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Computer or hifi?
Distinctions blur. There are CD player/servers with built-in hard disks requiring no Internet or PC connection to operate as intended. Think €1,500 arcus MusicStation from Germany. There are thinly disguised computers purpose-built for audio use. Think $2,250 new NuForce server which deliberately moves D/A conversion offboard. By comparison to such solutions, Esoteric's SA-50 shuns any and all onboard computerization - bastardization to purists. It runs no hard disk, no operating system, no fan. Hence the usual distinctions remain intact. There's merely that backdoor called USB. Nearly all new digital audio machines today tack on such a port to be pc; politically correct and personally computerized.

Esoteric approached being pc as diehard audio purists. That's been their focus and expertise for decades. Why change now. Companies like Slim Devices, Sooloos and Apple meanwhile come from code writing. That creates the current melting pot. While still transitionally squirming on that furious angler's hook with his greasy Inevitable Convergence T-shirt—inevitable but not fully here yet—it's how we're likely to continue for the time being. The Meridian/Sooloos alliance is harbinger of an interdisciplinary future where dedicated audio companies hire/acquire very serious computer expertise or Silicon Valley does the reverse. For today though, there are basically audio-centric and code-centered solutions. The former are hip to state-of-the-art audio performance, the latter jacked into ultimate convenience cool and interactive features. Esoteric went hard-core apartheid. They left all music server-related business off their machine. The USB_PW feature assures that connection to the PC world can be disabled even when a laptop remains permanently attached. In the same separative spirit, run your notebook on battery power for serious listening sessions to avoid nasty SMPS residoodoo on the power line. Whether belief in the latter's audibility is deeply rotted or justifiably rooted merely requires listening. Do what sounds best to you.

How hip is hip?

If you run a MacBook Pro or other iTunes platform, very. Enough has been written on Apple's functionality to leave well enough alone*. We'll mirror Esoteric and focus on audible performance in five interludes. First there's the presumably greatest curiosity factor on how VOSP and USB—expensive audio-optimized CD/SACD transport vs. cheap DVD/ROM slot drive—differ since signal processing post USB receiver is identical. Two is onboard vs. offboard signal processing. Three is comparison to another traditional CD player. Four is the amp-direct function vs. a quality preamp. Fifth and finally, there is an assessment of the various upsampling and filter modes.

* I'll merely add that in use, powering down the MacBook in the evening and back up the following day did not require reconfiguring any sound settings with USB_PW off. In fact, I could plug in a headphone which the Mac would automatically recognize to shift output to it, then unplug the headphone and be back in sound on the big rig without any other action on my part. Apple's MacBook Pro platform is very slick indeed.

For N°.1, my MacBook with tunes imported from personal CDs provided streaming data through Entreq's Discover USB link, its separate earth wire on the receiving end connected to the ground post of my Walker Audio Velocitor S power block. For N°.2, my Yamamoto YDA-01 stand-alone converter would handle conversion duties fed through a Stealth Audio Cables Sextet. For N°.3, Hegel's top CDP4AMkII was set to handle the scales of judgment on the SA-50 as a normal player. For N°.4, I had Esoteric's own C-03 preamp and for significantly cheaper, the conceptually very similar Wyred4Sound STP. For N°.5, it'd just be the mode and next buttons. Prior exposure to AKM's 32-bit converters had been suggestive of a very particular treble finesse. Hence I'd asked Triangle's export manager for permission to hold on to their Magellan Cello Sw2 loudspeaker long enough to run it through these tests. Triangle's horn-loaded tweeter and deliberate treble lift make for extreme 'up there' visibility. That seemed good to have for the hair splitting I expected. Amplification of choice was ModWright's direct-coupled KWA-150 set to high bias. Cabling was my usual loom of Franck Tchang Liveline.

How pure is hip?
Like virgin snow. If I'd expected any revelatory differences, the heavily anticipated first round proved the most boring. There weren't any. Differences. Zilch. That was the revelation. I'm not sure what it purports about the future of Esoteric's vaunted sled drives. Hard disk playback as implemented by Apple's ripping and streaming protocol—I had the streaming buffer set to large—levels the playing field. Had Esoteric engineering hoped to avoid making such conclusions possible, the SA-50 shouts them out loud. Naturally, this machine is an Esoteric to the bone. It's evident that Japan sees the writing on the wall and doesn't need old Daniel to translate it. Those still committed to laser pickups of course do want the best transports. The future for the VOSP and VRDS fleet hasn't exactly expired yet*. But if a MacBook slot drive and associated data extraction software do just as well to grab/rip the data and iTunes' magnetic playback is indistinguishable thereafter from traditional optical readouts, it's déja vu all over again for Belshazzar, last king of Babylon. His empire would be overtaken by the Persians as correctly interpreted by Daniel. Insistence that USB is innately inferior simply refuses to acknowledge the same writing. It's time to stop beating a dead horse. USB is here to stay and not just for reasons of convenience. If implemented properly, it suffers no setbacks.

*Further on that subject, I compared my UX-1 with Esoteric's most overbuilt VRDS transport to the VOSP in the SA-50 over the Yamamoto converter. No question that the VRDS was superior. Hence transports remain a vital subject of distinction within the Redbook domain of ultra fidelity playback. Esoteric engineering is quite right to continue focusing resources on their good/better/best sled designs. The smart money simply recognizes that hard-disk playback bypasses the entire issue. Premium laser-based playback is inherently more expensive on the transport front.


Yamamoto's $2,450 YDA-01 converter eschews high-feedback integrated circuits in favor of passive I/V conversion. It adopts a very stout power supply and a class A single-ended zero feedback PNP transistor output stage. A/D conversion is handled by one PCM 1794ADBR per channel. Output level is 3.1V/0dB, i.e. above industry standard to have me punch in the necessary software trim on the C-03 preamp's corresponding input.

Regardless of filter or upsampling options on behalf of the SA-50's analog outputs, the Yamamoto converter had more color intensity and image pop to render the Esoteric's counter presentation paler and subjectively more remote. Quantitatively and without question, the YDA-01 produced more bass amplitude. If bass power equals an infusion of gray or black into the color palette, the deeper saturation of the Yamamoto could be explained solely on that merit. And just as time alignment in speakers is a quality that only becomes relevant after grosser errors have been corrected first, so superior bass power with its psychoacoustic consequences over the remainder of the audible spectrum overrode any treble advantages the SA-50's 32-bit AKM converter may have otherwise held. Additionally, the Yamamoto's lead remained evident on bass-shy fare too. Responsibility thus also fell on other aspects. Further distinguishing features—admittedly all interrelated—were higher grippiness, greater fullness and a sense that despite equal soundstage size, the Yamamoto filled out every bit of it with more presence or pressure to sound bigger and ballsier. As a guess, I'd point foremost at a beefier power supply, perhaps also superior output stage. It certainly supports suspicions that digital numbers—32-bit vs. 24-bit for example—are a smaller factor than their analog equivalents. That's at least my take on it.