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Gryphon Diablo 300

In Japan, the branch of esoteric Buddhism called Shingon (“the true words”) practices Goma, an intricate ritual of consecrated fire dedicated to destroying negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and impure variations of the true words of this spiritual discipline. The flames of the Goma can reach several yards high, and this miraculous fire, combined with mass chanting from the assembled priests and accompanied by the pounding of huge taiko drums, can induce a sublime, trance-like state that’s said to heal the sick, summon rain, improve harvests, exorcise demons, avert natural disasters, and just brang that funky music to the worried heart. It’s supposed to present the pure spiritual Emptiness that is the true nature of reality, and to directly communicate the inner experience of Dharmakaya: the true self of the Buddha present in all beings.

Esoteric K-05X

I thought of all this during my past couple months of listening to Esoteric’s new K-05X SACD/CD player ($8000 USD). It just seemed to reveal more of “the truth” present in every digital recording I threw at it. What I heard seemed to be direct transmissions of signals originating in the soundboards of the recording studios that captured the music in the first place. The word lossy did not once come to mind during that period, though I do think that “esoteric” is a completely apt choice for the name of a company that makes high-end disc players that get more out of digital recordings than your average spinner. It was a bold move on the part of the TEAC Corporation to brand its luxury line of audio products Esoteric, and Buddhist or not, I couldn’t help but think I was being purified in the wheels of sonic fire eddying around me as I sat listening to the K-05X in the warm but otherwise humdrum confines of my listening room.

Background and development

A division of Tokyo Electric Acoustic Company (TEAC), Esoteric was launched in 1987 exclusively for TEAC’s high-end audio products. Since then the brand has earned a reputation for making some of the best CD and SACD transports and players, DACs, and digital master clocks in the business. The P-1 CD transport, introduced in 1987, was the first Esoteric product, and the first to feature the company’s Vibration-free Rigid Disc-clamping System (VRDS) that has been at the center of their players’ success ever since.

In the VRDS transports and their successors, the VRDS-Neos, a lightly concave, CD-sized platter clamps the CD or SACD over its entire surface. If there’s a slight wobble or minor warp in the disc, it’s pressed flat by the VRDS. This allows the laser beam to maintain its position at a precisely consistent distance and angle from the disc at all times, without having to move to compensate for any irregularities in the disc. “As far as I know, nobody else does this,” said Scott Sefton, Esoteric USA’s representative, when we spoke recently. And because any movement by the laser’s solenoids creates noise, this results in a big improvement in the sound. Moreover, since movements of a transport’s laser are reactive, causing delays in the transmission of information and thus loss of data, minimizing those movements increases the accuracy of the information sent from transport to DAC, eliminating any need for it to be corrected -- and possibly corrupted -- by the player’s error-correction algorithms. Finally, the laser in Esoteric transports slides along two rails rather than the single rail found in most commercial players, which results in steadier movement of the beam and thus, again, more accurate retrieval of data.

Esoteric K-05X

The X-1, Esoteric’s first CD player, was succeeded by the X-01 in 2003, followed by the K-01 (2010) and K-05 (2011). The differences between the X and K series were audible: “the X-series renders a super sharp image, it is like paint in monochrome,” one crucially critical customer wrote at the time. “I want more color,” he said. In developing the K models, Esoteric engineers aimed for a more organic, pliant sound, according to an e-mail I got from Hiroyuki Machida, an Esoteric executive based in Japan. This involved changing from the X series’ 24-bit Cirrus Logic DACs to 32-bit Asahi Kasei DACs, designing a new buffer amplifier, and other electrical and mechanical changes. And the boxy outer cases of the X models became, in the K series, more elegantly rounded shapes with thicker, anti-resonant walls of aluminum.

