I’ve been reading a compelling self-improvement bestseller by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo makes a simple but powerful claim: a dramatic reorganization of your outer world can result in correspondingly profound changes in your inner world. Declutter your life and you’ll feel better, she promises. The path to reorganization, however, involves a ruthlessly deliberate shedding of some of our things. Kondo encourages us to keep only what brings us joy, and to get rid of everything that doesn’t.
As a psychiatrist entrusted with the responsibility of helping people take care of their inner worlds, I can see the interesting neuroscientific premise behind this. In this age of distraction and materialism, too much information and too much stuff could be obscuring or interfering with our brains’ pathway to joy. Clutter could be a roadblock in the neural highway to the brain’s reward center: the nucleus accumbens, a small, almond-shaped structure deep in the midbrain that has been shown to be an important part of the positive emotion our brain senses when we hear music we like.
What does this have to do with stereo gear? Stimulating the brain’s reward center with music can unfortunately lead to an addictive, obsessive-compulsive search for an elusive holy grail of auditory nirvana, and along the way we can accumulate too much stuff. At some point you might ask yourself, “When does this quest end? When can I start to focus again on the message -- the music -- and stop obsessing about the medium?”
What Kondo proposes requires that you ask yourself a different question: Will the next upgrade be that destination piece, that holy grail -- a purchase that will bring me lasting joy? To me, such an audio component must be utterly transparent and relentlessly musical in sound, timelessly drop-dead gorgeous in appearance, easy to use, absolutely reliable, and provide state-of-the-art sound quality that won’t be significantly bettered for years.
My reference system reflects my fondness for an enduring design aesthetic in which extraordinary electronics are encased in beautifully crafted cases of metal and wood. My office stereo consists of a Shindo Laboratory Cortese single-ended-triode tubed power amplifier, a Shindo Masseto tubed preamplifier, Horning Eufrodite Ellipse speakers in Indian applewood, and High Fidelity CT-1 Enhanced speaker cables. My analog source comprises a Garrard 401 turntable in a flamewood plinth crafted by Woodsong Audio’s übertalented Chris Harban, an Ortofon TA-210 tonearm, a Miyajima Shilabe cartridge, and a Bob’s Devices Sky 30 step-up transformer. Digital is handled by a Line Magnetic LM-515 CD transport-DAC and Auditorium 23 interconnects. All rest on a component rack of Indian rosewood, superbly designed and gorgeously finished by Aaron Hoffman, of Kanso Audio. Hoffman, a Virginia-based furniture maker, is as besotted with Japanese style as I am, but also has backgrounds in engineering, physics, and the building of high-end homes -- which, in my mind, makes him uniquely qualified to build perfect habitats for high-end stereo equipment.
With the inexorable march of progress in digital, I have accumulated a variety of digital sources over the past decade: an MHDT Havana DAC, a Sony PlayStation 3 gaming console, an Oppo Digital BDP-105 universal Blu-ray player, an NAD M5 SACD/CD player, that Line Magnetic LM-515 CD player -- and, most recently, with the advent of DSD, a Luxman DA-06 DAC and Aurender X100L music server. But none of these components, as excellent as each is, has so far challenged my preference for the sound of music reproduced from vinyl.
The Luxman DAC is fabulous, providing a warm, rich, seductive tone that I adore; coupled with the Aurender, it makes for a great digital system. The Aurender is easy to use and, at 12TB, has immense storage capacity. While I appreciate the intuitive and convenient operation of the Aurender’s app in selecting my music, for me there’s something inherently more satisfying about owning and inserting a disc of recorded music into the component chain than in selecting that recording on a touchscreen. Now, having read Kondo’s book, I have come to realize that the size of one’s music collection is nowhere near as important as the quality of the recordings one owns. In Kondo’s spirit of tidying up, I’ve been hard at work winnowing my music collection to the recordings that, with repeated listening, regularly bring me joy.
