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Esoteric P-02 SACD/CD Transport & D-02 DAC Review

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Esoteric D-02 DAC

Reflections – Kurt Rosenwinkel standards trio; Reflections WOM 0002 – The main feature is Rosenwinkel’s guitar, an electric arch top, played with Rosenwinkel’s characteristic digital delay, almost in excess when compared to other jazz players of the last generation, but it is his sound and his genius that make it work. Via the Esoteric pair, we hear the most minute articulation, delay and all. It is easy on this CD to forget about the bass and drums, but the Esoteric brings out their tonality more vividly than I can ever recall hearing it, not to the detriment of the guitar, but to the benefit of the music.

Solveig Slettahjell and the Slow Motion Quintet – Silver (Act Music, German release, ACT 9715-2 c.2004), tracks 1 & 5 – The percussive effects with piano and cymbal are fantastically detailed even more so than with the EMM Labs XDS1. There is a slight edge to the voice which is part of the recording presentation. Very deep, solid bass, not as cleanly articulated as some double basses can be but again, I think that this is the recording. The placement of instruments is excellent, except the piano which is spread over the stage, clearly an engineering issue as this is also with other players. The singer in proper perspective, nicely focused with the percussion instruments behind her. On the sixth cut, a bell or small cymbal is struck by drum stick which results in a very clearly pronounced leading edge followed by an extended ringing. This is as well produced as I have heard, both the leading edge and the tail.

Jacqueline du Pre – Dvorak and Elgar Cello Concertos (EMI Classics XRCD2 – 7243 8 26770 24 c.1995), still the most difficult CD to get “right,” particularly Track 4, and the P-02/ D-02 nail this.

Allan Holdsworth All Night Wrong (Favored Nations FN 2330): This is a live recording in a club. It may be silly to judge the fidelity of a recording by the articulation of the applause, but so often applause sounds hollow and brittle; here it is full bodied and sounds real. The soundstage is huge. Part of what Holdsworth does is create rich chord textures using chorus and stereo effects. I think that he would be very happy with the way in which the Esoteric recreates the sound. The drums via other CD players are dynamic. They remain so with the Esoteric, but the cymbals are so articulate that they do not overwhelm the guitar, which I have heard them do on other digital gear, particularly on the first track in which the volume on the solo guitar, while Holdsworth is playing single note lines, is down in the mix. I still question whether the Esoteric captures all the color in the cymbals; however they are so smooth and never harsh. It can be nice not having splashy cymbals which overwhelm the rest of the mix. I should also note that it may be that the “controlled” sense of the cymbals in part allows the ears to focus on details elsewhere of which there are more than I have heard from any other digital set up.

Respighi’s Ballet of the Gnomes (CALA SACD, CACDS 4028) – the tonal quality of the bass drum and contra-bassoon were extremely lifelike.

Michael Tilson Thomas on Mahler’s First Symphony (The San Francisco Symphony 821936-2) – bass was again impressive as were the dynamics, which are at the soft end of the spectrum, and the low-level detail. Again, I have the limited edition vinyl issue and this was spot on.

Esoteric D-02 DAC Back Face

More general listening impressions

The first thing which strikes one with the P-02/ D-02 is the wealth of musically meaningful information which they are capable of retrieving from digital media. This is particularly the case with low-level information, such as the ambient signature of the space in which the musical event occurred. Prior to having lived with the P-02/ D-02, I would have said that the top of the line EMM Labs XDS1 had the edge on any other digital player in this area. Now, I would probably say that the degree of detail provided by the P-02/D-02 is better than that provided by the XDS1, though the presentation of that detail by each is very different. Think of the same listener sitting at two very different locations in a hall, one very close to the stage, the other more mid hall. Close to the stage, there is an abundance of direct sound which gives the illusion of enhanced detail. Ten to twelve rows further back, the direct sound still predominates but now there is a component of reflected sound which adds information about the hall. The sum of the detail provided by the direct and reflected sound is actually equal to the detail at the more forward listening position, but may not be obvious initially. The P-02/D-02 generally provide a more upfront presentation but still provide a wealth of information about the hall.

Other areas which are outstanding include presence, purity of sound, imaging, and the total absence of digital artifacts. Taken as a whole, these add up to a level of realism that leaves the competition in the dust. Music emerges from a totally black background in a way that can at times be startling. There is clearly a correlation between low noise floor and the ability to hear low-level detail, particularly ambient information. The lower the noise floor, the easier it is to discern low-level information. Likewise, past experience leads me to believe that there is a correlation between low noise floor and dynamics. Units with low inherent noise often excel in distinguishing fine gradations in dynamics at the soft end of the spectrum. In this particular case, that ability extends throughout the dynamic spectrum from the softest caresses to the loudest crescendos.

