Before I turn to the K-03X’s performance, I freely admit that as a dyed-in-the- wool LP listener, my early history with digital audio was a spotty one. Digital playback seemed to pack on a lot of generally positive sonic qualities: low noise, tight, extended bass, flat frequency response—a lot of calories if you will, but ultimately less filling musically. The spatial and dimensional components in particular seemed like more of an afterthought. And the actual physical expression of the artists on the stage whether solo or in full orchestral song appeared flat, dry, almost wraith-like in its lack of texture and harmonic verisimilitude.
With these reservations in mind, the K-03X provided a level of sonic micro and macro thrills in more areas than I’ve ever encountered before in a digital component. Regardless of format—CD, SACD, and high-resolution over USB—recordings that I’d heard dozens of times before suddenly didn’t sound quite as blandly familiar. My most common impression was an elevation of dynamics and image layering, elements that I more closely associate with analog playback. The satisfying crackle and pop of percussion dynamics during the Police’s “Tea in the Sahara” and “Murder By Numbers” presented even wider gradations of expression and audacious impact. Listening to the latest Mobile Fidelity SACD transfer of Kind of Blue revealed heretofore-undiscovered nuances—the breezy rush of wet, textured air over a sax reed, or the metallic nasality of Miles’ muted trumpet during “Blue In Green.” On SACD discs like these the Esoteric is in its zone, delivering a more settled, dynamically unshackled performance.
Foremost among my listening impressions was the overall sonic atmosphere that the K-03X conveyed—dense, rich, and saturated, and awash with ambient information. A singer’s lips were more supple, there was more rosin dusting on the cello bow, greater attack from a rim shot, ripple off a timpani; the splash of a cymbal was more finely wrought, brass bloomed with warmer intensity and weight, and more air emerged from the surrounding environment. Was that the rustle of cellist Pieter Wispelwey’s shirt sleeves, or a creak from Evgeny Kissin’s piano bench, and a soft exhalation of breath at the end of a delicately performed measure? You bet.
“Flat” is one four-letter word that you’ll never utter about the K-03X. It shapes images like a sculptor, not just a sketch of frontal outlines, but with a singular sense of the front-to-back depth of the musicians. Symphonic depth of focus was unparalleled in my experience with digital playback. String section layering during “The Wasps Overture” had a clarity and transparency that bordered on the holographic [Reference Recordings]. In this crucial aspect, and keeping in mind that the audio signal exits the player in analog form, the K-03X transcends its digital roots at least as we’ve commonly associated the segment. If what I’m describing suggests that the K-03X is more analog; it is the case. Indeed it’s the most persuasively “analog” disc player I’ve experienced.
Turning to vocals, even accounting for my familiarity with how artists like Norah Jones or Alison Krauss sound, I didn’t recall these recordings having such levels of warmth and immediacy. They possessed a transparency and an openness that suggested I’d been listening through a thinly patterned veil all these years. Vocal sibilances were more shapely—pointed, but not prickly. Low-level retrieval of piano cues during Jones’ cover of “The Nearness of You” was beautifully articulated, backgrounds open and airy. Alison Krauss’ “Slumber My Darling” had a newfound tranquility and lushness that replaced a cooler character that I had experienced from every previous player that had spun this Appalachian Journey disc.
In terms of flat-out performance and flexibility, the Esoteric K-03X runs the table. And while in recent years the rapid ascent of computer-based audio has stolen much of the digital thunder from the venerable CD player, take a moment to consider, where’s the sex appeal in only downloading music files? Just how much of a high-end relationship can you have with that NAS drive, or music player app? Many of us have already rediscovered with the vinyl LP’s latest comeback that there’s something satisfying and seductive about physical media and the precision components that support that media. A top-tier player like the K-03X conveys that same message. Built to last and offering playback solutions that represent the best of both digital worlds, could the K-03X be the last player you’ll ever buy? You won’t get any argument from me. A tour de force.
SPECS & PRICING
Analog outputs: RCA single-ended, XLR balanced
Digital outputs: SPDIF on RCA jack, AES/EBU on XLR jack
Inputs: SPDIF, TosLink, and USB digital inputs; word clock input
Formats supported: CD and SACD discs; PCM up to 192kHz/24-bit, USB PCM up to 384Hz/32-bit; DSD64 and DSD128
Dimensions: 17.25" x 6.4" x 13.25"
Weight: 61.75 lbs.
Integra (U.S. Distributor)
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458