Every aspect of the presentation changed for the better through the P-2. Although the difference was quite apparent, it was far less than the difference between, say, a good digital processor and the Stax DAC-X1t or VTL D/A. In conversations with audiophiles, I've noticed a belief that the transport has as much, or greater, influence on the reproduced sound than the digital to analog converter. I strongly disagree with this contention. A good transport is essential to realizing the best digital playback, but the overall system performance is much more dependent on the D/A converter. A $1000 transport with a $4000 digital converter makes more sense than a $4000 transport driving a $1000 digital processor.
Nevertheless, music from CDs recovered by the P-2 is more analog-like than from other transports I've tried. This is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay any digital product. The presentation took on a sense of ease and relaxation, with less strain and fatigue. This perception could be the result of the P-2's ability to present instrumental textures with a liquidity and roundness not heard through lesser transports. Instruments and vocals bloomed within the soundstage with a natural texture that gave them a realism and palpability.
For example, listen to Dianne Reeves's vocal on David Benoit's This Side Up CD (En Pointe ENP 0001). This vocal track, recorded with a tube microphone live to 2-track, is particularly revealing of changes in a component's presentation. When reproduced through the P-2, it had a warm, rich bloom that made it seem to exist in space between the loudspeakers. Its complex, finely woven texture was engaging, drawing the listener into the performance. When playing the same track through the Rotel RCD-855 used as a transport (again decoded by the Stax DAC-X1t), the vocal became a little less round and more two-dimensional. It seemed to shrink in the depth axis, imparting what JA vividly describes as a "cardboard cutout" perspective to the image. In addition to losing this bloom, the image tended to become homogenized with the other instruments. The feeling of the image surrounded by air, spatially distinct and existing independently in front of the loudspeakers, was reduced. There was less apparent reverberation, rendering the presentation drier, more sterile. The reverberation seemed slightly truncated as the RCD-855 failed to resolve the low-level information that provides the listener with that last bit of reverberation decay.
In addition, Reeves's voice lost some of the fine structure and detail that made it so compelling through the P-2. The subtle tonal shadings and harmonic detail that give her voice so much character were less apparent from the RCD-855. The analogy of fabric comes to mind: through the P-2, her voice was like finely woven silk; through the RCD-855's transport it was more like burlap. This analogy is a gross exaggeration of the differences, but does convey the essence of my impressions.
These perceptions were duplicated with each disc I played, with different music revealing different aspects of the CD transport's effect on the musical presentation. When comparing the RCD-855's transport with the P-2 with Dick Hyman Plays Fats Waller (Reference Recordings RR-33CD), recorded direct-to-CD, I immediately had the impression that the soundstage was narrower through the RCD-855.
It didn't take long to realize, however, that this perception was not due to a difference in the spatial position of the piano. Instead, the P-2 presented an apparently wider soundstage by allowing the Stax to resolve an aura of ambience, space, air, and reverberation around the instrument not heard from the RCD-855's transport. Through the P-2, the piano existed between the loudspeakers, surrounded by room reflections which gave the feeling of a wider soundstage. Fed by the RCD-855, the Stax failed to resolve these ambience cues (created with great thought and effort by engineer Keith Johnson) that add so much to the recording.
In addition, there was more inner instrumental detail through the P-2, making it easier to distinguish left- and right-hand lines, especially during complex passages. It was as though the instrument's inner detail came to the listener without effort when reproduced by the P-2, rather than the listener straining to hear fine detail. Additionally, the sound of the hammers striking the strings was affected by the transport. The RCD-855 tended to introduce a slightly metallic, or brittle character to the attack, while the P-2 was softer and more gentle. Finally, the P-2 sounded more natural harmonically, with less grain, more liquid textures, and an overall greater feeling of ease. Of all these impressions of the P-2's effect on the musical presentation, the most salient were the apparently wider soundstage, greater resolution of spatial cues and air around the instrument, and the lack of hardness in the hammers' attack. Ironically, the same description of the P-2's presentation in relation to the inexpensive transport could be used to describe the differences between analog and digital.
Intrigued by the P-2's greater resolution of spatial information, I turned to Three-Way Mirror (Reference Recordings RR-24CD), a recording with a wealth of spatial detail and nuance (also recorded, not coincidentally, by Keith Johnson). The P-2's superior ability to portray space was even more apparent. Besides producing a greater overall feeling of presentation size, specific instruments took on different spatial perspectives through the different transports.