This unit has a notable absence of distortion, which subtly induces the listener to keep raising the volume level. Those of you familiar with the sound of a piano will know that it is perhaps the most difficult instrument in the orchestra to reproduce. I think that this is attributable to a number of factors including the number of octaves which it embraces, its wide dynamic range and its ability to recreate fine gradations of mood and tone. The P-02/ D-02 does the most realistic job of recreating a piano of any digital pieces I have auditioned. Likewise, the P-02/ D-02 combination does a superb job of recreating the sound of the violin. Violins can sound quite nasty when digitally reproduced, but this is certainly not the case on the Esoteric. I have a friend, the “evil weed,” who in addition to being a lawyer received an undergraduate degree in music, and who occasionally performs. He is very sensitive to high frequency aberrations. As a result of his urgings, I have in the past cut back on the level of my tweeters when we were listening to digital software. Over the weekend listening on the P-02/ D-02, he did not make such a request, which says something about the quality of the top end response produced by the P-02/ D-02.

I am reluctant to make sweeping statements, particularly when I have little experience with a number of competing units such as the dCS that are reputed to be excellent. With respect to the units which I have heard, it is clear that the P-02/ D-02 are superior to Esoteric’s own units such as the P-03/ D-03 which incorporate older technology and which, in comparison, are highly detailed but lack the warmth and musicality of the newer products. Likewise, the P-02/D-02 are far superior to the K-01 which is significantly less expensive but lacks the depth, soundstage, bass extension and natural tonality. When the K-01 is paired with Esoteric’s rubidium clock the performance improves, but again the P-02/ D-02 remain superior. I still have a great fondness for the EMM Labs XDS1. It is clearly less detailed and lacks the pinpoint focus of the P-02/ D-02; however, natural tonality and harmonic complexity remain its strong suit. While I have never compared the EAR Acute II to the Esoteric pair, I have compared it to the XDS1. With premium NOS tubes, a Jorma Prime power cord and proper isolation, the Acute gives the EMM Labs tough competition. I prefer the XDS1 but this is a matter of taste. Finally, there is the Audio Note CDT-5/ Fifth Element which plays only Redbook and is four times as expensive as the P-02/D-02. I have only heard the Fifth Element once and then only in comparison to the XDS1. In that comparison, it was audibly superior, richer, more detailed and certainly more harmonically complex. You might say that “it was right.” I believe that the P-02/ D-02 probably is at least as detailed, but has a different character, leaner and less tube-like.

Inside the Esoteric D-02 D/A converter

Inside the Esoteric D-02 D/A converter


The P-02/ D-02, when used in combination with appropriate ancillaries, are by an appreciable margin the finest digital pieces I have heard in my home, and set what I would consider a very high standard for digital playback. They are so good that, for the first time after so many digital players, I find myself listening to digital media with about the same frequency as vinyl. They deliver the music in a tuneful and tonally accurately manner but also reveal spatial cues for each sound and in doing so, do a superb job of creating the illusion that the listener has been transported to the venue where the performance was recorded. More importantly, they allow the listener to connect emotionally with the performance on well recorded digital media, and even on less well recorded media. The Esoteric P-02/D-02 allow, in most instances, the enjoyment of the music.

8 Responses to Esoteric P-02 SACD/CD Transport & D-02 DAC Review

  1. Mark Allen says:

    I am a reasonably hi-end audiophile (Esoteric P/D-05, Graaf GM13.5B II pre and GM200 amp, Wilson Benesch Bishop speakers, 4 KVA balanced power supply) and was finding this interesting reading until I got to:

    “Each of the filter options must be separately broken-in for approximately 200 hours. Given the rather Herculean power supplies of these units, I was somewhat surprised that they were quite sensitive to the power cord used.”

    Man, Fred, talk about shooting yourself in the foot! what a load of bollocks!

  2. Fred Crowder says:

    Dear Mark,

    Unfortunately, a Herculean power supply does not completely obviate the need for a well designed power cord. I would note that EMM Labs includes an aftermarket power cord with each XDS1 and that has the best thought out power supply of any unit that I have seen. In this case, power cords do for whatever reason have an impact on the sound of both the P-02 and D-02, and the same cord does not work optimally on each, which means that I am using a Stage 3 Vortex Prime on the transport and the more expensive Stage 3 Minotaur on the DAC. I did try Minotaurs on both and the less expensive Stage 3 sounded better on the transport. With respect to breaking-in the filters, the information that each must be broken-in separately came directly from Esoteric, as did the 200 hours. I can only say that it clearly made a difference on the filter that I chose in the end. As always, your mileage may vary. I would merely caution you against assuming that you are better informed than the manufacturer. On the other hand, always challenge reviewers if your experience varies from theirs. I have heard many pieces of digital equipment in my system, the P-02/ D-02 is the best so far. Note that I have not heard the newest DCS 4-box setup in my system but am impressed with what I hear at shows. Digital is one of those areas which continues to improve audibly.

