The Esoteric X-05 is a CD/SACD player that makes you want to gather every compact disc in your collection and give it another spin. And all the more so if you’re still listening to vinyl. It’s that good. It may also provoke you to wax philosophical about things that might have been—the “ifs” of high-end audio. If SACD had been universally embraced as the high-resolution format, it might have been heard at its best by more than just the choir of the converted. The point is that unless you’ve experienced SACD in a fine system played back on a player like the Esoteric X-05, you haven’t heard the resolution and musicality of which the format is capable. The most important point, however, is that the Esoteric doesn’t make you choose between quality CD or SACD reproduction. It’s superb on both fronts.
From the moment I unpacked the X-05, the unyielding containment of the fortress-like chassis was beyond impressive. The front panel is heavy extruded aluminum, and the top, sides, and bottom steel plate are all 5mm thick. The toroidal transformer sits atop an additional 5mm base for improved vibration isolation. The chassis sits on the massive Esoteric-designed unique “pinpoint” isolation feet for an additional level of isolation. All in all, it’s 39 pounds of seamless integrity.
At its core, the front-loading X-05 is basically (and I use this next phrase advisedly) an entry-level version of the X-03 player. Rather than BurrBrown DACs, the X-05 uses Cirrus Logic’s 24-bit/192kHz DAC in a dual-mono configuration. The analog output circuits also maintain this dual-mono topology. In fact, the basic internals of the X-05 are similar to those of many high-quality players with one notable exception—Esoteric’s precision VRDS-Neo disc-drive mechanism. The latest incarnation of this technology, which has evolved over the past 21 years, is the VMK-5—a massive, vibration-free, aluminum and polycarbonate turntable optimized for the high-speed rotation of SACD. The X-05 player brings this latest mechanism to a new lower price. Derived from the more massive VMK-3, the VMK-5 is a lower profile, lighter-weight design but it’s essentially the same in operation. It uses a polycarbonate anti-resonance disc clamp framed and cross-braced in aluminum that locks to the platter to reduce disc resonances. The shaft-mounted laser-pickup assembly was derived from the P-03 transport. The elegant clamping operation is visible through an illuminated window on top. (For further coverage of the fanatical build-quality of the VRDS drive mechanism, see Robert Harley’s comprehensive review of the Esoteric P-03 transport and D-03 DAC in Issue 171.)
What matters more than the X-05’s imposing and impressive architecture is that there’s a heckuva lot of music going on—more dimensionality, more air, more space. Silences and orchestral pauses are not reproduced as cold, antiseptic voids. There’s sophisticated low-level ambiance at play, and the softly shifting air pressure of a venue’s acoustic can be felt upon the skin. Whereas most compact-disc players possess a residual hardness and a flattening of three-dimensional space, the X-05 restores a level of warmth and depth that to these ears is consonant with music but rare with digital playback. You hear it when Tierney Sutton sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from Something Cool [Telarc]—she is audibly holographic within the soundstage, instead of appearing as a disembodied voice emanating from the ether.
Tonally, the X-05 casts music in a slightly darker, warmer light but not in the ordinary sense of frequency response. Flat frequency response among CD players is pretty well an incontrovertible fact. But through the X-05, the silky upper-octave harmonics, the air, and the transient attacks are palpable, freed from the glassy haze that overlays most digital playback. Whenever I listened to Laurence Juber’s stunning solo guitar arrangements on Plays The Beatles [Solid Air], I heard the retrieval of resonances, decays, and gradations of overtones and micro-dynamics that led me to only one conclusion—music as expressed by the X-05 simply sounds more settled than showy. I think this is one of the reasons that when friends come by to listen and allow me to compare the vinyl and its CD counterpart on other CD players, the response is more often than not, “Wow, the vinyl sounds so much more relaxed.” My friends are hearing fewer artifacts—something consonant with what they hear in everyday life. It’s a sound they have to expend less effort to enjoy. It may not be scientific, but that analog-like effortlessness is also what I hear with the X-05.
Even more telling is the amount of additional harmonic saturation and dynamic jump that occurs during SACD playback. Mandolin and steel-string guitars become veritable springboards of microdynamic energy. The tonal distinctions between nylon and steel string guitars are more vividly accented. During Warren Bernhardt’s “I Mean You” from So Real [DMP Records], the piano sound was a continuous line of energy which fused with the ambient environment of the studio. The acoustic bass was fat and resonant, but also defined in pitch and distinct in timbre. Images were precisely positioned—I noted how the drum kit appears directly behind and slightly to the right of the left channel. The images were so steady that they might have been glued to the floor.
Traditional Red Book CD playback is even more important in a market where the number of new SACD titles is limited. The X-05 didn’t falter. I recently reviewed the remastered deluxe editions of Cat Steven’s hit albums Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat [Island]. I first reacquainted myself with the original vinyl LPs, which were very good recordings for their day. As played back via the X-05, the remasterings exemplified image focus and a surge of dynamic and transient energies. It also illustrated the vinyl’s limitations, namely a muted, softer vocal image and subdued transients. While the vinyl preserved its reputation with a winning sense of continuousness and ambience, the X-05 had nearly closed that gap, too. On balance neither format carved a clear path to sonic victory during this particular engagement. Perhaps the salient point that I keep returning to is that the X-05 manages to sound warmly analogous to analog minus vinyl’s most annoying artifacts—all the while offering the traditional virtues of digital in the lower noise floor and the heft and punch in the bass regions. I can’t say for sure, but I’m left with the impression that at least a few of Esoteric’s engineers might just be closet vinyl junkies.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe this machine. Frankly it’s almost hard to imagine what further delights can be gleaned by ascending into Esoteric’s flagship P-03/D-03 territory. While I’m certain these rewards exist exactly as Robert Harley described them, keep in mind that the rest of the system chain needs to have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed first, just like RH’s. Meanwhile, for those of you who don’t have the wherewithal to reach for the summit just yet, I heartily commend the X-05. You will experience your music in a new light. The view up there is dazzling.