In December 2017, I reviewed and then bought Esoteric’s one-box Grandioso K1 SACD/CD player and digital-to-analog converter ($31,000, discontinued; all prices USD). That’s a lifetime ago in the fast-paced world of digital audio, but some things haven’t changed—for one thing, as evinced by the K1’s successor, the Grandioso K1X ($36,000), Esoteric is sticking with the format of 4.75″ shiny silver discs. From the company known for having virtually perfected the SACD/CD transport, that’s no surprise.
Esoteric continues to demonstrate that no sound-reproduction device is ever fully perfected. The K1X may have been named by merely appending an X to K1, but the new model itself is a thorough revision of the original’s design.
In 2019, Esoteric introduced the Grandioso P1X SACD/CD transport, which has an external power supply, and D1X mono DAC. To listen in stereo, you need two D1Xes—the resulting digital front end would comprise four cases at a total cost of $100,000. Later that year Esoteric introduced the K1X, whose technologies, trickled down from the P1X and D1X, include Esoteric’s new VRDS-Atlas transport (VRDS stands for Vibration-free Rigid Disc-clamping System) and Master Sound Discrete DAC. Most recently released is the PS1 external power supply ($15,000), which can be used with the K1 or K1X. Esoteric sent me samples of the Grandioso K1X and Grandioso PS1.
The Grandioso K1X’s VRDS-Atlas replaces the VRDS-Neo as Esoteric’s flagship disc transport. Weighing 14.5 pounds without its equally heavy base, the Atlas is 27% heavier than the Neo and, Esoteric says, more damped. It’s also wider and sits lower in the player’s case. All of this gives the transport a lower center of gravity and makes it more stable than the Neo.
While many CD transports include a small chuck to clamp the spinning disc, the Atlas tightly secures the disc on a spinning turntable 4.75″ in diameter and made of vibration-resistant duralumin, not unlike the platter of a record player. Duralumin, an extremely hard and strong aluminum alloy, is commonly used in building airplanes. The turntable reduces (1) runout and vibration, thus preventing movement of the laser pickup and providing for more accurate disc reading, and (2) fluctuations of current within the servo motor that can cause power-supply instability. (The servo motor rotates the turntable and regulates its speed.) Above the turntable is a four-pound, rectangular bridge of 3/4ʺ-thick, ultra-high-tensile-strength SS400 steel. The turntable is connected to the bridge with an ultra-low-friction, single-point, support thrust bearing that Esoteric claims is quieter than the Neo’s system of dual ball bearings.
Under the turntable is the disc tray. Powered by its own motor, the tray is milled from a solid block of A5052 aluminum alloy. Although the Neo’s tray has a large center hole to accommodate the laser pickup, this hollowing has been minimized in the VRDS-Atlas to increase robustness and thus minimize vibrations. Under the tray, elastomer stoppers further reduce vibrations.
Also under the turntable is the servo motor, moved here from its position in the K1 above the bridge, to shorten vibrational grounding routes. As in the K1, the motor is brushless; although these are more expensive than brushed motors, Esoteric claims that this one is extremely quiet and constant in rotational speed.
Below the disc tray and motor is a 1/2ʺ-thick center block of A5052 aluminum alloy with equally thick side panels of SS400 steel.
Master Sound Discrete DACs and custom word clock
The Grandioso K1X eschews the K1’s integrated, third-party DAC chips in favor of a pair of Esoteric’s in-house-designed Master Sound Discrete 32-element, Delta-Sigma Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). Physically separated from the K1X’s other key electrical components, these new converters each provide 64 bits of resolution, and are claimed to outperform the 35 bits of resolution specified for the K1 via the grouping of multiple 32-bit integrated chips.
With these converters, the K1X can upsample PCM signals by factors of two, four, eight, or sixteen, or convert them to DSD, for respective maximum playback resolutions of 768kHz PCM or 22.5MHz DSD. It also allows these signals to be processed with one of three delta-sigma modulator operation frequency and randomization algorithms (labeled M1 to M3, with M1 the default), each with a progressively lower operational frequency, to reduce the errors inherently produced by delta-sigma DACs. For DSD playback, the K1X can process the signal with one of three filters (F1 to F3) with progressively lower frequency cutoffs. Unlike the K1, which lacks internal Master Quality Authenticated functionality, the K1X fully unfolds and decodes MQA signals.
The K1X’s conversion of the digital signal to an analog waveform is timed by Esoteric’s Grandioso Custom Voltage Control-type Crystal Oscillator (VCXO) II clock, originally developed for the P1X and D1X. Esoteric states that this new clock exhibits a high accuracy of ±0.5 parts per million (ppm) and ultra-low phase noise. The K1X can also be connected to an external 10MHz clock, such as Esoteric’s Grandioso G1 Master Clock Generator ($26,000), which I use in my system.
