Reviewers constantly see gear come and go, but, as you can imagine, we regret the parting of some pieces more than others. Roughly two years ago Esoteric had to pry its K-03 player from my sweaty, clenched fingers. Why did I love this thing so much? Let me count the ways.
The then-$13,000 K-03, to my mind, represented a perfect combination of capabilities. It was—and still is—a CD/SACD player, a full-fledged S/PDIF DAC, a USB DAC, and a linestage that will directly drive a power amp. Most importantly, the K-03 excelled in every single category. I had never heard a better SACD player or USB DAC, and the S/PDIF DAC was squarely in reference territory as well. My only quibble was that CD playback, while very good, wasn’t quite in the same league as the rest of the K-03’s functions.
For that reason, even as I relinquished the K-03, I began lobbying to get my hands on the flagship K-01, which, at the time, ran $23,500. The primary differences between the two models are the transport mechanism (the K-01 uses a VRDSNEO “VMK-3.5-20S”, the very same mechanism found in the company’s P-02 stand-alone transport, which costs $23,500 all by itself!) and improved DAC linearity through the use of more (eight versus four) parallel/differential AKM chipsets per channel. Given these upgrades, I figured the K-01 should do at least as well as the K-03 in every category, and I hoped against hope that its CD performance would achieve full reference status, making the K-01 something of a perfect source component. Unfortunately, the company’s distributor at the time could not come through with a test K-01. Since then, I have been pouting.
Recently, though, Esoteric has done two things that warm my heart. First, it has lowered prices on many models, including the K-series. The K-03 is now $10,900, a fantastic value, and the K-01 has dropped to $19,500. Second, the distributor promised me a K-01, and came through.
Let me tell you, it was tough waiting out the month of continuous break-in that Esoteric mandates. After that I spent many more months evaluating the K-01 in all of its copious configurations. In the end, I can report that all my fervent hopes were fulfilled. The Esoteric K-01 is the most versatile, best-sounding, most finely crafted source component I have ever encountered.
A Reference CD and SACD Player
In listening to CDs through the K-01, I was not bashful about comparing it to the very best. My reference CD “player” is actually a Goldmund Mimesis 36 transport (a benchmark product) driving a dCS Debussy DAC. The two are lashed together via the superb (and eminently reasonably priced) Empirical Design 120 digital cable. Over time, this combination has proven tough— nay, impossible—to beat. The K-03 came close. But the K-01 coldcocked me by outperforming the reference in every parameter.
Allow me to illustrate using a couple of examples from the Simon and Garfunkel Old Friends box set, lovingly remastered using the always-reliable SBM process [Sony’s Super Bit Mapping]. On the playful “Punky’s Dilemma,” the beat, laid down by guitar strums and finger snaps, is steadier compared to the reference; dynamics rise and fall with more linearity; and, especially, air around and between instruments is far more voluminous. Further, the Esoteric’s ultra-quiet background allows tasty details—like the percussive flourishes that vary delightfully with each verse—to emerge in a clear but unforced way. Timbres are more natural, too; Simon’s guitar sounds more like a guitar, and on other tracks pianos sound more like pianos, bongos more like bongos, etc.
At the other end of the production spectrum is “America,” which features an orchestra, brass, and grand cymbal crashes. Through the reference, climactic moments betray some congestion and compression. Not so through the unflappable K-01. And there is again that difference in spatiality; the reference renders voices in the usual 2-D perspective, but through the K-01 they are downright holographic. At this point you might be thinking the reference rig isn’t that great after all. But you would be wrong; the reference sounds awesome! It’s just that the K-01 sounds better in each of the ways I have described. The cumulative effect is that the Esoteric is even more engaging—and fun—to listen to. This is truly exemplary CD playback.
On to SACD. In my review of the K-03 I stated it was “the best SACD player I have heard—not by a mile, by a marathon.” Given the K-01’s exceptional CD performance, though, I found myself skeptical that its SACD playback could sound much better. I needn’t have fretted; the increase in resolution and timbral realism over CD was dumbfounding.