I realize that Esoteric is best known for its transports, which it sells as full-fledged components as well as raw mechanisms that, in turn, form the guts of other manufacturers’ products. However, since my review of the K-03 player, I have developed an affinity for the company’s DACs. The K-03 included a comprehensive DAC that turned out to sound terrific. I raved about it and have been looking forward to reviewing one of the company’s stand-alone models ever since. So when Esoteric offered me both its new $5000 D-07X DAC and its K-01 player for review, I hardly considered it a sacrifice.
Hardware-wise, the D-07X is a serious piece of kit, despite being Esoteric’s entry-level DAC. The chipset is the popular 32-bit AKM 4392, and Esoteric deploys two of them per channel to increase linearity. The clock is a high-precision Voltage Controlled Crystal Oscillator (an upgrade from the 7X’s predecessor, the D-07), with a dedicated power supply. (A robust, overbuilt supply powers the rest of the unit.) A high quality buffer amplifier fronts the analog output circuit, and the entire device is fully balanced and dual-mono. All this bristling technology is encased in an elegantly proportioned, beautifully built aluminum chassis with a fetching blue display. Operationally, this DAC offers not only the usual I/O, but also enough upsampling, clocking, and filter options to tailor the sound to your liking—or to get you in trouble (see “Set-Up Notes”). Looking at the D-07X inside and out, it is easy to see where the $5000 has been spent. Indeed, the price seems low.
That impression of the price being low continues upon listening. The first thing—the unmistakable thing—you hear when you first fire up the D-07X DAC is the massive space it conjures. Compared even to my reference dCS Debussy, which costs more than twice as much as the Esoteric, the D-07X’s space is gargantuan. I have listened to the Pentatone recording of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat at least a billion times—I drag the poor thing to every trade show—yet I have never heard it display as much depth as it does through the D-07X. In my room, the tambourine jangled from well behind the wall that is itself well behind my speakers. Also, for the first time I could hear notes rebound off the stage’s backwall. Side-to-side and vertical space, too, are voluminous.
Spatially, listening to the D-07X is unlike the usual sensation of observing events on a stage before you. Imagine, instead, being in a glass bowl within a fish tank, with colorful fish swimming all around you. You observe them with wonder, taken by their beauty and variety, as they float by. This is what it’s like to listen to notes and sounds through the D-07X.
Since I have begun with a comparison to the dCS Debussy, I might as well continue. I do this not to embarrass the D-07X; on the contrary, as you will see, the Esoteric comes commendably close to my reference. Indeed, the two DACs have a very similar temperament, and switching from one to the other does not cause any aural dislocation. Both are lively, dynamic powerhouses, and rhythmically tight. Timbres are rich in both cases, and any differences there are subtle; on non-classical music they are essentially inaudible.
Of course, the Debussy has to earn its reference status—and higher price—somehow. This it does primarily in two ways. The first is its sense of effortlessness, whereby the DAC seems not to be “working” at all—music is just coming out. Related to this is a complete lack of grain or digital edge. The D-07X does not possess that same degree of analog-like purity, but I know of nothing else at anywhere near its price point that does. On direct comparison—and only on direct comparison—it is clear that the Esoteric is adding a thin digital veneer. This makes it a tad less relaxing to listen to than the Debussy—but only a tad. Other than that, I can report that the dCS offers slightly fuller bass. And that pretty much ends my list of differences between the D-07X and my much more expensive reference DAC.