Esoteric N-01 network audio player Page 3

With the jazz track at 2Fs, I noticed that the initial patter of fingers on drums and the trumpet sounded drier than without upsampling. The leading edges of notes from the horn, and the most percussive piano notes, were softened and rounded. The Rachmaninoff sounded significantly drier, flatter, and less colorful, and the bass was less profound.

Oversampling at 4Fs added air around instruments and a heightened sense of acoustic space, but the sound was, if anything, more flat and flabby than before. The 8Fs rate surprised me: both tracks sounded "wetter" and airier, with more convincing decays. Bass may still have been diminished, but 8Fs was definitely a case of pluses vying with minuses.

With 16Fs oversampling I thought I heard a slight shift in timbre with the jazz recording: the piano initially sounded dull. "No," I wrote, "not as alive or impactful. Drums have less snap and resonance." Ditto the orchestra, which sounded a bit fuzzy and drier, with less distinction of edges, and significantly less saturated colors in the gorgeous woodwinds that bridge the first and second themes of the first Symphonic Dance.

Upsampling to DSD went poorly. The jazz track sounded almost plastic. Breathy sounds were dry, and when the piano entered, it was muffled. "Smoother in an unnatural way, with less sharped edges," I scribbled. "With the Rachmaninoff, the first big bass-drum smack just doesn't do it for me upsampled to DSD. The heart-tugging second theme sounds so much more touching and fulfilling in ORG mode."

MQA was a totally different story. When I listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sing "You Can't Take that Away from Me," from Ella & Louis (24/96 FLAC, 24/48 MQA FLAC, Verve 825 373-2), MQA increased color saturation in the midrange. Drums seemed especially vivid, and the edge of Armstrong's trumpet more lifelike. With John Atkinson's recording of the Portland State Chamber Choir performing "Amazing Grace" under director Ethan Sperry, from Into Unknown Worlds (24/88.2 FLAC, 24/88.2 MQA FLAC, CD Baby 888295153546), the pearly warmth of youthful voices and the remarkable sense of acoustic expanse were, with MQA, even more moving, and the lovely soprano soloist, Genna McAllister, seemed more "in the room." I also heard more air around the choral voices behind her, the male voices standing out more. MQA made both recordings sound more like the real thing. I'd rate Esoteric's implementation of MQA in the N-01 as between very good and excellent.


I didn't do much listening to streams or Internet radio, other than to ascertain that the N-01 worked fine with both. After I'd completed all my listening, Sefton informed me that the Sound Stream app now identifies which Tidal tracks are MQA. I can't find in my 12 pages of notes where I jotted down the title of the 16/44.1 pop track I streamed through both Tidal and Qobuz, but, as with LG's V30 hi-rez smartphone, which I reviewed in May 2018 (footnote 2), the Qobuz stream sounded fuller, with more bass. If all has gone according to plan, by the time you read this Qobuz will have launched non-MQA hi-rez streaming in the US.

My reference network music player is dCS's Rossini DAC ($23,999). Both it and the Esoteric N-01 can play files from computer, USB, HD, NAS, silver discs, etc., have a BNC input for an external clock, and have differently configured proprietary apps for streaming from Tidal and other services, and by the time this review is published I hope the Rossini's app will have added Qobuz streaming. Once Esoteric's Roon certification is complete, both units will also be Roon endpoints.

Among the differences, only the N-01 streams Internet radio. Upsampling is optional in the N-01, but is automatically applied (ie, nondefeatable) in the Rossini. The N-01 offers five choices of upsampling, the Rossini only DSD and DXD (24/352.8). The Esoteric delivers higher resolution in both PCM and DSD through some inputs, while dCS promises to increase DSD oversampling to 4x (256kHz) when more native DSD256 tracks become available. Both players fully unfold MQA.

A major difference lies in their digital volume controls. While the N-01 is designed to be used with a preamplifier, the Rossini was intended to stand on its own, with a preamp optional. (I've tried the Rossini with both the Lamm and ARC preamps, but ultimately prefer it solo.) According to John Quick, general manager of dCS Americas, the Rossini's volume control has no sweet spot. "It's got about 66 bits of resolution," he explained by e-mail. "All levels sound the same because even at –80[dB], we still pass over 50 bits of resolution, meaning the [volume control] operates above [the resolution of] any possible source material."

