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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Financial Interests: Click here
Digital Source: Musical Fidelity A5 CD, Esoteric P05/D05 [on loan]
Analog source: Acoustic Solid Classic Wood with RB300, Denon DL103
Amplification: McIntosh MA2275, Genesis GR360 & MDHR, Adcom GFP750 pre-amp, Sphinx Project 10
Speakers: Nomad Audio RPDs, FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a
Headphone rig: Musical Fidelity Xcanv3, AKG K701
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Libtec
Power Cords: Zu Mother
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' x 9' opening to 3 other rooms, short wall setup, suspended wood floor, sheetrock walls and ceiling.
Review component retail: $8200

In December 2005, our editor granted the Esoteric X-03 a Blue Moon award for competing against established benchmarks at 6 times its price in the Redbook arena. Srajan was particularly impressed with the tonal density the X-03 exhibited, almost on par with his Zanden DAC/Drive reference, but with added dynamic and bass weight. Three years later, this player has undergone a set of modifications justifying its graduation to Special Edition status, a change of name to X-03 SE and a $1000 increase from $7200 in 2005 to $8200 today. When one considers how badly the dollar has depreciated against the Yen over that same period of time, it actually represents a 6% price reduction in constant currency. That's quite an accomplishment by Esoteric, the only hifi company I know of which passes on savings to customers once the R&D cost associated with developing a new model has been amortized. Way to go, Teac!

2008 has been an exceptional year by all means for me when I look back at the amazing gear I had a chance to live with and review. Some of the most impressive among those gems were without questions Esoteric's P05/D05 separates that resided in my system for over 6 months before they had to get on their way to the RMAF in Denver. The $15,000 duo centered on the new VRDS-Neo V transport and a pair of AKM AK4397 32-bit converters which truly redefined undistorted treble, noise-free background and effortless transparency for me and delivered the most natural sound to ever grace my music room. As importantly, they proved without a doubt that tubes are not needed to deliver the sweetest digital sound or eradicate digititis, harshness and all top-end nasties typically associated with digital.

Unfortunately, the pair proved too pricey for my budget and I reluctantly had to let them go but promiscuity with greatness does leave marks. After I reintroduced the Musical Fidelity A5 CD player in my system, it quickly became obvious that the P05/D05 had spoiled me far beyond what I had assumed. The oversampling A5 was not going to cut it going forward. Based on Srajan's initial review, I therefore decided to settle for the half priced X03-SE that I hoped could help with my severe case of P05/D05 withdrawal.

The enhancements found in the X03-SE are evolutionary over the initial X03 and derive from developments implemented in the flagship P01/D01 separates. The most meaningful changes are probably the adoption of ultra high-quality WBT NextGen RCA connectors and 6N copper internal wiring for further reduced distortion but Esoteric also claims some upgraded capacitors and resistors as well as a thicker case for improved rigidity. I did not have an original X03 to evaluate the changes but Esoteric's literature mentions that the upgrade provides superior ambience and 'presence', creating more of an 'open air' listening experience. These improvements allow a more 'natural impact' and perceived depth of field is
improved. I can't quite vouch for the open-air listening experience but presence and natural definitely rank high in the qualities I perceived in the X03-SE.

But first things first. Like any Esoteric player, the X03-SE takes a long time to break in even using the IsoTek burn-in CD. Following Esoteric's recommended optimal burn-in protocol, it took over 300 hours before the player approached its peak (run the disc continuously for 20 hours, not just 1 track but all 3 of them, make sure to only stop at the end of track 3 and not in the middle of any of the tracks, switch the gear off for 4 hours to allow cooling and discharging of capacitors, then start again - I am not sure it makes any difference but since I did not have 2 players to burn in and compare, I just had to trust the experts and their recommended process). After that point, minor changes continued to take place and somewhere around 500 hours of play time (combined IsoTek CD and music) is when the player's sound stopped changing. Before being fully cooked, the top-end had a life of its own, showcasing and highlighting details in a magnified fashion but without being fully integrated with the rest of the music. Once the 500-hour mark had passed, the full integration of registers was consumed and I was finally able to appreciate the X03-SE and all its qualities.

