Then there is the choice of balanced or single-ended outputs. I used both, with the same cabling into Ayre’s fully balanced KX-R/ MXR pre/power amp combination and equalised the differing output levels with the adjustable input sensitivity menu, so switching between them for comparison became a matter of pushing a single button. Both are extremely good and while the balanced option would seem to have the most support from those who have used the Esoteric, I think that the one you prefer will certainly depend on the system and your individual taste. Quality-wise I say there is nothing in it, which is an opinion I know will not be widely shared. But certainly, with such operational flexibility on offer, I would recommend that you take your time and run through the choices and I guarantee you that you will soon find your preferences. It’s fun actually and quite informative.
I have been living with this Esoteric combination for several months now and have heard it sourcing quite a few different systems. There is no question that it is certainly the best CD player I have ever used at home. Tonal balance is just about perfect and its extraordinary resolution is supplemented with a massive multi-dimensional soundstage and a quite formidable bandwidth. But I was initially surprised at its tonal balance as I had expected to be able to hear some family resemblance to the single-box X-01 D2, but, sonically, the only thing they share is the ability to extract minute levels of musical detail. Where the X-01 still has traces of brightness and the faintest whiff of leading edge emphasis, the P-03/D-03 is far more neutral and never sounds less than balanced, no matter what type of music you ask it to play. Sit it at the front of a well-sorted, high-resolution system and regardless of the quality you are used to you will be intrigued with its performance. There is a sense of stability and solidity that puts it in a different league altogether to just about every other player out there and this includes the X-01 D2. The scale and power of the music is supplemented by a completely relaxed feeling of rhythm and movement that is unforced and full of personality. By this I mean the nature and character of instruments and voice is as colourful and explicit as I have heard from a digital source, outside the recording studio and in many ways and with the right disc, this Esoteric sounds rather more like listening from a digital master-tape than a conventional CD player. Part of the reason for this is its bass performance where its sheer power and pure extension are among its sonic hallmarks.
This machine brings you into close contact with low frequencies that you simply don’t hear with other machines. It reaches down and accesses that infra-bass region with solid conviction and even if you don’t use large floor standing speakers you can still feel its weight and presence and this gives music a whole new scale and perspective.
So many hugely expensive high-end CD playing systems are impressive information retrievers but somewhat soulless and un-engaging to listen to. Not so the Esoteric. Given the Japanese perhaps undeserved reputation for frigid technical excellence, I was surprised at just how comfortable and musically sympathetic this machine is. Great audio equipment manages the large things as well as the small and this player is an object lesson in that. It is delicate and endlessly subtle right through its bandwidth but notably at high frequencies where it achieves levels of texture and micro resolution that, if you have the system to realise it, is addictive and extremely rare. Yes, it is powerful and imposing because it is tremendously fast and effortlessly dynamic but there is a feeling of relaxed precision about it too which means that it asks intense questions of the rest of the system and most equipment will fail to answer these fully as their bandwidth and resolving limitations will be only too obvious. It will expose the shortcomings in your system like few other players but it will do so with a smile on its face as it is so comfortably capable with everything you ask of it. It is one of those rare audio components that are so good that you accept them immediately as being right and then rarely give the matter another thought. Now, there’s a thing. Spend this much money and rarely think about the performance. But, I have found that it is so often the case with the best equipment. Their gift and brilliance is that they allow you to loose yourself in the music and not get confounded within the electronics.
I tried the D-03 with some live vintage acoustic guitar recordings I had made on my solid-state Sony PCM D-50 field recorder. Unfortunately, due to the recorder’s digital output limitations, the only way I could get the connection made was with an optical cable that would not have been my first choice. But the results were really superb and astonishingly lifelike. I also fed it with some music I had ripped (using EAC) through a PC and loaded onto the Sony at different sampling rates with the same impressive results. The D-03 is unlikely to have any problems with any digital source you feed it with in the future, particularly when the USB and wireless options become available. But at this moment in time it is really at its absolute best with SACD. I don’t say that all SACDs are good and I know that the overall music choice available lacks depth, but listen to the SACD layer of Esoteric’s own superb re-mastered version of Mozart’s piano concertos and tell me that we have explored SACD ‘s potential and need to move on.