involved against the stage musicians. These are enormous shifts in spatial relationships. Somehow, we expect to replicate them in our small listening temples. Never mind that anything beyond a string quartet or Jazz Piano trio is at best a crowd. If we're lucky and have a yard big enough to accommodate a 70-strong orchestral crowd in the first place. A thrilled audience of 5000 singing refrains by heart is simply completely beyond our capabilities.
Illusions then. That's what our audiophile aspirations are about. Virtual transportation to another place and time. The thing is, illusions needn't be referenced to work. If a Las Vegas magician makes an elephant appear and disappear or quarters a long-legged lady into sections, what will you reference it against? The real thing, pulleys and wires with the elephant, mirrors (or blood) with the lady? I think not. If the illusionist is crafty, you'll be breathless, an impressionable child in awe again. The illusions stands on its own merit. Only out of its clutches on the way home will you feel inclined to speculate on how it was done.
Illusions. The Esoteric trio is a Houdini-esque escape artist from spatial limitations. However implausible it really ought to be to hallucinate George Dalaras and Eddy Napoli duetizing at the top of their lungs at the Roman Odeon Theater in front of an enormous audience and backed by a large Mediterranean ensemble, all within the confines of a 14' x 20' room ... these source components present a very compelling spatial illusion of grandeur regardless. It overlays the far more modest dimension of the playback venue. With these Japanese luxury components, even chronic dissectors for plausibility will opt out. The spatial illusion; the breadth and width of the virtual stage; the continuousness of so-called layers in the depth domain; the believable presence and interactions of all audible constituents peopling the stage ... it's all supremely compelling. Very large. Persuasively believable - despite the practical ramifications involved that would tell you this is nearly more real than real when it comes to your living quarters. Mind you, I'm not complaining.
Classification. For the purposes of generalization, certain audiophiles have attempted to catalogue top digital machines into an organic-continuous vs. resolved-detailed polarity. In this scheme, Audio Aero, Lector, Reimyo and Zanden belong into the first, Benchmark Media, dCS and Meitner into the second camp. Popular perception would likely include Esoteric in the second. Without the G-0S or any subsequent valves in the chain, I could sympathize. However, slaving both transport and converter to the Rubidium master clock generator imparts the opposite effect of what one might expect if higher math had to mean higher accuracy and a sharper, more detail-centric presentation had to follow as though by implication. Think digital amp syndrome of information overload.
Not here. The G-0S introduces the silken elegance factor. It's the Zandification of Esoteric if you will. You get the superior dynamics and HF extension noted but now with extra suaveness and savoir faire. Hence, the trio belongs into the first class. Differences remain of course. For purposes of broad classification however, there's absolutely no mechanicalness when the Rubidium clock keeps time and the digital filter is bypassed. Ergo, l'd classify the Esoteric trio as part of the general Zanden aesthetic (to hang this classification business on an arbitrary brand I have extensive experience with and a personal predilection for).
Bass weight is another known Esoteric stronghold. If you're an aficionado of what Stereophile's John Atkinson, in his review of the Platinum Solo, so aptly called "the thunder-thumbed, lightning-licked power-plucking... a-poppin' and a-slappin' ..." of certain bassists, today's digital trio as master of ceremonies is a beautiful thing indeed. There's dynamite on the slap-yer-face front end, junk yard meanness on the follow-up kick to the gut. Dig out your best-loved slap-bass albums and be prepared for the steak and the sizzle.
This area of meanness in the bass -- welly as the Brits call it, slam the Yanks -- is clearly more developed with the Esoteric than Zanden. I believe that the latter's absence of digital filtering is directly responsible for its somewhat gentler nature. At a far smaller measure, even defeating the Esoteric's filter suggests the same action. (Usually we think of power supplies when it comes to superior bass. Except that the Zanden's power supplies are anything but shy to explain it this way.)
|Confirmation of the absolutely certain kind is presented by the G-0S when used with these separates. The G-U25 on the X-03 was exceedingly marginal. Perhaps entirely imaginary in the end even. With a separate transport and converter however, there's zero doubt. An external master clock reaps audible dividends. How close the far more affordable G-U25 might come in this scenario is unknown. Again, clock frequency stability specs of parts per million or billion are not in themselves guarantors of lower jtter. Hence I'm hesitant at present to issue a blanket endorsement for the very expensive G-0S per se. The G-U25 is less than one quarter its sticker. But I'll certainly endorse the discrete master clock as efficacious when we're not talking about linking it to an already superior one-box machine. The G-0s made a noticeable difference here, one you won't want to be without once heard. Lovers of NOS DACs -- non-oversampling, non-upsampling and often filterless -- will recognize and cotton to its flavor right away. Adherents of articulation and image specificity meanwhile will continue to feel catered to by the P-03/D-03+reclocker combo.
