November 30, 2009

The Swiss Army Knife of Digital Replay - Esoteric SA-50 Audio Player

I never came across any disc player with as many features as the Esoteric SA-50.

The Esoteric SA-50 is so choked full of features, like a swiss army knife, that I think it is the disc player that offers the best value for money in this regard. I think some would think that these features alone would have worth the price of admission, before even listening to the sound. :-)

Esoteric SA-50, built like a Lexus

Let's see what you can use it for - it is a disc player, taking care of CD & SACD (though it can't do DVD-A). In fact it is a few players in one, as its myriad upsampling and filter options offer subtle differences for you to tailor the sound to your liking. It is a DAC, one that can take digital input from multiple sources including a computer. It can even replace a pre-amp as it has a built-in volume control, provided you have only digital sources.

Technology wise, it uses a version of Esoteric's renowned drive mechanism, called VOSP. Almost every one would agree that no one makes a better drive than Esoteric. It comes with a 32-bit DAC, while many others are still boasting about 24-bit. It allows the user to upgrade it further by using an external word clock, Esoteric can supply one of their own.

Let's look at each feature in more details. First with its up-sampling options. For CD playback and digital input, i.e.,PCM digital audio, you can choose from 4 settings:
- ORG (original, no upsampling)
- 2Fs (32 / 44.1 / 48kHz signals are upconverted to 64 / 88.2 / 96 kHz)
- 4Fs (32 / 44.1 / 48 / 88.2 / 96kHz are upconverted to 128 / 176.4 and 192 kHz)
- DSD (PCM signal is converted to Direct Stream Digital, i.e., SACD format)

I played with these options for a few hours, and found that I preferred the DSD option the best, it sounded the smoothest among the lot, music had a nice flow and was highly coherent. It also sounded the most anologue among all four. ORG was the worst, you are really listening to coarse digital audio, it sounded rough and was really uncomfortable to my ears. 4Fs came in second, a big improvement from ORG but still sounded slightly digital to me. So, I used DSD exclusively for my listening sessions.

Strangely, for SACD (DSD) audio, the Esoteric SA-50 offers the user choices to play back at the native DSD format or converted it to PCM either at 88.2kHz / 32 bits (2Fs) or 176.4kHz / 32 bits (4Fs). I found that I also preferred the DSD setting.

Next up, the filter options. It has 2:
- FIR, which Esoteric says provide "a fuller, richer and deeper sound"
- S_DLY, which provides "an impluse response without pre-echo, natural attack and reverberation. This setting provides tonal quality that is closest to the original without enhancement". The "without pre-echo" words ticked me off, this is similar to the apodizing filter used in the new generation of Meridian's cd players and is also similar to the filter in my Ayre C-5xeMP at the 'measure' setting.

The S_DLY filter did sound more natural to me, the FIR filter slightly more dynamic. Listening to acoustic music, I'd choose the S_DLY filter, but for some music like rock, the FIR could provide just a tad more slam and excitement.

Next the outputs and inputs.

Analog outputs of the Esoteric SA-50

For analog output, the Esoteric SA-50 is basically a 2-channel machine. It offers a pair each of XLR (balanced) and RCA (single-ended) output. For digital output, it offers an optical and a coaxial output. Pretty much par for the course.

Digital inputs and outputs of the Esoteric SA-50

But many would not expect a disc player to have multiple inputs! They are all digital. There are an optical digital terminal, a coaxial RCA terminal and a USB port (v1.1 or higher). Now, you not only can listen to your silver discs, you can listen from your computer hard disc too!

Only a Japanese highend company can do all these, really. The feature list is simply amazing.

I am not done - I am yet to rave about its construction quality. The Esoteric SA-50 is simply impeccably built. The entire thing just exuded quality and class - reminded me of a Lexus. Everything - the disc tray, every button on the machine, the remote control, just worked and worked smoothly. Every moving part emitted nary a pip, no clunkiness, no excessive mechanical sound. And at 18kg, the SA-50 is even heavier than many integrated amps, some power amps, and almost all CD players that ever came into my place. Lastly, this thing came triple-boxed from the factory. Double I am used to, but for triple this was my first encounter. :-)

Ok, I have covered all the physical attributes of the Esoteric SA-50. So now let's sit down and listen to this jewel of a disc player.

I played CDs and some SACDs exclusively for my listening, no external inputs, as I did not have any.

I started with Shelby Lynne. The most prominent sound characteristic of the SA50 was so obvious before the first 5 minutes was up. It was SMOOTH, SMOOTH, SMOOTH... I declare this Esoteric as the smoothest sounding player that I have ever heard in my system. It was like hot-knife-cutting-through-butter smooth, the sonic texture was so creamy and fine. Where is the disjointed digital sound? Where are the digital artifacts? There was none to be found.

The Esoteric SA-50's treble was extended and airy, always non-offensive. The mid had natural body, vocal was slightly more 'youthful' than in my experience with a few other players, Ella Fitzgerald shedded a few pounds and Shelby Lynne was a couple of years younger. It is a different perspective, one that eschewed any heaviness in the sound. Bass was strong, deep, and well defined, though some other may outsmart the Esoteric SA-50 in terms of punchiness.

All in all, it is refinement to the fore, rubbish to the back for the Esoteric SA-50. It always dug up the beauty in the music to present. With my CDs, the Mozart symphonies and all vocal music came through beautifully. The Esoteric SA-50 never sounded hurried, it teased out all the musical strands and presented them to you in a natural way. I found that switching to the FIR filter could add a wee bit more rhythmic drive to the SA-50, but I also lost some naturalness. Well, the fact that you can fine tune is already a plus.

On George Winston's piano pieces, instead of highlighting the piano's attack, the SA-50 focused more on presenting the nuances and the decay of the notes, the acoustic space was also presented more clearly and more prominently. On my harder hitting stuff such as chinese drum music, you can probably find some others sounding more dynamic, but the SA-50 on its own was already no slouch, it was very good in fact. However, in one area the Esoteric SA-50 would be unbeatable, that was the portrayal of the different shadings and the spread-in-the-air quality of each drum beat.

The pricing of the Esoteric SA-50 has not been confirmed by Centre Circle Audio, I think it would be under the RM20k point. I'd stick my neck out and say that for the material value you get, it is really the best around.

That it sounded smooth, highly refined, and nice to listen to is the bonus.

ontact Centre Circle Audio, Ph: 03-77282686; Nelson Chia 012-2876807; Sky Wong 012-3371787

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