I won't go through a blow-by-blow account as Srajan's review of the X03 applies fully to the new version and there is nothing in what he wrote that I would retract or could dream of saying in a better way. So I'll focus instead on a comparison of the X03-SE and P05/D05 for folks who might be wondering if spending twice as much will bring twice the pleasure. Usually when this type of question arises, one quickly invokes the law of diminishing returns to make it clear that such an expectation would indeed be unrealistic. Thankfully I won't have to since both players are sufficiently different to not appeal to the same listeners. I'll even go as far as saying that for quite a number of folks, the X03-SE will not just be the better value but plainly the better player, period.

Typically when one climbs the price ladder in the line of a high-end manufacturer, one can expect to hear the same sonic signature but a little bit more resolution, a tad better portrayal of ambiance, a hint of added refinement and a glimpse of reduced distortion. Although you could say the same for the P05/D05 and X03-SE, it would be missing the bigger picture. Those two players, although from the same manufacturer, have radically different (but not opposed) gestalts. Those cater to the desires of different crowds.

The X03SE differs from the P05/D05 with greater tonal density, like increasing color saturation in a picture. Colors get more vivid but sometimes less real and you certainly lose the most subtle tonal hues. The P05/D05 by contrast does have a lighter presentation of tones but does go farther in its ability to convey very subtle nuances between instruments. A good example of this difference is how both players render Bach's Concerto for 2 Violins [CBS MYK38487]. With the P05/D05, I had no problem telling Isaac Stern's violin from Itzhak Perlman's. With the X03SE, the difference was not so readily obvious.

Tonally, the key difference, as expected, is how the two players render treble information. The AKM 32-bit chip of the D05 has the lowest level of distortion and sweetest yet extended treble of any digital source I have ever heard. The X03SE can't match it, period. It's not that the X03SE is harsh or less extended; it is just not as refined. It can't perform the magical trick the D05 excels at and make even the poorest digital recordings of the 80s listenable and enjoyable. Above anything else, that's what an additional $6800 plus more cables will buy. If your musical joy resides in saturated electric guitars and synthesized bass, this quality will do nothing for you but if you live on soprano and violin recordings of various eras, then the D05 will become your best friend.

A second difference between the two players is how they resolve finer details. I have a hard time calling one more resolved but the P05/D05 achieves resolution through an ultra-quiet background that allows all smaller details to come through, providing a great sense of sonic texture (by which I mean the smallest resonances produced by instruments that hide under the dominating harmonics). The X03SE achieves resolution in a more classic digital fashion, by pushing low-level information forward (but because the X03SE is rich and dense, this never results in a bright or aggressive balance once break-in is complete). The P05/D05 works great with beautifully recorded music but with flat or dull records, it won't add any perks whereas the X03-SE can actually inject a little life when needed (though it is reasonably even-handed in this approach unlike other hi-rez players I've heard).

The most critical difference between both is their dynamic ability and sense of pace and rhythm. I concluded the review of the P05/D05 by saying that their only weakness was some raw energy left behind, a small lack of rhythm and speed. No such thing can be said about the X03SE. On the contrary. It does not accentuate the leading edge of notes excessively like the Musical Fidelity A5, nor does it focus exclusively on timing like a Naim but the X03 SE certainly does not leave me wanting for more raw energy and passion in how it renders music. It is a hot-blooded passionate player if there ever was one.

I can understand what fascinated Srajan with the X03. Its combination of tonal richness and density with speed and dynamics is truly captivating and unique. The P05/D05 being gone by now, I can't explore in detail where the difference comes from but I well know my only reserve with the Fives which certainly does not apply to the X03-SE. For music where dynamics and timing are more critical than ultimate transparency and finest tonal hues, the X03-SE is hands down the better player. The best of R.E.M and the Gorillaz have never sounded better; nor have Renaud Garcia-Fons or Tchavolo Schmitt.

