I next tried Harp Attack [Alligator], which features blues legends Carey Bell, Billy Branch, James Cotton, and Junior Wells, all playing different-keyed harps (harmonicas). In the opening cut, “Down Home Blues,” the four are lined up left to right, slightly behind the plane of the speakers, and take turns soloing. The E-03s performance here was nothing short of magical.
There is something primal about the sound of a harp blown live, right in front of you. There is a robust ferocity to its sound, a bite, if you will, and a resultant growl that make it very challenging to reproduce faithfully! Yet the Esoteric E-03 shone brilliantly in this regard. The individual locations of the four bluesmen within the soundstage were portrayed impeccably, and the resultant sounds of their voices and harps were not just represented with lifelike vibrancy, but were also so convincingly recreated in size and location that you might well have thought the four men were standing across the front of your room. I’ve heard many more costly phono preamps falter here.
On one of my favorite “Guilty Treasures,” Roger Waters’ 1992 magnum opus, Amused to Death [Columbia], there is a clap of thunder that starts off your right shoulder, outside the boundary of your sidewall, then slowly rolls forward along that wall, bending and continuing across the front of the stage until finally sliding up the left sidewall, completing a clearly defined, semi-circular pattern. With lesser phono preamps, this distinctly defined movement can become confused, lose its clarity of direction, and blur as it crosses the room from right to left, rather than revealing a clear-cut, semi-circular arc.
The E-03 has no difficulties portraying dynamic events, of both the micro and macro varieties, in all their complex shadings and with uncannily appropriate scale. I was reminded of one of my early observations—that of the E-03s overall quietness. This innate silence clearly contributes to the preamp’s ability to more directly render microdynamic events and instrumental decays. In fact, the degree to which it consistently accomplishes this difficult responsibility is nothing short of astonishing at its price point. Listen to the exposed inner detail of a string being bent, be it in a Janos Starker cello sonata or a Stevie Ray Vaughn Fender Stratocaster solo, and you will get a taste of what I am describing. On the macro scale, at the end of “Late Home Tonight, Part 1,” also from Amused to Death, listen to the jet fighter release its missile and the resultant detonation. That very dynamic explosion (watch the volume here!) literally rolls through the room, starting well behind the speakers, rushing furiously past your chair on its way toward the back wall like a wave.
Moving to the Rickie Lee Jones 10-inch, seven-song EP, Girl at Her Volcano [WB] was a true treat. This record has long been a favorite test disc for dynamics and pace. The verve and subtlety of the piano work on “Walk Away Renée” and the concussive power of the drums on “Under The Boardwalk” were conveyed as well as I’ve heard from this recording.
With complex and demandingly dynamic passages like the opening from Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite [Mercury] or the delicacies of massed strings such as in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings [London], the E-03 did an impressively convincing job of unraveling the dense and often overwhelming layers of sound. The E-03 easily, accurately, and precisely separated those layers within the soundstage with realistic size and shape, all the while delivering the rich harmonic texture, engaging instrumental bloom, and authentic timbre of these elaborate compositions.
Nothing else I’ve had in-house unraveled these complexities and subtle cues as completely and with as much individuality and involvement, or presented them with such a clearly defined sense of scale. This dynamic prowess contributed significantly to the remarkable sense of “liveness” that the E-03 so readily offered up.
Have a Cigar
I don’t think I was into this audition more than about 40 minutes when it dawned on me that the E-03 shared, in large part, the Esoteric familial voice—musical clarity and expressiveness, a focused, expansive, realistically sized soundstage, and a relaxed, organic, yet detailed presentation.
Some may quibble that the E-03 does not offer the last word in instrumental bloom and body, and though I’d have to agree in absolute terms, especially by comparison to some top-flight tube phonostages, it is still more than merely competent in this respect. In addition, some may find its mechanical limitations—in particular, the lack of balanced connections or a polarity switch— to be disqualifiers. But as much as I would have liked those options, the arresting sonic arsenal of the E-03 outweighs them.
The Esoteric E-03 represents an exceptional achievement at this price point. With its striking, stylish appearance, intelligent circuit design and execution, and stirring sonics, it readily distinguishes itself from much of its competition. Considering its effective blend of bass extension and speed, addictive broadband clarity and focus, über-accurate imaging, and soundstaging chops, it must be seen as an exceptional value, as well.