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Esoteric X-01 D2 SACD CD Player Review

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Esoteric X-01 D2 SACD CD player

It didn’t take much cajoling from my editor to enlist me in writing the first review of the Esoteric X-01 D2, the upper model of the X-01 Limited, and now the premier one-box offering from Esoteric. This unit was designed for those whose passion is clearly SACD as the D2 circuitry is identical to that of the X-01 Limited for Redbook CD playback. Now, if you’ve not heard of Esoteric, then you’ve probably been living like a hermit the past few years; this company, a subsidiary of the major Japanese electronics firm TEAC (always nice to have deep, durable pockets backing you!), burst onto the scene a few years ago and released numerous well-regarded digital products, ranging from the entry-level DV-50 to the UX-1, which are capable of playing any digital format.

The X-01, on the other hand, does not encumber itself or its circuitry with video or DVD-A; it is optimized simply for redbook CD and SACD. The focus on the high-end digital audio market has served Esoteric well, as it’s garnered a reputation amongst audiophiles as being amongst the best digital gear available. So anytime a company with such a reputation releases a new product, it’s worth taking a listen.

Background Info

While Epic Audio in Houston, TX was gracious enough to provide the Esoteric for review, they should’ve warned me that I’d need a SUV to get the unit transported to my house. Talk about well packed! I guess I should have known what I was getting from Esoteric when I dug into the triple-boxed, 80lb packaging.

Everything about the packaging spoke of quality and an obsessive attention to detail. These impressions proved quite correct, which will be revealed in the course of this review.

Build quality is always something I viewed as binary: either a component has it, or it doesn’t. What I wasn’t expecting is how the X-01 D2 would redefine the concept. Now, I’m a healthy, strapping man and its nothing for me to move around line level gear, but I must say this is the only CD player that I honestly had to think about keeping my back straight before picking up the unit, as I think the weight of this unit will cause some backaches if owners aren’t paying attention to their posture when moving it into place.

Now, the weight is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this unit’s build quality. It has a chassis whose side, top and bottom panels are more befitting of a massive monoblock amplifier. My curiosity piqued, I just had to take a look inside, which proved to be most illuminating. As the photos show, the transport mechanism is a solid, machined piece of aluminum. There is no plastic in the transport; the drawer is a machined metal, as is the disk clamping mechanism and disc turntable – all of which comprise the famous VRDS system that is unparalleled in the industry. Additionally, the power supply is completely shielded from the analog section (good job, Esoteric!). Ultimately, the build quality of this player makes every other CD player I’ve encountered look like a Fisher Price toy.

As an SACD / CD player, the X-01 D2 is obviously targeting the audiophiles for whom world-class home audio reproduction is the goal. All of this makes the choice of including multi-channel RCA outputs all the more curious by them (the user has the option of using both balanced and RCA for the main 2 outputs).

I must say, I’ve all the use for multi-channel sound as I do a typewriter or a canker-sore; after all, the last time I checked, the band was always in front of me. Two-channel does me just fine, thank you. What I find even more curious is that the X-01 D2 also has digital outputs (coax & optical). I think it highly unlikely that someone is going to have an outboard DAC that exceeds the performance of this unit as a whole, but in this hobby / pursuit, I’ve found that I should never make assumptions. After all, Esoteric does offer the D-03 DAC and a couple outboard clocks if a user is willing to go even further).

General use of the X-01 D2 was as easy as Paris Hilton; just push a few buttons and it’s playtime. The front panel is well-defined and illuminated, the remote control was an absolute pleasure to use, and there were never any glitches, gurgles, reboots, or other “what the heck did my $16k player just do?” moments. Of interest, the X-01 D2 has a multitude of decoding algorithms, selectable via the front panel or via the remote (what a luxury!). Performing a brief review of the options, I established my favorites and impressions in the order as below:

1) Multi-bit: the most resolving and neutral;

2) 1-bit: very close to Multi-bit, but with slightly less decay;

3) DSD: very good tone, but softens the leading edge and overall PRAT;

4) Reference: weakest harmonics, lightest tone.

As expected, all my serious listening was done in Multi-bit.

Listening Impressions

It’s been said that a system is going to be a great all-around performer if it can do 3 things well:

1) get the kick drum right

2) get the piano right

3) get female vocals right

Right off the bat with the X-01 D2, I could tell that I could check #1 off my list. The first thing that a listener will notice when inserting the X-01 D2 into their system (me: Einstein Tube preamp, McIntosh MC-501s, Wilson Watt Puppy 6s, all cabling varied, line-level power conditioning by Silver Circle) is the incredible life-like weight to the presentation.

Not only kick drums, but bass guitars, synthesizers, organs and other low frequency instruments had a heft that I’ve never found reproduced in the home until inserting the X-01 D2. It’s not simply about going low; it’s about doing it with speed, PRAT, and accuracy, and not duping the listener with a bloated one-note trick. Other players I’ve demo’d have gone deep, but not like this! The XO-1 not only goes deeper (the way that electronics with a massive power supply goes deeper than ones without), but it also does so in a more realistic manner.

Kick drums, for example, load a room in a very unique way; you pick up the leading edge both as sound and with a tactile sensation of a massive air wave exploding into the room. No other player I’ve encountered has been able to replicate how a kick drum loads the room as well as the X-01 D2. This sensation, this heft, had me dragging out the recent remasters of the Police catalog, simply to revel in the exceptional drumming of Stewart Copeland.