Enter the Esoteric K-07X
In 1987, two years before Toyota threw down a gauntlet to the automotive industry with the introduction of Lexus, TEAC did a similar thing in launching their Esoteric brand. If you developed an appreciation for rock’n’roll in the 1970s, as I did, you probably owned a TEAC cassette deck and made some awesome mix tapes with it. From the outset, Esoteric’s mission statement was “to bring the highest level musical experience to demanding audiophiles.” In their choice of brand names, they also made it clear that theirs were not meant to be mass-market products.
Esoteric has now been building cutting-edge digital players for 28 years. They own a number of patents on proprietary designs and unique hardware mechanisms that ensure that they’ll continue to push the boundaries of digital music reproduction, and won’t be copycatting or reverse-engineering anyone else’s products or relying on anyone else’s supply chain anytime soon. In their brochure, they call it “Pursuing Radical Evolution, Not Nominal Improvements.”
Esoteric’s entry-level SACD/CD player/DAC is the K-07X ($6000 USD). Confusingly, as the Esoteric model number goes down, the level of refinement, and sophistication of hardware, go up. Esoteric’s flagship model is the K-01X, and at $20,000 retail and 68 pounds, it’s a beast. The K-07X itself, at 17.4”W x 5.1”H x 13.8”D and 30.8 pounds, is neither small nor lightweight, and I was a bit unnerved at its bulky packaging. My review sample came triple boxed in a sturdy flight case delivered on a pallet. But Scott Sefton at Esoteric assured me that almost all Esoteric products are shipped via white-glove freight. An impressive and majestic entry, to be sure, although its delivery the day before Halloween had my receptionist spooked as to its contents.
The K-07X looks very similar to its predecessor, the K-07, but the brochure says that, inside, it’s all new. So what can this bad boy do? Well, in addition to playing a PCM digital signal at its original sampling frequency, upconversion of it by 2x, 4x, or 8x is also possible. A number of digital-to-digital conversion options are also available for the PCM format, such as PCM-to-DSD conversion. Tweak geeks rejoice -- the K-07X’s sound can be tailored with four different types of digital filter for PCM signal processing. In addition to two Finite Impulse Response (FIR) digital filters, two types of short-delay digital filters are included, which, according to Esoteric, offer a more precise and natural sound. A Digital Filter Off mode allows the user to bypass both the PCM and DSD digital filters. Three digital inputs (USB, coaxial, optical) enable easy connection to a wide range of source components. These inputs support 2.8MHz DSD, and high-resolution PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz. There is also USB support for 2.8/5.6/11.2MHz DSD, 32/384 PCM, and Asynchronous Transmission Mode.
Esoteric’s unique and proprietary transport mechanism incorporates a high-precision turntable claimed to greatly improve reading accuracy by mechanically correcting for disc surface run-out. Its hybrid construction integrates precision-machined aluminum with polycarbonate to minimize rotational inertia. A hybrid-construction turntable bridge also contributes to the suppression of rotational vibration and run-out. In addition, the transport’s spindle motor adds to reading accuracy with an advanced servo control that uses rotation-detection circuitry. The tray is opened and closed, and the disc clamped, using a unique differential gear system that is also proprietary to Esoteric, and that ensures exceptionally smooth loading of discs. I found myself opening and closing the K-07X’s tray just to marvel at the smoothness and silence of the design.
The mechanism of Esoteric’s Vertically aligned Optical Stability Platform (VOSP) has the same axial sliding pickup assembly used in their flagship SACD player, the K-01X. As the read lens moves, the laser beam is able to maintain ultraprecise perpendicularity to the disc surface, to guarantee accurate reading. To better control resonance, the VOSP mechanism is rigidly held in place by a substantial steel plate and an 8mm-thick, large-diameter steel stabilizer.
The K-07X employs Asahi Kasei’s AK4490 32-bit DAC, and, according to Esoteric, has “four parallel/differential circuits and eight outputs driving each channel -- twice that of most players in terms of circuit scale.” They are arranged in a discrete dual-mono configuration, while the DACs and analog output circuitry are laid out in parallel on both sides of the board, and are completely isolated from the digital signal processing circuitry. This design reportedly achieves excellent channel separation.
