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That's it - the P05/D05 in a nutshell. If you do not flinch at the idea of spending $15,000 for what will be your source of music and enjoyment for the next ten years; and if are looking for the elusive combination of high resolution and dynamics with a humongous serving of tonal richness that does not rely on distortion or high-frequency roll-off to exterminate harshness but delivers instead true top-end sweetness, midrange truthfulness and top-to-bottom extension in an enveloping sound; then read no further. This is it. But if you'd rather also read about 32-bit chips and short spindles, then follow me. I have plenty more to report...

If you've read my review of the SA60, you already know that Esoteric's packaging quality is beyond reproach. Or so I thought. Yet the P05 and D05 come in even stronger and sturdier packaging. Hard to believe but the boxes are no longer single cardboard layers but double or triple layer affairs, with the middle box locked and secured with a very clever mechanism that doubles as carrying handles - simple yet efficient. The P05 and D05 'only' weigh 30lb each which does not exactly make them lightweights but unboxing them is still easily managed alone. If you are familiar with the twice the price P03/D03, you'll notice right away that the newer pair's weight is exactly half, mainly due to a slightly less ambitious casing and not as drastic physical separation between channels although both retain the double-mono configuration pioneered in the 'Threes' while eschewing the separated internal compartments. Yet nobody in their right mind would ever call the P05/D05 entry-level despite their entry position in the product line. If compromises were made in the construction, they are undetectable internally or externally. You will need to refer to Esoteric's literature to find out that the enclosure walls are thinner, the external dimensions reduced and that the 6N copper wiring and Rhodium-plated power inlets are gone.

Except for an inexplicable one-time event, the P05/D05 operated flawlessly. The fact that the two units received were not brand-new also means I have no idea what the break-in process would have been otherwise but based on Mr. Koh's feedback and my own experience with the SA60, I would recommend that buyers wrap themselves in stoic patience and spin IsoTek's burn-in CD for a few weeks before forming any opinions.

The P05 does not hide the new VRDS-Neo 5 sled but showcases it behind a transparent window that illuminates while the tray is operated. Said operation is the smoothest and quietest of any player I have owned or seen. Even my Accuphase DP55, a model of quietude, does not approach the silent and purposeful sliding of the P05's tray. According to Esoteric, this exceptional buttery-smooth operation is the result of their patented loading mechanism: "The series of operation from the tray closing/opening to the disc clamping release is managed by a unique disc loading mechanism which uses Esoteric's proprietary 'differential gear' system. This enables exceptionally smooth disc loading operations compared to conventional designs thanks to the seamless engagement of the tray and disc clamp gears during the entire loading operation."

As mentioned before, the VRDS-Neo 5 differentiates itself from its older and heavier predecessors not just by being scaled down but more importantly, by its shorter spindle shaft and a design optimized for the high speeds necessary to read SACDs. The brochure released by Esoteric claims benefits for the design in three main areas:
  • The turntable bridge component incorporates a highly rigid BMC (Bulk Molding Compound) and a steel hybrid material design. The BMC has high specific gravity and internal loss, helping to enable high precision cast molding. This hybrid design reduces unwanted motor noise and vibration while ensuring very smooth turntable rotation.
  • The turntable motor is placed under the turntable and the spindle is temporarily disconnected to accept the disc during loading. With this engineering implementation, the VMK-5 applies VRDS technology in a compact and low-profile design. The short spindle shaft design contributes to very stable turntable rotation, eliminating vibrations associated with longer shaft designs. The spindle motor incorporates an FG sensor (frequency generation) enabling self detection of rotational speed. This provides ultra-fast motor response and optimal speed control. In comparison, conventional mechanisms cannot detect motor speed before reading the disc information.
  • Esoteric also developed a component structure for driving the pickup lens using a highly accurate shaft-mounted laser pickup assembly. This system ensures that the laser's optical axis is always positioned at the very center of the pit track for optimal reading, making it possible to minimize the adverse effects of disc surface shake and offset tracking. This more accurate pickup system (also used in the P-01 and P-03 transports) and vibration-free VRDS turntable are the primary factors responsible for the mechanical performance of the P-05.

A description of Esoteric's ultra-engineered P05 would not be complete without mentioning its large toroidal transformer sitting on an isolation platform in the front of the player, the 5mm-thick aluminum face plate and the three pin-point isolation feet attached to the steel chassis. It would also be incomplete if I did not list the ability to output the digital signal through double-mono balanced connections (ES-link) that can easily be turned into two stereo XLR outputs (to a DAC not able to accept dual mono XLRs but at the expense of complete channel separation). The signal can also be output through a coaxial connection but another uniqueness of the P05/D05 pair is the implementation of an i-link interface equipped with flow-rate control: "A circuit designed by Esoteric with flow-rate-control technology provides jitter free signal transmission. High grade digital signals read from Super Audio CD sources can be transmitted to other i-link devices equipped with flow-rate-control (i.e. the Esoteric D-05). The signal receiving device controls the signal sender by using a high precision clock signal, optimizing the flow rate of the transmitted signal. This system fully enhances the performance and the quality of the Super Audio CD signal."

I did spend a significant amount of time evaluating this connection mode and in all fairness, using a $29 Monster Firewire cable, the i-link sounded quite good compared to the dual-mono balanced connection with dedicated digital cables costing in excess of $500/pair. Whatever flow rate does, it must be doing it very well. The i-link may very well be the more neutral of the two connection modes (see Sidebar I) but unfortunately does give up on resolution, space and ambient cues just enough to justify the added cost of dual mono XLR cables. Admittedly the i-link connection did not sound quite as tonally developed and rich as those either but the difference was marginal at best and only detectable on some of the best-quality recordings. Since i-link is the only way to take advantage of multi-channel SACD playback (for the strong of heart and wallet only - this requires daisy-chaining three D05s), people tempted can proceed without remorse; the drop in performance will be minimal in most situations.