Playing my badly dog-eared consumer-by-proxy card, I'll say that Esther's table manners would be more perfect still if she, a/ gave visual progress indication during charge mode, and b/ did the same during music scan. Both are firmware matters. At present, charging in off mode just lights up a red LED behind a pin-prick hole on the right cheek. You know you're doing it but are clueless how far to a full charge you are. For that you must fire up the deck and check. That's silly. If you import 5'000 AIFF tracks by way of two bigger cards, you'll be equally clueless about progress. Because it'll take a few minutes, you might wonder whether you're executing at all; or are somehow stuck. As to cover art imports, FLAC files did the business, AIFF categorically did not. That too can and should be addressed with a firmware update even though it's nitpicking at a high level when AIFF support wasn't even advertised.

Esther M1Pro versus Questyle QP1R, with two Camp Fire Audio IEMs courtesy of Ken Ball.

Which gets us at sonics. Versus my QP1R, it was ScanSpeak Revelator or Audio Technology fabric/paper drivers against Accuton ceramics time. Not only had the Questyle considerably more gain, its focus on front-loaded transients not back-loaded fades gave it a sharper pricklier drier character. Without doubt and obvious seconds into the first track, Esther was noticeably warmer and softer. Anyone familiar with judging playback on this particular axis will instantly make all the usual connections. The QP1R was more separated, driven, close up, energetic, dynamically padded and quick. Esther was more laid back, distanced, fulsome and leisurely. For max illumination of venue cues as mapped out by fine reflections and reverb trails, the QP1R had the edge. On gentler transitions and a seemingly more decay-rich atmosphere which augmented tone textures, Esther had and did more. For long-term comfort which might wear out crisper attacks and their rhythmic tightness, Esther's voicing under the Pro banner becomes successful antidote. In popular terms, the QP1R would be called more highly resolved. Its higher gain also is suitable for less efficient headphones where Esther runs out of gas.

Just so, in low-gain mode, I could still drive the Meze 99 Classics with Esther's on-chip volume completely bypassed and hit stout "definitely don't want more" SPL. Ditto for the Final Sonorous III. With the latter being a quasi Accuton on behaviour to stick to the same lingo, it gelled wonderfully with Esther's more fulsome physique. By the same token, the 99 Classics cottoned on keener to the QP1R. Someone hot on driving up these relative values would mate like with like. All others would cross match for the old 'opposites attract' thing as I did. Regarding noise... what noise? Even my most sensitivity-pushed IEM had no issues when run at the appropriate gain level. In short, Esther delivered on the promise of a very low operational noise floor. This was vital to retain low-level visibility given her moister more tone-centric behaviour. Many especially affordable SET amps charm with their tonefulness, then fail miserably at modern resolution expectations with their unacceptably high noise floors. Esther did not. Subject closed.

In casual terms, Esther M1Pro was voiced for musicality, not as the sharpest loupe for the grandest magnification of the smallest print. Like the decision for hard controls, this struck me as mature acknowledgment of reality over abstract idealism. Click wheels are inherently fussier even if they might seem slicker as long as they still track properly. Ultra-rez might impress on the very first encounter with its "wowie, never heard all of that before" assault on the senses but soon gets tiresome. It devolves into relentless overload, missing the plot with meaningless detail mining. If you want more emphasis on colour saturation and weighty tone, a bit more moisture and suede rather than hard glass textures... Esther could be your dream gal. Whilst I'd never heard of Soundaware the brand before, I was very pleasantly surprised. Esther was a far more mature effort than Astell&Kern's original AK100 ever was. If you think on it, life in the portable audio lane of 2016 is really good. Blind date with Esther, anyone? By now it ought to be far from blind...
Postscript: With my new Zu 3.5mm-to-RCA coaxial cable landing just in time to slip into this assignment, I was at first "cut deep"—to intone Eddie Murphy's Shrek donkey—when I had no sound. It took me a few minutes to track improbable cause. To make contact, the cable's 3.5mm jack couldn't insert all the way. It had to pull out by about 3mm.

I don't know whether Zu's plug shaft is unusually long; its contact patch in a non-standard spot; or Soundaware's abnormally high. In any Event—MkII in my Zu case—once inserted as shown next, analog voltages representing digital ones and zeroes migrated securely across the 50cm wire to end up in fully balanced sound at the Audeze LCD-XC. Amplified by two mono-strapped Questyle CMA800R, this sound, again, was much cooler and brighter than soloing Esther. But now that wasn't the point. The point was demonstrating happy digital transport duties. I frankly couldn't tell apart the QP1R streaming in Toslink mode from Esther in coaxial counterpoint. From a purely hands-on perspective meanwhile, I far preferred Esther's hard controls. Over time, Questyle's click wheel has gotten sloppy on me. Scrolling through its library by artist or album, it routinely takes multiple attempts before I hit my target. No such shenanigans with the Soundaware deck. I really liked the way it worked. Now if it came with an optional custom dock with full-size analog and digital outputs 'round back, Esther would actually go to 11.


Soundaware website