Friday, May 2, 2008

Esoteric SA-60 universal player

Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
Esoteric SA-60 universal player 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

In the ongoing debacle that has been the introduction and promotion of high-resolution digital audio and the record industry's struggles to engage the public's interest in it, two recent events stand out.

One was Sony's decision, in 2006, to limit to one day a week the production of hybrid SACD/CDs at its Terre Haute, Indiana pressing plant, which had opened with much fanfare in May 2003. That forced ABKCO Records to replace its catalog of Rolling Stones hybrids, perhaps the best-selling SACD/CDs ever released, with "Red Book" CD editions. According to ABKCO, the company had found itself unable to fill wholesale orders.

Removing the SACD layer wasn't a big issue for ABKCO—few consumers were buying the discs to get the SACD layer in the first place, the label had designed the artwork to underplay SACD to avoid consumer confusion, and, most important, had priced the discs to ensure that they'd be stocked in the CD racks and not in some "audiophile" ghetto hidden behind a wall. But Sony's move drove the last nail into the coffin of the optimistic notion that the hybrid disc's "hidden" SACD layer might make it a mainstream product costing no more than a "Red Book" CD. Sony's message, heard loud and clear throughout the industry, was that no independent label's effort to support the SACD format with superb sound, a popular catalog, and low prices would go unpunished by SACD's inventor and original promoter.

The other high-resolution setback was Philips' launch, in 2005, of a poorly designed, ergonomically primitive OEM SACD transport. Aside from refusing to play a large percentage of "Red Book" CDs that any $30 DiscMan would play without so much as a digital hiccup, this transport eventually produced an almost 100% failure rate in the field with no possible fix—much to the disgust, horror, and embarrassment of Krell, Musical Fidelity, T+A, and other makers of high-end players who value their reputations for making reliable, high-quality players. Philips then made matters worse by simply abandoning their manufacturer customer, leaving these companies to face angry customers who'd bought expensive products that broke and could not be fixed.

Add the problems in navigating DVD-Audio discs with displayless, audio-only systems, the limited enthusiasm among audiophiles for multichannel sound, the record industry's confusing move to double-sided DualDiscs containing CD, Dolby Digital, and DVD-A content, consumers' clamor for lo-rez MP3 downloads, and the resurgence of analog, and it's a wonder that hi-rez digital sound has survived at all.

Yet, like vinyl, high-resolution digital has survived, thanks to the support of enthusiasts like the readers of Stereophile. A perusal of retail websites catering to audiophiles demonstrates that there's sufficient high-quality music available in the two hi-rez audio formats to make the purchase of a "universal player" worth considering—assuming that that player offers superb CD playback. For now (and perhaps forever), the vast majority of digitally encoded music on disc will be in the standard "Red Book" format.

Proprietary VOSP transport
Esoteric's product line includes audio-only CD transports costing $13,300 and $25,000, and stereo and monoblock DACs costing $13,300 and $25,000/pair, respectively. At $4600, the SA-60 is second from the bottom of Esoteric's audio-only offerings, yet has a highly advanced, proprietary transport that Esoteric has developed, using the same optics, from the X-3 series of VRDS transports used in the company's more expensive players.

The mechanism—a sophisticated, Vertically Aligned Optical Stability Platform (VOSP)—is claimed to offer levels of rigidity and stability not found in cheaper plastic transports, as well as a high-mass disc-clamping system that reduces rotational resonances at high speeds. The disc is clamped between a plate and an 8mm-thick, large-diameter disc, both made of metal.

This rigid, stable framework permitted the development of a shaft-mounted laser-pickup assembly of equal rigidity and stability, that maintains perfect vertical alignment to ensure that the laser's optical axis is always centered in the data track. [According to the SA-60's manual, the actual optical pickup is sourced from Sony, an SLD6163RL-G—Ed.] Conventional laser-pickup assemblies are allowed to pivot in order to keep the laser beam in contact with the spiral data track. In cheaper transports, the high-speed rotation of the disc causes unwanted resonances that can shake both the disc and the laser head. According to Esoteric, data read when the laser is off its central axis is liable to high levels of jitter and errors. The VOSP transport's reduction of tracking error and claimed elimination of off-axis data reading are claimed to result in far less jitter and error correction.