    Thanks for your note.


    • Mark Allen says:


      Admittedly, I am tempted to buy some audio products just because they just look downright gorgeous but I primarily buy products that apply good engineering to improving audio.

      Take the Wilson Benesch Bishops as an example – a full on, virtually lunatic assault on speaker engineering e.g. infinite baffle (no resonant ports to affect the response), 8 isobarik drivers per speaker to reduce speaker volume, narrow frontal aspect to improve imaging, carbon fibre to absorb rather than reflect sound, virtually no crossover network, etc.
      The Graaf GM 200 – full on, virtually lunatic assault on tube amplification e.g. OTL, so no output transformer, 32 output tubes to drive low impedance speakers but also to cancel harmonics.
      Esoteric SACD player and DAC – full on assault on digital e.g. lunatic attention to mechanical aspects as well as in their DACs, external clocks, etc.

      Now, can I hear the difference between speaker cables? Yes, I can.
      Can I hear the difference between a 6922 and a CCa tube? Absolutely.

      Can I hear the difference between a solid state amplifier that has been “burned in” for 200 hours and one that hasn’t? Not a chance! To prove my point, have you EVER come across a reviewer who has concluded that an amp/DAC/preamp sounded worse after burn in? Always better, right? Why, exactly, should that be the case? I’ll tell you why… because it is in your head!

      As far as power cables are concerned, with the lunatic level of engineering that Esoteric applies to their products, I can’t believe that they would cripple the SACD player that they went to the trouble of purpose building a sled to avoid the slightest vibration by supplying a second rate power cable! Not to even start going down the path of what difference a 1.5m of power cord in a 500m chain of questionable quality copper cable and joints to the nearest supply transformer would make! The pretty jacket and the price of that fancy $2000 power cable is what is messing with your head!

  3. Phil Hague says:

    Really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for your insights and experience you bring to this review—I am always heartened by those that have spent a lot of time listening to digital audio before reviewing products such as this. I purchased a K-01 less than a year ago and wondered a couple of things: in the arena of after market power cords, have you found one that works particularly well with Esoteric? I still have the stock cord… Also, do you think this next generation of external clocks, either by Esoteric or other companies such as MSB, would benefit the K-01? Both my experience and budget pales in comparison to the things you’ve mentioned here, but I have found significant pleasure in this K-01! For me, it has been the best digital I’ve heard. Am I crazy that the default Redbook layer, with a year on it, sounds better than the other filter options I’ve tried recently?

  4. Fred Crowder says:


    Thanks for your kind words. It has been my experience that the more positive my reaction to a product, the easier it is to write a review. I have had very good luck using Stage III power cords on the Esoteric products as has my friend who owns the K-01. I would highly recommend the Minotaur or for about half the price the Vortex Prime. The Minotaur is quieter and has a more controlled bass but both will enhance the performance of the K-01. The clock in the K-01 is actually quite good but can be improved upon. I would strongly suggest either the newest G-0 from Esoteric or for much less a used older G-0s which can often be had for extremely good prices. I have also heard good things about the MSB but have not auditioned them in my system.


  5. Amrik says:

    Excellent comment about burn-in always improving performance! Am totally in agreement with point about 1m of power cord supposed to work wonders and a manufacturer spending gazillions will overlook the benefits of a $5 accessory part. All in the mind of the reviewers. Simply enjoy the pictures of components and a list of features – learn to ignore the hyperbole.

  6. Paul says:

    Thank you for your review of the D-02. I currently have one on order and am curious which filter and up sampling setting you used for your review? With 200 hours of breaking in per setting I thought it would be wise to start with some known variables. As to the remainder of the digital chain, I am using an Aurender S10 server, an Esoteric A02 amp and C03 preamp. Power cords are all Nordost Valhalla, interconnects are Nordost Valhalla, V2 and Odin, speaker cables are Nordost Odin. I also have Stillpoints Ultra SS under all main components for vibration control. I am really looking forward to the arrival of the D-02 and would appreciate any info you can share to assist me in setting the unit up.

  7. Pierre Prudhomme says:

    I know it s outdated but l would like to know witch one of these these two is better ,i am hesitating between the two,the esoteric p02 d02 vs emm labs tdsx dacx2
    thank you

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