For example, at the end of the first track, the eschete (a percussion instrument) recedes into the distance over the repeated acoustic fretless-bass figure. Through the RCD-855, it begins to acquire more reflected and less direct components, making it appear to move away from the listener as it picks up space, then stops. Through the P-2, it recedes much farther into the soundstage, with many more gradations of apparent distance. I should add that one's ability to hear differences in low-level cues like the ones described improves as listening level increases. This phenomenon occurs in the recording studio when mixing: the louder the monitoring level, the less reverberation the engineer tends to add, making the recording sound dry at low playback levels. The reverberation seems to end when it drops in level below the ambient noise floor. Consequently, a higher playback level raises the point at which the reverberation is lost in the noise floor. Fortunately, my listening room is in a very quiet, rural location, putting the ambient noise floor below these very low-amplitude components. At low playback levels in a noisier environment, the differences in spatial presentation between transports will tend to be diminished.
I repeated the listening, this time comparing the P-2 with the digital output of a Marantz CD-94. The same differences were apparent, but to a lesser extent. In fact, the CD-94, which uses the best Philips drive, was quite a bit better than the Rotel RCD-855. The CD-94's presentation didn't match the P-2's, but did offer very musical performance. Listening to my own jazz recording, the CD-94 was detailed and transparent, but with slightly hard textures. The treble seemed brighter and the presentation more forward than through the P-2. Although the CD-94 had more bloom than the Rotel, the P-2 was in a different league in this regard.
Why the P-2 sounds better is a mystery. What is different about the P-2's datastream, appearing on the digital-out RCA jack, that could affect textural liquidity, spatial resolution, and overall musicality? One can point to the P-2's innovative and exacting design aspects such as the massive power supply that isolates subsystems, the extraordinary vibration-reducing disc-clamping mechanism that improves the HF signal and eliminates the effects of disc eccentricity and warp on servo current demands, and the sophisticated control electronics. The bottom line, however, is that the P-2's S/PDIF output must be different from other transports' digital outputs. But in what way? And how does a change in the datastream cause an analog-like variability in the musical presentation? I think it is no coincidence that the P-2 exhibits much lower measured HF signal jitter than common transports.
The Esoteric P-2 CD transport clearly offers superior sonic performance over conventional CD drive mechanisms. Its presentation tended to make digital playback closer to analog in many respects: more liquid textures, greater resolution of spatial detail, increased soundstage transparency, and more natural timbral shadings. Apart from these specific areas, listening to music through the P-2 was more involving, engaging, and enjoyable. The presentation took on a relaxed, unstrained feeling that made it easier to concentrate on the music and forget about the playback system.
The Esoteric P-2 is innovative in design and extraordinary in execution. It represents a complete rethinking of what a CD transport should do. The drive mechanism in particular addresses aspects of CD data retrieval either ignored or considered insignificant by other manufacturers. In addition to being a technical tour de force, the P-2 is a joy to use ergonomically, lavish in build quality, and elegant in appearance.
Very often, comparing the musical merits of two components results in ambivalent feelings: component A does this better, but component B does that better. With the Esoteric P-2, there were no such tradeoffs: every aspect of the presentation was superior, resulting in a greater intimacy with the music. These comparisons with conventional CD drives revealed just what a good transport will do for digital playback. This is perhaps the beginning of our explorations into CD drives: I am eager to find out how the P-2 compares with other high-end transports such as the Krell MD-1 ($5400), Krell MD-2 ($2700), or Wadia WT-2000 ($5595).
Equally important, I would like to find a drive that offers similar performance upgrades at a lower price. The $2000 Esoteric D-10 uses a nearly identical mechanism to the P-2 and may have sonic performance close to its more expensive brother, but with a more cost-effective build. Watch for a review soon.
The Esoteric P-2 is a landmark product, making a strong case for the importance of the CD drive in achieving the best in digital playback. While the transport is a far less important factor in a system's overall performance than, say, a D/A converter, a good transport like the P-2 is nevertheless essential in a demanding high-end system. Give the P-2 a listen. Your ideas about CD transports may never be the same.