This stage’s greatest quality is its ability to show you the often huge differences between recordings and pressings, an ability that can be negative if the pressing of Steely Dan’s Katy Lied happens to be more worn than you thought. I found another one – you need several to get you by – which initially seemed better but deteriorated as the stylus approached the label. Of all the albums to warrant audiophile re-issue this is one of the most obvious yet inexplicably overlooked. We have enough great pressings of Gaucho and Aja, it’s the mid period diamonds that need re-pressing. Rant over.
Assuming the vinyl hasn’t been mangled what you hear is the studio and its hardware plus the style of the producer and mastering engineer along with your favourite music. This isn’t to say that these qualities are presented separately but that their nature is considerably more obvious. Importantly it also brings you more of the performance and the quality of playing, this isn’t a tool for analysis but for enjoying great music. Something you can’t help but do if the rest of the system is up to the job, I used a Townshend Rock 7 turntable with Funk Firm’s FXR tonearm and a van den Hul Condor XCM cartridge in front of the E-03. On the other side preamp duties were taken by my trusty Border Patrol Control Unit and then Max Townshend’s remarkable Glastonbury Pre, a contender for most transparent linestage in the world ever. Power amplification and transduction was delivered by the mighty ATC SCM 150ASL, an active speaker that tells you how it is come what may.
One thing that it told me was that the Esoteric’s rich, three dimensional presentation is not quite as fleet of foot as the very best phono stages can be. It’s unusual for a product to be able to do both timing and rich detail at the highest level and while this stage times quite nicely it’s not quite up to the standards of the best in this regard. It’s a situation where even at this price you still have to make a choice really and that will of course come down to musical and sonic taste, I enjoy both qualities but err on the pace side of the equation when the option is available. But as my comments hopefully reveal I found the realism on offer with the Esoteric to be totally beguiling – it brings the music closer to you and puts it into the room so effectively that the result is totally convincing.
The E-03 is the sort of product that you could never have too revealing a system for, it is always going to be more refined than a power amplifier and more even handed than a loudspeaker. It may not have the sheer midrange transparency of the best triodes but its noise levels are always going to be lower and its bandwidth wider. I found quite a few albums that had more bass energy on them than expected, the ATCs are big speakers for the room they are in but this isn’t often an issue but this is presumably because my Trichord Delphini phono stage is relatively lean in this area. The Esoteric isn’t fat or exaggerated but it doesn’t play down the bottom end, this is a quality that brings body to the rest of the range not least the treble. Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa often tests a system in this regard, his use of violins in a sparse acoustic can be grating in the wrong system but here the music’s power to spiritually uplift is fully evident, its conduit to a higher plane waiting for you to close your eyes.
ECM recordings like Tabula Rasa can sound a little bit clinically clean but in the quieter passages its apparent that the church where the recording was made is actually pretty creaky, I bet Arvo gave someone a hard stare when that showed up on the monitors.
Less ethereal music such as Miles’ Bitches Brew reveal the Esoteric’s ability to cope under fire, this is not like Kind of Blue it’s a rather less accessible album and can easily be hard work for the listener. But if you eliminate distortion and time smear from the RIAA and phono amplification process it becomes a whole lot more approachable, not easy listening of course but engaging and pretty damn remarkable. It’s probably at its most impressive with dense material; the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer’s leviathan among jazz-rock combos, were inclined to throw everything at you all of the time and while the solid beat means its never hard work you don’t often get this degree of insight into exactly what all five members are up to.
One thing that I found a little surprising is that the Esoteric CD players that I’ve had the pleasure of using in the past did not sound like the E-03, their character being akin to ECM recordings: revealing, clean and slightly lean. This phono stage is ultra revealing in the context of a warmer balance, this undoubtedly reflects the nature of vinyl itself and the extremely low distortion nature of the phono stage, there is no grain, no overload it simply tells it like it is in a calm and transparent fashion. Perhaps it’s naive to assume that the same engineers work on the analogue electronics in both product types or it could be that the analogue front end they work with has a much leaner balance. A situation that might result in both product types sounding more similar.