The K-05X benefits from another small boatload of improvements over the K-05. Where the K-05 had only two DACs per channel, the K-05X has four DAC circuits per channel. This is all to improve accuracy. A byproduct of combining multiple DACs is the ability to use a 34-bit processing algorithm with resolution 1024 times greater than 24-bit processing. This results in a smoother sinewave -- a gradual sloping, rather than the jagged, stairstep wave produced by lower-rez processing -- to make for a smoother, more organic, more natural sound. Even the K-05X’s clock crystal is bigger, for more accurate timing so there’s less jitter, resulting in more information and improved detail.

The K-05X’s power supply, also new, includes a large toroidal transformer and a new array of large ELDC dual-layer super capacitors with greater storage capacity and smaller footprints -- more of these caps can fit inside the same-sized case for much higher current capability and faster response to the audio signal. Sefton said that the higher current translates into better resolution with more detail and depth, particularly in the low frequencies, and the quicker reaction time helps the player better handle wide dynamic swings. On the analog side, new High Current Line Drive (HCLD) output-buffer circuits, a technology trickled down from Esoteric’s C-1 preamplifier, take advantage of the power supply’s higher current output and faster response times to produce wide bandwidth and tight control of the analog output.

“The K-05X provides more resolution, but I’d say it’s also more open than the K-05,” Sefton said. “It’s more dynamic, and there’s more air and detail, but it isn’t harsh. It just sounds bigger.”

Description, setup, and operation

The K-05X arrived via freight two months ago, in early spring, in oversize, squarish, double cardboard boxes strapped to a wooden pallet and cocooned in plastic wrap. When I’d cut through everything and opened the inner box, I found the player nested in polystyrene frames under a shield of foam. In cutouts in the foam were a small cardboard box containing the remote control, power cord, two AAA batteries, a warranty card, and a thick owner’s manual. The K-05X weighs 30.9 pounds, measures 17.5”W x 5.2”H x 14"D, and is finished in a natural silver color (black has been discontinued). I had to wrestle a bit to get it out of the box -- it’s just enough larger than most players I’ve dealt with that my hands couldn’t simultaneously grip its top and bottom panels. I had to get my fingers under it, press my palms against its side panels, and lift. And as I lifted, I was already impressed with the feel and the dry, almost grainless sheen of its case -- its heft and slightly oversize dimensions whispered “luxury.”

The K-05X has a sculpted look: a fine-grained faceplate is beveled along its top and bottom edges, the bevels narrowing as they approach the side panels. The rounded corners are beveled too and wrap around the front corners about an inch or so, making contact with the faceplate in a precise vertical line. The top plate rises a smidge above the tops of the front and sides and has rounded edges and corners. Smoothly incised in the top plate, about 3” back from the front, is the Esoteric logo. All in all, it’s a fabulously sleek look that distinguishes Esoteric gear from the plain, right-angled boxes of other manufacturers’ gear.

The controls on the faceplate are neatly arrayed. From left to right: a large Power pushbutton; a smaller Mode button for selecting upsampling, filter, and input functions (CD/SACD, Coax, Optical, USB); above this, a pencil LED labeled Clock to indicate the status of an optional external clock; the display, which indicates mode, upsampling rate, filter choice, track number, track progress, etc.; and above the display, the VRDS-Neo disc tray. At far right are two rows of three buttons each for basic disc functions: Stop, Open/Close, Play, Previous/Fast Backward, Pause, Next/Fast Forward. There’s a slight delay between pushing Open/Close and the tray doing either, but when it does, its movement is smooth and steady, with a special assuredness I’d not sensed with any player since my old California Audio Labs CL-15, new two decades ago. My very first high-end audio component, the CL-15 also had an industrial-strength transport.

Esoteric K-05X

Around back are connectors for balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog output, a USB jack, and optical and coaxial digital ins and outs. There’s also an input for one of Esoteric’s master clock generators. Finally, there are a ground post and the IEC inlet for the power cord.

