The Grail Quest: Searching for Superior Single-Box SACD Sound

by Roy Gregory | April 26, 2012

hen Wadia discontinued the 781, it left me with something of a dilemma. Much as I admire the performance of the S7i that took the 781’s place in my system (and as happy as I am to admit the margin of superiority it enjoys over its predecessor when it comes to CD replay) there is one crucial regard in which it doesn’t -- actually, let’s make that can’t -- compete: SACD replay. Whereas the 781 was a combined CD/SACD player, the S7i is strictly CD only -- and that’s my problem. Not only do I actually own a lot of SACDs, I like what the format does. They might all be hybrid discs, meaning that I can still play the CD layer on the S7i, but having heard the SACD layer -- having heard just how glorious it can sound -- it’s not something I’m in a hurry to give up. Which leaves me looking for an SACD player.

At first glance, I already have the solution in-house, in the substantial, three-box shape of the dCS Paganini transport, DAC and clock. Whilst the dCS is an undeniably impressive performer, and an invaluable tool when it comes to reviewing (given the plethora of input and connection options it offers) it’s not a machine I’ve ever really warmed to on a more personal level. It’s long on the sonic benefits of SACD, but it doesn’t have the same grasp of its musical merits. It’s big, it’s complex and it demands three of everything (sockets, power cords and shelves), making it costly in terms of both ancillaries and real estate. When it comes to my own personal listening, what I’m looking for is something altogether simpler.

Ironically, despite thinking that my affection for SACD and desire to include the format in my system and listening experience places me in a pretty small minority, at least outside the shores of Japan, I’m finding an increasing number of listeners who share not just my high regard for SACD, but also suffer similar limitations when it comes to space (and funds). So, with that in mind, as at least some form of excuse to cover the essentially selfish nature of the task, let the search for a satisfactory one-box SACD replay solution commence.

Runners and riders

aving already mentioned the Paganini trio, it would be remiss of me not to consider the more modest Puccini, dCS’s one-box offering. The inclusion of the separate uClock makes a pretty big difference to the player’s performance, albeit at the expense of a second box, which should exclude it from consideration here. But I’m after a solution, and I’m prepared to tilt the playing field to get one if that’s the only option. So, with that in mind, I’ll table the Puccini for later attention, once I’ve shaken out the other one-box options.

Survey the market and you’ll quickly conclude that most of the US- and European-based high-end companies have given up on SACD -- either because they don’t see a demand or because of issues with the supply of transports. Honorable exceptions to that rule (dCS aside) extend as far as Krell and Ayre. Inexplicably, the latter’s C-5xe universal player, so impressive when it comes to multibit replay (CD, DVD-A, DVD-V) suffers a dramatic fall-off in performance when it comes to SACD, which simply isn’t up to the same standard as the other digital formats -- a result that’s surprising and disappointing in equal measure. Which leaves us with the Krell Cipher to consider. Following fond memories of the SACD Standard (an exceptional player that was crippled by an unreliable transport mechanism), the Cipher is high on my list of possibilities. It lacks the range of digital inputs (especially USB) that seem to be almost obligatory these days, with the looming tsunami of file-based replay thundering down on the poor, defenseless optical disc, but as I’ll be using it in parallel to the S7i that does offer all those options, it’s an omission I can easily live with. The same might not be true for you.

Which brings us to Japan, and frankly, where better to look, given that nation’s continued enthusiastic support for the SACD format? With home-market disc sales exceeding the rest of the world put together, what might seem like a dead format in the West is definitely alive and kicking back East -- and it shows in those product lines that hail from there. Marantz, TEAC, Luxman and of course, Sony and Esoteric all offer upmarket SACD players. The question is, where to start?

Few companies have anything like the dedication that Esoteric display for the SACD format. Not only have they produced their own, entirely proprietary transport mechanism and built it into a range of players to rival dCS in terms of scope and ambition, they issue their own limited-edition audiophile SACDs, generally remastered versions of classic analog recordings. Highly sought after in Japan, few of these escape that country, but they’re well worth snapping up if you see them (take a look at my recent review of the legendary Barbirolli Mahler 5th). Esoteric offer two one-box players, the K-03 and pricier K-01. As well as SACD and CD replay (the latter with myriad filter options), both also offer three digital inputs (coaxial RCA, optical TosLink and USB) as well as full source switching and a variable output-level option. These definitely tick all the boxes, even the facility to add an external clock, but this level of engineering and execution -- seriously, just try lifting one of these! -- doesn’t come cheap.

Moving down in price we find players from Marantz and perhaps most intriguing of all, Luxman, whose D-06 seems to offer a much more musically organic approach, without giving too much away to the likes of Esoteric and dCS in terms of carved-from-billet casework and the like. Get past the (rather pleasingly) prosaic exterior and the internals are beautifully constructed, the only failing being the lack of a USB input. But at around half the price of the true heavyweights, the D-06 certainly has a lot going for it.

Finally, both Sony and TEAC offer a whole host of players at far more affordable price points, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to find some uncut gem lurking amidst the spoil. Of course, finding it will take some digging (and not a little research), so that probably joins the end of the queue.

