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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Digital Source: Musical Fidelity A5 CD, Accuphase DP55
Amplifier: Musical Fidelity A5, McIntosh MA2275, Onix SP3
Speakers: Nomad Audio RPDs, FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a
Headphone: Musical Fidelity Xcanv3, AKG K701
Cables: Zu Libtec, Slinkylinks RCA, Zu Varial, Consonance Billies
Power Cords: Cobalt Ultimate, Zu Bok & Mother
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics and speakers, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' opening to 3 other rooms. Short wall setup
Review component retail: $4600
Traveling between Europe, Japan and the US as I regularly do, it's been striking to hear the different regional perspectives on SACD and its future. With rare exceptions, SACD and DVD-A in the US are seen as dead standards with no future, the determination of Sony to kill off their format often mentioned as the last evidence needed that hi-resolution audio-only formats are on their way out (I don't think any dealer I've walked into over the past 2 years has tried to sell me a SACD player - actually, many have actively talked me out of it, even Esoteric dealers). Reading regularly through the French hifi press, I get the impression that SACD is seen as a niche but healthy format no different from vinyl, one that will be the exclusive enjoyment of a hedonist few as long as independent disc companies continue to supply high-quality releases. I cannot say whether the message is similar in Germany or Italy although over the past few months, the systematic undermining led by Sony to promote the new child prodigy Blu-Ray has raised further questions.
Surprisingly in Japan, an island living on its own schedule in more ways than the UK even, I got no sense that SACD was threatened at all. It may very well be due to my inability to read Japanese and the local audio press but the few audiophiles I interact with there are all about the health and success of Esoteric, Marantz or Accuphase SACD gear and could care less about Sony's agitation. Just as it remained possible to find unique vinyl pressings in Japan during phases when Europe and the US had mostly given up, these audiophiles expect to find SACD gems edited for Japan only for eons to come if necessary.
Interestingly, when my Japanese colleagues asked me what I thought about SACD playback, I had to awkwardly admit to never having had an SACD player in my system. Although the demos I had heard had been compelling, it is hard to forge a definitive opinion in a room and with gear that you don't know. So when a few weeks later Srajan asked what I would like to review next, I decided it was time to start closing this knowledge gap. What better place to start than with the most vocal if sometimes lonesome promoter of all hi-definition formats, Esoteric?
The SA60 under review today occupies the second level from the bottom in Esoteric's line but don't be mislead by this statement. Even Esoteric's entry-level SA-10 packs more weight and construction excellence than the top-line players of many audio companies. To quality and engineering-oriented companies like Esoteric and Accuphase, entry level has a completely different meaning as the 37lbs, beautifully executed SA60 would aptly testify.
The SA10 gives up some of the user-selectable settings over the SA60 (mainly oversampling rates for CD playback), multi-channel outputs and about 10lb but at $3500 and preserving all the 2-channel SACD abilities of its bigger brother, it is a great value-oriented entry into Esoteric's way of making music. A quick and cursory look at the SZ-1 manual would seem to indicate that this $4700 player is more or less a SA-10 in a very fancy box but since Jeff Day is currently reviewing the SZ-1, I'll let him dive into the minutiae of this slim boy.
About $3000 more than the SA60 will buy you the next level up of Esoteric excellence, the X-03 now in SE guise, reviewed by Srajan and granted a Blue Moon award for its performance approaching the mighty Zanden separates at a fraction of the cost. This major step-up in price over the SA60 mirrors a major step-up in features with a heavier version of the VRDS sled from which the lighter and simpler VSOP mechanism in the SA10, SA60 and SZ-1 was derived; and a completely balanced design with double DAC architecture versus the single but highly praised Cirrus 4398 used in the more mundane models. The X-03 does eschew the multi-channel playback ability (requiring 2 more Cirrus chips) which the SA60 inherited from the DV60 (a $5600 multi-channel video player whose architecture is used in the SA60, minus its video abilities of course).
|Now that you are as confused as I am about Esoteric's line-up and the various models' differentiating virtues, I can safely track my way back to the arrival of the SA60 in our rural neighborhood. Without fail, the SA60 arrived the day after we had our driveway repaved so the UPS driver could not get his truck to the house. I was handed a large box weighing over 40lbs with the mission of carrying it back home, thankfully downhill. Esoteric did think of including cut-outs on the side to facilitate handling but it is still a large and heavy box by any account. As soon as I gently rested the box in our living room, a wave of anxiety rolled over me. The box had a large dent on the side, evidence of the care in handling provided by US transporters. I could not stop wondering what damage had been done to the player. Opening the outer carton had me quickly reassured as a second box was literally floating inside the first one, suspended by green foam inserts to keep the valuable content away from the sides. Whatever punctuated the very sturdy outer box would have had to penetrate over 5 inches deep to get even remotely close to the player - not impossible but not likely either. Pulling the green suspenders and the inside box out, I was ready to take a first peek at the SA-60 when lifting the flaps revealed... a third box. Yes, Esoteric cares about their gear. I have never seen such high-quality packaging at any price point ... not even my Accuphase player came this well protected.
|At this point, I wondered whether Esoteric was pulling a practical joke. Should I expect more boxes inside this third shell? Thankfully not. I finally unveiled a player wrapped into a foamy liner and covered by a non-woven
|fabric. With all those extra precautions, the SA-60 arrived in flawless condition. Short of a major transportation accident, you can expect yours to arrive the same way, as pristine as when it left the factory half a world away. One final reminder about unpacking though; the beast is really 37lbs heavy and although not massive by audiophile standards, remember to use your legs and not your back to lift it out of the box. It is after all close to three times as heavy as most source components and slightly unbalanced, with most the weight located in front.