That remote control, Esoteric’s RC-1301, can be used with all Esoteric players and preamps. It’s a wand nearly 9” long, with a top plate of brushed aluminum and a body of black plastic that, at just over 1.5”W, is a bit narrower than most. It was easy to use, with a Volume rocker and buttons for Standby/On, Open/Close, track selections from 0 to +10, Repeat, Previous, Next, Stop, and Play/Pause. If you hold down the Mode button on the K-05X’s faceplate for two seconds, the remote’s Forward button then also controls upsampling rates and PCM filter choices. Some SACDs include stereo and multichannel options. Hybrid SACDs have two layers with one containing ordinary CD-quality audio. With a button marked Play Area you can select the track layer of a Hybrid SACD: Red Book CD, two-channel SACD, or multichannel SACD -- but the last option is defeated, because the K-05X is two-channel only: it can’t play an SACD’s multichannel tracks. The remaining three buttons are Setup, Dimmer (for the front-panel display), and Mute. The remote’s length took some getting used to, as not all of its buttons are within reach without shifting one’s grip. I had to skootch it up to reach the top buttons (e.g., Open/Close), then down to work the Volume or Mute buttons at the bottom.

It didn’t take me long to install the K-05X in my system. I lifted my Cary 303/300 player off the four fo.Q Modrate HEM-25S isolation footers it sits on on my rack’s third shelf, lowered the Esoteric onto them, and carefully slid the fo.Qs around so they wouldn’t contact any of the K-05X’s own feet, which I left in place. I then connected the K-05X to my VAC Signature Mk.2 SE preamplifier with two Audience SX balanced interconnects, to my Mac Mini with an Audience SE USB link, and to my Audience line conditioner via an Audience SE MP power cord. I didn’t use any coaxial or optical connections.

Operating the K-05X can be a bit involved. Esoteric provides numerous options, selectable via the player’s Mode button or via the remote. I first had to familiarize myself with the remote’s buttons and the K-05X’s loading procedure. It’s not that loading is anything particularly eccentric, only that I had to manually set the player’s Mode for different functions. This involved studying the manual, which provides excellent instructions.

The main setting I used was “CD/SACD,” which I chose by pressing Mode until that setting was displayed. CD operation involved nothing more, but after loading a Hybrid SACD, you must reset the player’s function via the remote, pushing the Play Area button to select “SACD 2-channel,” “CD” (layer), or “SACD multi.” The “SACD multi” option is confusing, because the K-05X is stereo only. I chose “SACD 2-channel” for all SACDs I played. Besides CD/SACD, the main options available with the Mode button are for selecting among the Coaxial, Optical, and USB inputs.

Finally, the K-05X can be programmed (again, using the Mode button) for various track operations: repeat track, resequence tracks, create or edit a track list, etc.

The K-05X’s DAC section will accept PCM resolutions of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192kHz, and up to DSD64, through its coaxial and TosLink inputs. The USB input will accept up to 32/384 PCM and DSD256.

Sound with Red Book CDs

I let a few weeks pass, running in the Esoteric, letting everything settle, and enjoying the easy time before having to make any critical observations. Of course, a burn-in period isn’t always easy -- there can be jagged highs, midrange grunge, bass that’s light or boomy. The K-05X exhibited none of these. It felt run-in from the start, perhaps because it was -- Esoteric USA had used it as a demonstration sample at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

At first I played mainly Red Book CDs, enjoying how much more robust their sound seemed than through other players I’d reviewed or had in my system. This was a first for me -- all previous Red Book or hybrid players I’d tried had performed more or less similarly to one another and to my reference, with tradeoffs: one sounding richer, but more opaque in the upper mids and highs; another sounding utterly grainless in the mids, but rolled off; etc. The K-05X was a beast by comparison, its characteristic sound one of pleasing fullness with impressively wide dynamic range and shadings, fine clarity and focus, and great extension overall. There were spaciousness and air, a rich timbral palette, tight and tuneful bass, and consistently excellent imaging and soundstaging. The only flaws were occasional too-sibilant voices and brushes on drum skins and cymbals -- these weren’t constants but were more dependent on the recording or my choice of upsampling.

