Over the past ten years or so, I’ve listened to quite a few Esoteric products: the DV-50, DV-60, and X-01 D2 disc players, the MG-20 speakers, and the P-03 transport and D-03 DAC, with G-0S clock. Almost every time, I came away feeling respect but not love for the gear, and never lust. These components could extract information in a way that was crystalline and competent, but that after a while I found annoying as hell. Esoteric’s house sound reminded me of early iterations of ceramic drivers: tremendous clarity, but without that breath of life that connects me to the music I love. And music, always and everywhere, should move you: it should excite, enflame, dazzle, and astound. Needless to say, I never bought an Esoteric component, always opting for more romantic-sounding, usually tubed gear, whose colorations helped offset the inherent flaws of the Compact Disc, rather than ruthlessly expose them as Esoteric gear does.
Or, I should say, did.
Lately, a few audiophiles have told me that the latest Esoteric models have moved away from ruthless revelation toward a more organic, more musical sound. I’ve heard the K-01 SACD/CD player in a friend’s system, with and without the G-0S clock, and thought it a big step up from the P-03/D-03 he’d owned previously, delivering just a smidge more warmth in the presence region that reaped big dividends in musicality. So when my editor presented me with a chance to review Esoteric’s P-02 SACD/CD transport and D-02 DAC ($23,500 USD each), my curiosity was piqued.
When I was in business school, I took classes in marketing that explained that a brand is effective when the company is strongly associated with a characteristic that consumers value. Esoteric has made a name for itself with the high build quality of its digital disc players. Every Esoteric player I’ve had my hands on has been built with a level of fanaticism I’ve not seen equaled elsewhere -- they seem to assume that you’ll own their gear for life. If Rockport Technologies made digital players, they’d make them like this.
It’s a rule of thumb that, all else being equal, the audio component that flexes least sounds best -- the best gear I’ve heard is generally far heavier than its competition. The P-02 weighs 68 pounds, the D-02 60 pounds. While I normally like to pop the hood and take a look inside, I couldn’t figure out how to do this with the Esoterics. Furthermore, every screw is torqued to its optimal tension to promote optimal performance. Instead, I told the P-02 to stick out its disc tray, then felt for any flex in the vertical and horizontal planes. When I applied the same amount of pressure that makes the trays of my Sony ModWright and EMM Labs players move appreciably in either plane, the P-02’s tray didn’t budge a millimeter. I chalk this up to Esoteric’s VRDS-Neo VMK-3.5-20S transport mechanism. It’s built like no other transport in the industry. Do such things as transport flex matter in the reproduction of sound? Yes. I can say that with confidence because vibrations matter, and any piece of gear that vibrates less will therefore have a lower noise floor. That’s not to say that the piece that vibrates less will sound better (there are many other factors at play), but minimal vibration is a prerequisite for truly outstanding performance.
That said, I found it ironic that both transport and DAC responded well to aftermarket footers and isolation devices. I can chalk that up only to the fact that the feet supplied with these models were not very effective, as they employ a cone-coupling design with a material (aluminum, I believe) that I’ve found actually degrades the performance of the units. I suspect the stock feet are simply transmitting noise from my rack into the Esoterics. I placed some Finite Elemente Cerabases under both Esoterics and was surprised at the increases in midrange and top-end clarity. This made clear to me that anyone wanting to get the absolute best out of the P-02 and/or D-02 would be well advised to drop a couple hundred bucks in aftermarket feet.
Inputs on the D-02 DAC include asynchronous and adaptive USB, S/PDIF via one TosLink and two RCA, and the two AES/EBU I used. Four digital filters are selectable by the user. (Additional technical descriptions of the P-02 and D-02 can be found as part of the coverage of The World’s Best Audio System 2012 event on SoundStage! Global.)
