Imagine for a moment what it must be like to be the person who measured the coldest outdoor temperature ever recorded -- minus 129 Fahrenheit in Vostok, Antarctica. You've just achieved something noteworthy, and yet you are unable to convey the reality of your discovery to anyone who did not share the experience. How do you explain it? "It was cold -- really cold. Frigid. Icy. Colder than you or I have ever felt by orders of magnitude."
In many ways, this is what it's like reviewing really good audio equipment, the sort of gear that sets a new standard in sonic reproduction. You're not only trying to describe sound to someone who presumably hasn't heard what you have, but also trying to describe reproduced sound that's closer to live music than you've ever heard before. And after you've used that phrase -- "It's closer to live music than I've ever heard before" -- you're basically stuck with metaphors, none of which cuts it: "It was colder than a January night in Duluth."
OK, so I've probably tipped my hand in this review of the Esoteric P-70 transport and D-70 digital-to-analog converter -- they're remarkable pieces of audio equipment. But because we're all audiophiles here, I trust that you'll read on for the details.
Circuitry and construction
The P-70/D-70 transport/DAC combo is Japanese electronics giant TEAC Corporation's attempt at building the best source components for playing CDs, and TEAC's Esoteric division has a lot of experience creating all-out digital gear. Its earlier transports and DACs were models of design sophistication and build solidity, and these qualities have been transferred to the P-70 and D-70 in an extreme way. All you have to do is read the glossy product brochure and then pick up one of these units to know that they are serious products. Each weighs 55 pounds, a fair part of this heft due to the 8mm, 18-pound base plate and 10mm faceplate that they each use. This weight is not merely for show, however. It's part of a design strategy that aims at reducing the effects of chassis resonance on the sound produced.
For the P-70 transport ($7500 USD), TEAC designed a new mechanism, the latest iteration of its well-known VRDS series. Designing and building a CD mechanism from the ground up is not a simple task, and TEAC has increased its burden by designing one that not only spins a CD, but also clamps it to a high-mass turntable to improve disc stability. The CMK3-series mechanism used in the P-70 is TEAC's most current offering and incorporates a turntable with a .5-degree slope that is said to correct any curvature of the disc and thereby any distortion caused by it. The laser pickup is adjusted to the same angle to ensure extremely accurate reading of the disc -- and minimize disc-read errors. As you might guess, the mechanism's spindle motor provides powerful torque, which is due to the use of samarium-cobalt magnets that reportedly help provide ten times the power of previous VRDS motors. Pictures of the P-70's mechanism show that it's an impressive piece of audio hardware -- it looks like industrial sculpture.
Circuitry-wise, the P-70 has built-in digital-to-digital sample-rate conversion and a word-sync feature that, according to Esoteric, "provides a master clock that completely synchronizes all internal devices that output word synchronization, thereby allowing transport jitter and transmission-line jitter to be completely ignored."
The D-70 ($6500) is perhaps even more advanced than its partnering transport. At its heart is a foursome of Burr-Brown PCM1704 DACs in a dual-differential, fully balanced configuration. This chipset is able to process a high-resolution digital datastream, but it can't do it as currently implemented in the D-70. However, Esoteric has left a port available to stream high-resolution data into the D-70, to be used "as soon as a standard is written and agreed upon." The space for this IEEE1394 FireWire port is open on the back panel, but the port is not currently implemented. Other features -- of which there are many -- include an onboard 128-megabit RAM buffer that "absorbs the jitter generated by the transmission line" and built-in digital volume control that uses bit truncation to control attenuation in .1dB steps. This means that at volumes lower than all the way up, the P-70 actually passes a signal that's lower than the DAC's ultimate resolution, but as I comment below, the aural effects are non-existent or minimal.