Speaking of which: When the K-05X plays a PCM file, its Mode button controls a variety of options: upsampling by 2x, 4x, or 8x, or conversion to DSD. After two months with the K-05X, I observed that the audible differences among these could be profound and ended up using 8x upsampling; DSD, too, was beneficial. Upsampling provided far bigger soundstages that extended two to three feet farther toward my room’s front wall and reached forward, toward me, by about the same distance. There was also more spaciousness and air and depth of imaging, along with a slight sibilance in the highs and a thinner sound, especially with orchestral strings in classical recordings. I found that upsampling worked best with recordings of acoustic jazz and voices. With the ORG (Original) setting (no upsampling), images were flatter and soundstages shallower, but the midrange was richer, particularly with orchestral strings.

Esoteric K-05X

In fortepianist Jos van Immerseel’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4, with Bruno Weil conducting Tafelmusik (CD, Sony Classical SK 62824), the first movement, Allegro moderato, demonstrated how big and mighty the K-05X could sound -- individual instruments were all clear in tone and distinct in texture. The period violins sounded piquant, the violas and cellos jovial, the double basses grave. Van Immerseel’s sprightly, deft playing in the introduction of the theme makes for extremely pleasant listening, and the overall sound was full of air, with goodly amounts of separation among the instruments. When called for, Tafelmusik can sound aggressive, quick, and authoritative in accompaniment; at other times, Weil has them slowly build exquisite crescendos, the woodwinds piping clearly, the double basses mournful in the slow cadence of their bowings, each instrument placed correctly in terms of depth and its lateral position on the stage. The K-05X also captured the thunk and sticking feeling of the fortepiano, which sounds a bit stiffer than the modern piano, but can also support the flowing arpeggios and distinctly crisp articulation of a player such as van Immerseel.

Recordings of solo piano revealed not only the K-05X’s remarkable dynamic expressiveness, but also fine textural nuances, great frequency balance, and a profound lack of distortion in any part of the audioband at any volume. In Schubert’s Impromptu No.4 in A-flat, D899, from Shura Cherkassky’s The Complete HMV Stereo Recordings (two CDs, First Hand FHR04), the pianist opens with liquid trills that give way to delicate chords of increasing force and drama before the work reverts to another series of trills. Cycles of chords and a beautiful arpeggio then follow. Cherkassky’s piano sounded huge and at times magnificently reverberant, with crystalline cascades of treble notes. And while his final chords pounced like a 500-pound Bengal tiger, the notes were always clearly presented, beautiful and dramatic.

Also gorgeous was soprano Aida Garifullina’s eponymous debut recital disc (CD, Decca 478 8305), with Cornelius Meister conducting the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna. Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” is dramatic and haunting, and the K-05X’s grip on Garifullina’s melodic line and long-spun-out roulades was so unerring that I felt enveloped in the shimmering top of her voice and all her vocal shadings. Flawed playback would have made this difficult, intricate work sound cold, or glary, or plagued by after-ringing or ragged flow. But through the Esoteric it was smooth and vibrant, each note made clear, with no artifacts to mar this disc’s delicate sound.

Male voices were handled equally well by the K-05X, a notable example being a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” from Jimmy LaFave’s Austin Skyline (CD, Bohemia Beat 8004). In this track, the veteran club singer’s characteristically quavering vocal acrobatics range from a sweet falsetto to a gritty low register to bluesy shouts and hollers. LaFave’s band of two electric guitars and occasional acoustic guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums sounded as if I were hearing them in the most intimate club. The word that came to mind was presence.