Where to start? Where better than Esoteric’s K-01 ($22,500), their top one-box offering? With all the facilities most people might want, more options than most will ever use and casework that wouldn’t look out of place on an armored personnel carrier, this is definitely most people’s idea of a high-end solution. If it works, why look any further?

A one-box wonder?

t’s remarkable just how often you come across audio products that sound the way they look. Cool, solid, beautifully clean and without a sharp edge in sight, the K-01 is the very image of understated grace and elegance -- a bit like a dove-grey Saville Row suit being worn by a middleweight boxer: calm and svelte on the outside, lean, mean, quick and powerful underneath. And yes, you guessed it -- that’s exactly how the K-01 sounds. Only things aren’t quite that simple. In audio, are they ever?

The K-01 I have here has been extensively used. Even for somebody as obsessive about burn-in as yours truly, there really shouldn’t be any issue here. Yet, the sound of the K-01 has changed and evolved significantly (for the better) throughout the player's time in-house. I can only conclude that this is a case of warm-up rather than run-in, and looking at the sheer mass involved in this machine, reaching a stable operating temperature really could take weeks rather than hours. Whilst that doesn’t really help prospective customers if they can only audition the player for a few days, be aware that the sound you hear from cold will lose much of its etched and slightly mechanical, almost forced quality. As time passes the K-01 becomes more and more fluid, and if its tonal palette is never going to worry the likes of Zanden or Audio Research, it definitely fills out and blooms. What sounds stilted and tight to start with soon opens out and begins to flow, just getting better as time goes by.

Set up benefits from a little care and attention too. Esoteric go to great lengths to provide proper, mechanically coupled feet on their equipment, rather than the more normal rubber variety. For that they should be applauded, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t still gains to be had. A set of Stillpoints Ultra SS feet dramatically improved the focus and immediacy of the music, while even a set of plain aluminum couplers from Symposium between the player and the shelf of the ESS rack brought significant benefits. I wonder whether the multiple materials used in the Esoteric feet constitute a case of over-egging the pudding. Either way, you haven’t heard what this machine can do until you play with what sits between it and its supporting surface.

There’s also a display button on the remote and it’s there for a reason; with three levels of dimming and off, the control lets you vary the light show emanating from the Esoteric, but in the off setting (which kills the display as soon as the machine starts to play) the sonic improvement is pretty astonishing: blacker backgrounds, less grain, a quicker and slightly more immediate response to dynamic shifts. Don’t ignore this simple upgrade!

Before we get to the question of SACD replay, it’s also worth taking a detour through Red Book land. The K-01 offers a choice of four different digital filters (or none), twofold, fourfold, and DSD upconversion (or none). That makes 20-odd different combinations -- and that’s before you get to all the different input settings for the USB (synchronous and asynchronous). It’s a potentially daunting task simply sorting through the options, let alone deciding which you prefer -- but in practice it doesn’t have to be. The first thing to realize is that whatever option you settle on, you are going to prefer it on every CD, so this is a one-time setting, not a disc-by-disc task. Second, just be systematic. Start with the filters and switch between them, playing the same track or excerpt each time. Don’t switch mid-track or you really will confuse yourself. Once you’ve chosen no filter, FIR or S_DLY, then select between the fixed or variable filter points. Now repeat for upsampling; job done.

For what it's worth, I ended up with a filter setting of FIR1 (variable cutoff point) and ORG (or zero) upsampling, which gave me the best balance of focus, presence and rhythmic integrity, but your settings will depend on your system and personal preferences. The differences are not hard to hear, so take it steady, take your time and you’ll soon arrive at your preferred option. Just don’t ignore the filter options as being too difficult -- they really will make or break CD replay from this machine.

At its best the K-01 delivers confident, solid and dynamic Red Book sound of enormous presence and substance. I found that optimizing the filter settings removed the last vestiges of mechanical process and musical hesitance/reticence, serving up a sound that was impressively dynamic and rhythmically expressive, rich of color and full of energy. On this showing I’d rate it on the same page as the S7i -- and that is praise indeed. It’s bigger-boned than the Wadia, not quite as delicate, focused or transparent, but it’s close and scores its own points when it comes to substance, dynamics and impact.

The main event

ow, finally, it’s time to talk SACD. There are no options associated with the high-res format, so physical setup aside, what you hear is what you get -- and it’s not at all bad. That is, unless the discs you choose aren’t up to the job. The first thing that you’ll learn from the K-01 is that simply being an SACD is no guarantee of a disc’s recording or quality. In this respect, the high-res format is no different to any other, but it’s a lesson the Esoteric player rams home in no uncertain terms. Let’s take the Berglund/LPO recording of the Sibelius 2nd Symphony [LPO 0005]. Recorded live at the "old" Royal Festival Hall in 2005, the recording certainly reflects the murky, distant acoustic that typified the venue before its refurbishment. But Berglund conducting Sibelius? Surely his peerless understanding of the work should shine through. Sadly, not; as good as the reading is (albeit not as perceptive or balanced as his earlier EMI recording), the sonic morass revealed all too clearly by the K-01 simply sucks it under. Play instead Esoteric’s own transfer of Karajan and the BPO recorded in 1980 [Esoteric ESSE 90058] and the contrast is shocking. When it comes to Sibelius, Karajan is no Berglund, but the musical event as presented by the K-01 is in another league -- at once atmospheric, bold and thunderously powerful when required.

