At the most recent RMAF I was using my handheld, foldable 3x-to-8.5x magnifier to align an Ortofon A95 cartridge on a manufacturer’s turntable. The little Carson Triview is inexpensive (I think I got it at Staples), and it works great to get a nice, clear picture of where that tiny stylus is in relation to the “bullseye” on the protractor. I’m easily dazzled by the benefits of these small things, and it got me thinking about the upper limits of magnification.
So that we might get to the actual audio review more quickly…just know that the finest traditional (sometimes called “optical” or simply “light”) microscopes are effective to a resolution of approximately 200 nanometers and magnifications up to about 2000x. Now, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Traditional microscopes can give us clear views well into the cellular level. Of course, we would all intuitively grant that such traditional means of magnification (i.e., not electron microscopes) with high resolution would only be possible with the finest quality optics. While my little pocket magnifier surely has cheap lenses that are more than adequate for the task of low magnification, taking something and magnifying it 1500 or even 2000 times with resolution must be an altogether more challenging job. Any errors would be, well, magnified.
My primary cartridge is the good old Denon DL-S1. Its output is a tiny 0.15mV. A millivolt is one thousandth of a volt. Your average digital source these days would output around 2V, which would mean that my cartridge’s voltage would need to be magnified (I mean amplified) 13,333 times to be on an equal output footing. And even if we might get by with an average of 1V output (depends on the overall system gain including recording level), we’d still need 6667x. The price you and I pay for very low-output cartridges.
Digital sources rarely require preamplification; they require attenuation. This is why various forms of passive preamplifiers have “gained” (I can’t help myself) popularity. In the world of low-level analog signals (microphones, reel-to-reel, phono cartridges) however, we are stressing our electrical systems to the maximum. This is why, when it comes to phonostages, you hear names like John Curl, Tim de Paravicini, and Nelson Pass. Low-level signal amplification is the area where the men get separated from the boys. Just as in the optical system of a high-powered microscope, color, noise, and errors are magnified thousands of times. No average designer that I know has ever fluked into delivering a great phonostage. His work is under a very powerful magnifying glass.
The cartridge magnifier (phonostage) in the focal crosshairs here is the new Esoteric E-02, the Japanese manufacturer’s top entry in the field. The E-02 sits above the long-established E-03 (in the market for more than eight years!), which was reviewed by TAS’ own Greg Weaver in 2015. Its most substantial difference vis-à-vis the smaller E-03 is the E-02’s fully balanced circuit topology, from input stage to output stage. Esoteric claims this makes it “perfectly designed for handling the extremely low-level signals from an mc cartridge.” (We’ll be the judge of that.) This is a fully active (no step-up transformers for mc gain) solid-state phonostage built for low noise and linearity.
As usual, I’ll save a fuller technical description for the Technically Speaking sidebar. In keeping with the opening theme here, though, I’ll single out that the E-02 has a very high mc gain of 72dB in balanced mode, whereas the E-03 has a maximum gain of 66dB. Every 6dB is a doubling of electrical gain (voltage). (3dB is a doubling of acoustical volume “loudness.”) This means that what looks to be “just” a 6dB difference is actually twice the amplification power!
The E-02 is powerful, but it’s anything but complex to use. There are inputs for three turntables (two RCA and one XLR), but otherwise there is no learning curve. All buttons are in front of you, and it’s the kind of component you’ll soon set and forget. So, if you’re the kind of analog devotee who wants multiple EQ options other than RIAA, or if you think you need your cartridge loaded at exactly 488 ohms, you should look elsewhere for your phonostage. Don’t worry, it just means you have fewer chances to screw it up (harsh, but true).
The execution and build-quality are exemplary. There are specialty spiked feet included, and even the front selector knobs have an action based on the ball-bearing technology developed for Esoteric’s well regarded VRDS drive mechanisms, which were the firm’s approach to deal with vibrations caused by spinning small silver discs at high speeds (remember the CD?). There is an overall feeling of a finished product with attention to the finest details, from a company capable of fully developing and manufacturing world-class products.
I’ll offer up one aesthetic criticism, which I just can’t shake. In isolation, the overall look of the E-02 is very nice. But, is it Esoteric? Is there any indication of where it’s built, a culture with a rich aesthetic tradition? Unless you read magazines like this one, would there be any way to pick out the Esoteric from a police lineup alongside a dCS, Constellation, Boulder, and Bryston? Sure, each has its differently swirled and shaped CNC’d front plates, and each might use different colored LEDs. But do the designs say more about the process used, or the artistic choices made? I’m becoming a bit desensitized to the look of many of these things today. To my eyes, they look more generic than esoteric. Give me a spark. Show me some personality. Tell me where you’re from. Throw a Urushi knob in for heaven’s sake or forge the faceplate. Do something that I remember and love, not simply appreciate, only to soon forget. Make me use all my senses. I want to be all in!
Short personal rant completed. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a manufacturer.