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Esoteric D-05 DAC Preamplifier Review

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Esoteric D05 DACDigital audio has made strides in a frantic pace since its commercialization in the early 80s, when the industry abandoned engineering resources for perfecting the compact cassette and analog turntable media, and instead focused on advancing the state-of-the-art in the compact disc medium. The result was a convergence of talents and ingenuity the likes of which not only happens once in a lifetime, but one that has continued to preoccupy audiophiles and industry alike in its evolutionary stages to this day.

Esoteric Company began developing and introducing high-end digital audio disc players since its formation in 1987, as a continuation and progression of the efforts of Teac, its parent company. It was in this year, with the introduction of a type of compact disc transport mechanism named VRDS, short for “Vibration Free, Rigid Disc Clamping System”, that cemented the company’s leadership position in the digital audio segment of the industry. The company ventured into system engineering in recent years and introduced a complete Esoteric system comprising not only the digital source but preamplifiers, power amplifiers, phonostage, speakers and even Esoteric MEXCEL cable systems. In speaker development, Esoteric partnered with Tannoy and introduced a floor standing MG20 and a bookshelf MG10. In amplification, it started at the top with the introduction of five models ranging from the E-03 phono stage at $5,900 to the A-100 3-stage tube amplifier at $22,000.

The subject of this review is D-05, a D/A converter released in 2007 as part of a series in commemoration of the company’s 20th Anniversary, is unique in its adoption of the Asahi Kasei Microsystems AK4397 DAC chip. I reviewed a modestly priced DAC in 2007 that utilized the company’s AK4396 chip, a 128-times oversampling, 120dB 192kHz/24-bit chip, and I thought it set a benchmark for affordable DACs. The AKM 4397 in the D-05 is now a 32-bit processing unit with “fully extended 32 bit processing throughout all stages, including digital filter and the Delta-Sigma modulator”, and also equipped to process DSD signals. According to the AKM brochure:

“The AK4397 is a high performance premium 32bit DAC for the 192kHz sampling mode of DVD-Audio including a 32bit digital filter. Using AKM’s multi bit architecture for its modulator the AK4397 delivers a wide dynamics range while preserving linearity for improved THD+N performance. The AK4397 has full differential SCF outputs, removing the need for AC coupling capacitors and increasing performance for systems with excessive clock jitter. The AK4397 accepts 192kHz PCM data and 1-bit DSD data, ideal for a wide range of applications including DVD-Audio and SACD. The AK4397 has a functional compatibility with the AK4393/4/5 and lower power dissipation.”

Esoteric was the first company to take the AK4397 chip set in a dual-mono configuration from the commercial/professional markets into the consumer markets. In addition, the company’s recently released $5,800, 4-device-in-1, SA-50 SACD/CD player is equipped with another of AKM’s 32-bit chip sets and is also dual-mono in configuration, the AK4392.

AKM’s data sheet shows the AK4397 chip to feature the following:

· 128x Over sampling

· Sampling rate: 30kHz to 216kHz

· 32-bit 8x Digital Filter

· DSD data input

· Digital De-emphasis for 32, 44.1, 48kHz sampling

· Digital Attenuator (Linear 256 steps)

· Mono Mode

· External Digital Filter Mode

· THD+N: 103dB

· DR, S/N: 120dB

AKM’s AK4392 brochure also has the following to say about the chip set in the SA-50:

“AK4392 is a 32-bit DAC, which corresponds to DVD-Audio systems. An internal circuit includes newly developed 32bit Digital Filter for better sound quality achieving low distortion characteristics and wide dynamic range. The AK4392 has full differential SCF outputs, removing the need for AC coupling capacitors and increasing performance for systems with excessive clock jitter. The AK4392 accepts 192kHz PCM data and 1-bit DSD data, ideal for a wide range of applications including Blu-Ray, DVD-Audio and SACD.”

The part I like the most about this, which I think is a good move on Esoteric’s part, is that there are two AKM 4397s in the D-05 – one for each channel and on separate L+R decoder boards. To compliment this dual-mono DAC arrangement, Esoteric adorned the unit with dual-mono power supply and analog components, including a large toroidal transformer for each channel as well. This lays the ground work for a potentially, completely tricked out system in full extraction of every last precious bit of information as converted by the AKMs.

