Very few products can lay claim to being unquestionably the best in the world. In any field there are always several candidates for the stateof- the-art, with experts disagreeing based on personal preference or varying perspectives. Heck, even Ferrari has competition.
One product, however, that has no peer is the vibration-free rigid disc-clamping mechanism (VRDS) found in disc players from Esoteric, the high-end division of Teac. Although all players have a transport mechanism to spin the disc and read the data encoded on it, the similarity between the flimsy plastic mechanisms of mass-market machines and VRDS ends there.
The Esoteric VRDS Neo mechanism, used in the P-03 Universal Transport reviewed here, is a tour de force in mechanical design and manufacturing. The massive machined assembly has one purpose—to read information from the disc with the highest precision possible (see sidebar for details).
The P-03 is a truly universal device, compatible with CD, DVDVideo, DVD-Audio, and SACD (SACD and DVD-A in 2-channel mode). Note, however, that the P-03 is a transport, not a disc player. This means it has no integral digitalto- analog converters; you must convert the P-03’s digital output to analog in you’re A/V controller (or receiver), or with a standalone digital-to-analog converter, such as Esoteric’s D-03, also reviewed here.
There are many compelling reasons to think of the P-03 universal transport and D-03 digital-to-analog converter as one product in two chassis. The two create a synergy, allowing each product to fully realize its potential. For example, the D-03 digitalto- analog converter outputs a precision clock to which the transport is slaved. This technique greatly reduces clock jitter (timing errors in the conversion of digital data to an analog waveform) as a source of sonic degradation.
The P-03/D-03 pair has, in my experience, the most sophisticated technology and feature-set for playing CD and high-resolution discs. The combination offers upsampling of standard-resolution audio (CD), along with a variety of ways to convert digital bits into music.
But the P-03 is much more than an audio player; its video section incorporates a scaler that will upconvert 480i from a DVD to 576i, 480p, 576p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. The scaler is the new Anchor Bay Technologies device, and the video digital-to-analog converters are the latest generation 14-bit/216MHz chips from Analog Devices. Video outputs include composite, component, and HDMI.
Starting the the P-03’s video performance, I was slack-jawed the first time I saw its picture quality (HDMI output at 720p). I started with a concert-performance disc I’m very familiar with (DeJohnette, Holland, Hancock, Metheny in Concert) and right from the opening shots I saw a quantum leap in the picture. The disc starts with DeJohnette walking on the stage and playing a drum-solo opening. I immediately saw something I’ve never seen before—the camera man slightly adjusting the focus in the first few seconds. Then, as the camera pans around behind the extensive drum kit, I saw a striking three-dimensionality quality and depth that reminded me of HD. A close-up shot of Dave Holland’s acoustic bass revealed all kinds of nicks and scratches I’d never noticed before. In addition, the wood’s color was vivid and true. Pat Metheny’s guitar strings—always a source of jaggies in other players—were virtually devoid of the distracting stair-step artifacts I’m accustomed to on this disc. In addition, the bright and contrasting colors of his shirt were startling in their vividness and immediacy. It all added up to a phenomenally great picture that was the best I’ve seen from DVD, and even approached the performance of HD in the sense of three-dimensionality and color rendering. Although the resolution wasn’t quite up to HD levels, it was nonetheless a big step up from other DVD players.
As great as the P-03’s picture was, what really got me excited was the Esoteric pair’s phenomenal sound quality. My true passion lies in audio, and here the P-03/D-03 combination was among the best digital sources for music playback I’ve heard. The Esoteric was characterized by an extremely smooth, sophisticated, and finely textured rendering that conveyed an amazing wealth of subtlety in the music without the sound ever becoming forward or analytical. The Esoteric was utterly devoid of the hardness and glare one often hears in digital playback—listen to the piano on the recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 on the Reference Recordings label. Through many digital sources— even high-end ones—the piano has a glassy hardness on the leading edge of the transients. Not through the Esoteric, which managed to portray this difficult instrument with lifelike immediacy.
The sense of soundstage depth, width, size, and layering of instruments from front to back was staggering. The Esoteric pair also had a remarkable ability to keep separate and distinct different instrumental lines. In addition to these specific sonic attributes, the Esoteric pair had a fundamental musical “rightness” that’s hard to describe. I always had the impression of listening to music, not just to a combination of sounds.
The Esoteric P-03 and D-03 combination are simply state of the art, both in picture and in sound quality. I was shocked at how good 480p video from DVD could look. For the music lover, the Esoteric pair delivers world-class sound quality from CD, SACD, and DVD-Audio. Indeed, it is among the best digital playback I’ve heard, regardless or price. Moreover, the interior build quality and chassis metalwork are drop-dead gorgeous. These are among the most lavishly designed and executed products I’ve encountered in 17 years of reviewing high-end audio gear.
Can any “DVD player” be worth thirty grand? Experience the Esoteric P-03 and D-03 for yourself and you just might be surprised by your answer. TPV