Every Japanese company has a specialisation; something about which it’s particularly proud. With Sony it was always innovation and miniaturisation, with Matsushita it was always reliability and affordability (just like Honda and Toyota respectively). Nakamichi’s oeuvre was always cassette, Pioneer made its name with LaserDisc, and TEAC – after a strong start with magnetic tape – moved into optical storage, especially CD. Whilst it was conscientious about the DACs that went into its silver disc spinners, the company’s real love was for transports. TEAC’s Vibration-free Rigid Disc clamping System (VRDS) was launched some years ago with the P1 transport, and has spawned umpteen variants, all of which take the process of reading noughts and ones of a spinning silver disc very seriously.
The Esoteric range to TEAC what Lexus is to Toyota, which is to say it’s the high end brand that pioneers all the company’s special technology. So the X-05 costing only £3,495 when new in 2010 was a nice surprise. It is a dual format CD/SACD machine, de rigeur in Japan where the SACD availability has traditionally been much better. It borrows much from its bigger brother, but gets Cirrus Logic 24/192 digital-to-audio converters in dual mono configuration. The casework is ‘entry level Japanese battleship’, with just enough brushed aluminium to disgrace any non-Japanese CD spinner, but not enough to upstage Esoteric’s higher models. Note too the absence of copper anywhere (something of a Japanese obsession), which shows the pennies are being watched.
Inside, the Esoteric is not just thin air; there’s a whopping great toroidal transformer, bigger than in many £1,500 integrated amplifiers, mounted on a special base, and isolated from the VRDS Neo (here in VMK-5 form) mech. This is built from a range of materials, as to all have different resonant frequencies, and thus damp one another. The aluminium-tipped plastic drawer is reinforced with metal beams, and runs on precision ball bearings with a magnesium platter and aluminium braced polycarbonate disc clamp. The drawer action is silky, and sports a top mounted window, in the style of Marantz’s classic CD73, to show the disc loading processed, all lit up with LEDs which dim when the disc is inside the machine. To the left of the mech are large circuitboards holding the DAC section and the dual mono analogue output stage. This presents to the outside world as RCA phono sockets and XLR balanced outputs. Digital is available on coaxial S/PDIF or Toslink sockets. There’s also an external clock input, which is currently de rigeur on all Nipponese machines.
Needless to say, the Esoteric is a very nice thing to have in your house and to use. The silver fascia panel is a bit generic Japanese, as is the blue display, but it’s clear and purposeful. The disc drawer is about as well made and sturdy as is humanly possible for something made out of plastic, and moves in and out near silently with a sweet action. Being an SACD transport, one misses the lightning-fast response time of some classic Jap high end CD machines (which were so fast it was almost as if they were playing memory chips not discs), but it’s about as slick and positive as I’ve heard from anything DSD-equipped.
Many Japanese high end machines are quite punchy and upfront sounding, but the X-05 genuinely surprised me with its softness and delicacy. Cue up the some vintage ambient house in the shape of Sueno Latino’s track of the same name, all swirling, gated analogue synthesisers and Roland drum machine hi-hats looping quietly behind, and the X-05 seemed suitably chilled out. In place of a top end as sharp as a katana sword, which to be honest I’d rather expected, the Esoteric sounded positively sedate. Those hi-hats were clearly defined, dashed with a soupcon of sweetness but most certainly didn’t take over the proceedings, or barely announced their presence.
Across the midband, the Esoteric did make itself heard; whilst not being tonally bright in any way, it pushed out oceans of detail, floodlighting every aspect of this fairly muddled mix from the sensual vocals to the electronic snare drums. Yet it was never forced or mechanical in the way that some Japanese machines can be, throwing too much stuff out at you just because it can. What really struck me was its composure; everything was strung together with confidence and poise, never sounding forced or unsure. This made for a wonderfully natural, informative, satisfying midband but one that didn’t intrude into the listening experience all the same.
Bass was interesting, because the Esoteric seems to like to hide light under a bushel. The X-05 does have a nicely taut, expressive and confident low end, but it’s certainly not forward. Whereas many cheap CD players simply have an anaemic bottom end, the Esoteric can deliver punch when needed, but when needed called upon so do, it sits a little back in the mix. It’s not overtly bass light, but you certainly call it heavy. 808 State’s ‘Pacific 707’ showed this; I loved the way the bass line bounced up and down with real aplomb, but never once did it force itself. Instead, I found myself locking into the goings on in the midband and enjoying its wonderful detail and finesse.
This same ‘incisive but not invasive’ character was evident when moving to SACD. Happily, I had to hand Esoteric’s own release of Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto 20 in D minor, K466’ (Britten, English Chamber Orchestra). A stunning recording (technically and artistically), the first movement (the Allegro) showed this player’s transparency and articulation in all its finery. The X-05 threw out a vast soundstage, pulling you into its expansive recorded acoustic as only the best vinyl can do. Even if, by absolute standards, it’s just a touch rounded and smooth around the edges, the Esoteric showed its innate impartiality, giving a beautiful rendering of the strings; cellos in particular had a delicious full bodied flavour that showed you were listening to real acoustic instruments rather than a digital facsimile. Piano was also superb, delicate and fine in tone, with a great rhythmic dexterity to its playing. SACD is great at conveying the sparkling harmonics of this instrument, but only if done right. The X-05 did, indeed, do it right. Needless to say, it was on another level to the performance available from the best CD, which is how it should be.
The Esoteric isn’t a showy CD player. Surprisingly perhaps for Japanese heavy metal, it’s not trying to prove to you how big and clever it is. Yet a few hours, days, or better still weeks spent in its company only rewards more. It’s very well composed, very stable, very in control – but not in a negative way. Instead it seems to cut, hot knife though butter-like, into the recording and simply push it out back through your loudspeakers. It’s not the sort of machine with an obvious character that will flatter your amp, speakers or room. But put it on the end of an exceptionally revealing system and things get better, not worse. You can hear the fundamentals of this machine are absolutely spot on. The better the recording, the better the sound; the better the format (i.e. SACD), the more profound the results.