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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear; Raysonic CD128 [on extended loan];
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Bel Canto Design PRe3; Supratek Cabernet Dual [on extended loan from owner]

EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto e.One S300; Eastern Electric M-520; Canary Audio CA-339s [on review]
Headphones: AKG K-1000 w. hardwired Stefan AudioArt harness; audio-technica W-1000
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro in custom lacquer; Anthony Gallo Acoustics Ref 3.1; HornShoppe The Horn; Mark & Daniel Maximus Ruby

Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable; s [on extended loan]; Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular five-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $13,200/ea. P/D-03; $13,000 G-0s [ $17,200 for P-03 Universal w. DVD-V/A added]

Mass and polish
Esoteric's P-03 is 66 pounds of densely packed Swiss vault armory enclosing TEAC's new VRDS-NEO sled assembly for advanced SACD and RedBook CD playback. (An alternate P-03 Universal adds DVD-A/V to the read assignments). The matching D-03 is 60 pounds of fully differential 24bit-192kHz D-to-A converter. It runs dual AD1955s per phase, for eight silicon chips in toto. When connected by two paralleled AES/EBU terminated cables, the P-03 outputs native DSD without prior down conversion to PCM. That's both novel and required to ultimately justify SACD separates.

This proprietary split-channel transmission protocol is dubbed ES-LINK. Additionally, an external BNC-to-BNC clock link slaves the transport to the converter's own clock. This also provides an upgrade path for Esoteric's outboard master clock generators, the G25-U and G-0s. Those claim clock frequency accuracy to parts per million and billion, respectively. The latter employs a hi-tech temperature-invariant Rubidium oscillator, considered just one step removed from a true atomic Cesium clock.

Secrets open and hidden
It's an open secret that TEAC's Esoteric division manufactures the most extreme CD and universal transport assemblies extant. The secret part has to do with how few of us have actually seen what the competition uses. After all, their ads don't show off nude sleds. Alex Peychev to the rescue. This ex-Sony engineer modifies digital machines under the APL HiFi banner. When Peychev decided to coauthor the best universal digital source money could buy, the mechanical platform he deemed most advanced -- by "light years" no less -- was Esoteric's UX-1. He explains his choice with this picture, used here by permission. The VRDS NEO positively dwarfs the Philips, Pioneer and Denon universal equivalents.

According to APL's forum where this photo is posted, current Ayre, EMM Labs, Krell, McCormack, McIntosh and Musical Fidelity universal machines all rely on these or equivalent devices as shown to the left. As Esoteric's Mark Gurvey added, this list also includes Arcam, Classe, Levinson and Rotel. The first generation of Sony SACD machines, notably the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES, were exceptions and sported far more substantial transport sections. (And yes, the plastic housings with the trays and gears were removed from the units to the upper left which would otherwise render them somewhat larger. Still, the juxtaposition remains educational).

The lone CD-only transport I'm aware of that bridges the horrendous abyss above is the famed Philips CD-PRO2 to the right. It's employed by high-priced premium transports from Germany's Accustic Arts to Japan's Zanden Audio and costs a solid $450 as a raw part. Compare that to the $3,000/ea. (and minimum order of 50) the smaller VRDS NEO commands for third-party use. Audiomeca's proprietary unit is based on Philips precedents and suffers reliability issues if word on the street is correct.

When it comes to mechanical engineering, Esoteric digital is indeed light years beyond the competition. Perhaps that's why, for its very best machines, Wadia continues to rely on VRDS and why the new Spectral player will use it. For more info and VRDS images, reference my review of Esoteric's X-
03. Incidentally, Esoteric's engineers apply the same fanatism over resonance control and massive construction to their component chassis as well. These goods are built like bank vaults front to back, top to bottom.

Advanced synchronization
Because today's trio of components includes Esoteric's most advanced external reclocker, let's indulge a bit of on-line sleuthing on clock jitter. Elimination thereof is the rationale for such devices after all. This gets us on the Abbingdon Music Research site and the following commentary by technical director Thorsten Loesch: "Regarding CD source clock crystals, there is a disingenuous perpetuation of the viewpoint that in terms of absolute frequency (usually specified as the deviation in ppm - parts per million) "high precision is good". In fact, rather than the absolute frequency precision, it is the phase noise of the clock that creates jitter, which is why this should be the key parameter of a clock crystal's sonic performance.