|How it adds up
To $40,000. That's a chunk of change. A very nice little Miata in fact. My dad got his for € 26,000. He took shameless advantage of a sales associate who was one sale shy of hitting a fat bonus. He could have sold the ride at a loss. He'd still have laughed all the way to the bank. With these Esoteric components, your bank manager won't be laughing. That was a given when you started reading. Build quality is superlative. The top plates alone are nearly the thickness of a jewel case. And so it continues. There's clear material compensation for very real financial pain. You already see what you're getting. My only complaint had been that unlike the transport and DAC displays, the reclocker's lights wouldn't extinguish. I was staring at blue numbers and letters while the other two components went dark except for their power button rings. Then Esoteric's man Mark Gurvey pointed at page 10 of the owner's manual which Cyprus customs had conveniently lost during inspection. Pressing the reclocker's A button for two seconds enters dimmer mode. Two different levels of blackout -- full and partial -- are available. That extinguished my only nit.
|Focusing on performance, Esoteric's P-03/G-0S/D-03 suite, in Redbook-at-DSD mode reclocked at 176.4kHz, is the best digital I've yet been privileged to sample within my own four walls. There. In the end, it's as plain as that. I'll be the first to admit that I too had preconceptions, just as those folks who'd categorically lump Esoteric into the second class mentioned earlier. As though higher math had to equate to diminished music mojo. It's not as though evidence for that concept was lacking either. After all, I've had expensive digital encounters at shows, shops and friends -- and I'm sure you too -- that left me literally cold. Fascinating as Spock would have said but emotionally entirely non-persuasive.
|Not here. The presumably higher accuracy of the reclocked and sync'd signal takes steps towards, not away from so-called musicality. It's popular but erroneous to believe otherwise. Higher fidelity to the recorded signal equals better sound and more music. It's that simple really. When implemented properly. Another sentiment floated on Esoteric's top pieces in various forums is that while un-upstageable in the mechanical domain except by Esoteric itself , this company's engineering brass doesn't know how to fully build upon that platform what it is sonically really capable of. Is it possible that a brilliant modifier -- who must additionally be blessed with affluent (and patient as I'm told) customers to prepay for said platforms -- could sonically upstage it? Word on the street is that the Peychev-modified UX-1 with 10 fully balanced and paralleled AKM super DACs per channel, a custom 6H30 output stage plus assorted other alterations does. I haven't made that comparison. Nor would it have been appropriate in today's context.
|All I know is that once leashed up as described -- count on needing two pairs of superior digital XLR cables plus two generic BNC-to-BNC coaxials for the clock signal -- this $40,000 3-box combo goes beyond my $40,000 Zanden 4-box equivalent when my valved preamp remains in the mix. That's probably why Zanden's Yamada-San has now issued his very own SuperClock. As of today then, Esoteric rules my digital roost. Reverting to my customary Zu speakers and Yamamoto amp after the detour into high-power mini monitor land also highlighted an important lession. At this level of digital mastery, amp and speaker choices will have a far more profound impact on tonal balance and left/right brain aspects than moving sideways with digital, i.e. trading money for money. Digital differences are far smaller. However, they do remain. And in this comparison, the Esoteric took the lead by an appreciable margin.
In the end,
it's certainly not always the case that more -- or even a lot more -- money buys bigger satisfaction. To date for example, I haven't yet heard a single standalone amp in my customary reference system which I'd rather listen to than my $3,000 Yamamoto A-08S. $20,000/pr contenders went right up against it and lost by a landslide. Sometimes, however, more money does buy more audio happiness. This seems such a case. Granted, you'll need properly elevated hardware settings to plug into. That nearly goes with the territory in more ways than one. While out of reach for most, it's instructive and gratifying how expertise honed and demonstrated at this bleeding edge has already migrated down to Esoteric's X-03 (now in SE guise). Simply put, today's components are showcase items like Formula One race cars by ordinary street car makers such as Honda or Peugeot. They push the envelope by applying extreme measures for often tiny advances. Shaving off a kilo here, a pound there makes for a go-faster race car even though clocked lap times could show a very small increase. Beefing up power supplies, enclosures, transport sleds and such works in very similar fashion. Could you circle the digital track in the leader's shadow while driving a digital front end at half the price? Quite possibly.
You'd still be second though. While it might seem insane to most to spend this kind of scratch on a CD player -- SACD player actually -- present and future owners of Esoteric's P-03/G-0S/D-03 subsidize the advances that have already authored machines like Esoteric's far more affordable new DV-60. Rather than being envious of ownership of machines like today's by the lucky few others, we instead owe them collective thanks. If you'd like to join this circle of benefactors to our audiophile cause yourself, perhaps it's time you started playing those ponies. Where is Sea Biscuit when you need him?