The F-03A’s Class A liquidity was also on full display with vocals. The new album from The Manhattan Transfer (their first in ten years) features an innovative reimagining of Us3’s “Cantalooop (Flip Fantasia),” which is itself a sampled reworking of Herbie Hancock’s classic tune “Cantaloupe Island.” The dense texture and rich tapestry of The Manhattan Transfer’s amazing vocal harmonies were beautifully served by the F-03A’s liquidity on one hand, and by its resolution and transparency on the other. The voices blended beautifully without congealing; I could pick out the individual parts from the whole yet the dense, multi-hued harmonies were of-a-piece. The vocals on this album are spectacularly recorded (the MQA Studio version on Tidal is stunning), but a very different kind of spectacular than, say, Dean Martin utterly natural and human voice on the 45rpm LP reissue of Dream with Dean.
The F-03A’s rendering of space was superb, not just in width and depth but importantly in the precise placement of images within the soundstage. Notably, instruments were presented as individual objects spatially and texturally, making it easy to clearly hear individual parts within the whole. That’s one quality that many very expensive amplifiers do well; to hear it to this degree from an integrated amplifier was surprising and rewarding.
The F-03A’s moving-coil setting provided plenty of gain for the Sumiko Blue Point No.2 cartridge’s high 2.5mV. The phonostage was dead quiet even on the higher-gain moving-coil setting, delivering black backgrounds and good resolution of very low-level detail. I didn’t hear quite the midrange liquidity and treble smoothness through the phonostage that I do when using the Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC MQA. I attribute that difference to the Sumiko Blue Point No.2 cartridge, not to the Esoteric. Although the Blue Point No.2 is a good cartridge for the price, I suspect that the F-03A will be partnered with higher-quality cartridges. Nonetheless, LP playback had that wonderful feeling of openness and life, with bloom and air around instrumental outlines.
If the F-03A’s output power and bottom-end dynamics aren’t quite enough for you, consider doing what I did: add a JL Audio Fathom f113v2 (or f112v2) subwoofer. Although I evaluated the F-03A without the JL sub for this review, adding the f113v2 for my listening pleasure vaulted the overall system performance into another tier. Forget about any limitations in dynamics, or loudness, or bass impact; the Fathom f113 frees up the Esoteric to do what it does best—deliver delicious Class A sound—while handling the bottom-end duties and bringing 3000W to the party. This combination was the most successful mating of a subwoofer with an amplifier and speakers that I’ve experienced.
From one perspective, the Esoteric F-03A is pricey—thirteen grand for a 30Wpc integrated amplifier is far from budget. Yet to realize the F-03A’s textural beauty, resolution, and liquidity in a powerful Class AB amplifier would push the cost into the stratosphere. The Esoteric delivers the sonic virtues of very expensive amplifiers on a smaller scale, and at a more moderate price. If you have loudspeakers of appropriate sensitivity and realistic expectations about how loudly the system will play, the Esoteric F-03A delivers an immersive musical experience that won’t leave you thinking about your next amplifier upgrade.
Specs & Pricing
Output power: 30Wpc into 8 ohms, 60Wpc into 4 ohms
THD: 0.006% (1kHz, 8 ohms, 30W)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 104dB (IHF-A)
Damping factor: 370
Inputs: Two balanced on XLR jacks, five unbalanced on RCA jacks, external preamplifier inputs (balanced); optional DAC board (OP-DAC1)
Input impedance: 10k ohms (line), 47k ohms (mm phono), 100 ohms (mc phono), 47k ohms (external preamp in)
Outputs: Dual pairs of binding posts with speaker A/B switching; preamp-out jacks (balanced and unbalanced)
Tone controls: +/–12dB at 63Hz, 630Hz, 14kHz in 0.5dB steps
Dimensions: 17.6" x 7.6" x 18.5"
Weight: 71 lbs.
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Sources: AVM CS2.2; Berkeley Alpha Reference Series 2 MQA DAC; Berkeley Alpha USB; Aurender W20 music server; Pro-Ject X Persex 6 turntable with Sumiko Blue Point No.2 cartridge
Speaker cables: Kimber 4TC, Wireworld Mini Eclipse 7
Interconnects: Wireworld Eclipse 7
Digital interconnects: Audience Au24 USB, AudioQuest Wild
AC Power: Shunyata Denali, Shunyata Sigma AC cords
Room treatment: ASC 16" Full-Round Tube Traps, Stillpoints Aperture Panels, Acoustic Geometry Pro Room Pack 8