By: Fred Crowder | October 2012
I want to begin by saying that I have always had a certain fondness for Esoteric equipment. Until three years ago, my digital reference was an Esoteric X01-D2 which operated flawlessly. That unit and in particular the more expensive separates are exceptional in terms of extracting detail. Esoteric transports are so well regarded that many other manufacturers use them. However, coupled with that detail was a certain lack of warmth that ultimately led me to replace my X01 with an EMM Labs XDS1. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the XDS1, it was hard to tear myself away from the memory of the exceptional level of detail of the Esoteric. This review is essentially about my giving the latest generation of Esoteric players another chance and deciding if they hit on the right mix of compromises. It is also to a lesser extent about how the latest technology from Esoteric, the P-02 Super Audio CD/ CD Transport and the D-02 D/A Converter fares in comparison to other units which I have heard, including the EMM Labs XDS1, the Esoteric P03/ D03/ G0s and K-01, the EAR Acute and the Audio Note CDT-5 Transport and Fifth Element DAC.
Each of the units which comprise this digital duo begins with a heavy, rigid, non-resonant chassis which is up to the standards set by Esoteric in their other top of the line products, and represents the introduction of several significant technological advances. The P-02 uses the latest and best version of the Esoteric VRDS – NEO transport, the VMK-3.5-20S, which offers excellent stability and reliability. There seems little disagreement that while there are many transports available, the platinum standard in the industry is clearly the Esoteric. The transport (laser assembly and carriage) alone weighs 11.5 pounds. The D-02 uses eight 32-bit DAC circuits (four AK4399 chipsets) per channel, wired together to achieve 35-bit processing. The input signal is converted internally to 48-bit word length which allows enhanced processing capability in the digital domain. The analog section uses a fully discrete class-A buffer with four amps per channel. The clock’s circuits are assembled in modules that are completely isolated from the power supply, ground, and other circuit blocks. This newly developed clock module can provide the system with a pure clock output that is equivalent to (or exceeds), single unit external master clock generators currently available. I was able to compare the internal clock of the D-02 to Esoteric’s own G-0s and was able to detect little improvement in the resultant sound. The D-02 offers a selection of four digital filters that to some extent allow tuning of the sound, although in reality I found one that I consistently preferred. SACD’s are played in native DSD. The units use Esoteric’s proprietary connection standard, probably the highest audio bit rate standard available today.
Straight from the box
These are very heavy units, 68 and 60 pounds for transport and DAC respectively, which arrive well packaged in triple boxes. The exterior of each machine is elegant but understated, consisting of a simple brushed aluminum face and body. While the buttons on the faceplate that operate the unit other than the ON/ OFF switch are small and non-descript, they contrast starkly with the font used on the digital display of each piece. The display can be turned off. The D-02 offers the typical RCA and XLR outputs but also Esoteric’s proprietary ES-Link3 and an output for synching the clocks of the P-02 and D-02. ES-Link3 is an Esoteric protocol that uses dual XLR outputs at sample rates up to 384kHz at 24 bits, or 176.4kHaz at 48 bits. The back of the D-02 is similar in that it is designed to receive the corresponding inputs from the P-02 but also contains additional inputs for optical and USB (which increases its versatility) and audio outputs. The drawer to receive CD’s on the P-02 is slender and understated, elegant but solid to the touch. The transport inside works flawlessly. The remote has a very solid feel but I do wish that the buttons on the remote were backlit for easier use at night.
The P-02/ D-02 never sounds bad even straight out of the box, but improves considerably with extended break-in. Each of the filter options must be separately broken-in for approximately 200 hours. Given the rather Herculean power supplies of these units, I was somewhat surprised that they were quite sensitive to the power cord used. The stock cord was acceptable but significant sonic benefits could be had by using a more sophisticated aftermarket cord. In practice, two cords both manufactured by Stage III worked superbly on the units, namely a Vortex Prime on the transport and a Minotaur on the DAC. Use of these cords significantly lowered the already low noise floor, improved extension at the frequency extremes, tonality in the midrange, detail retrieval and recreation of space and realism of the soundscape. I used a Stage III Zyklops from the wall to a Weizhi AC distribution box, and the Vortex Prime and Minotaur from there to the P-02/ D-02. Later in the listening, I substituted one of Frank Latimer’s AC distribution boxes with excellent results. Likewise, the P-02/ D-02, though with very well designed feet, benefitted from more sophisticated mechanical isolation, much in the same way as did the Esoteric X01-D2. Siting the units on a Finite Element Pagode Master Reference equipment stand with Cerabases between them and the shelf wrought a nice improvement, but substitution of a Halcyonics isolation base was clearly the preferred choice for each. The Halcyonics provided a much lower noise floor, better dynamics, better focus and depth, and better inner detail.
Numerous discs were played during the review period, but several were used repeatedly:
With the P-02/D-02, track 2 of Steve Kahn – The Suitcase Live in Koln ’94, (Tone Center TC-40632) was less etched than the K-01 or the earlier X01-D2. The sense of detail from Redbook CD’s is impressive. I was previously not aware of the depth of detail that existed. This CD had a good dynamic range which helped with the sense of where the instrument was located in space. Recreation of soundstage, particularly the air around individual instruments was a strong point. In comparison to the EMM Labs XDS1, there was some diminution of air at the top, while localization of instruments was excellent. Cymbals could at times be a bit mono-chromatic, the top end a bit polite using the factory settings; however, changing to 4X upsampling and the S_DLY1 digital filter pretty much eliminated this as an issue.
Prometheus Hugo Wolf- Harmonia Mundi HMC 901837: Detail and placement of instruments and voice are absolutely fabulous. Pizzicato strings are very realistic. Amazingly, you can hear a group of individual string players instead of a homogenized percussive noise. Tympani is really vivid, you can hear the mallet on the skin of the tympani. Strings sound lush. Male and female voices are beautifully placed and are full and round, very detailed without being etched. This is a CD that drove me to occasional distraction on the earlier X01-D2. The strings and winds were nice but the voices, particularly baritone Dietrich Henschel, cut like a knife. I never made it past the second track before pushing the EJECT button with previous players. This is no longer the case. On the orchestral side, this CD is one of the great overlooked beauties of the digital generation. The voices are still a bit hard but the whole experience is so sensually satisfying that when I hit the EJECT button this time, it will be to see what other Harmonia Mundi’s I have overlooked.
Bill Frisell Good Dog, Happy Man Nonesuch 79536-2; placement of images is much better than on any other machine with which I am familiar. Detail almost distracts one from the music, yet is very seductive. This is reminiscent of the detail and intimacy of headphones without their negative localization effects.
Debussy Images for Orchestra JVC XRCD 0004- in terms of detail retrieval and transparency, this is the best that I have ever heard this CD sounded, and in general, the JVC XRCD’s are some of the very best available. Some might describe the presentation as somewhat “clinical” or “dry” and I cannot really argue with that. However, I have not heard anything with a “warmer” or more “lush” presentation that also presents with this level of transparency, and the transparency can itself be extremely seductive. In the “Iberia” in the loud portions, there could at times be a certain harshness in the brass. This may be an artifact of the current state of the master tape, as I do not recall this from the Shady Dog LP.