The transport mechanism is mounted directly on the bottom of the chassis with a pair of steel brackets, to provide additional rigidity to further damp resonances. The disc tray itself is made of aluminum, not plastic. A picture of the VOSP mechanism speaks volumes about its robust mechanical design when compared to the typical plastic transports found in most CD, SACD, DVD, and universal players.

But how much difference can all of this mechanical stability and "perfect tracking" make to digital sound? Why should it make any difference at all?

Many audiophiles forget that an optical disc is actually an analog format—the digital code itself is not engraved in the disc. Instead, the disc's "land" and "pit" surfaces are physical analogs of the digital bitstream's ones and zeros. As the laser beam is reflected off a land or a pit, the amount of reflected light reflected determines whether the information is read as a one or as a zero.

A CD pit is intended to absorb light; the laser's "direct hit" on a pit is more likely to provide greater absorption of the beam, and thus a greater likelihood of the pit's being read correctly, than the "partial hit" of an off-axis strike (footnote 1). While error-correction circuitry can extrapolate and fill in missing data, better tracking should result in fewer reading errors, and thus less interpolation, less jitter, and better sound when the data is converted to an analog signal.

Digital Conversion
Once the SA-60's transport has read data from a CD, SACD, DVD-A, DTS, DTS 96/24, or Dolby Digital disc, it then feeds those data to the player's Cirrus Logic CS4398 digital-to-analog converters. These DACs are capable of natively converting the SACD format's native DSD encoding, as well as converting PCM data. (Some SACD players' DACs convert DSD to PCM before presenting it to the DACs.) In keeping with Esoteric's purist intentions, the SA-60 has separate DACs for its two- and 5.1-channel outputs.

The SA-60 employs the second generation of Esoteric's proprietary RDOT and FIR algorithms, which give the user a variety of reconstruction filters. The player also includes the option of upconverting CD PCM data to DSD, as used in Esoteric's far more expensive P-03/D-03 separates.

The rear-panel jacks include separate two-channel and multichannel outputs and a pair of balanced XLR outputs. There are also coaxial and optical digital outs, and a BNC word-sync input for use with an external word clock. (Esoteric offers several dedicated master-clock devices including one, the G-0S, which features a rubidium clock generator.) An optional iLINK (IEEE1394, or FireWire) port outputs DSD and high-resolution PCM, both stereo and multichannel, for decoding via an outboard DAC. The remote control, milled from a block of aluminum, exudes high quality, though it's not backlit.

All things considered, the reasonably priced SA-60 makes an unreasonably fine physical impression in terms of both build quality and functionality.

Setup and Use
Japanese-made components often come with frustratingly incomplete and/or confusing instruction manuals, and the SA-60 is no exception. For instance, its manual's "Up convert" section tells you that "An FIR digital filter...does upward sample rate conversion," and that you can "select wide or narrow characteristic for this filter. See page 20 for details." On p.20 you are told how to "Choose either 'Wide' or 'Narrow,'" but not a word about what that means, or what the sonic consequences of choosing either option might be.

Footnote 1: The depth of the pits on a disc's surface should be one quarter of the wavelength of the laser light, meaning that when read from directly above, there will be complete destructive interference with light reflected from the pits, but not the lands, maximizing the dynamic contrast. This contrast is reduced when the pits are read from an angle.—John Atkinson

Ditto the explanation for the DSD settings of "Normal (factory default)" and "Direct." The manual says that the "Normal (factory default)" setting outputs DSD "after processing," while "Direct" outputs the audio signal "without running it through the processor." You're given no idea what selecting either option means in terms of sound—an unacceptable "explanation," in my opinion. Buyers, especially those less technically adept and/or experienced, deserve better documentation.