Of course, Esoteric would recommend the use of its P-05 matching SACD/CD transport in order to enjoy the benefit of the D-05 fully, and vice versa. But I am using the $30,000 47 Laboratory 4704 PiTracer CD transport, and I naturally must know how the cheap D-05, with all its capabilities, may fare in my system first. On its own, the D-05 already offers a slew of exciting functionalities, such as a choice of 1x oversampling, 2x oversampling and 4x oversampling. For the readers who prefer the DSD performance, the D-05 up-converts incoming signals into the DSD mode as well. The D-05 offers two stages of phase lock loop for jitter reduction when used in conjunction with a CD transport other than matching P-05. Last not least, you can also select a slow rolloff digital filtering effect labeled WIDE for “reproducing natural sounding harmonics”, and a sharper rolloff setting named NARROW for “sharp sound images”.

Other functions offered by the D-05 include WORD SYNC, for receiving a master clock signal when used in conjunction with Esoteric’s G-03X ($4,500) or G-0Rb ($18,500) Master Clock External SYNC Generators. Concurrently, the D-05 can also generate its own master clock signal for synchronization with compatible transports, including the company’s own P-01 ($31,500), P-03 ($16,500), and the matching P-05 ($8,400).

For six years, I owned the $38,000 Audio Note DAC5 Special, on top of the two additional years in review usage prior. Even though Peter Qvortrup and his crew continue to use the Analog Devices’ AD1865N chip, which is considered by many to be obsolete a decade ago, no one else has released a DAC of peripheral components and system of the same stature of what the company has developed in extracting every drop of resolution from the chip. This is a design that fully deserves the title of being “the most natural-sounding DAC I’ve ever heard”, regardless of what chip set everyone else is using.

Thus, what a contrast it is that the Esoteric D-05 I am reviewing utilizes one of the most advanced DAC chip sets available today.

In the primary setup of pairing with the 47 Lab Pitracer, I set the D-05’s variable output to “0” attenuation and connected it to the Pass Lab X0.2 preamplifier. In this setting, I found the D-05’s playback of more recently mastered CDs to sound its best. The D-05 was able to lock onto the dual, PLL2 mode with the PiTracer, and I found the 1x oversampling at NARROW digital filtering mode to sound most truthful on timbre rendition with the highest precision in instrument separation among its various other settings. With the Lindemann USB-DCC hub, however, only the initial stage of PLL1 could be engaged, although being able to play back music in file-form via my laptop was breezy. Continuing on the PiTracer, the D-05 revealed that more modern recordings, such as First Impression Music’s K2 HD discs and JVC’s XRCD discs, including the DSD layers of hybrid SACDs, even those from major classical labels, actually are imbedded with highly realistic portrayal of the events, capable of audio reproduction with better spectral cohesion, improved spectral extensions and superior spatiality – all played through the unit’s standard 44.1kHz setting.

On these modern recordings, the oversampling schemes and PCM-DSD up-conversion process softened the pristine-sounding digital tracks to the point that I thought was becoming less definitive dynamically and tonally, although either of the settings also impart the recordings as warmer sounding and harmonically more integrated.

That said, there were reverberating revelations of what the D-05’s DSD mode contributed. The D-05’s oversampling and PCM-to-DSD up-conversion functions breathed new life into those notoriously dry-sounding digital recordings of the early 80s, such as those from Deutsche Grammophon and most other productions of the same vintage, known for their exaggerated sibilance and relatively compressed dimensionality. They became more spacious via the DSD up-conversion in their respective venues, with instrument tonalities more focused and well-formed, thus much easier to distinguish.

For the music-loving readers who listen to music strictly via CDs on a transport or music files from a server, incorporated within the design is a highly competent attenuation scheme that rivals the sound quality of my X0.2. Running the D-05 via a set of MIT Oracle v1.3 balanced interconnects straight into the Pass Lab XA100.5 monoblock amplifiers produced exactly the same dynamic potency and resolution as adding the X0.2 and another set of the MIT cables. I heard no loss in the subtlety of spatial definition and tonal opulence of classical piano solos or symphonic pieces from the D-05/XA100.5 setup. The only caveat is the remote control for the volume is part of the P-05 SACD/CD transport package, not of the D-05 one, and getting up to the D-05 ten feet away to fine-tune volume is very tiring, especially when I always have my laptop on my lap for the double-duties of note-taking and lap-warming. Esoteric does offer an optional system remote control at $299 for customers who may require a remote controlled volume attenuation capability. Hence for the time being, the Pass Lab X0.2’s remote volume function became invaluable. Besides, I needed the X0.2 preamp’s input selection to juggle between the D-05 and the 47 Lab Koma turntable system which I am also reviewing.