Reading the Esoterics’ literature made clear that these are engineer’s babies, with no constraints made to meet a target price. Each box has four separate power supplies. I’ve said it numerous times: When you listen to your system, you’re hearing your power supplies, and in the P-02 and D-02, numerous supplies are used to ensure plenty of power reserves as well as built-in attenuation of noise from the “dirty circuits” of the displays, remote-control interface, and transport motor, which can inject noise into the audio signal. A total of eight DAC chips per channel are used: the highly regarded Asahi Kasei Microdevices 4399. Evidently, this allowed Esoteric’s engineers to rewrite the decoding algorithms to process data at a higher bit rate: 35 as opposed to 32. I’ve usually been a big fan of players with built-in upsampling (more on this later), but they’re by no means a magic bullet.
Setup proved an exercise in onetime headaches, the likes of which reminded me of setting up my cable box plus DVR: The first time is intimidating and time consuming. However, with the P-02 and D-02, it’s highly likely there will be no need for a second time. The combo has myriad decoding algorithms, and some testing revealed that I greatly, clearly, and quickly preferred upsampling CDs and SACDs to 48-bit/176.4kHz (the P-02 doesn’t play DVD-A or other formats); all subsequent auditioning was done using this setting. This method mandates the use of dual XLR cables between transport and DAC, and the quality of sound depended on the quality of the cables. I also found that the Esoterics responded well when linked by an upgraded BNC clock cable.
I found it a bit odd that such expensive and well-built gear would be so sensitive to all the fine tuning that obsessive/compulsive audiophiles are known for. Anyone just dropping these boxes down on their stock feet, using stock cables and the default decoding settings, will leave 10 to 20% of their performance untapped. I found exceptional performance using the aforementioned Finite Elemente Cerabases, along with: Acoustic Revive DSIX cables with upgraded power supplies (I had to use two, as dual XLR cables are required between the transport and DAC before DSD upsampling can be used), an AudioQuest Eagle Eye word-clock cable (between transport and DAC), and TG Audio interconnects from DAC to preamp. The P-02 and D-02 are much like racecars: You can’t just screw on off-the-rack tires and dump regular gas in the tank and expect to win the pole.
I spent considerable time thinking of what has changed in Esoteric’s house sound with the P-02 and D-02, and it boiled down to these: superior treatment of transients, an impossibly low noise floor, and depth.
As for that first item, it’s worth acknowledging what our ears have always perceived, and that some in the audio press have acknowledged: there’s some pre-ringing in digital playback, likely due to some electronic artifact hitchhiking on the signal, that results in an over-aggressive initial transient. While some blame this transient overshoot on the use of digital filters during recording and/or playback, I’ve heard the problem in almost all solid-state CD playback, and particularly from earlier generations of Esoteric players -- which is why I’ve typically used tubes in digital playback. Few players can resolve the initial transient with no ringing or extension, which is, in my opinion, the main reason digital loses out to analog (the second is the noise floor; see below). Earlier Esoteric players rendered the initial transient with this pre-ringing in place, and reminded me of having a conversation in a small glass room.
The P-02 and D-02 were completely without any hint of transient ringing or overshoot. To test for this, I’ve frequently used “Time Is the Diamond,” from Low’s Trust (CD, Kranky Krank052). When the piano enters, it’s clear that it was recorded a bit too hot; it can sound piercing if there are any errors in the signal path. With the P-02 and D-02, the initial keystrokes still sounded sharp, but didn’t result in any false treble extension or have me reaching for the volume control. I spent a lot of time listening to hi-hat cymbals -- musicians listen to the cymbals for timing cues, and audiophiles quickly pick up on pre-ringing and tonal errors when a cymbal is recorded too “white” and not brassy enough. “Wasting Time,” from Jack Johnson’s classic On and On (CD, Universal 440 075 012 2), is very well recorded, but when my rig was anchored by the P-02 and D-02, the cymbal was rendered with the best attack, tone, and extension I’ve ever heard from my system.
