Launching a £9,495 silver disc spinner in the middle of a global recession isn’t always a recipe for success, but in 2011 that didn’t seem to worry Esoteric. Here was a beautiful, statement optical disc player that made anything from the United States – or even Switzerland – appear distinctively averagely made. For example, the machine’s disc tray glides out like a prima ballerina on ice to reveal its superlative, cast alloy construction. The buttons are a joy to the touch, and it seems like Esoteric must have had an entire office’s worth of engineers tweaking it until it had the right size, pitch and hue of blue to be seen across the average Japanese house at five metres. On panel fit and finish, the Esoteric knocked rivals like Wadia into a cocked hat.
Inside, and the K-03 came equipped with the new VRDS-NEO VMK-3.5-10 mechanism, which the company said on launch had, “advanced substantially beyond existing VRDS mechs”. It uses a high-precision turntable for spinning SACDs and CDs, said to improve read precision by mechanically correcting for surface run-out. There was also a new servo driver circuit specifically for SACDs and CDs, and a duralumin turntable with a 10mm steel bridge. A strong neodymium-magnet-driven coreless three-phase brushless spindle motor is fitted, along with a shaft-sliding type pickup where the laser beam consistently illuminates the disc perpendicularly.
The K-03 sports the unusual Microdevices Corporation’s top-end 32-bit AK4399 DAC chips, mounted on a separate analogue audio board for each of the left and right channels, and configured for dual mono operation with the same layout for each of the two channels. The analogue audio circuit has its power transformer separate to that of the transport, and is equipped with two large-capacity toroidal transformers, one specifically for the built-in dual mono D/A converters and the audio circuits, and the other for driving the digital circuit and mechanism.
The Esoteric was one of the earliest silver disc spinners to sport a 24/192 digital input, one being an asynchronous USB for connection of a PC or Mac computer. There’s a wide variety of digital conversion functions, which include a mode to convert DSD and PCM formats directly into analog signals, as well as PCM upconversion to x2 (64/88.2/96 kHz) or x4 (128/176.4/192 kHz), from the original sampling frequency, and even a PCM to DSD conversion function is available. The full range of Esoteric upsampling and cross sampling to DSD is available through the USB input. Changes have to be made with the K-03 in stop mode.
It also sports four types of digital filters for PCM signal processing – two types of FIR digital filters and two types of short delay digital filters, the latter being apodising to eliminate the pre-echo and ringing effects in the impulse waveform. There’s even a Digital Filter Off mode, which bypasses all four of the digital filters, is also provided. The machine is said to have a high precision internal clock, but as per some other high end Japanese machines, an external clock facility is available. The K-03 has a WORD sync function to synchronise with an external WORD clock such as Esoteric’s G-0Rb rubidium master clock.
As far as outputs are concerned, there’s the usual RCA analogue outs plus fully balanced XLR audio outputs too – de riguer on a Japanese machine of course. It also has a switchable variable line out, so it can be used as a digital preamplifier, or can be configured to run as a line-level only source component. One coaxial digital output is supplied, although of course this doesn’t work with DSD. The machine’s oestopath-friendly 28kg weight is a function of its very large size (445x162x438mm), and the massive amount of metalwork inside. The leather finished remote control is a nice touch, a testament to the completeness of the design.
4hero’s Morning Child is one of those tracks that always sounds underwhelming, especially by the band’s sky-high production standards; the mix seems gloopy and vague to me, something of a dog’s dinner. But I was amazed at the way the Esoteric turned it into a thing of coherence and consistency, bringing the listener closer to the music without in any way sounding forced. There was an unerring sense of clarity, yet it wasn’t in any way the sort of nail-breaking, tooth-aching assault on the senses that came from the cheaper Esoteric K-05 I tried a couple of years back. The cheaper player seemed to machine-gun detail at me, whereas the K-03 is less forward in coming forward, instead letting strands of the mix make their own sweet, natural way to the listener, set in a vast and expansive soundfield.
Ironically though, despite being apparently less detailed, it actually proved far more so. This was down to the wonderful way it let individual strands assume their own space in the mix, sitting in a precise location from where they would play along unhindered by other competing instruments.This was strikingly apparent with Morning Child, which came across with an exquisite, crystalline clarity. One key reason for this, I found, was the sublime timing. It was almost like switching to a high end direct drive turntable from a wobbly budget belt drive – suddenly cymbals had a wonderfully natural feel, full of ringing harmonics and yet with no splash or smear. On lesser CD players they sound far more generic, almost as if they’re samples from a sound library.
This temporal accuracy was the root of the Esoteric’s performance then, from which everything else followed. Presenting a starkly detailed of the music, it felt like you could peer in and practically walk around inside the stereo image. Pianos had a wonderfully full bodied and sonorous tone, then seemed to decay forever. At the same time, snare drum rim shots started and stopped on sixpence, the K-03 showing a delicacy to their playing that I’ve rarely heard. So many digital players don’t quite do the timing thing, yet when the really – really – good ones like this hit the spot the results are breathtaking. The whole soundstage snaps into focus like first pressure on the shutter of a good autofocus camera, adding a wide angle and superb depth of field to crisp, pin-sharp image capture.
Tonally, the Esoteric isn’t the brightest of CD spinners I’ve heard. But whilst that rolled off top end on CD looks dramatic, it doesn’t sound quite so obvious – especially through spry, crisp and dry modern loudspeakers. Yes, I’d have liked a fraction more reach up high, to give pianos more atmosphere and cymbals just the slightest extra shimmer, but still it doesn’t in any way sound muffled. Basically the Esoteric has a lovely silky treble that wants for very little. And that brilliant time-keeping dazzles with little details like cow bells, triangles and shaken tambourines, which sound so tactile and alive – even on bog-standard CD.
Moving to Compact Discs of the Super Audio variety, and the K-03 was finally in its element. Given its super performance on Red Book CD, I was expecting even more fireworks and that’s just what I got. It was like someone had pressed that auto-focus button once more, and the music got one step cleaner and purer still, suddenly exposing stock CDs for the imposters that they are. It wasn’t until Steely Dan’s Gaucho SACD that I really heard what it’s capable of. The Esoteric’s rendition was about as close to the textbook definition of perfect as I’ve heard. Vast in spatial scale, with thunderous but tightly controlled bass and a midband of surgical cleanliness, the song was an enthralling experience. The sheer orderliness of everything was breathtaking – no compression, no muddle, no fuss.
Here’s the problem though – the K-03 has absolutely no character that I can discern, and its unerring perfection isn’t quite as fun as expected. Many won’t regard this as a negative at all, but it’s certainly a distinct trait of the Esoterics I’ve reviewed. In many ways one of the very best silver disc spinners I had ever heard in 2012, the Esoteric K-03 remains a triumph of digital engineering. Its beauty lies in its flawless perfection; it’s hard to ask for more.