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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Hyperion Sound BEC-P25T
EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro; Gallo Reference 3.1
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan
Review Component Retail: $7,200
In all of the world's religions, the exoteric covers rules of conduct. Those are the ethics, the how-to commandments for enjoying a functional ordinary life with dignity and moral fiber. The esoteric is often coded or hidden. It deals with first-hand accounts and instructions on how to transform an ordinary human life into one that becomes transparent to Spirit and turns the carrier into a divinely inspired agent. (In Christianity for example, the esoteric can be found in the Gospel of Thomas, in Jesus' personal letters to his disciples, in the Essene scrolls, in some of the apocryphal texts which the Church in Rome deemed too heretical or dangerous for public consumption and removed from the Bible).

In 1987, major Japanese keiretsu TEAC/Tascam affixed the Esoteric moniker to its ne-plus-ultra efforts. They were called the P-1/D-1 separates and carried the suggestive slogan "Purity Begins At The Source". The message was clear. This would be the secret teaching, the heart of their engineering. This name would remain reserved for their best and most advanced. It would be deliberately fashioned for the few initiates prepared to shoulder the associated (financial) burden. The new Esoteric X-03 SACD/CD player is 51 colossal pounds worth of audio vault encased in 1.6mm steel and filled to bursting with no-compromise technology. This includes the company's proprietary high-speed VRDS mechanism for SACD that incorporates a duralumin turntable with precision ball bearings and a 10mm S400 steel bridge; a three-phase brushless spindle motor with neodymium magnets to stabilize motor drive currents; a constant-angle optical pickup mounted to a sled with feedback-controlled speed control; Burr-Brown 24-bit PCM1704 DACs on all channels, fully differential for the two front channels, with "a high-quality quartz crystal on the board to almost completely eliminate jitter" and with "sub-ground impedances to assure exceptional S/N figures"; integral steel point/cup footers; a word synchronization input that can accept a master word clock at 44.1, 88.2, 100 and 176.4kHz (4.5 Vp-p/75-ohm input); and an iLink/FireWire IEEE1394 6-pin output for SACD multi-channel data. The X-03 is compatible with 8/12cm CDs and 8/12cm single/dual and hybrid layer SACDs.

VRDS is short hand for Vibration-Free Rigid Disc Clamping System. Esoteric's man in the US, Mark Gurvey, tells us that "VRDS evolved from the original P-1 transport series back in 1987. The current high-end version resides in the P-01 transport and X-01/UX-1 models. Refinement has taken place among 6 versions. The new "03" version evolved from those. But this is the first time that VRDS has been available in an integrated one-box player priced below $13,000. (We did have the P-70 transport with VRDS at $7500 but that did not include a DAC.)" Clearly, the X-03's mission statement is More Esoterica For Less Exoterica. More Shabbos, fewer shekels. In fact, the above-listed 2006 price dropped by $500 over 2005. Besides clamping the CD from above and thus sandwiching it between two solid metal surfaces to avoid flutter, the VRDS transport's laser head assembly is claimed to maintain constant perpendicularity to the disc surface. This is said to reduce error correction interpolation and jitter.

Switching between 2-channel/multi-channel SACD modes is performed via remote command. If the 2-channel prompt is triggered during playback of a multi-channel SACDs, it invokes automatic downmixing to stereo and the downmix indicator lights up in the display.

The ring array on the remote is used during setup just like a joystick. The violet Return button works just like Level Up in Windows. It moves you one layer up in the setup menu. The equivalent setup button enters or exits setup mode. A convenient factory reset option works by pressing and holding down the front-panel stop button while the unit is turned off. Then press the power switch simultaneously and your sins are erased, factory settings restored..

Setup may be entered during playback but subtracts certain functions which are only available during stop. Available options in Audio Setup mode include analog/digital out and CD direct streams while GeneralSet concerns itself with 5.1 channel speaker sizes, speaker distances and SPL trim. A cycling test tone generator is included. Tone lengths are selectable from 2, 5 and 10 seconds. CD direct bypasses any input speaker settings.

Performance specs include 5Hz to 58kHz frequency response on SACD, S/N ratio of 112dB, dynamic range of 106 and THD of 0.001%, all referenced at 1kHz for SACD. Included in the exceptionally sturdy packaging are one power cord, the RC-941 remote shown, 2 AA batteries, a jeweler's Philips screw driver to remove the bottom cap of the remote and install the batteries, three felt discs to protect furniture from the footers, a warranty card and a comprehensive owner's manual. In conclusion, anyone eyeing, fondling or actually lifting an X-03 can't fail to know, beyond the merest shadow of the doubt, that this machine is a top-drawer luxury items of extreme mechanical build quality. Plainly, the X-03 is a mixture of Rolls-Royce finesse and Hummer brawn rolled into a Cartier enclosure.
Like Accuphase, Luxman, Sony and Denon, TEAC's HighEnd division is about serious products executed to the nines. Distribution in the US was spotty for years. But when the company began launching its current line-up of digital source components which includes separates and one-box SACD and DVD players, it made a simultaneous push to regain a foothold in American consciousness for UltraFi source components.

This process launched a few years ago. It has already paid out hefty dividends. Ask anyone in the know about ne-plus-ultra digital. Besides Audio Aero, Burmester, CEC, dCS, Meitner, Metronome and Zanden, Esoteric will be mentioned as one of the main contenders.

When Nakamichi closed, I sold off my Dragon. I acquired Esoteric's top-line 3-head tape deck instead. Its performance was easily the equal of the famed Dragon - with superior build quality. I never had a single issue with the machine. I only sold it eventually when recordable CD had arrived and become affordable. I'm looking forward to taking the measure of Esoteric's latest. The X-03 SACD player exudes class, intent and high-level engineering.