The transport and DAC offer a good many outputs and inputs. The D-70 has standard coaxial, TosLink, and AES/EBU digital outputs as well as AES-3 digital outputs, which split the digital stream into left and right channels and allow for the output of digital data that's upsampled to 176.4kHz. This, along with its BNC-terminated word-sync input, create the most advanced way to connect the D-70 transport to the D-70 DAC, which has the proper digital inputs and word-sync output on its end. The DAC has both single-ended and balanced analog outputs, the latter taking full advantage of the D-70's fully balanced circuitry, as well as eight digital inputs. Because of its many digital inputs and digital volume control (all functionality is remote controlled), the D-70 is more a digital preamp than a strict digital-to-analog converter.
Even with everything I've mentioned about the P-70/D-70 combination, I've covered only a small portion of the pair's design and user features, all of which are discussed in the owner's manuals for the units and TEAC USA's website. The P-70 and D-70 are the audio equivalents of a modern fighter jet: fully equipped and ready for extreme performance.
Review system and use
I used the D-70 and P-70 in my reference system, which consists of Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 speakers, Lamm ML1.1 mono amps, a Lamm L2 Reference preamp, an Esoteric DV-50 universal A/V player, a Zanden Model 5000 Mk III DAC, and a Mark Levinson No.37 transport. Interconnects and speaker cables were from Nordost (Valkyrja) and Shunyata Research (Aries and Andromeda), and all power cords were from Shunyata Research (Anaconda Vx and Taipan). Power conditioning was provided primarily by a Shunyata Research Hydra Model-8, with a Sound Application XE-12S in use at various times. The Lamm electronics sat on custom-made Silent Running Audio VR 3.0 isoBases, the Zanden DAC rested on a shelf of a Target TT4 rack, and the Esoteric and Mark Levinson transports and Esoteric A/V player sat on a Townsend Seismic Sink that itself rested on a sand-filled Bright Star Big Foot base. Digital cables were from DH Labs -- a pair of D-110 AES/EBU cables and a single BNC-terminated D-75 coaxial cable.
Because the D-70 has its own integral digital volume control, I used it both with the Lamm preamp and on its own. When the D-70's signal was fed to the preamp, I made sure the digital volume was all the way up so that no truncation of bits was taking place and I was theoretically hearing the DAC at its very best. Even so, I couldn't hear any obvious loss of fidelity when the volume control was set at lower levels, although at very low levels, well below even background listening, there was a flatness to the sound, as though the night-viewing circuit on a DVD player was engaged. I ran the P-70 into a Mark Levinson No.383 integrated amp so I could assess any sonic differences between using the DAC's balanced and single-ended outputs, and I made sure to use the P-70's balanced outputs, which take full advantage of the D-70's dual-differential circuitry, when the DAC was connected directly to my amps. The D-70 does sound its best balanced -- a bit more pure and authoritative -- and given its cost, potential buyers should audition it this way to hear it at its best. But you will also hear what I note in this review when you use the D-70 single ended -- it's not somehow transformed into a different-sounding component via either set of analog outputs.
Of perhaps greater importance than how the D-70 is connected to the rest of your system is how you connect the D-70 to the P-70. I'm not just talking here about your choice of coaxial or AES/EBU digital cable, but rather about the combo's AES-3 connectivity. This requires that you use two AES/EBU cables and a separate BNC-terminated clock-link cable to slave the DAC to the transport. This configuration not only enables the DAC to convert the 176.4kHz sampling frequency from the transport, it also maximizes the DAC's rejection of jitter, which only improves its sound.
So I don't get too far off on a tangent here, this is by far the best-sounding way to hear the Esoteric combination, which means that you have to use the two pieces together to hear both at their best. Yes, I did listen to them separately, and they sound very good on their own, but when used together and linked in the way I describe above, their sound is far superior than it is when they are linked with a single digital cable -- or to other DACs and transports. Given this, everything you read below regarding the sonics of the P-70 and D-70 applies to using the combo with AES-3 and word-sync connections.