"In reality, it is relatively easy (i.e. low cost) to make a clock crystal with high precision (<0.5ppm). However, making a clock crystal with low phase noise (jitter) is much more difficult (i.e. expensive). Perhaps that's why the aftermarket so-called 'super-clocks' often quote the former and omit this latter and more relevant specification. Just as importantly, the use of more than one clock (even a 'super clock') if it is not synchronized to generate a master clock signal, will mean that the issue of all clocks being out-of-sync with one another has still not been addressed. Again, this leaves the other major source of jitter unresolved."

Before we create mental jitter with ignorance over the finer points involved in this highly technical subject, curious readers should simply peruse Ivar Løkken's PhD.-level paper on digital conversion issues. In my review of Esoteric's lower-priced G25-U reclocker, I've presented the case from the provided marketing perspective. I concluded that slaved to a superior one-box machine like the X-03, the external reclocker made at best a very subtle improvement that couldn't fully justify the expense. Discussing this with Peychev, he wasn't surprised. He did predict that I'd come to rather different conclusions with separate transports and DACs. There an external reclocker would come fully into its own.

Not good enough
If so, digital separates -- for all their presumed advances (mechanical/electrical isolation and beefier power supplies among others) and via their by necessity external signal transmission interface -- seem to create higher jitter than integrated one-box machines of equivalent quality. Self-generated clock issues from box separation then have to be addressed by costly add-ons. Whoever said that scaling Mount No-Compromise didn't involve fancy footwork? Unless blessed with the requisite discretionary wealth, you might be more suited for upscale one-boxers. Just don't blame Esoteric's engineers for pushing the envelope. With their finest offerings -- and today's transport/DAC duo sits just one rung shy of their ultimate -- this team is focusing on its ability, not your wallet's or mine. This is extremist product without concessions. Advances made at this level eventually trickle down to lower tiers. No apologies are necessary for Esoteric's commitment to further the art and supplying the rare enthusiast with Japanese UltraFi that transcends prior limitations. It does not matter how trivial or academic those prior limitation might appear to the vast majority of fellow hobbyists. Progress is only made by bothering with the most minute. Collect enough minutiae and they'll add up to something quite audible. For a price, naturally. An Esoteric ad for today's products might well read "When good enough isn't".

Tech and other highlights
Outside the colossal sled block, these include shielding the SACD/CD transport's power supply in its own true sub chassis inside the main enclosure; dividing the DAC nearly as rigorously into quadrants for true dual mono analog sections and twin R-core transformer power supplies; outputting native DSD; providing user-selectable PCM upsampling all the way up to DSD; adding Word Sync; using paralleled dual-differential conversion architecture from input to output; adding digital filter defeat and a FireWire output; using top-grade 6N copper wiring and the aforementioned Rubidium oscillator; and engraving the illustrious brand name into the 8mm thick aluminum top panels. Dimensions for these battle ships are 17.5" x 6.25" x 16.5" WxHxD.

Condensing all this applied technology into a single paragraph for such statement products would be criminal were it not for easy PDF access to the relevant tech data. Prospective owners technically inclined will find everything they need a mere mouse click away. Owner's manuals for the P-03 | D-03 | G-0s are on Esoteric's site and extracted block diagrams of the P-03 and D-03 have been saved on ours. All links conveniently open in new windows. Regarding the oft-observed superiority of Esoteric's balanced outputs, there's good reason for it. The true differential circuit is not transformer-coupled at the end to convert to single-ended. That's instead handled by a phase-summing op-amp which additionally inserts a coupling capacitor into the signal path. The RCA outputs are thus sonically compromised compared to what these circuits are capable of. Make no mistake - these are fully balanced machines. They must be used accordingly to perform on the extreme plateau their creators intended. (Using XLR-to-RCA adaptors avoids the coupling caps and op-amps but might still introduce a minor sonic setback).