Naturally, my DAC5 Special-conditioned ears targeted the level of tonal sophistication that the D-05 could muster. It was not as if the D-05 could evoke the liquidity of the AN tube DAC, nor could any other tube DAC for that matter. Only the Wadia Reference Series 9, with its nth-power computational might and multiple-redundancy power regulations as accorded by its 3-chassis design, had ever sounded equally evocative musically and sonically, thus equaling the AN DAC in all areas – except for that liquidity. I even pestered Wadia’s John Schaffer over the phone, more than once, with the notion of introducing a tube version of the Reference Series 9. He declined, and I digressed, for I understand perfectly a company’s reluctance to change a course to which it has always held true, namely to advance the state-of-the-art in digital process the solid-state way. More importantly, there are many audiophiles who will not touch a tube even if there is gold in it, and for a company like Wadia to produce tube equipment is akin to upsetting its corporate identity and loyal fan base.

But Esoteric is different. I am still getting over the shock of seeing a tube amplifier in its product offering since its 2007 launch, but I can very well imagine the possibilities a tube version of the D-05 may bring.

I had not found any machine that could approach the Audio Note DAC5 Special’s utterly organic reproduction of instrument timbre and dynamic contrasting. Most importantly, one of the AN’s most powerful attributes of fully recreating all the organic flow of music from a recording, was beyond reproach. The question of how much of that prowess was the result of its inter-stage transformers coupling, tube rectification and amplification, and all the exotic material is anyone’s guess, and also probably moot considering its price. Here, the ever more relevant aspect of the Esoteric is its capacity in transforming those sonically decrepit CDs into highly palatable musical gems due to the processing prowess of the AKM 32-bit chip and dual-mono circuitry, a quality that is most prevalent in the Audio Note, yet at nearly one-fourth the cost.

With DACs like the Audio Note, I stick with major labels in listening to classical music, for although they lagged behind smaller, independent ones in technological innovations, they possess the resources necessary in amassing more talented musicians, and musicianship inspiration is what classical music is all about. But DACs like the Esoteric are inducing a paradigm shift in my thinking, and I am itching to explore music anew that is resplendent with sonic glory.

The bottom line is, if you haven’t heard what the Audio Note can do with transports the likes of the PiTracer, have sworn to never mortgage your house for a DAC, and you are not a tube aficionado, then you need to explore today’s DACs that can be had for less than $10,000, such as the Esoteric D-05. For the readers among us wanting assurance of maximum performance but not yet ready to spend the $31.5k required by the dual-mono D-01s, the $16.5k D-03 may well be the answer. I suspect, however, the D-05 is the genuine article in the core of today’s digital landscape in its market value, and most especially in an economy where only products with the highest cost-to-performance ratio will prosper, and only digital processors priced under $10,000 will give audiophiles the confidence of investment in a product type that continues to evolve more vigorously than the rest.

Associated Equipment:

47 Lab 4704 PiTracer
47 Lab 4700 Power Humpty power supply x 2
Pass Lab X0.2 preamplifier
Pass Lab XA100.5 monoblock amplifiers
Red Rock Renaissance tube monoblock amplifiers
Rockport Mira Grand II loudspeakers
Aural Symphonics Echelon Digital
MIT Magnum MA speaker cables
MIT Oracle v1.3 XLR (2 pairs)
MIT Oracle v1.3 speaker cables
Wireworld Platinum Eclipse XLR
Wireworld Golden Eclipse XLR
Wireworld Reference Platinum speaker cables
Isoclean Supreme Focus
Isoclean Super Focus x 4
Harmonix Reimyo Studio Master AC cable x 4
Isoclean 80A3 filter
MIT Z-Powerbar
ASC Bass Trap x 2

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