In his "All in Your Head" column this month, headphone maven Doug Paratore discusses the "one thing that we desire most in sound reproduction." This, he reasons, should act as a guiding principle, a North Star for our audio buying. Well, if detail is your audio North Star, the Esoteric P-70 and D-70 are your digital front-end. No CD player or transport/DAC combination I've heard has delivered more information to my speakers than the P-70/D-70. And I'm not talking about an increase in treble or midrange energy that is so often mistaken for greater detail -- the P-70 and D-70 are far too smooth and refined-sounding for that. Ultimately the best description I can offer is that well-recorded CDs sound more like SACDs when played through the Esoteric combo -- more authentic, with more of the perceived sound of the master tape coming through. However, the P-70 and D-70 do not candy coat, so you should also be ready to hear exactly what your CDs sound like, whether it be spectacularly good or surprisingly lousy.
The dynamic contrasts that the P-70 and D-70 are able to portray are stunning, and these digital components are champions at conveying the air around performers, certainly due to their ability to reproduce every "bit" of the music. A CD I've long used for evaluating digital equipment is Shawn Colvin's Cover Girl [Columbia 57875], which is, as its title wittily implies, an album of tunes written by other performers. On Tom Waits' "Heart of Saturday Night," Colvin's voice is hissy and very sibilant, and via the Esoteric combination both of these things come close to detracting from enjoyment of the tune. But here they are also more nuanced, more tied to the small increases and decreases in the volume of Colvin's voice, than I have heard previously. There's simply more to hear, and consequently the hiss and sibilance become an integral part of the track, not obstacles to music. Colvin's voice is itself tough to reproduce without sounding edgy and unpleasant, and while the P-70 and D-70 don't diminish this at all, they do help you understand that lesser digital gear can make Colvin's voice more of an impediment to enjoying the music.
Another sonic characteristic of note is the bass, which is deeper and more powerful than I've heard from digital equipment (and that includes SACDs played over the Esoteric DV-50) but not woolly or overly warm in the least. The P-70/D-70's bass is just like the rest of the sound these two produce: rife with musical information, some of which has gone unnoticed in the past. Ani DiFranco's wonderful Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe RBR13-D] is a favorite of more than a couple of SoundStagers, and on some of its tracks, namely "Virtue" and "Angel Food," it growls. Well, that growl is a touch more fierce when reproduced by the P-70 and D-70, and it's also more controlled as well, avoiding bloat and overhang in the process of providing a funkified foundation to the songs.
We audiophiles like to talk of black or velvety backgrounds, and we most often attribute the attendant decreases in background noise or hash to good power conditioning. Well, perhaps only with the Shunyata Research Hydra Model-8 power conditioner that I recently reviewed have I heard as absolutely quiet a sonic background as with the Esoteric P-70 and D-70. They give the phrase "dead quiet" new meaning, as the most minute details emerge from farther back in the music's mix than with any other digital components I've used. I keep harping on the information that these Esoteric separates are able to impart, and I suspect that the background tranquillity they convey is tied to their high-resolution nature. Maybe it's the lack of noise that makes the P-70 and D-70 sound so detailed. Again with Ani DiFranco's Up Up Up Up Up Up Up, when "Angel Food" starts to break up into individual instrumental sounds near the end of the track, the sounds are discrete, as though they are not reproduced at all. Surely the rest of my system, including the Shunyata Hydra Model-8, is somewhat responsible for this, but it's also something that the Esoteric P-70 and D-70 enhance.
However, throughout all of my discussions here, I fear that I may leave you with the wrong idea about the Esoteric P-70 and D-70 -- that they are more like scientific instruments than audio components. I think it's safe to say that they are among the most technologically advanced digital components ever made, but they are at the pinnacle when it comes to the sheer enjoyment they impart as well. Listening to music with them was never a chore, even with poorly recorded CDs, whose specific flaws were more discernible. The music was never less than highly detailed and highly satisfying, and I can't imagine that the obvious fidelity of this digital combination wouldn't impress any listener.