In the K-07X’s power supply, Esoteric uses the electronic double-layer capacitors developed for their Grandioso C1 line-stage preamplifier to provide an impressive total of 500,000μF of capacitance per channel, for exceptional reproduction of low frequencies. Esoteric also borrows two of the C1’s buffer-amplifier circuits per channel, configured differentially to drive the XLR outputs, and in parallel to drive the RCA outputs.
A 34-bit D/A processing algorithm gives the K-07X an encoding resolution that is a staggering 1024 times greater than that of 24-bit encoding -- the four 32-bit DACs combine to convert the high-resolution 34-bit PCM signal to analog. Esoteric also states that in “the digital range, full advantage is taken of high-bit data gradation to minimize calculation errors and provide faithful conversion to analog.”
Kings of Convenience is an oddly named Norwegian guitar-and-vocal duo who are making some of the most beguiling folk-pop since Nick Drake’s untimely passing, in 1974. Their second album, Quiet Is the New Loud (CD, Source/Astralwerks 019), is notable not only for its achingly beautiful melodies, but also for having given a name and impetus to a rising genre of like-minded musicians. While it’s a great album in its own right, the follow-up, Versus (CD, Source/Astralwerks 040), released the same year, is a collection of remixes of tracks from Quiet, and is unusual in actually improving on the original. Both CDs showcased the Esoteric K-07X’s many and varied strengths: On Quiet, “The Weight of My Words” swings back and forth, creating tension and then releasing it, the poignant lyrics and the delicate fingerpicking underlining how hard it is to try to make things right in a broken relationship. Here, the K-07X’s forte was its inky aural blackness between notes -- it reveled in highlighting the spaces between notes, demonstrating, like the song itself, that words not spoken are just as important as those that are. Quiet is the new loud, indeed -- the overall noise floor was so low that it magnified the song’s subtle dynamic contrasts -- I marveled at the meta.
“The Weight of My Words (Four Tet Remix)” is a psychedelic miasma of sound by Kings of Convenience: the voices of school kids on a playground form a backdrop to a swirling, hallucinatory synthesis of electronica that snakes around the original acoustic guitars and voices. This visceral and lifelike introduction transported me to another time and place in my life as the Esoteric’s rendering pulled me in with its remarkably holographic sound -- the continuous spatial cues and vast soundstage produced a mind-bending wraparound effect with me at the center.
“Message of Love,” from a new SACD of the Pretenders’ second album Pretenders II (SACD/CD, Sire/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD2056), was propulsive and energetic, the Esoteric and the DSD remastering combining with my Shindo Cortese-Masseto combo to create an improbably bouncy yet rhythmically tight interplay of Martin Chambers’s exuberant percussion and James Honeyman-Scott’s and Chrissie Hynde’s jangly, mischievous guitars. Throughout this disc, the K-07X showcased the passion in Hynde’s vocal ornaments -- and her shifts from sultry whisper to angry shout were mesmerizing.
Inserting the Esoteric K-07X in my home system of Luxman power amp and Vivid speakers provided results just as impressive. I’ve long enjoyed the brooding menace of Tom Hamilton’s bass-guitar line in Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” (You should know that any psychiatrist who loves classic rock and grew up in Boston would have to reference this song.) But when I played the 2003 DSD reissue of Toys in the Attic (SACD/CD, Columbia CS 57362) in the Esoteric, the K-07X’s impeccable pace, rhythm, and timing made this song’s crescendo to cruising altitude more exhilarating than ever before. It’s a good source component that makes you want to hear your old favorites again. The Esoteric also burnished and highlighted Steven Tyler’s piano in “No More No More,” also from Toys -- and I found that while I usually am content to play air Les Paul to this song, the rollicking piano was just as compelling -- at least until Joe Perry launched into his ridiculously tuneful guitar solo, which fades out way too quickly.