To help obviate any bias on my part in my comparisons of the N-01 and Rossini, and to assist when a wicked cold temporarily plugged my ears, I asked Mark Schechter, a jazz pianist who tuned pianos at Skywalker Sound's studios for 12 years, and at UC Berkeley for 12 years before that, to listen with me. Mark had no idea which unit was which, or which was mine and which the review sample. He had no problem asking me to switch back and forth between them so many times that, by the time our session was complete, all I could do was grab the dogs, crawl into bed, and take a long nap.

To ensure a level playing field, I sat each player on its own shelf, fed its output into the same ARC REF 6 preamp via the same interconnects, and used a RadioShack dB meter to match the levels as closely as possible.


First up was Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's recording of Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra (24/192 WAV, SFS Media SFS0070), for its multiple layers in the bass, considerable high extension, dramatic climaxes, and generally a hell of a lot going on all at once. "I felt immediately that the Rossini was better at distinguishing individual instruments and locating them in space," Mark said. "I loved the bass on both of them, but during the first big crescendo, when layers kept building, through the Rossini I could hear the tings of the triangle better, and better distinguish notes played by hand mallets on marimba. I also felt less inner modulation distortion with the Rossini when harmonics coincided. The dCS kept them more distinct, which to me means that it has more in the way of upper-level harmonics."

When I then played Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra's recording of Mahler's Symphony 3 (DSD128, Channel Classics CCSA-38817/NativeDSD), Mark's impressions remained unchanged. I was certain that the Rossini was delivering more air and sense of hall, as well as clearer, more transparent sound. The over- and undertones of the thwacks on the biggest bass drum sounded more lifelike. In addition, when heard direct, without a mediating preamp, there was no contest in the transparency, color saturation and contrast, three-dimensionality, air, and transients. Save for the bass, there was more there there. Which is not to diminish the fact that the N-01 has one of the best-sounding presentations I've heard from a network player/DAC in its price range.

The Esoteric N-01 is an extremely versatile network audio player offering excellent sound, including superb bass reproduction. Its sonic signature is a bit yang: stronger in force than in sparkling liquidity. At times, it reminded me of an extremely confident, straight-ahead alpha male who states his case honestly and directly, without frills, and would never be seen in public wearing beads or blowing bubbles. Lest that sound like an unfeeling sort of guy, ask him about his dogs or kids and he'll pull out photo after photo as he describes them with a heartfelt smile. But if you asked him which art he prefers on his wall, Renoir's Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) or one of Joseph Stella's paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge, his taste will be revealed as distinctly industrial.

Because you may prefer the sound of the Esoteric N-01 when it is mated with a preamp, that pairing is crucial. The more transparent, detailed, and full-range the preamp, the more you'll discover how great a component the N-01 is. Highly recommended.

Footnote 2: My review is now accompanied by John Atkinson's measurements.
Esoteric Company
US distributor: Integra USA, Division of Onkyo USA
18 Park Way, Upper Saddle River
NJ 07458
(201) 818-9200

Ortofan's picture

... match the levels as closely as possible in a vain attempt to ensure a level playing field was simply insufficient.
The levels must be matched electrically (at the speaker input terminals) to a precision of within +/-0.2dB - which is equivalent to about +/-50mV relative to a 2V signal.
So, sadly, the outcome of your A/B comparison is of no value.

CG's picture

I'm not sure it's of no value. After all, unless one's head is in the proverbial vise at the listening position, there will be variations of at least 0.2 dB. And, the variations will not be uniform across the audio band. This is but one detail of A/B testing that gets lost in the dogma.

But... Using a wide-enough bandwidth true RMS meter to measure the applied voltage to the speakers is a pretty good practice. If a reviewer wants to make A/B comparisons, I don't think it's unreasonable for them to buy and use some variant of the Fluke 87 multimeter. Its bandwidth is around 20 KHz and it has been available for around three decades. You can buy refurbed meters for a very reasonable price online. Of course, there's other usable meters but the Fluke is pretty widely used and available.

ok's picture

Esoteric’s default digital specs and even crucial measurements seem suspiciously close to Kalista’s recently much maligned ones, while their sonic character appears more like a Yang-Yin opposite thing. Don't really know who to trust these days anymore..

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Police quote: In God we trust. All others are suspects :-) ............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

we are all manifestations of God. We also have ears. Some of us trust them.

dumbo's picture

Price: $20,000

respectable measured performance

possible 120Hz hum on the DAC chip's voltage reference pin

It sure looks pretty though...Sigh