Lest you are thinking that the E-02 must commit more sins of omission rather than sins of commission, I’ll simply say that omission was never on this phonostage’s menu. It’s certainly capable of immense power, substance, and harmonic structure when called upon. A better description of the impression I had during my audition of the Esoteric was of an invisible hand, always at the ready with plenty in reserve; allowing things to be the best version of themselves.
When it was time for mezzo-soprano Christina Ludwig and bass/baritone Walter Berry to take the stage singing Mahler [Des Knaben Wunderhorn, 1968, Columbia KS 7395, bonus live LP with a poorly recorded Leonard Bernstein on piano], they did so with wonderful presence—magically and powerfully, as if from some secret energy source.
And when it was time for Pink Floyd’s The Wall [1979, Columbia 36183] to seemingly occupy every nook and cranny of my listening room, it did so, with goosebumps nearly as big as the stage. A recording in perfect alignment with the musical style. Love it every time. “Is there anybody out there?” Yeah. Me.
What It Won’t Do
Simply put, it won’t help balance (or really, counterbalance) your system. Better have your ducks in a row already with the rest of your system. It won’t step into the spotlight. No dancing bears or juggling clowns to amaze your friends.
That’s about it.
For the record, I have no prejudice against components with a strong character. In fact, some of my closest friends are components with strong character. But my experience has been that there is a place in a system to “build in” this character, and this place is as far away from the front end as possible—further still from a little signal in need of a bunch of gain. As a result, I’ve always been a counter-culturalist when it comes to that old “tube preamp with a solid-state amp” path that so many of you have followed. Not that it can’t be done; it’s just that (literally) the optics are at risk at too early a stage. I always get the feeling in many of these system concoctions that the color (usually artificial and/or accidental “warmth”) is inevitably in my listening way.
The problem has always been one of cost. The really good low-level signal amplifiers with low noise/distortion—the kind of things that get out of the way in every way except to do their job, which is boost a signal—are almost always very expensive and rare. I remember when the Boulder 2008 phonostage was first released, and I remember my last experience installing a Constellation Orion phonostage. Both had that eerie invisible-hand ability where you just knew in listening that they weren’t the system’s rev limiter. But the Boulder was over $30k, and the Orion was about $80k at last count. No quantity of audio journalism will ever put me in their ownership category.
The Esoteric E-02 is, by far, the least expensive phonostage that I’ve had experience with to simply do the job of amplifying a small signal many thousands of times. I didn’t say it was inexpensive (so don’t get all unnecessarily huffy), but if you want my industry opinion, it has been underpriced at $9000, both in terms of its performance and in relation to the pricing of the smaller E-03 (which is $6500). That makes it a bargain, and yes, it makes my day to tweak half of you reading that statement.
Specs & Pricing
Inputs: One balanced on XLR jacks (moving coil), two unbalanced on RCA jacks (moving coil or moving magnet)
Input impedance: Moving coil, 10, 50, 100, 200, 300, 500, 1k, 10k ohms; moving magnet, 47k ohms
Outputs: XLR/ES-LINK analog connectors (creates active ground when connected to an Esoteric ES-LINK equipped preamplifier or integrated amplifier), 1 pair; RCA connectors, 1 pair
Output impedance: XLR, 20 ohms; RCA, 23.5 ohms
RIAA accuracy: ±0.2dB, 10Hz–20kHz
THD: 0.007%, 1kHz, mm, rated output
Output level: RCA, 2V RMS; XLR, 4V RMS
Gain: RCA, mm 40dB, mc 66dB; XLR, mm 46dB, mc 72dB
Input sensitivity: (1kHz, rated output), mm 20mV, mc 1mV
Maximum input level: (at 0.1% distortion) mm 100mV, mc 4.8mV
S/N ratio: Moving-magnet 100dB, moving-coil 80dB
Channel separation: (mm, 10kHz, IHF-A) >96dB
Subsonic filter: 17Hz, 6dB/octave
Dimensions: 17 5/8" x 5 ¼" x 14 ¼"
Weight: 27.5 lbs.
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458