The School Concert
There’s only one good reason to be attending an elementary school concert—you have a relative (usually son or daughter) participating. You shouldn’t be there for the performance quality. In the midst of the chaotic cacophony, you’re there to see your precious little Jane or Johnny beat the hell out of a tambourine, murder a recorder, or proudly sing the songs the music teacher is so painstakingly directing.
Real life affords us this opportunity to focus on the smallest details within large and sometimes confusing landscapes. Small glimpses and sounds of Jane and Johnny are all that a parent needs at a school concert to be left in an irrational emotional state. Real life allows the tiniest things to have the biggest significance. It doesn’t make the choices of focal importance for us.
The best audio systems and equipment have an ability to realize instruments within a performance. They allow, as in real life, all the sonic elements to be equally present, be they large or small, or buried behind three other instruments, or three feet in front of the loudspeakers in your lap. As a listener, there is a freedom of attention, as if the choice of importance (just like at the school concert) is yours, not the system’s. My first impression of the Esoteric E-02 was that it had this rare ability to realize the sonic stage.
For those of the opinion that even a mention of Jazz at the Pawnshop will trigger an immediate revocation of your “serious jazz guy” card, I give you Ben Webster’s Gone with the Wind [Black Lion Records/ORG-2028]. Originally recorded in 1965 at Copenhagen’s Jazzhus Montmartre, it also has the very live, noisy jazz club feel of Pawnshop, without so much accompanying listener guilt. The E-02 allowed Webster’s tenor to project forward. And while the sax is the headliner, all the small percussion, audience applause, and idle chatter play an equal role in recreating that whole scene. There’s a feeling of an atmosphere filled with musicians and noisy jazz fans that makes 1965 as present as the speakers in front of me. Your “reference” gear better be able to realize and recreate like this. The E-02 does.
Within the first 30 minutes of auditioning the E-02 I knew that it is a special piece of electronics. Sure, it’s quiet. Sure, it has no trace of tonal tilt. Sure, it’s dynamic and extended. I’ve heard many phonostages jump these hurdles. What makes the Esoteric special is that it freely allows or enables the music to be. By “freely” I simply mean without penalty. We live in a world where monetary gains are taxable, and the same is true of gains in an audio system. Big-voltage amplification is usually taxed with color, compression, and/or temporal smearing. The E-02 is gain without taxation (or, at least, you can write it off this year).
This may seem counterintuitive, but as a result of the sonic tax holiday the Esoteric E-02 affords, I rarely found myself focusing on it long enough to think, “Man, what a great phonostage.” Instead, I sat amazed at the achievement from my Denon cartridge, as though it has just been blown up to superhero status. Or, I reveled in the aforementioned freedom of performances fully realized, where everything taking place was somehow whole and worthy of attention.
Dave Holland’s solo album Emerald Tears [1978, ECM-1-1109] is not for the faint-of-heart. If things aren’t right, it’ll get pulled off the platter before the stylus has had a chance to reach the bottom of the groove. Fortunately, this was the most insightful reproduction of it I had heard. On the fourth cut, Anthony Braxton’s composition (you figure out what the title is, as I haven’t got a clue what the equation means), my notes emphatically state that there was “no confusion,” and that there was “no time to remember notes recently played.” This piece and this album had been set propulsively free. The overall sense was of an artist at work, creating and living right now! Human fingers on strings, with sonic expressions and textures uncorrelated from the audio system. Again, this is an album that goes to the back of the stack if anything’s off. The E-02’s neutrality is not of the boring variety. The speed present here is not the residue of a lean or bright balance.
Not really, if you mean that it must be fed race gas or you’ll stall at the starting line. I always had the feeling that I was simply getting the best of what was available, nothing more (but nothing less). So, I could easily play my favorite “C” side of Ed Sheeran’s 180-gram 45rpm Divide [2017, Asylum] and enjoy “Supermarket Flowers,” or tap my feet to the somewhat historical-sounding Benny Goodman in Moscow [1962, LSO-6008] without needing to turn it down.
Some of my favorite other phonostages from Nagra, E.A.R., and Luxman (the EQ-500, in particular) all add in (to a greater or lesser degree) a bit of identifiable “juice.” Perhaps not coincidentally, they all combine step-up transformers with tubes, and each of them has a very engaging character that can see them through poorer recordings. Their “juicy” goodness can be a fall-back when the recording completely fails. The Esoteric does not have this “extra” color. As such, I could see some listeners judging it as unforgiving. I never felt limited, however. In fact, the E-02’s rare ability to allow me to elevate recordings like Holland’s Emerald Tears to the front of the stack more than offset its resistance to putting lipstick on a pig.