As ruthless as the K-01 is when it comes to revealing the shortcomings in a disc or recording, that absolute musical authority is also its greatest strength. The aforementioned Barbirolli/Mahler 5 [Esoteric ESSE 57] is a case in point. The sheer scale and dynamic range generated by the K-01 exceeds even the excellent EMI LPs' -- and might prove embarrassing to the system if the music weren’t so solidly rooted, the acoustic space so rock stable. The Esoteric player seems to conjure up a bottomless pit of sheer musical energy when its called for, and keep it all under control too. There’s no tendency for the soundstage to collapse or fall forward in orchestral crescendos, no change to the orchestral placement or the sense of acoustic space.

This absolute spatial stability is an underappreciated quality that goes a long way towards making your system’s musical reproduction more convincing. Or, to put it another way, constant shifts or a wandering soundstage immediately tell the brain that this isn’t the real thing. Perhaps the best example of this is Julia Fischer’s superb recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on PentaTone (double disc set [PentaTone PTC 5186 072]). Solo violin might not seem like much of a test, but the Esoteric gets the complex nature of the instrument and the sheen of its overtones just right, without ever becoming glassy or unnaturally bright. But what is more impressive is the way the K-01 reveals Fischer’s movement relative to the microphones whilst holding the clean, clear acoustic absolutely stable in space. Combined with Fischer’s mastery of her instrument and the score, it makes for the sort of musical experience that can really transport the listener.

Besides the sheer ruthlessness of the K-01, its other major flaw is a slight coolness or hollowness to the midband. This has the slightly contradictory effect of creating a sense of depth or distance, a midhall perspective, while also delivering the leaner, more direct tonal balance of a front-of-hall seating position.

Overall, even on the best recordings I’ve detected a subtle lack of immediacy to the Esoteric’s sound, and over time I’ve come to realize that it resides in this slight midrange suckout or loss of energy and projection. In some respects the player is its own worst enemy; its top and bottom ends are so powerful and precise, its balance so flat that the dip in its waistline seems all the more prominent. It’s not there on CD replay, but it is there on all the SACDs I play, regardless of source or genre. Less obvious on pop or rock, it can stand out like a sore thumb on classical recordings, especially those that favor a crystal-clear presentation to start with. So, whilst Fischer’s Bach discs escape, partly because the violin is pitched above the problem, her excellent recording of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante K364, with Nikolic, Kreizberg and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra [PentaTone PTC 5186 098] takes on an uncharacteristically cold and hollow acoustic. Not only is the viola robbed of some of its woody tone, collapsing the differences between the two lead instruments, the differences between this and other recordings, such as Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra on BIS [BIS SACD-1754] are also similarly collapsed. It’s hard to imagine two more different recordings or performances, the minimalism of the BIS disc in sharp contrast to the larger forces, greater energy and gusto of the PentaTone. Normally a model of recording neutrality, in the best sense of the phrase, the absence of any tonal padding means that the K-01 leaves the PentaTone disc sounding stark and really quite chilly.

How big a deal this is will depend on you, your system and the music you listen to, but with the majority of my SACD collection being classical, it’s definitely a concern for me. On the other hand, if I only ever played pop or rock, I doubt I’d ever have noticed. Playing really familiar voices like Eleanor McEvoy’s, somebody I’ve spent many hours talking to, and nearly as many listening to her sing, I can recognize a lightening of her vocal tone, a subtle lack of husk to her contralto, but it certainly doesn’t ruin my enjoyment. In contrast, Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2021] positively thrives on the authority, clarity and detail delivered by the K-01, while the Genesis SACD box set [Virgin B00104WHLA] takes that a whole stage further. Both Selling England By The Pound and Foxtrot explode into life, driven by a solid bass that can sound rounded and murky on some machines. This music, which can seem self-absorbed and indulgent, takes on a whole new sense of purpose when it’s played on the Esoteric. Limp or flowery it isn’t! In fact, I can see rock fans really getting off on this player -- and lest you be in any doubt, that includes the classical head-bangers too. Let’s face it, any decent orchestra goes to at least 11.

Taking stock

’ve been hard on the Esoteric K-01, not least because it is both an ambitious and expensive machine. In truth, I’ve only judged it by the standards it sets itself. Build quality and the solid sense of confidence it bestows will seal the deal for many a prospective purchaser, but for the critical listener, things are slightly more complex, with an intricate web of interlocking strengths and flaws in its performance. It’s not without character -- or some mightily impressive aspects to its musical presentation, especially at the frequency extremes, perhaps where you’d expect SACD replay to score. The K-01’s Red Book performance is excellent and arguably worth the price alone. Whether the SACD replay matches it -- and whether it will satisfy the SACD devotee -- will take a careful listen to decide.

The jury awaits the next round of witnesses, but as of now the Esoteric K-01 sets the benchmark to which others must aspire.

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