The most recent development from Esoteric is the X-05 SAcD player, which drops the entry level for an esoteric player down by a substantial £1,500, from the previous base model, the X-03eS.
Not only has the entry point to esoteric ownership become more achievable for audiophiles, the X-05 is the most affordable model in the range to feature the acclaimed VMK-5 transport – itself an incredible feat of engineering and an impressive commitment to hi-fi.
Given that this is an engineering-led Japanese company, that cost-cutting must have taken some doing. It's hard to find too; the X-05's exterior makes some concessions to economy, but not many.
The disc drawer is machined from solid aluminium on the X-03Se but constructed more conventionally here with a plastic tray fronted by an aluminium billet. Where there was a laser-cut brand name on the top-plate, there is now a window whose contents are illuminated when the drawer opens and closes – it dims when in play and stop modes.
The lights reveal the attractive aluminium 'turntable' that clamps the top of the disc, a spoked affair that reflects the engineering standard throughout the player.
The casework is constructed out of aluminium for the top, front and sides, with only the base and rear panel in steel – the important base plate being 5mm-thick like the sides and top. This would explain the grunt-worthy weight.
The X-05's three 'pinpoint' feet are a two-part decoupled construction in quench-hardened steel that rattle when you lift the unit. They work in a similar fashion to the cup-and-ball- type isolators sold as accessories. This is a state of affairs that suggests esoteric keeps its ear to the ground on matters of fine tuning.
Inside the box there is a cirrus Logic cS 4398, 24-bit/192khz digital to analogue convertor operating in dual-mono mode and sending signal to the equally separated analogue output stages. The signal is output in balanced or single-ended form from the back panel, which also supports Toslink and coaxial digital outputs and a word clock sync port.
Previous esoteric players we have encountered have been very impressive and extremely clean sounding; the X-05 is a little bit more organic than that and, perhaps, easier to live with as a result. The extremely revealing top end of the dearer models can make lesser recordings sound the way they are, ie a little less than sweet or clean.
The X-05 achieves the fine balancing act of revealing what is on the disc, without exaggerating the unpleasant aspects of poorly recorded discs. In the real world, this is a very valuable attribute and gives users a much wider range of useful material to enjoy.
With Gillian Welch's Time (the Revelator) in the super-smooth drawer the tendency that this disc has to sound a little hard-edged is countered with an open and relaxed presentation that allows the vibrancy of the music to shine through. It's a considered balance that lets all the emotional power of the music through, along with an awful lot of the low-level detail.
One's ear is drawn to instruments like banjo and mandolin on this record a little more than usual, but only because the tone is so well resolved. The bass is rich and sonorous when called for with good shape to low acoustic guitar notes. What strikes you most, however, is the lack of any sense of the digital, which might indicate that the top end is smoothed-off slightly, but whatever it is, it sure sounds natural.
Timing is strong, too; it revels in the tension and attack on est's live rendition of Tuesday Wonderland (Live in Hamburg), the drums are right on it as they say, very precise and rhythmically strong. The esoteric X-05 plays tunes like this so well in fact that it's difficult for the reviewer to concentrate on the sound, which is a good sign and one that makes the our job seem somewhat less proper, but still, one mustn't grumble.
Next to our reference Resolution Audio opus 21, which is £500 more affordable, the X-05 is notably calmer in presentation but no less dynamic or resolute. In other words, it sounds less like a CD player, which is something the Resolution Audio is pretty good at already.
This sense of composure and naturalness encourages some rash ideas; one being to play a copy of Mahler's 8th Symphony (Solti, chicago So). It opens with a large choir and orchestra in full effect, something that the esoteric has little difficulty in presenting in seemingly full scale given the limitations of the room.
What is most impressive is that, despite the density of the work, the player reproduces Mahler's 'Symphony of a Thousand' in a coherent and communicative manner that makes it accessible to those of us who not used to this style of aural assault.
The fact that so many instruments and voices can be captured with so little resort to compression is a lesson to non-classical engineers.
Back in the more familiar world of Me'Shell Ndegeocello, the player brings its strong sense of drive to her bass-heavy work and lets it rip along at a well defined pace. The bass retaining its girth while the atmosphere of the recording, provided by low-level ambient detail, gives the production its electric feel.
Another classical work, Liszt's Sonata in B minor (Lazardis) on SACD, reveals that the X-05 does an equally good job with the high-resolution format. Here the piano has a body and power that you rarely encounter in recordings.
It also sits in a huge space that Linn's engineers have done a great job of capturing and something that's clearly apparent with this player doing the spinning. David Wilcewski's Room in the Clouds SAcD reveals tape hiss, something which appears on a surprising amounts of discs with this player, and which gives a good idea of how good it is at digging out the quietest sounds.
The other thing that emerges is that the midrange is a little better served than the frequency extremes compared to more expensive players. It's not obvious but there's less solidity to the highs and not so much grunt in the bass. There's still quite a bit, though, and you need a wideband system to pick it up.
Back on regular CD fink's latest album Distance and Time has a fine track called This is the Thing that has a superb voice recording and well judged reverb on its simple instrumentation.
A combination that makes the hairs stick up on your neck under the X-05's auspices. You really want to hear more of the music when its this well timed, articulated and exposed, so the volume keeps creeping up for even greater effect.
The Esoteric X-05 is an exceptionally well-built CD player that brings the impressive levels of resolution that esoteric has become known for, to a new, much lower price point. It manages the task, too without sacrificing the all-important grip it holds over the music.
It's still a £3,495 disc player, but the price is a lot less than esoteric has asked for in the past.