Lately I’ve been on a kick of large contemporary jazz ensembles -- the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, John Beasley’s Monk’estra, and the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. Perhaps my favorite is Steve Turre’s Colors for the Masters (CD, Smoke Sessions SSR-1606); the K-05X revealed its big-band sound as indeed Yuge, with a stage that extended three to four feet beyond my speakers’ outer side panels and four to five feet deeper than usual. Images of all instruments were solid and stable. In “Taylor Made,” Turre takes a fat, swaggering, explosive solo on trombone, followed by Javon Jackson on tenor sax, sweetly wailing like an R&B player. What really impressed were the thunk and thump of Ron Carter’s double bass and Jimmy Cobb’s swinging splash cymbals, so tactile that even the decays trailing off in shimmering coils seemed in time with the beat. Pianist Kenny Barron and the rest of the rhythm section created great momentum and locked in tightly, adding weight and punch to the overall sound. And when Turre and Jackson played in unison, a brilliant bouquet of extraordinary and finely perceptible harmonics emanated from the combination. Sensuous is not a term I usually apply to the sound of Red Book CDs, but it certainly describes how they sounded through the Esoteric K-05X.

Sound with SACDs

As terrific as the K-05X sounded with CDs, it brought me sound of an entirely new order from SACDs -- a format I’d avoided, except in my occasional auditioning of other hybrid players. Before this review, I owned 20 or so SACD/CDs; during my listening to the Esoteric K-05X, I tripled that number, so much did I enjoy what the Esoteric extracted from the format. I even bought SACD versions of CDs I already had.

Robert Spano directing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s recording of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (SACD, Telarc SACD-60701) presented the airiest choir and the best balance of vocal and instrumental textures I’ve ever heard -- the sound of this disc is extraordinarily natural. The first movement begins with a deep, chthonic rumble in the double basses, followed by fine clouds of choral voices without edge or brittleness. Violins are sweet but tragic. The emphasis of this performance seems to be on the paradisal invocations of the music -- the dynamic expressiveness of the chorus never turns bombastic, but remains easy and natural. Through the K-05X, the choir’s open tone never varied as they sang at different volume levels: there was no stridency at high volumes, no hard ridge or edge between the vocal sections -- something quite remarkable in my experience.

Esoteric K-05X

Some of the sweetest symphonic sound I’ve ever heard is from a recent recording of Sibelius’s Symphony No.2, with Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra (SACD/CD, Bis SACD-1986). “Oh, my! What a midrange!” I wrote in my notes. “Sweet, sonorous, and captivating.” Strings were fluent and open, oboes and bassoons clean and richly woody, flutes sprightly, and fanfares full of vibrant, brassy colors over a shimmering sea of violins. The strings would pulse suddenly, and there would be an undercurrent of subtle tomming from the timpani. The scaling was perfect, with all instruments clearly laid out across a wide soundstage.

But it was Tenor Arias, the debut recording of Corsican tenor Joseph Calleja (SACD/CD, Decca 470 648-2), that really knocked me out. I’ve had this recording on CD for nearly ten years now, and it’s impressive for Calleja’s dynamic, brilliant, Caruso-like voice. But the SACD version demonstrated an even more gleaming top to Calleja’s voice, with a lustrous ping. In “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” from Verdi’s La Traviata, Calleja sings gradually more and more forte until he reaches fortissimo, then backs down to a delicate pianissimo, demonstrating control, power, and a wondrously wide dynamic range. He wrenches the heart with every note, as should be the case with Italian tenor arias.

As a DAC

Using only the K-05X’s DAC connected to my Mac Mini computer running JRiver Media Center 21, I found that it performed capably with all sorts of music, but I really loved it with jazz, orchestral, and piano. In “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," from Coltrane’s Sound (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Rhino Atlantic), I immediately recognized John Coltrane’s strong, characteristic tenor-sax timbre. How his tight, powerful embouchure shaped each note attested to the K-05X’s fine powers of resolution. The imaging was solid and stable; Elvin Jones’s drums sounded thrilling and intricate, the snare and cymbals distinct from each other. In “Equinox,” I heard bountiful harmonics from McCoy Tyner’s piano, and Jones’s alternately clanking, chomping ride cymbal was steady and in time.

With J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043, performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with violinists Petra Müllejans and Gottfried Von der Goltz (24/96 FLAC, RCA), the string timbres were rich and complex, the tonal contrasts between the soloists and the microdetails of their phrasing were extremely evident, and the overall dynamic quality of the performance was aptly emphatic. There was lots of sparkle and punch, the double bass very much a presence, sounding big and full.

