Esoteric DV-50 universal player Page 3
After settling on a preferred upconversion option, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty of the Esoteric's sonic particulars. Its overall timbral balance was highly transparent and revealing. On the chamber-orchestra version of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, with guitarist Nikolaus Kraft, and Nicholas Ward conducting the Northern Chamber Orchestra (CD, Naxos 8.550729), the intricacies of the smaller ensemble's textures through the DV-50 were outstanding—the woodwinds, long a problem with digital, were especially persuasive.
The Esoteric's balance was not unforgiving or ruthless, but it didn't go at all out of its way to hide flaws in the recording. Philip Glass's Akhnaten, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies (CD, CBS 42457), contains much music of almost unearthly beauty and delicacy, but it is an early digital recording, with all the negatives that implies. The DV-50 let the music flow without concealing the weirdly "plasticky" and slightly veiled sound that is part and parcel of this CD.
On the Jerome Harris' Quintet's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), Harris' amplified acoustic bass guitar had a wonderful roundness and warmth, and Art Baron's plunger-mute solo toward the end of "The Mooche" raised the hair on the back of my neck with its convincingness. The only other place I've heard Stanley Clarke's bass parts in "Justice's Groove," on East River Drive (CD, Epic EK 47489), reproduced with the same fidelity as through the DV-50 is when I've tried a few of them on my Alembic Stanley Clarke Signature bass through my 1970-vintage Hiwatt tube amp.
The Esoteric's spatial presentation was a little more upfront than the Classé Omega's, but somewhat less so than that of the Ayre D-1x. Overall, it was slightly forward of dead-neutral, but the effect was nothing more than a pleasing sense of closeness to and involvement with the musical event. Dynamics were always first-rate, with bass dynamics standing out for special commendation. The rolling thunder of two drummers and two bassists on King Crimson's roaring Vrooom Vrooom (CD, DGM DGM0105) was delivered with enough energy to satisfy even the Beavises and Butt-heads of the world. Nor was the delicacy of solo instruments shortchanged—Bert Jansch's acoustic guitar had a subtle and shaded delicacy reminiscent of analog.
Resolution was outstanding on all types of music. Working out the richly multilayered intricacies of Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds Live (CD, Sanctuary 84556-2) (footnote 2), the DV-50 was right at home. Moving to the luscious, intricate sounds of Leopold Stokowski conducting Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody 4 (CD, RCA Living Stereo 61503-2), or the even more delicious sonics of Bantock's Celtic Symphony (CD, Hyperion CDA664501), the EV-50 provided all this audiophile needed.
Soundstaging was steadily as deep, high, wide, and handsome as the sources would permit. On such spacious pieces as the Bantock, and "Papsico" from Future Sound of London's The Papua New Guinea Translations (CD, Jumpin' and Pumpin' CD TOT52), that meant mighty impressive.
The DV-50 communicated an exceptional sense of music's flowing lines and real meanings. I'm a big fan of the voice of Fairport Convention's Simon Nicol. He is far from a technically flawless singer, but his gentle, rough-hewn baritone connects with me on a directly emotional level as do few male singers; Nicol is invested in every note he sings. Fairport's Old, New, Borrowed, Blue (CD, Green Linnet GLCS 3114) is not an audiophile recording, and I suspect that it was done direct to an ADAT in a no-frills style, but hearing "Crazy Man Michael" washed all the silly "audiophile" issues away. To hold one's own on a song originally sung by the peerless Sandy Denny is no easy thing, but on this heartbreaking ballad, Nicol does just that. And the following bawdy knees-up, "The Widow of Westmoreland's Daughter," was as much pure fun as the "Michael" was a slice of exquisite sadness.
With the Jerome Harris CD, the DV-50 was uncannily true to the subtle timing relationships that are the heart of good small-group jazz. "A place for everything and everything in its place, at exactly the right time," was the motto for music through the Esoteric DV-50.
Let's You and Him Fight
For the last year-plus, Classé's fabulous Omega player has been my reference for all digital playback (reviewed by Jonathan Scull in November 2001, Vol.24 No.11). The Omega convinced me that SACD is the real future of high-resolution music reproduction, and has been a constant in my listening for reviews and for pleasure. So, of course, I had to compare the Omega and the DV-50 head to head, principally in SACD mode. The competition was done with the incredible VTL 7.5 line stage (review to come), and both players were hooked up with either Nordost Valhalla or Acoustic Zen Silver Reference interconnects. (I used identical cables with both players during comparisons.)
Listening to the same pieces back to back on the Classé and the Esoteric was fascinating. The Classé's presentation was less forward and its images were a tad rounder, more palpable and lifelike. However, with Bruno Walter's recording of Beethoven's Symphony 6 (SACD, Sony Classical SS 6012) and Boulez Conducts Ravel (SACD, Sony Classical SS 89121), the Esoteric had superior transparency, with more air around instruments and sections and more back-of-the-stage resolution. The Omega's balance was richer in the upper-mids/lower-treble range, while the DV-50 had slightly superior bass definition. The DV-50's way with space was really driven home with Michiel Ras's performance of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, arranged for organ (SACD, STS 611130). This wizardly DSD recording by Fritz de With captures the sound of an organ in a church with stunning fidelity, and the Esoteric's ability to illuminate every nook and cranny of the acoustic was convincing.
Picking at the sonic quality of either machine as an SACD player misses the point as much as does complaining about the size of a Bentley's glove box. Ultimately, the choice will boil down to how each player synergizes with the rest of the system it's used in. In a brief comparison of the two players on conventional CDs, the results were similar. In upconverting mode (to 24/192), the Classé had a few squillionths more palpability and timbral richness, but the Esoteric dug more spatial resolution and sheer information out of the pits. To my ears, the Omega ultimately sounded more like a superb LP played back under perfect circumstances, while the DV-50's sound was more like that of an analog master tape. Heads, you win; tails, you win.
The Whole Shebang
The Esoteric DV-50 is the most fun you can have with digital music playback short of the dCS trio reviewed by Michael Fremer in April 2003 (Vol.26 No.4). Given that the dCS gear costs about six times as much as the DV-50, the Esoteric is a screaming bargain, especially considering its hyper-advanced technology, bulletproof build, and exceptional sound. You can even play movies on it.
The complexity of the DV-50's computing power is the antithesis of the "keep it simple" philosophy that, to this day, is the easiest path to the best sound, but there's no arguing with Esoteric's extraordinary results. One word sums up the DV-50: "Bravo!"
Foonote 2: If you are at all a fan of rock music, you need this CD now! To hear perhaps the genre's single greatest genius (Lennon and McCartney, after all, had each other to work with when they were at their best) presenting his crowning masterpiece live with such conviction and grandeur is a treasure beyond price.