Pressing the FIR button on the front panel automatically upconverts the "Red Book" bitword resolution of all sampling rates from 16 to 24 bits. Signals sampled at 44.1kHz are upconverted to 48kHz, 88.2kHz signals to 96kHz, and 176kHz signals to 192kHz. Pressing RDOT+FIR engages the second upconversion filter, which features a "slow rolloff curve for a more immersive sound." This feature deserves more explanation in the manual. Pushing a third button upsamples any PCM signal to DSD resolution (1-bit words at 64Fs or 2.822MHz).

Anyone who's set up a home-theater receiver will have no problem using the SA-60's logically organized menus. Others may struggle a bit. There are two sets of setup options: a relatively simple one for two-channel operation, and a more complicated one for multichannel that includes settings for speaker size and distance, plus a test tone.

With the exception of accessing what Esoteric calls "Group Areas" on DVD-A discs, or even understanding what the phrase means without some frustrating experimentation (thanks to the less-than-forthcoming manual; see below), using the SA-60 was a complete pleasure. The transport operated smoothly, and was quiet and responsive, as was the remote control.

SACD playback was straightforward. Having the option of choosing a hybrid disc's PCM or DSD layer by hitting the remote's Play Area button before hitting Play was a welcome change from the Philips transport mechanism in my reference SACD player, a Musical Fidelity kW, which doesn't permit that operation (and, in the near future, probably won't permit any operation).

Playing DVD-A discs without a video display to access the menus will never be easy. However, the SA-60 made this tolerable, once I got the hang of it. The instructions tell you to use the Group buttons to "change titles and groups on DVD media." Precisely what a DVD-A's "group" might be isn't specified, nor was it clarified when, in the "Selecting Playback" section of the manual, the user is told that pressing the Play Area button will select the "play area" of both SACDs and DVD-As. "Play Area"? "Group"? With no definitions or explanations of these terms provided, you're on your own.

Hitting Play Area while in Stop mode toggled between an SACD's DSD and PCM layers, but did nothing for any of my DVD-A discs. Pressing "Group" forward or back gave access to various audio options, including multichannel, stereo, Dolby Digital multichannel, and, occasionally, the audio tracks of video features whose images I couldn't see. Which Play Area was accessed by each press of the Group button depended on authoring choices made during the mastering of that particular release. Most DVD-As I tried gave me the multichannel mix as the default (Group 1), as confirmed by the speaker-channel icons (L, C, R, RS, LS, LFE) lit up on the front panel's fluorescent display. When the SA-60 is set up for two-channel operation, it automatically downmixes the multichannel mix to two-channel stereo, and the display announces "Downmix."

However, as I discovered when comparing the "downmix" and the two-channel track (Group 2) of the spectacular-sounding DVD-A of Neil Young's Harvest (Reprise 48100-9), the downmix didn't necessarily produce acceptable stereo—the downmixed Harvest had grotesquely bloated bass (ever heard someone knocking over a mike stand in the right channel two minutes into "Out On the Weekend"?). So when playing a DVD-A in a two-channel system, be sure to search for the stereo mix (if any). As I switched among Groups, which can be done on the fly during playback, I needed patience: the SA-60's display reflects a change in Group only after the next Group has been accessed, which can take some time. When I lost patience and hit Group again, I ended up in Group 3.

Some DVD-As, such as Queen's A Night at the Opera (Hollywood 69286-01091-9-3), behaved erratically. Sometimes the stereo track would play, but there would be no sound. At other times, the disc would begin with "Bohemian Rhapsody"—track 11.