But I found that the Esoteric’s DAC could sometimes push things a bit too far. “The Boxer,” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water (24/96 FLAC, Columbia), sounded pleasant enough, the voices airy and emerging from the soundstage at mid-depth -- but the most forward presences were the kickdrum, bass harmonica, and guitar, and the string ensemble sounded strident at the end. I found this effect on numerous other recordings; it emphasized the sibilants of female voices, such as Diana Krall’s in “Fly Me to the Moon,” from her Live in Paris (16/44.1 ALAC, Verve). Reducing the oversampling from 8x to none helped -- it could be that I hadn’t run in the K-05X’s filtering options long enough. I’ve heard that Esoteric’s PCM filters take notoriously long times to burn in.

Comparisons: Red Book CD

I’ve owned my Cary 303/300 CD player, with selectable tubed and solid-state output stages, for nearly ten years. When last available, it cost $4000 -- exactly half the price of the Esoteric K-05X. The Cary offers multiple upsampling rates for Red Book CDs, and I’ve generally used it at the highest of those settings, 24-bit/768kHz, for opera and symphonic music, and at 24/192 for jazz and rock. The 303/300 has Burr-Brown PCM1792u DAC chips in a dual-differential configuration, and uses its Resolution Enhancement DSP circuitry to convert a CD’s 16 bits to 24 -- notably, 1024x less than the K-05X’s max. Though I’ve not tried the players from Reimyo or Meitner, I’ve kept the Cary because it’s outperformed any of the dozen or so other Red Book players in its price range that I’ve heard, sounding smoother and having more punch and detail.

When I pitted the Cary 303/300 against the Esoteric K-05X, I heard significant differences in their playback of CDs. The Esoteric sounded more nimble, transmitting more delicate, more telling inner details of every genre of music. The K-05X’s sound was also more saturated, its timbral colors more vivid and upfront, their shadings more nuanced. Consequently, there was more richness overall, a wider tonal palette, even more resolution with the Esoteric than the Cary. Plus, the K-05X just thumped and plumped the music more. The Esoteric was like springtime in Paris, abloom with color; the Cary was summer in the Hamptons, shading to fall.

Esoteric K-05X

With Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, from the disc by van Immerseel and Weil, the period violins had a slight taint of sourness and glare through the Cary, and woodwinds the slightest edge of bite in their highest notes. Immerseel’s fortepiano had an appealing depth, and all timing, spaciousness, and scaling seemed on a par with the Esoteric’s -- but the Cary seemed to labor in handling orchestral tutti, and resolution, dynamic ease, and richness weren’t comparable. My 303/300 sounded drier with strings, and although its sound wasn’t “polite” per se, it was far less jubilant and formidable than the K-05X, without the Esoteric’s ease of expressiveness.

With Steve Turre’s big-band CD, though “Taylor Made” sounded, through the Cary, very close in fullness and richness to its sound through the Esoteric. It was also a touch less resolving and extended. Turre’s trombone was less explosive, and Carter’s double bass didn’t punch quite as tightly. While the Cary’s higher upsampling settings all increased apparent resolution and extension, its dynamic range was narrower, its tonal differentiations less vibrant.

The Cary presented the image of Jimmy LaFave’s voice in “Girl from the North Country” with nice depth, agility, and fine timbral colors, but the image was taller through the Esoteric, with about the same timbral richness, and LaFave’s band sounded clearer, especially the organ, which had more punch and presence, more tonal variety and contrasts.