I cannot overstate how important this effect was in recreating the experience of a live band in my listening room, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the maxim that it’s the bass & the drums that give music its foundation. But this kick-drum effect would be just a parlor trick if it failed to capture the low-level detail that all we audiophiles expect from ambitious systems. The X-01 D2 has you covered here as well, as it was easy to pick up the skin of the drum along with the effect I noted previously, and it also properly decayed the notes into an infinitely black background. All these factors combined allowed the X-01 D2 to create a foundation for the music that I found positively bewitching.

While touching on the subject of low-level detail, it’s worth saying that I never would’ve expected that the X-01 D2 could be so audibly superior in its transparency to other mid- to hi-fi players by resolving significantly more low-level detail. Going back and forth with a few digital players I’ve on hand (all of which have MSRP’s from $4k to $8k), the X-01 D2 was clearly superior in bringing forth low-level detail and information that I never knew existed on those shiny discs.

This low-level detail, this transparency, is manifest in a number of ways: the ambient info of the recording studio, the shimmer of a cymbal, the way performers occupy space on a soundstage, and the way one note is separate and distinct from the preceding and the next. Lesser CD players lose that ambient hall, cymbals become a metallic sheen of sound, performers occupy 2-dimensional space and lack body, or notes blur together or carry a “fuzz” around them which is simply an inability to properly define the boundaries of the note itself.

Using The Police remaster of Zenyatta Mondatta, the track “Voices in My Head”, I was not only able to resolve the low-level detail of Copeland’s skin and cymbal work, but for the first time I was clearly able to pick up the placement of Sting on the left rear of the stage singing background vocals towards the end of the song. The Esoteric, whether by virtue of its incredible transport & build quality, its virtually non-existent noise floor, or its accomplished digital output stage, is beyond reproach in getting the info off the disc and delivering it into your room.

Moving on to #2: getting the piano right. The piano, though a string instrument, works through percussive means, and to accurately recreate it requires a dynamic presentation. Now, if you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll certainly know that my system and my preferences are for highly dynamic equipment, as I feel dynamics are an “either you have it, or you don’t” proposition, whereas tone is always something that can be manipulated with accessories and cables.

My earlier comments should give you the impression that the X-01 D2 is a highly dynamic player (both macro and micro), but I’m pleased to report that it doesn’t do so with a flawed tone that requires me to dig through my litany of cables and footers for a band-aid that will allow me to get the tonal playback of a recorded piano right. Digital players, especially solid-state ones, typically have a tone that is on the cool side of the sonic spectrum, whereas tube players generally do better with tone, but at the expense of a higher noise floor, softer bass and weaker dynamics. This is easily heard in my system, as the Watt Puppy 6’s can and will sound bright when anything is off kilter.

Playing the track “This Lamb Sells Condos” by Final Fantasy and the “Koln Concert” by Keith Jarrett, the X-01 D2 not only recreated the piano’s weight, attack, and decay, but it did so with an upper register that was clear, extended, pristine, and never artificially bright. The piano can sound bright, but CDs and home stereos have a different type of brightness, which I thus term “artificial”. Now, I must also state that the player did come across as bright-ish when I used several combinations of lesser quality signal cables than the Acrolink (review forthcoming), but with sufficient testing it became obvious to me that the problem wasn’t the X-01 D2, it was the cables themselves that were bright. If you hear this player and it ever sounds bright or thin, rest assured it’s a cabling or system synergy issue; it’s not the X-01 D2.

Female voices proved to be no problem for the X-01 D2. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald on Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong on the Verve label, I was able to connect to Ella in a way that I hadn’t previously. Sure, I always knew she was an incomparable vocalist and had some terrific records, but with the X-01 D2, I was not only getting the tonally-spot-on golden voice, but I was also gaining a whole new appreciation for her phrasing, her diaphragm control, her pitch and control of amplitude, from the whisper-quiet Ella to the full-tilt-singing-her-lungs-off Ella. Satchmo sounded delicious: scratchy, monotone, and irreplaceable. I could swear I heard him smiling. Ella’s myriad skills never hit me like this, and it’s not because I don’t like Ella. It’s that when you have a performance that’s as close to the real thing as you’ve ever heard, it’s impossible to focus your attention on anything but the performance itself. The Esoteric X-01 D2, with its nigh-on-perfect combination of weight, PRAT, transparency, and tone, never failed to draw me into the event.

Conclusion

When I recall the performance of my reference digital gear from 5 years ago, listening to the X-01 D2 only confirms for me how far the playback technology of an inferior format has come. Digital can never be as good as analog, but with the Esoteric, it can be pretty darn good in its own right.

Let me be perfectly clear: the X-01 D2 is as good as I’ve ever heard digital performance, and I must question if or how much better it can get than this. Sure, different players will sound different; manufacturers will impart their own preferences into the sonic signature of a given piece, the same way 2 world-class chefs will have a different approach to cooking steak tar-tar. The X-01 D2 strikes me as being designed to be as accurate as possible; there’s no obvious errors, no anomalies, and no reason to be obsessed that you don’t have the best that digital has to offer. There might be different sounding one-box players, but better? I suspect any conclusion of “better” than the X-01 D2 will simply be a function of system synergies, rather than any other player outclassing this monster.

I’ve never been so sad to take a piece of equipment out of my system. If you’ve the financial resources and want the best that digital playback has to offer, you’ll be well served to put the X-01 D2 on your “must audition” list.

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