To round out, the P05/D05 seems to have a slight edge on soundstage width and depth, filling my room with music on a grander scale from corner to corner. The X03SE is a little more narrow and shallow (but less than I expected - the P05/D05 being dual-mono separates, I anticipated a bigger difference). More meaningful is the difference in see-through and layering abilities. The P05/D05 is better at highlighting the relative position of instruments front to back on a stage than the X03-SE (what I call layering) and one can
better perceive small details in the back of the stage (that's see-through ability). That seems more a reflection of P05/D05 strengths than X03-SE weakness since the latter is among the very best imaging one-box players I have heard. The Fives are simply better still.

To sum up this follow-up, one needs to remember a few things. The X03SE is a fantastic player and at its price, the sweet spot in Esoteric's line. That was true 3 years ago when it earned a Blue Moon award and remains true today. Upgrading to the P05/D05 and doubling the investment will reward those who value accurate rendition of subtle tonal hues, transparency and undistorted treble purity over PRaT and tonal density. If you can't afford the P05/D05 like me however, rest assured that the X03SE is very close in almost all aspects and in some actually superior.

When the X03 was first introduced, it had very little competition in build and musical qualities, certainly none at its price. Things since have changed somewhat. Competition in this segment of high-resolution CD/SACD one-box players below $10,000 has grown fiercer today. The X03SE still leads on build quality and its VRDS transport remains without peer. The 60lb player weights as much as the P05/D05 combined - or as much as a Marantz SA7-S1 stacked on top of a Cary SACD-Pro. It feels as though it'd last forever. McIntosh offers a credible alternative in this segment with the MCD500. Its $6500 sticker and quad differential DACs are compelling and I was pleasantly surprised by its musical progress over the brand's prior attempts. Yet from current experience, none of those machines offer the fantastic combination of X03SE virtues to retrieve the lowest-level information on discs that are so critical to reproducing the ambiance of the recorded event.

Where the newer players pull ahead (the Cary and McIntosh certainly do) is by offering a digital input to connect a music server and take advantage of the higher-quality DACs in those players. The X03-SE sternly lacks that feature. Esoteric certainly made a first step in the right direction when introducing the USB/wireless module for the D03. Rumor has it that we will see similar modules for the D05 and integrated players sometime in 2009. The X03-SE won't need much to once again pull ahead of a competition resolutely set on challenging the leader. I'd call for digital inputs and a pair of AKM 32-bit DACs for added refinement while preserving the superior PRaT ability of the current version. In my book, that would be all to once again dominate this segment. Esoteric, when shall we see my dreamt-up X03-MKII ? In the meantime, the X03-SE gets another strong vote of confidence and an unconditional confirmation of its prior Blue Moon status.
Quality of packing: Very sturdy triple boxing and wrapping.
Reusability of packing: Short of water damage, I can't think of what could reasonably make this packaging unusable.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: The 60lbs weight makes the operation a little tricky (mind your back).
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Quality of owner's manual: Fully self-explanatory.
Website comments: Marketing information available; little technical information beyond manual.
Warranty: The limited warranty on current models is 2 years parts and labor but upon registering with the "Product Registration Form" supplied, Esoteric will extend your warranty an additional year to a total of 3 years parts and labor
Global distribution: Check website for distributors. Broad distribution is worldwide.
Human interactions: Always courteous.
Other: No digital input but I-link for multi-channel connection to other Esoteric/Sony DACs.
Pricing: Fully competitive with Cary & Marantz but with far superior build quality for the same price.
Application conditions: Tonal density and richness, high resolution and high sense of PRaT keep the Esoteric X03-SE as compelling and unique as it was when first launched but competition is closing in.
Final comments & suggestions: Esoteric's own P05/D05 combo, at twice the price, does reproduce subtle tonal hues more precisely, offers greater transparency and unmatched treble refinement but lacks the last degrees of tonal density and PRaT vs. the X03-SE. Overall the separates are more elegant but they can't get jamming and brawling quite as the one box player.

Esoteric website