You have to hand it to the Japanese, no one builds electronics like they do. The attention to detail, the finish the fit and the feel of high end kit from that island nation is second to none. The Germans get pretty close yet somehow don’t quite manage to make such perfectly executed products. This was apparent with the likes of Luxman back in the day and continues with brands like Esoteric today, although there aren’t many brands like TEAC Esoteric. A company that builds only high end components and up until recently only those designed to replay five inch polycarbonate discs. But a few years back it started to introduce amplifiers to its range and now has an integrated, preamp and three power amps on its website. It also has a phono stage and in true Esoteric style it’s a fully formed and fully featured example of the breed with two inputs and variable settings for each. It appears to be based on the company’s C-03 linestage preamplifier and there’s a clue in the name as to why that might be, although it’s not clear what E might stand for.
The E-03 is part of Esoteric’s Master Sound Works concept, components designed to reproduce the “audio impression” of the master tape. The case is a master work in itself, a steel subchassis splits up the interior in order to shield the amplifier circuits from flux leakage from the mains transformers that sit behind the front panel, that is two mains transformers for two identical amplifiers, because this is a dual mono design all the way through. The exterior of the case is in solid aluminium which has a two finishes, it’s bead blasted in certain sections and brushed in what’s described as ‘short scratch’ style in others to provide some contrast. The front panel is actually deeper than it looks, for fixing purposes, while the top lid reveals no means of fixing at all. The three feet give a disconcerting rattle when you pick the unit up but that’s because they are two part, stainless steel examples that have a hardened tip sitting in a cup, very much in the style of certain aftermarket supports.
Around back, RCA phono inputs for the two phono stages within the E-03 are spread out laterally with the output RCAs alongside them. There are no XLRs because this is a single-ended design and while certain markets appear to like them there is little point in putting an unbalanced signal through an XLR just for the sake of it, in fact there is a good argument for avoiding this approach. The final rear panel fitting is the earth clamp, just one which seems a little mean given that there are two inputs here, I wouldn’t like to try fitting the earth leads from two SME arm-leads, with their double earth tags, onto this one post.
The luxuriously sculpted front panel has controls for impedance on both inputs and capacitance on the right hand one, this because one input is dedicated to moving coil cartridges whereas the other can accommodate moving magnets as well. Input one for MCs has seven impedance settings all the way from 10 Ohms to 10k Ohms, input two offers four impedance settings over the same range plus three capacitive loadings. Both inputs have a demagnetizing function for cartridges and step-up transformers.
This is a well equipped phono stage no doubt about it, all too many of the ilk either don’t have any means to adjust what the cartridge output sees or require you to open the box to fiddle with little DIP switches or move jumpers around. Esoteric’s approach means that you can experiment with impedances rather more easily so you are more likely to get this aspect of cartridge set-up right, I wish more stages were this simple.
It also wish that more stages were this revealing but that isn’t going to happen any time soon, if experience is anything to go by you can’t make phenomenally transparent electronics without the attention to detail that Esoteric has brought to bare here. My first impressions were of an immensely relaxed and easy sound but this was largely because the first slab of vinyl I spun through it sounds that way. The E-03 is totally free of grain or edginess which is still quite rare in solid state amplification and initially makes a product seem soft edged. However it soon becomes apparent that you can hear an awful lot more of the fine detail, the harmonics and reverberations that accompany every note, every sound. Thus an old copy of Mallard’s eponymous debut is extraordinarily laid back but replete with nuances. And yet the playing is bang on time albeit in a totally effortless and fluent fashion, with none of the leading edge sibilance that passes for speed in so much equipment. Put on a recent release of Deep Purple’s seminal Machine Head and there is no mistaking the drive of the track Highway Star which will have you leaping about in the armchair even at low level, well it did for me a least.