While the SA-60 will play DTS surround discs (pre–DTS 96/24) such as Steely Dan's Gaucho (7102151014-2-2)—which sounds excellent even when "Downmixed"—be sure to go into the setup menu and switch from Direct to Normal, or you'll get a nasty hit of high-frequency hash instead of the music. Afterward, be sure to switch back to Direct to remove unnecessary circuitry from the signal path and get the best CD sound from the player.

Generally speaking, while the Esoteric SA-60's playback of CDs and SACDs was convenient and entirely straightforward, I found it easier to play an LP than to search for the right Group on an unfamiliar DVD-A. Switching among Groups, you never know what you'll come up with.

Sound: CD
Most digital discs you're likely to ever own will be "Red Book" CDs. The SA-60's strong suit in the playback of CDs (set to FIR) was pristine, delicate, yet "fast" high-frequency transients that were free of smear, etch, and grain—though only if the disc was free of these in the first place. Its HF extension was equally appealing, and helped produce airy soundstages that were respectably deep for CD, and on which were drawn equally pristine images that were somewhat less than three-dimensionally solid. While the SA-60's overall sound was crystalline, delicate, and refined, it was by no means withdrawn or too polite, thanks to its inviting transparency, and especially to its ability to retrieve all of the musical and spatial details encoded in my very familiar reference discs. In that regard, the SA-60 was faultless; it's the format that isn't.

The SA-60's bass performance was good but not stellar: reasonably solid and extended, but without the authoritative control and sock of the best—and far more expensive—CD-only players I've heard.

When I played the same discs in my reference CD player, the two-box Musical Fidelity kW DM25 ($6500, reviewed by Art Dudley in July 2006), the images were somewhat larger and fuller, more solid and robust, with better midband fill and firmer, more extended bass. However, transients were rendered with somewhat less delicacy and with slightly diminished transparency. The kW DM25 has a digital input, so it was easy to compare the players' transports. Using the SA-60's VOSP transport to drive the Musical Fidelity's DACs demonstrated that it was the VOSP that was largely responsible for the SA-60's superbly clean transient response and overall transparency and clarity, and that it was its analog output section and/or DACs that were producing the less-than-solid bottom end and somewhat reticent midband.

The combo of SA-60 transport and kW DM25 DAC produced the best sound from CDs, with pristine extension on top, a rich midrange, solid images, and firm, extended, well-defined bass. Overall, however, the SA-60 reproduced open, generously staged, texturally supple, and involving sound pictures from CDs.

Adding the RDOT filter or upsampling to DSD produced varying results, sometimes adding desirable smoothness and musical flow to gritty-sounding discs, and sometimes smoothing things out to the point of "Softserv" boredom. Whether or not to use these options is best left to the individual listener's taste, but being able to customize the sound of any given disc is an attractive aspect of the SA-60's flexibility.

Sound: SACD and DVD-Audio
Once you switch to either of the high-resolution formats, it's difficult to go back to CD's relatively soft, nonspecific images and generally mushy sound. Had today's SACD or DVD-Audio performance been what was available from CD back in 1983, you'd have heard less squawking from the analog chorus.

Steve Hoffman did a find job of mastering DCC Compact Classics' series of gold CDs, but when you compare them with the DVD-A versions of the same titles, such as the Eagles' Hotel California or Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time, the CDs simply can't compare with the DVD-As' bass weight and body, dynamic authority, image specificity, and, especially, those difficult-to-describe intangibles that make you want to sit and devote your full attention to the music.

Neil Young's Harvest is easily one of the best-sounding rock DVD-As I've heard, with great atmosphere (most of it was recorded in a barn, after all), a palpably three-dimensional soundstage, and fully rounded images of voices and instruments. Played back on the SA-60, Young was eerily present in the room, his voice reproduced as I've never heard any CD reproduce any human voice. Why, it sounds almost as good as an original-pressing Reprise LP!

Most DVD-As I auditioned, such as the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, sounded big, full, solid, and dynamic through the SA-60, with outstanding bottom-end extension (perhaps a bit too much added bottom to make a format statement) and imaging specificity and solidity. Most significant, the music flowed with a relaxing certainty that CDs seem to have in short supply.