I pulled out some long-worn CDs that I’m intimately familiar with, including the Jerry Garcia Band’s Let It Rock (CD, Rhino JGCD-0010). “Lady Sleeps” is a solo-piano piece by Nicky Hopkins, and the Esoterics rendered it with greater naturalness of attack, decay, and inner detail than I’d ever heard, or even thought existed on this disc. The percussive attack in the upper registers had pop and immediacy with no associated ringing or glare, while the tonal decay of the piano was, in a word, complete. With the P-02 and D-02 in the rig, initial attacks were rendered as one expects an instrument to sound, followed by a fully developed harmonic decay of microdetails.
Which makes a nice segue to my second major conclusion about the P-02 and D-02: They possessed the lowest noise floor and, as a result, the most inner detail of any digital components I’ve heard. Generally, a separate transport and DAC should have a lower noise floor, due at least partially to the incremental filtering of the additional power transformers; when the transport and DAC are in separate boxes, they don’t share a transformer. However, Esoteric takes this further than any other company out there by employing four transformers per box, and of course each provides filtering of noise (both external or self-generated noise, and each is a sin). Couple this overbuilt power supply with the build quality mentioned earlier, which includes the industry’s best transport assembly in the VRDS-Neo, and you’re left with pure music, sans noise.
While that may not be the sexist marketing tag, you need to understand what noise does to understand what its absence means. Certain musical microdetails can be heard only when they’re louder than the quietest noise injected into the audio signal. And a signal is most sensitive to noise when it’s still unamplified -- i.e., at the source level, before the preamp or amp -- as amplification stages downstream will only amplify the signal and the noise. The Esoterics did wonders at extracting detail without adding noise.
This paid huge dividends with poorly recorded music. I began with a CD I never use for auditioning because of its poor sound: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ Up from Below (Community VR542). “Man on Fire” was so much more resolved through the P-02/D-02 that it made this marginal disc far more listenable. The Esoterics delivered inner detail, harmonic decay, and, for the first time, space, without false transient hype, clangy clarity, or inner grain. Another example was the Talking Heads’ Naked (CD, Fly/Sire W2-25654). Listening to “Totally Nude,” I was again mightily impressed -- this poorly recorded song is flat and bright, but now it sounded musical and resolving, with startling renditions of individual instrument textures but none of the upper-midrange funkiness that I hate most about digital playback. One of my favorite recordings, the remastered version of Sting’s Bring on the Night (CD, A&M B0004305-02), is one of the best examples of a great live performance brought down by lousy sound. Through the Esoterics, flesh was added to its whitish bones, with newly discovered space between instruments on a defined stage, along with texture where previously it had sounded bright and glossy. For the first time, I wanted to actually sit down and listen to this album. If you have a lot of badly engineered discs, the P-02 and /D-02 will be a godsend.
Indeed, the P-02/D-02’s ability to make bad discs listenable was its most defining characteristic. So many of my recordings were now worth prime-time listening that it transformed my listening habits. (Not that it didn’t notch stellar performance with well-recorded CDs and SACDs -- it most certainly did.) This led me to conclude that one of the primary reasons some discs sound so bad is because most players add enough noise to the signal to push these recordings from the marginal into the unlistenable category. This obscures the textures of most midrange-centric instruments, flattens the soundstage, and colors the upper midrange and lower treble frequencies, where our ears are particularly sensitive, and where a small amount of noise can quickly result in fatigue. While I’m generally a fan of upsampling players, which I find superior in detail retrieval and tonal naturalness, I hadn’t heard one do as well as the P-02/D-02 at extracting from recordings so much texture, decay, and spatial information. I’m left to assume that a heroic level of engineering to remove noise from the source is what puts the Esoterics at the head of the pack. This did more to enhance my enjoyment of poor recordings than any other single piece of gear I’ve come across.
