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The conclusion reversed though when I switched to Casadessus’ mono recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos. The vinyl I was spinning now were fifty-year-old releases found at Goodwill's for 50 cents each. Of course they were not in the best of shapes but remained listenable oldies with the Flight Phono’s kinder and warmer approach to music which here was more than welcome. The Flight Phono made surface noise less prominent than the E03 and treated distortion more kindly. Tolerance for abused old records is not in the E03’s vocabulary.

For anything in better shape than my Casadessus recordings, the E03 was boss and king, offering deeper resolution with the smallest of details and projecting a stage of epic proportions when appropriate.

As mentioned before, I could not fault the presentation of the E03, be it on ZZ Top’s guitars, the Gorillaz and their cavernous bass beats, Dietrich Fisher Dieskau’s unique tone or the Spanish Folia. In each and every case, the E03 nailed tone, depth, transients and dynamics in a fashion that was more natural than anything I have heard at home thus far - another step up and not a small one.

The existence of the E03 takes nothing away from the Flight Phono’s great performance but the Italian machine throws the virtues and limitations of pure class A operation over the music with a hint of warmth, gently shelved-down frequency extremes and slightly rounded transients. In many systems those qualities will be a welcome asset to enhance the pleasure of music listening, be it from brand new pressings or old licorice. But when the system and listener can live with a greater level of truthfulness, the E03 clearly jumps ahead.

The E03 erects liabilities with its truthiness of course. It won’t put honey on sour records but neither does it impose limitations on playback. With a system both tonally dense and tuned for maximum transient responsiveness as mine, the E03 was like an adrenaline injection and took playback to a complete different level. Music came alive in a fashion that reminded me very much of Steve McCormarck’s VRE-1 preamplifier, albeit with added weight and more explosive dynamics. Especially when the Zu Essence speakers were fronted by the slightly more reserved C03 preamplifier and A03 amplifier, the E03 added a feeling of unfiltered unrestrained energy that I found addictive.

One of the side benefits of the E03’s ruthless honesty is the improved ability to set up your cartridge correctly. Until now I had considered the millimetric obsession over cartridge alignment, VTA and loading a 'nice to have' adjunct but not always a critical task. The E03 drastically altered my opinion. Any of these adjustments now no matter how small could and would be heard. Similarly the sonic character of interconnects and power cords was never so obvious as when plugged into the E03. I already mentioned how the Zu Mother was a perfect match over the AA Ferrite II which was a little too lean for my taste. The Zu Varial also worked well as an interconnect although I wished I could hear one of Esoteric’s own Mexcel links to see just how far the E03 might venture.

Similarly differences between cartridges were painted in much starker contrast over what I was used to. The Denon DL103 is finely resolved, open and dynamic and tonally superbly accurate but sometimes a little stiff in the midrange. The Grado Reference Sonata 1 on the other hand is midrange-centric and fluid while lacking in extension and dynamic capability.

The Denon clearly was my cartridge of choice during this audition but I regularly vacillated between the two since the mixed MC/MM input and the interchangeable head shell on the Ortofon tonearm made switching a breeze, merely requiring a quick alignment check as well as VTA and pressure adjustment. This became a 15-minute process which used to take a solid hour with the Rega RB300 tonearm.

At $5900, the E03 is not cheap and—the Flight Phono provides one—still needs a good power cord to show all its colors. This puts the Italian and Japanese phono preamps on equal footing for pricing. In many more modern-sounding systems than mine, the Flight Phono will shine but in my setup, it was a little opaque and veiled compared to the E03. Hence the Japanese came out on top for me. The Flight Phono taken alone impressed me a lot but as stated often by our editor, once you’ve heard a piece of equipment that takes playback to a different level, you can’t "un-hear" it thereafter. That’s exactly how I feel about the E03. In my system, it was clearly superior to force the Flight Phono into second place.

In brighter leaner systems, the E03 might end up being too much of a good thing but in a balanced system, it will unearth the final level of resolution and passion one can expect from vinyl done right. I wish I could compare the E03 to some far pricier offerings available from Boulder, AMR or Walker to name a few but I have a nagging feeling that the E03 sits very high on the price/performance index indeed.

No matter how much I itch to write out a Blue Moon award for the E03, I must restrain myself and wait for the last contender in this series of phono preamp reviews to arrive. It might shine additional light on just how good a value the E03 really is. If the NAT Signature phono with its battery-powered zero feedback triodes is anywhere as good as the NAT Symmetrical line stage was which I reviewed a few months ago, the E03 will receive more than a fair shake at brisk competition. Or the Serbian could walk away with the award. It's something I won’t know for a few more weeks. If you already know that you don’t wish the hassle of tubes, the E03 is without contest my favorite solid-state phono preamp in this review series, ahead of the Audia Flight Phono and way ahead of the ASR Mini-Basis Exclusive.

Over and out for now until the NAT Signature phono has been fully assessed. Esoteric's E03 truly blew me over and away, perhaps all the more so as it was rather unexpected to see Esoteric set the bar this high with their first-ever foray into vinyl playback. Now I have to wonder when their first turntable will launch. Surely they cannot leave the E03 an orphan, can they now?

The Epilogue on the next page reports on the final conclusion of my 6-piece phono stage review series.
Quality of packing: Simply one of the best in the industry.
Reusability of packing: Multiple uses.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: No issue.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: No issue.
Quality of owner's manual: Simple but complete.
Website comments:  Complete and informative.
Warranty: 2 years extended to 3 years with returned warranty card.
Global distribution: See Esoteric website, available broadly.
Human interactions: Always responsive and helpful.
Pricing:  Highly competitive
Final comments & suggestions: A component with such a level of transparency that it will give its best with associated components of the highest level. Surprisingly the E03 won't emphasize flaws in lesser ancillaries and cartridges to allow a system to mature around it without issues. The E03 will work better in a tonally dense system but again, superb instrumental textures will be showcased even in leaner chains.

Esoteric website