After you've added the provided felt pads under its 3 feet, gently position the SA60 on your rack (and Sound-Quest Isol-pads in my case), connect it to your preamplifier of choice and positively ignore the beast for two weeks. To be brutal about it, the SA60 cold out of the box sucks. Take my word for it, we are not talking about showing promise or being pleasant as it spreads its wings. It flat-out sucks: no dynamics, no tone, nothing. Forget about your new toy and insert the IsoTek burn-in CD, select track 2 (the one with deeper bass), hit play and repeat on the remote and let 'er rip. It takes a minimum of 150 hours with the IsoTek CD for the player to become just listenable. I don't know how that compares to burn-in with music but even with this optimized burn-in protocol recommended by Esoteric, the SA60 did not reach its prime until I had clocked in excess of 300 hours and it continued to marginally improve 'til the 500-hour mark. As the dedicated reviewer I am, I did check for you every day on how well the process was going, the conclusion being you're be better off listening to your old gear no matter what it is for the first week - and if you have the patience of a saint, a second week of burn-in won't be wasted. That said, it is probably time for the future Esoteric owners of the world to unite and lobby the manufacturer to include a copy of the IsoTek CD with every piece they sell. It would only be fair considering how lengthy the process is already with the CD.
On the other hand, you can look at it from the bright side. It does give you two full weeks to try and make sense of the very "educational" manual and literature provided by Esoteric. How a company so focused on customer satisfaction (apparent in the quality of packaging, 3-year warranty, wide spacing of connectors, well laid-out and sensuous controls and gorgeous remote) can provide so little useful information in their literature is beyond me. I could moan about it for a page instead of a paragraph but will instead try to add some intelligence proving hopefully useful for new SA60 owners, on what to expect when turning the player on.
The first thing of note is that you won't actually turn the player on. Instead it'll go instantly into standby once plugged in and a push button on the face (duplicated on the remote) will wake it up (blue light) or put it back to sleep (orange light). The player clearly preferring to be warm, I left it on at all times unless out for a few days. There are two ways to access setup functions. The fun part is that depending on how you access setup menus, you will be able to set different parameters. Don't think that because you've been through the remote control routine, you don't have to go through the player routine or vice versa. After all, you don't expect greatness to come easy, do ya?
Let's start with the remote setup menu. That one is actually described relatively well. It allows multiple audiophile tweaks like CD-direct to bypass unnecessary circuits for optimal CD playback; the option to turn off the digital outputs when unused (I could not detect any sonic difference let alone benefit but did it anyway - if the designers bothered, I should too); as well as enabling the down-mixing of multi-channel material if the player will be used in stereo only. A number of further minor functions specific to DVD and DVD-A are available as well but I spent very little time exploring those.
Of interest to multi-channel music enthusiasts will be that the SA60 seems to have a very complete speaker setup for 5.1 channel scenarios. I say "seems" because I used the player in 2-channel mode exclusively and will let readers direct their attention to more expert multi-channel writers to get an assessment of multi-channel playback. In my limited experience, multi-channel tracks down-mixed to 2-channel over the SA60 were consistently inferior to their equivalent 2-channel SACD tracks (less dynamic, less detail, less space). After similar results with 5 different discs, I settled on stereo mode exclusively and ignored multi-channel down mixes.
When playback is stopped, it is possible to access a second setup menu by pressing the play area button for 2 seconds. Normally, this control will allow you to explore the various formats recorded on hybrid SACDs (CD, stereo hi-def, multi-channel hi-def) and God only knows what on DVD-As (I could not figure out any consistent organization on DVD-As, with some formats accessible through play area, others through group and never twice in the same fashion from one disc to another). When held pressed, this button will take you to an area to activate the external clock input (from Esoteric external clocks units or the AZ-1/AI-10 amplifiers). Srajan covered the sonic benefits of reclocking in his follow-up review of the G25U. This function is also duplicated on the remote.
The second parameter is an option to set the player to DSD-direct, not to be confused with the CD-direct setting mentioned earlier. Although absolutely unclear about what this function really does, the very strong suggestion from Esoteric was to leave this setting off unless the digital signal was routed to a higher-end DSD decoder. I left it alone as instructed.
Finally, this section gives access to the infamous 'narrow' and 'wide' settings of the FIR algorithm (Finite Impulse Response, Esoteric's up/oversampling engine). The company provided ample technical information on this algorithm and the parameters that affect the oversampling of PCM data streams (CD data for you and me) but since I could not begin to make sense of the supplied information, I asked our in-house tech wizards to come to my rescue and Marja and Henk kindly accepted to decipher the hidden code, to be added at review's end.
In complement to the wide and narrow settings, PCM data can be oversampled following three different methods. FIR supports 8 x oversampling and 24-bit word depth; FIR+RDOT (Refined Digital Output Technology) takes the data and brings it to 32 x oversampling. One of the true differentiating features of the SA-60 however is the ability to take PCM data, upsample it to true DSD standard and decode it by the Cyrrus chip in the same fashion as it decodes SACD. More on those settings in the listening impressions. This pretty much concludes the accessible options. The SA-60 also gives you three levels of brightness for the digital display as well as auto mode which turns the display on when commands are entered but otherwise goes dark, something I found far more useful than the completely-off setting also available.