A lower noise floor is also crucial to properly reproducing music’s dynamic ebb and flow, and the Esoterics were stellar at capturing those shifts. Listening to “My Generation,” from the Who’s Live at Leeds (MCA 088-112-618-2), I was struck by how much more dramatic the shifts from quiet to loud were through the Esoterics, even as they were more musically informative, particularly in the midrange and treble. This was because the Esoterics were so supremely quiet that I didn’t have to struggle to hear the music over the noise floor of the system, and when the amplitude of the signal ramped up as the volume changed, the difference in volume seemed greater than through other players, which made the shift itself seem more sudden and open. But this wasn’t because the Esoterics were overstating the transient, which they clearly were not, as noted in my comments above about pre-ringing; what was happening was that the Esoterics were playing music with a vanishingly low noise floor, and as a result the signal appears more dramatic as its amplitude shifts. With the Esoteric P-02/D-02 in the rig, Pete Townshend’s guitar exploded into space; other players leave it to rumble in with a less dramatic shift from whisper-quiet to screaming-loud.
The Esoterics also struck me as fundamentally different from and superior to any other digital playback I’ve heard in their ability to deliver the heft, weight, and depth of each recording. Bass depth provides the foundation of all music, enabling it to sound authoritative, dramatic, and big. “Midnight Rambler,” from the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (SACD/CD, ABKCO SACD 90052), was presented with tremendous bass depth and an urgently propulsive tempo in the kick drums, providing the thunderous, relentless quality typical of great rock. But this depth and pace were also accompanied by the reference-level resolution alluded to earlier -- brushes on snare drums were heard along with the transient attack. When I listened to “Banana Pancakes,” from Jack Johnson’s In Between Dreams (CD, Brushfire B0004149-02), the bass had great depth, with excellent pitch definition and no overhang or plumminess -- the Esoterics gave this track better pace, and a more lighthearted feel consistent with Johnson’s genre. It was the Esoterics’ ability to render depth without overhang that gave the music a wonderful, relentless sense of pace and timing; while notes were never shortchanged or harmonic decays truncated, the music always progressed, without meandering or lingering. With the Esoterics, music had an urgent message it was trying to deliver, and one that I’ve not heard another player communicate as effectively. As I’ve grown in ability as a guitarist, I’ve grown more sensitive to the timing of my system; it was clear that the P-02/D-02 would be a drummer’s pick -- a tremendous compliment to any component.
I first compared the Esoteric P-02 and D-02 with my reference SACD/CD player, the Sony XA-5400ES ($1499) with ModWright Ultimate Truth Mod ($1995). Generally, when a product costs ten times more than another, it’s reasonable to expect it to sound better. The Sony ModWright is a wonderful player and a fantastic choice of digital front end for a real-world budget, but it simply didn’t compare to the Esoterics.
“Lovesong of the Buzzard,” from Iron and Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog (Sub Pop SPCD 710), sounded thunderous and controlled through the P-02/D-02, while the Sony ModWright struggled to communicate the same intensity and urgency; the difference between the two players was like the difference between an 8-cylinder motor vs. a turbo-charged 4-cylinder trying to get from the entrance ramp onto a fast-moving highway. The P-02/D-02 combo also demonstrated superior leading-edge transients. “Polite Dance Song,” from the Bird and the Bee’s Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future (CD, EMI 2 34556 2), had much better bass depth and articulation though the P-02/D-02, while the ModWright sounded more warm, syrupy, and overemphasized in the midrange. The P-02/D-02 was consistently sharper, with more pop on initial transients, but without any ringing (which the ModWright avoids as well). “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” also from the Iron and Wine disc, was veiled and cloudy through the ModWright in comparison to the Esoterics -- the first time the ModWright had ever sounded that way to me. Such was the standard the Esoteric set. While the ModWright does a good job of retrieving detail, pace, rhythm, and timing, it simply couldn’t keep up with the P-02/D-02.