Listening to Davey Johnstone’s mandolin and sitar in “Holiday Inn,” from Elton John’s Madman Across the Water (SACD/CD, Island B0003610-36), was similarly revelatory. Sitar solos in rock songs are unusual to begin with, and Johnstone’s usually sounds somewhat submerged in the mix. Through the K-07X it popped, commanding attention even as Paul Buckmaster’s majestic orchestral arrangement spiraled around it.
Beck’s Morning Phase, released last year on 180gm vinyl, comes with an interesting download option titled “The Vinyl Experience.” This download of the entire album, meant to sound like an LP, includes subtle surface noise, a longer pause between the last song on side A and the first on side B, the sound of a needle being dropped onto side B, and, at the end, the sound of a needle in the run-out groove. Both the download (24/96) and the CD (Capitol B001983802) were tremendously enjoyable to listen to; more than anything else I listened to this month, they showcased the Esoteric’s tremendous strengths: separation, detail, and background “blackness.” Acoustic guitars -- my favorite instrument -- take front and center in this recording, and the K-07X’s reproduction of their tones was simply true-to-life.
One player to rule them all?
The Esoteric K–07X is an extraordinary piece of kit. Vinyl lovers like me will find in it a digital source they can live with over the long haul -- the Esoteric has a remarkably vivid and visceral sound, and provides a thick, palpable, organic umami for the ears. It is also a functional work of art: superb-sounding electronics and hardware enclosed in a pristine, elegant case -- a veritable MacBook Pro of disc players. It’s also a destination product -- the only decision my fellow audiophiles need make is which of the Esoteric digital players best fits their budgets.
If you’re a well-heeled music lover looking for a one-and-done digital cornerstone for your first system, the K-07X is it. If you’re a vinyl snob who thinks digital tone could never be as texturally rich, colorful, and enthralling as your LPs, think again. If, like me, you’ve acquired more than one good digital source and are looking for a destination player, now is the time to sell your accumulated gear and get an Esoteric.
The K-07X may be Esoteric’s base SACD/CD player-DAC, but it’s also the beneficiary of electronics and overall design philosophy trickled down from more expensive models. It’s a component that I could be happy with for a very long time. I drive an 11-year-old Lexus SC 430 convertible with 70,000 miles on it. It remains a classic design, and I’m sure that, with minimal fuss, it could last another 100,000 miles. Esoteric’s design ethos seems to be to bring the owner of its products a similar amount of pleasure over the long haul. I also imagine that, once you “get” Esoteric, you’ll remain an Esoteric aficionado. The price of admission to Club Esoteric may be steep, but you get what you pay for. The K-07X is a perfect fusion of ravishing industrial design and extraordinary engineering that resulted, for me, in amazing listening experiences.
. . . Tom Mathew
- Speakers -- DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93, Horning Eufrodite Ellipse, Jamo R909, Vivid Audio Oval K1
- Amplifiers -- Shindo Laboratory Cortese and Haut-Brion
- Integrated amplifier -- Luxman L-590AX
- Preamplifier -- Shindo Laboratory Masseto
- Digital sources -- Aurender X100L music server (12TB), Line Magnetic LM-515 CD player, Luxman DA-06 DAC
- Speaker cables -- Auditorium 23, High Fidelity CT-1 Enhanced, Skogrand Ravel (in for review)
- Interconnects -- Auditorium 23, Sablon Audio Panatela, Shindo Laboratory, Skogrand Ravel (in for review)
- Digital cables -- Prana Wire Photon USB
- Turntable -- Garrard 401 (plinth by Woodsong Audio) with Ortofon TA-210 tonearm, Thorens TD-125 (long base by Vinyl Nirvana)
- Cartridges -- Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, Miyajima Shilabe, Ortofon Xpression
- Phono -- Bob’s Devices Sky 30 step-up transformer and vintage phono cable
- Power conditioners -- Shindo Laboratory Mr. T, Silver Circle Audio Tchaik 6
- Furniture -- Kanso audio stands in Indian rosewood, maple burl, and amboyna
Esoteric K-07X SACD/CD Player/DAC
Price: $6000 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor; three years with product registration.
Distributed by Integra
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (844) 515-2065