Esoteric E-03 Phono Preamplifier


Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Esoteric E-03
Esoteric E-03 Phono Preamplifier

Moving to the rear, we find two sets of single-ended inputs and one set of single-ended outputs, with no provision for balanced connections. Because of its dual-mono, symmetrical layout, all three jacks for the same channel, both inputs and the single output, are grouped together in right and left banks. The IEC socket for the power cord is slightly above center, to the upper-right rear corner. The signal ground post is located in line with, and very closely between, the right channel line-out and the left channel Input 1 jacks, making it a bit difficult to access, especially when connecting a heftier ground cable, or one without a right-angled spade termination, like that of my Stealth Helios.

The proximity of the right output and left Input 1 jacks to the signal ground terminal, combined with its closeness to the bottom of the chassis, necessitate ground cables being routed down into this location from above, rather than up from the bottom or in from either side, to clear the input and output cables. This results in a rather distracting and unattractive form of cable dressing, with the ground wire protruding up visibly from behind the preamp.

Wish You Were Here
The first sonic aspect to strike me upon dropping the E-03 in place of my reference DSA PhonoONE was its stark quietness— an almost tangible silence that allowed the music to emerge from a near perfectly “black” background, free of any distracting low-level noise.

Bass performance was exceptional, bordering on the best I’ve heard in extension, definition, and coherence. Pitch in the lowest octaves was clearly and accurately defined, allowing for incredibly fine delineation of doublebass pizzicatos or powerful jazz or rock bass guitar snaps and runs.

Additionally, the lowest three octaves were rendered with remarkable speed, delivering music with an engaging and exhilarating sense of pace and drive. The rhythms of every genre of music I fed the E-03, from Metallica to Mozart, were communicated in an undeniably compelling manner, driving musical compositions in an infectiously enjoyable fashion.

From the onset, it was clear that midrange transparency and tonality were also strong suits of the E-03—articulate without being exaggerated or spotlit, yet with a liberal helping of body and bloom. Voices were wonderfully rendered with revealing detail and nuance, providing for an extremely organic and involving presentation.

The E-03 clearly exceled at illuminating timbre and detail. Human and instrumental voices were reproduced with a well-balanced combination of texture, body, and tone. Listen to the sensual pleading of Henryk Szeryng’s violin on the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole [RCA]. Though the instrument is somewhat artificially spotlit within the stage (an artifact of this particular recording), via the Esoteric the purity and naturalness of its timbre were undeniable, though ever so slightly to the cooler side of natural.

For a taste of the E-03’s treble proficiency, I listened to the subtle flavorings of the struck triangle deeply immersed within the title track “Aja,” from the 1977 Steely Dan album of the same name [MFSL]. Its delicate characteristics, often lost in the clamor of the rest of this complex jazz-rock arrangement, were presented clearly and in their own space, with distinct attack, glorious vibrancy, and delicate, effortless decay. The tail ends of stopping transients remained clearly audible as they slowly and naturally waned amid the meticulously woven fabric of the rest of the composition.

The E-03’s ability to precisely portray spatial cues and to accurately render the soundstage may be its strongest suit, on par with the best I’ve heard. On the 1977 Crosby, Stills & Nash release CSN [Atlantic], the cut “Fair Game” is strewn with a myriad of percussion instruments (maracas, sandblocks, etc.) in the musical foreground. The E-03 presented the most articulate and deepest layering I’ve ever experienced from this recording, one not particularly known for its audiophile attributes. Each of these instruments acquired a definite location in the soundstage, maintained a singular voice, and never wavered from the space it initially occupied.

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