Consider “With You I’m Born Again” from the Chesky recording of the Billy Cobb Quartet’s Jazz in the Key of Blue. The CD layer already sounds rich and refined. The only overtly noticeable problem is during Roy Hargrove’s trumpet solo, which at times gets loud so quickly and intensely it’s scary. On the CD layer, the K-01 pulls off the dynamics, but telltale distortion signals the format’s limitations. Playing the SACD layer, though, the Esoteric accomplishes the feat while retaining absolute purity at the limit. SACD also dramatically opens up the soundstage, the trumpet’s brassy burnish is far more evident, and the air through it is so visceral you might feel in danger of being spit on. Chalk up another reference-caliber performance.
A Reference S/PDIF and USB DAC
Fond memories of the K-03’s DAC danced in my head as I turned to the K-01’s version. I no longer had a K-03 in hand, of course, but I remembered a lively, open sound. The K-01 was all that, as well as extremely dynamic, quiet, detailed, and rich. When I compared it to the Debussy, using the Mimesis 36 as the common transport, both DACs sounded great—as they should in this price range. Clearly, these components are both in reference territory. Yet, once again, the Esoteric proved superior in significant ways, all of which were foreshadowed by its CD performance.
First, the K-01 shows greater resolution, especially at the highest frequencies. This makes its reproduction of the recording venue’s ambience far more palpable. Through the Esoteric, the soundstage on which the instruments play is almost an instrument unto itself. Further, instruments have “pillows” of air around them that allows the listener to easily follow each one—just as in listening to live music. For example, I was amazed to discover that the cymbal—yes, the cymbal—on Michael Wolff ’s 2am is a thoughtfully played, varied, and integral musical component. I had never much noticed it before.
Another consistent advantage of the K-01 is its timing. As good as the dCS is in this respect, the K-01 is better. Tempi are absolutely, unwaveringly locked in, making rhythms irresistible regardless of genre. Finally, as with CD playback, the Esoteric has a very slight edge over the reference in dynamics. On gradual crescendos in particular, the K-01 builds in a more linear fashion. The opening movement of Handel’s Water Music, for instance, benefits with an enhanced drama the composer would no doubt have applauded.
As for USB, the K-01 and K-03 remain the best such DACs I have ever heard. When playing the infectious title track from Wilco’s latest, The Whole Love, a 96/24 download from HDtracks, the Esoteric delivers its trademark drive, detail, and clarity without edge. Jeff Tweedy’s voice sounds uncannily realistic. Even more difficult for USB, strings are sweet and aural fatigue, no matter how many repeat plays, is non-existent. Listening to this song through the K-01 and an appropriate USB cable is every bit the joyous experience it is meant to be. This is USB not only at its best, but sounding as good as any other digital source. That’s a milestone achievement.
A Remarkable Linestage
Whenever I switch from my Goldmund linestage to any linestage buried within a DAC, I expect the drop-off to be precipitous. This has been the pattern since day one. So I was surprised when I encountered a DAC-based linestage, Esoteric’s own D-07X, that performed quite respectably. But the K-01 is another matter entirely. Esoteric put great thought—and backed it up with topquality circuitry—into this player’s linestage. The volume control is digital, which normally exacts a resolution toll at lower levels. However, in this case the control has a bit-depth of 32, allowing it operate at high attenutation without the usual compromises. Too, Esoteric blessed the K-01 with a fully balanced, fully buffered analog output stage. As a result, the K-01 comes closer—much closer—to my reference linestage than any DAC before it.
Take the Jimmy Cobb SACD. Both linestages deliver the same stellar dynamics, tight timing, and virtually identical midrange tonality. On the surface, the differences seem pretty minimal. But, of course, you do give up something by not spending $25k on a separate component. The K-01’s bottom end is not as fully fleshed out as it could be, transients are ever so slightly dulled, and the upper reaches do not have quite enough extension to convey air, a large soundspace, or details like the shimmer of a cymbal. You could live with this linestage, and it soundly trounces every other such unit I have heard, but personally I would not want to sacrifice even a smidgen of what the K-01 does as a source.
$19,500 isn’t chump change, but how often does such a sum purchase three reference-level components? The K-01 delivers benchmark performance as a CD player, an SACD player, and a DAC for both S/PDIF and USB sources—all packaged in a flawlessly operating, elegantly hewn chassis. Its linestage, too, is a standout among DAC-based units. However, I suspect those looking at twenty-grand sources already have a more than satisfactory linestage. What they likely do not have is a CD player that sounds this good, an SACD player that sounds this good, a DAC that sounds this good, and a way to play USB audio that sounds this good. If I could choose just one source component for my system, the Esoteric K-01 would be it. Maybe the distributor will let me hang onto it for a spell.
SPECS & PRICING
Formats: CD, SACD
Outputs: stereo balanced analog, stereo balanced single-ended
Inputs: Coax, Toslink, USB, word clock
Maximum digital resolution:192/24
Dimensions: 17" x 6 3/8" x 13"
Weight: 68 3/8 lbs.
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA 90640
Goldmund Mimesis 36 digital transport, dCS Debussy DAC, Bryston BDA-1 DAC, HP Latitude (Windows 7) PC, Goldmund Mimesis 22 Preamplifier, Goldmund Mimesis 29.4 Power Amplifiers, Metaphor Acoustics 1 Speakers, Empirical Design cables and power cords, Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB cable, Goldmund cones