Moving on to a fairer match, I pitted the P-02/D-02 against Esoteric’s own single-box K-01 ($22,000), another of the latest generation of Esoteric players. Listening to “North Dakota,” from Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth (CD, MCA MCAD-10475), it quickly became obvious that the K-01 had a certain jaggedness and sibilance throughout the audioband that reminded me of a system in need of power conditioning. While the K-01 equaled the P-02/D-02 in extension and detail retrieval, the P-02/D-02 combo demonstrated none of the sibilance of the K-01, which sounded unfocused and grainy in comparison. While the P-02/D-02 were clearly superior to the K-01, I can say that, between these two players, Esoteric’s old house sound is gone -- the K-01 reminds me far more of a rough-around-the-collar P-02/D-02 than a souped-up X-01 D2. I could live happily with the K-01, but it’s not in the same league as the P-02/D-02. In this case, when you pay more, you get more.
As a final test, I added an older Esoteric clock, the G-0S, to the K-01. This made the K-01 competitive with the P-02/D-02, which surprised me -- without the G-0S, it wasn’t even close. When I listened again to Jack Johnson’s In Between Dreams, this time to “No Other Way,” the K-01/G-0S helped remove the jaggedness I’d noted previously, and enabled the K-01 to present a better-defined stage. But in most all other regards the P-02/D-02 was still superior, if not by much. I give the edge to the P-02/D-02 -- the combo was slightly smoother, more organic, and more liquid than the K-01/G-0S, while also having more dynamic thrust. In contrast, the K-01/G-0S was airier, leaner, and perhaps a smidgen crisper on transients. But I’m splitting hairs here; later in the session, I compared some AC plugs (just the IEC plug), and heard bigger differences between the plugs than between the K-01/G-0S and P-02/D-02. Either of these combos is a lifetime choice, but if money were no object, I’d still go with the P-02/D-02.
Of course, I also had to try the G-0S with the P-02/D-02, to see if the clock would work as much improvement as it had with the K-01. But I heard very little difference when listening to “Bag’s Groove,” from Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s So What (CD, Acoustic Disc ACD-33). While the cable and footer accessories are required for peak performance, Esoteric’s P and D series do not require an Esoteric clock to sound spectacular.
I was reluctant to take on the Esoteric P-02 and D-02 for review -- I knew there was no way I could ever afford them. Having them in the house is like ogling a Victoria’s Secret catalog: those girls are not coming over to play, so what’s the point? Although, for about ten seconds, I actually did try to come up with the $47,000.
It’s helpful to listen to such products, if only to recalibrate one’s expectations of what’s possible. Surely, if any digital gear is worthy of the world’s best audio systems, the Esoteric P-02 and D-02 are. Their performance with high-quality discs was of reference level, and, more impressively, their sound with lousy discs was downright transformative. It’s a shame so many audiophiles won’t be able to hear what this combo can do.
These state-of-the-art products will likely be the end of the digital road for those lucky enough to be able to buy them. If I had the coin, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy these things, and never worry about digital again. And with a build quality to last 40 years? Yeah, I could justify that. Amazing.
. . . Ryan Coleman
- Preamplifiers -- Herron VTSP-3A, Ypsilon PST 100 TA, Audio Research Reference 3
- Amplifiers -- McIntosh Laboratory MC-501 monoblocks, Edge 12.1 Signature and Boulder Amplifiers 1060 stereo amps
- Speakers -- Rockport Technologies Merak and Sheritan II, Avalon Acoustics Time
- Sources -- Sony XA-5400ES Signature with ModWright Ultimate Truth Mod, Esoteric K-01 SACD/CD players
- Cables -- TG Audio interconnects, AudioQuest Redwood speaker cables, TG Audio power cords
- Power treatment -- TG Audio passive conditioner, Maestro and Oyaide R1 outlets, WPZ wall plate
Esoteric P-02 SACD/CD Transport
Price: $23,500 USD.
Esoteric D-02 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $23,500 USD.
Warranty (both): Two years parts and labor (three years with return of product registration form).
TEAC America, Inc.
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA 90640
Phone: (323) 726-0303
Fax: (323) 727-7650