Comparison with standalone DAC

I’ve owned an Auralic Vega DAC ($3499) for a couple of years now, and it’s served me well -- especially since I’ve been supporting it with fo.Q Modrate HEM-25S isolation feet. That tightened the focus and bass, and tamed some top-end distortion. I’ve loved the Vega’s sound, particularly with acoustic jazz and chamber music, though I also use it to play a fair number of orchestral recordings. The Auralic has a Swiss Archwave AG DAC chip, and a multicore, ARM 9-based Sanctuary processor that upsamples PCM signals to a bit depth of 32. The Esoteric K-05X upsamples to 34 bits -- a significant difference. I used my Mac Mini and JRiver Media Center 21 with both DACs, playing mostly 24/96 hi-rez files stored on an external Seagate hard drive. I ran an Audience SE USB cable from Mac to DAC and, as with the Esoteric, Audience SX XLR interconnects to my VAC Signature Mk.2 SE preamp.

The Auralic comes very close to the level of the Esoteric’s inboard DAC, but with a recording such as “Equinox,” from Coltrane’s Sound, the K-05X sounded more upfront, resolving, and extended than the Vega, which seemed rolled-off in comparison. The Vega has a softer overall sound that can seem “smoother” to some. Coltrane’s strong, recognizable timbre was apparent via both DACs, but the Esoteric produced more thump and more dramatic ostinati from Jimmy Garrison’s double bass than does the Vega, and Elvin Jones’s chomping hi-hat had more vivid chatter and splash, quicker damping. But with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” I preferred the Vega’s smoother, less sibilant presentation. The duo’s voices sounded airier and mellower via the Auralic, Hal Blaine’s kickdrum less insistent, the balance of frequencies more evenhanded. But with David Chesky’s String Theory (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks), the Esoteric’s sound was definitely bigger, more spacious, with dynamic contrasts much more apparent. I could better hear solo violinist Tom Chiu’s fine bowstrokes, and the incisive timing and wider dynamic range of the Esoteric made this startling piece of contemporary music all the more thrilling.

Conclusion

Although I have a standalone DAC hooked up to a computer-audio rig, I like spinning discs -- I own more than 3000 CDs, and now, after two months with the Esoteric K-05X SACD/CD player, I’ve expanded my shelf of SACDs from 20 to more than 60 and am looking for more. Though playing a CD is not quite the ritual that playing an LP is, I enjoy using a CD player, especially one with sound as rewardingly robust, authoritative, and colorful as the Esoteric K-05X’s. After using the same reference CD player for ten years, I’ve decided to make a change at last, and the Esoteric K-05X is, for me, a no-brainer as my new reference player.

If you’re in the market for a new SACD/CD player, I urge you to audition the K-05X. Its excellent build quality, proprietary VRDS-Neo transport, powerful processing, sleekly sculpted looks, option to upgrade by adding an external clock, and, last but hardly least, its outstanding qualities of sound, confirm it as an absolutely solid choice. Its sonic flame leaps high, the musical trances it inspires are sublime, and it pretty much exorcises all digital demons. Under the Esoteric’s spell, you might indeed hear the true words, all the way back to their source.

. . . Garrett Hongo
garretth@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Digital sources -- Cary Audio 303/300 CD player; Auralic Vega DAC; Apple Mac Mini computer running JRiver Media Center 21; Seagate 1TB external HD
  • Preamplifier -- VAC Signature Mk.2 SE
  • Power amplifiers -- VAC Phi 200 and 200iQ (in for review)
  • Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 Aktive with RST-5 ribbon supertweeters and Masterbuilt jumpers
  • Power cords -- Audience: Au24 SE powerChord, Au24 SE powerChord MP, Au24 SE powerChord LP
  • USB link -- Audience Au24 SE
  • Balanced and unbalanced interconnects -- Audience Au24 SX
  • Speaker cables and jumpers -- Zanden
  • Power conditioner -- Audience aR6-TSSOX with Au24 powerChord SX
  • Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack and amp stand, Pottery Barn four-shelf hardwood console, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, fo.Q Modrate HEM-25B and HEM-25S Pure Note Insulators, Acoustic Science Corporation SoundPanels, Zanden Audio Systems AT-1 Acoustic Tubes and AP-1 Acoustic Panels

Esoteric K-05X Stereo SACD/CD Player/DAC
Price: $8000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Esoteric USA
Integra
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (201) 818-9200

Website: www.esoteric-usa.com