And what's more, even at $14,000 for the pair, their price seems reasonable given what you can pay for other top-flight digital gear that's not nearly as expertly designed, solidly built, and feature packed. I know this might seem absurd when you consider what $14,000 can buy these days, but if you're an audiophile, the Esoteric combo's many layers of appeal are impossible to deny.
Clash of the titans
Earlier this year I wrote about Zanden Audio's $9800 Model 5000 Mk III, an upgraded version of the DAC that Doug Schneider reviewed last year and the previous version of the DAC whose trip back to its homeland Doug documents in his "Traveler" column this month. I described this DAC's sound as an amalgam of "three of my favorite digital components -- no small feat." I'll quote myself further: "The music is propelled along in a wholly balanced and satisfying manner, and it displays no mechanical or analytical pallor. It's truthful and beautiful." The Zanden Mk III was a Reviewers' Choice when Doug first reviewed it, and I could only agree with him when I wrote my follow-up review.
Paired with a Mark Levinson No.37 transport ($4500), the Zanden DAC sounds slightly impressionistic in comparison to the Esoteric combo. There's obvious grace and poise to the Zanden/Levinson combo, although Shawn Colvin's Cover Girl doesn't display the same sense of space and detail as with the Esoteric P-70 and D-70. The bass of the Esoteric separates is more powerful, displaying greater slam on low-end workouts like Harry Connick's She [Columbia 64376] than the Zanden/Levinson pairing, whose bass is not deficient but sounds softer and rounder next to that of the Esoteric combo. Through the midrange, the Zanden/Levinson combination imparts a more human quality, a roundness and fullness to images that make them stand out more than those of the Esoteric separates. But even so, I can't fault what I heard from the P-70 and D-70 in this regard -- some listeners will surely prefer it.
In terms of design approach and functionality, the Zanden Model 5000 Mk III and Esoteric D-70 couldn't be much more different. The Zanden DAC does no oversampling (let alone upsampling) and cannot decode anything greater than 16 bits and 48kHz. It also uses vacuum tubes, and its output is a puny 1V, so it needs a preamp with plenty of gain. The Esoteric is all solid-state, can decode everything short of DVD-A and SACD, and has a built-in volume control. The Zanden does include a BNC digital input, with which it sounds its best, and the Esoteric DAC counters with AES-3 connectivity. You get the idea -- oil and water, digitally speaking.
Yet, both DACs (along with the accompanying transports) produce captivating sound. If I had to choose, I would be hard-pressed to do so, and I couldn't do it based on price given that the two cost almost the same amount of money. But I would choose the Esoteric combination for its rich feature set and remarkably detailed sound, and I would hope that at some point I could purchase a Zanden Model 5000 Mk IV (the newest iteration of this DAC) and a Mark Levinson No.37 to use alongside it. To be sure, these are two distinguished digital duos.
If you are lucky enough to spend some time with the Esoteric P-70 and D-70, you will be impressed. These ne plus ultra audio components were obviously designed without compromise, and their sound proves this as readily as their design brief does. They offer stunning retrieval of detail, grand dynamic contrasts, edge-of-the-art bass, and the sort of silent background for which only the best power conditioners get credit. As for their price, keep in mind that the D-70 allows you to ditch your preamp, which may save you the cost of both DAC and transport given the prices of the very best preamps on the market today. There is also, I suspect, a high level of pride that comes with owning the P-70 and D-70 -- they might represent the last attempt, and the best attempt, at building the ultimate CD player.
Just as it's difficult to describe extreme weather conditions to anyone who hasn't experienced them, it's hard to convey fully the sound of the Esoteric P-70 and D-70 -- even to those who have heard some of the best-sounding digital gear extant. Luckily, we here at SoundStage! have an easy out -- naming a component a Reviewers' Choice, an honor that the P-70 and D-70 have down cold.
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