[This review originally appeared in issue 65 of Hi-Fi Plus magazine, which is published in the U.K.]
The hot discussion within the audio world at the moment is what comes after CD. Yes, the death knell is about to be sounded for the silver disc and quite eccentric claims are predictably being made regarding the new order. Despite the fact that we have been using our computers to store and replay music for years now, some hard disk storage designs are being hailed as tremendous breakthroughs and the dawning of a new age of home entertainment. This rather hysterical over-reaction should not mask the reality of what is going on and this is really just an increase in the availability and convenience of alternative ways to access, store and replay digital information.
So, what does the new era offer? Will we all have massive dedicated hard disks crammed full of high definition music and high-resolution movies, lifted from specialist internet sites? Are you going to take the time to rip all your CDs onto these hard drives, keeping the originals as back-ups? Will we stream music from our computers into DACs via USB connections or even wirelessly? Should we instead utilise the claimed benefits of jitter-free solid-state storage? Or shall we just decide that for now it’s all too much hassle and continue to buy the CDs we want and play them back on dedicated players? Just because we can do these things it doesn’t mean we have to and techno-geeks seldom have any appreciation of user interface. My general feeling, having gently dipped my toe in the waters of the alternatives, is that it’s a bit too early to make any expensive decisions. But things are changing fast and it is proving difficult to keep up with the latest developments. What is certainly true is that anyone considering investing in a CD player at the moment would do well to future-proof it by making sure that it can accept external digital signals into its DAC and that the connections to do that are as comprehensive as possible because, with the gradual demise of CD, the DAC could well become the more relevant part of this particular combination. Also, and rather more pertinent to this review, is this really the end of the line for high-end machines like the glorious Esoteric P-03/D-03?
Having previously reviewed a couple of versions of Esoteric’s X-01 single-box SACD machine I was already a huge fan of their CD players. TEAC’s high-end wing certainly knows how to put a component together with a build quality that is just over the top enough to give you the satisfaction that it is likely to be bomb-proof. Very few companies can even afford to build and finish to such a standard and the P-03/D-03 is just about as good as I have seen. In Japan in particular the Esoteric range are regarded primarily as SACD machines though, unfortunately, that particular ship has all but sailed in the UK.
Certainly nobody is going to have too much cause for complaint with the D-03 when used as a separate converter. It has a full set of the standard digital inputs and by the time you read this these will have been expanded to include both wireless and USB alternatives, enhancing its capabilities even further. There is also the option, when using it with a separate SACD transport like the P-03, to connect it via a pair of AES/EBU cables (available separately) which supply left and right feeds individually and this allows PCM data to be upsampled up to 176.4 kHz. The transport can output data as either PCM at various sampling frequencies or straight DSD. But if you also want DVD-A or straight DVD-Video, you will need to look at Esoteric’s own Universal transport.
The P-03 features TEAC’s superb VRDS NEO transport, very similar to that found in the flagship P-01. This disc-clamping mechanism is as impressive physically as it is in use. Fabricated from duralumin aircraft-grade alloy and incorporating a 20mm thick steel vibration damper this massive unit contains no plastic parts and conforms fully to Esoteric’s formidable sense of hyper engineering and mechanical solidity. It also has the neat powered flap over the CD drawer that I first saw on the X-01 D2. In fact the technical description of both of these units could consume the copy length for this review quite easily so I would urge you to investigate Esoteric’s website to get a fuller picture of the incredible lengths they have gone to with these machines.
The D-03 houses the word clock and this must be synchronised with the transport with a simple menu operation. Be aware though that it is quite easy to connect the two units together with both the individual digital leads and the BNC terminated word-sync cable (not supplied) and not have the clocks synchronised. I ran like this for a couple of days of warming up before I began to get into the manual and delve deeper into the menus. Needless to say, this is a critical setting and if a further improvement is desired and ones pocket is deep enough, the DAC can also accept the ultra-precise output from Esoteric’s separate Rubidium master clock generator. The D-03 can handle 44.1, 88.2,176.4, 48, 96,192 and 100kHz clock input and output rates. In fact there are so many features available on both machines that, for quite a while, you will find yourself exploring the attributes of the various sampling frequencies, whether to convert to DSD or PCM and getting to grips with the switch-able digital filter on the facia of the D-03 that provides an 8x oversampling option before conversion.