With no other DVD-A players on hand to compare with the SA-60, I can only say that its DVD-A performance produced a giant sonic leap in every way compared to CDs of the same material. When I compare Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat on CD and DVD-A, the case closed on CD's supposed "transparency to the source." That was bullshit in 1983, and it's bullshit today.

The SA-60 maintained the same pleasing character when playing SACDs as it did with the other formats. Mobile Fidelity's reissues of Alison Krauss + Union Station's Live (Rounder/Mobile Fidelity) and the Patricia Barber albums, and David Chesky's indispensable Area 31 (Chesky SACD288), were rendered with pinpoint transient precision; airy, effortless high-frequency extension; and an overall delicacy and freedom from grit, grain, glare, and "electronica" that I usually associate with first-class analog playback. As with its performance with other formats, the SA-60's bass extension, focus, and solidity were good, though clearly not up to what the very best players can deliver, and its midband was slightly reticent.

When I compared the playback of SACDs by the Esoteric SA-60 and by Musical Fidelity's kW SACD player ($7000, no longer available), the SA-60 produced slightly more refined, pristine highs, and somewhat greater transparency and clarity that was free of "digititis." Though pleasing in its overall refinement, the SA-60 also tended to somewhat diminish midband body and weight. I've heard the Who's Tommy a thousand or more times on original and reissued vinyl; the remixed SACD sounded somewhat thin in the midband, robbing the vocals, and especially Keith Moon's drums, of their natural textures. Similar results were by produced by a stack of other SACDs, such as Derek and the Dominos' Layla, Beck's superb Sea Change, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet's Spin (Telarc SACD-60647).

On the other hand, the SACD reissue of Jascha Heifetz's performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA Living Stereo/Sony BMG 82876-67896-2), produced through the Esoteric player an exquisite balance of physical textures, harmonic colors, and soundstage detail, perhaps because the recording itself has always sounded somewhat overblown in the midrange.

Switching to the Musical Fidelity kW SACD player confirmed that it was the Esoteric SA-60, not the SACD remix of Tommy, that had produced the somewhat recessed midband. But there was also a diminution in transient clarity and precision with the Musical Fidelity player compared with the SA-60, which delivered these qualities with great authority from all formats.

At the heart of the Esoteric SA-60 is a high-quality, custom-designed transport the likes of which are found in few CD, DVD, or SACD players priced as low as $4600. That this transport was able to improve CD playback when coupled with the Musical Fidelity kW DM25 DAC tells me that if you buy an SA-60 now, in the future you could add an outboard "Red Book" DAC to further improve its already excellent sound quality. But even as a standalone player, the SA-60 offers superb sound that will satisfy most buyers now and far into the future. The SA-60 is an excellent player of "Red Book" CDs.

The SA-60's playback of DVD-Audio and SACD discs exceeded that of any CD player because of the discs' far higher resolution. It's as simple as that. I'd rather listen to a DVD-A or SACD edition of a given title through the SA-60 than the CD version of that title through any CD player at any price.

Given its high build quality, versatility, ease of use, and distinguished sound, the Esoteric SA-60 universal player is one of best audio bargains I've come across in quite some time. Hell, $4600 is the price of a top-shelf phono cartridge. Of course, there's a lot more hi-rez analog coming out these days on vinyl, not to mention a 50-year backlog of existing recordings. And of course, as always, I recommend that you buy a turntable, especially if most of the music you like is from the analog era.

But who knows? If enough universal players like the Esoteric SA-60 are sold, the major record labels may be tempted to dig into their catalogs and release the stuff on DVD-A or SACD themselves, or license the titles to audiophile labels. That's already happening at Mobile Fidelity. It's a trickle now, but it could swell into a torrent. After what's happened with vinyl, it's easy to be optimistic!

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