Other K1X features
The Grandioso K1X’s newly designed power supply comprises four transformers: one per stereo channel, each covering the combination of a DAC and buffer amp; one for the clock and other digital audio circuits; and one for the VRDS-Atlas. The K1X’s discrete, low-feedback supply regulator, also new, contains 76 high-capacity Electric Double-Layer Capacitor (EDLC) supercapacitors.
Many of the K1X’s key parts, including its DACs and printed circuit boards (PCBs), are manufactured to highly demanding tolerances in Esoteric’s factory in Tokyo, Japan, which I visited in 2018. The PCBs are made using advanced measuring equipment, some of which is designed and manufactured by Esoteric’s parent corporation, TEAC. All soldering is performed in an oxygen-free furnace in a clean room.
The K1X weighs a monoblock-amp-like 77.25 pounds, measures 17.63″W x 6.5″H x 17.63″D and is virtually identical in appearance to the K1. Their rounded-corner aluminum chassis, screwless top panels, and massive faceplates of solid aluminum with beautifully machined scallops make these players museum-quality examples of modern industrial design.
From left to right on the front panel are an illuminated Power button, a clock LED, and a Mode button. At center is the disc drawer and on the left is an infrared sensor for the remote control. Below the drawer is the dimmable display, and at right are two rows of three buttons each: Open/Close, Previous, and Next; and, below them, Stop, Play (with LED), and Pause.
On the rear panel are connectors for the following digital inputs, through each of which the K1X can be used as a standalone DAC: S/PDIF optical and coaxial, both capable of accepting 2.8MHz DSD signals and PCM signals of up to 24-bit/192kHz; and USB, capable of accepting DSD signals up to 22.5MHz and asynchronous PCM signals up to 32/768. At far left and right are unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) analog outputs. The latter permit the use of Esoteric’s proprietary ES-Link Analog (ESL-A) output transmission system, which they say taps the enormous current supply within the K1X’s HCLD (High Current Line Driver) buffer circuits to reduce impedance problems and drive connected components at very high speeds. Between these are the digital RCA and XLR outputs, which don’t pass along DSD signals.
Also on the rear panel are a ground post (spade or bare wire), a 50-ohm BNC connector for a 10MHz external clock signal, a Micro-USB Type-B port for software maintenance, a three-pronged AC power inlet—and, at far left and right, two connectors for the thick and beautifully crafted power umbilicals, one per channel, that optionally feed the K1X direct current from the PS1 power supply.
The K1X’s 5mm-thick bottom plate is supported by four heavy, well-made, patented vibration-managing feet.
Inside, the audio boards occupy the upper level and the power supplies the lower one. This is done to minimize magnetic flux leakage and vibration and to permit shorter circuit paths.
Included in the box was Esoteric’s understatedly handsome RC-1315 remote control, which is well-crafted of aluminum. Still, in light of the K1X’s price, it’s aesthetically underwhelming. Current production examples ship with Esoteric’s new RC-1333 remote, which I received after my audition period started. Thankfully, this new remote, which contains buttons on its front and back and feels great in the hand, is a fantastic companion to the K1X.
Also included are a molded power cord, four felt pads that can be placed under the K1X’s feet, plastic dustcaps to cover the DC input connectors when the PS1 is not used, an owner’s manual, and a warranty card.
The K1X and PS1 each come with a warranty of one year for parts and labor, to which Esoteric’s American distributor adds two years for all units sold there. This is too short—five years or more seems more appropriate, given these models’ high build qualities and prices.
Like the K1X itself, the Grandioso PS1 power supply has four ultra-high-performance power transformers. When the PS1 is connected to a K1X, the two transformers inside the player that power its left and right-channel DACs and buffer amps are deactivated and supplanted by two PS1 transformers per channel. The two other transformers inside the player remain active, to power the digital circuits and mechanical components. But this didn’t become clear to me until later (see “Setup and snag,” below).
According to Esoteric, the PS1’s internal configuration increases separation between the analog and digital signals and thus increases the player’s ratio of signal to noise, with the result of more accurate reproduction of the timbres of voices and instruments. Esoteric also claims that bypassing and deactivating the player’s two DAC transformers reduces vibrations and leakage of magnetic flux, further improving the sound quality.
As in the K1X, the PS1’s interior is two-tiered: major electrical components above, transformers below. Esoteric says that this minimizes the vibrations generated by the transformers.
Blessed with the K1X’s good looks, and with front-panel aesthetics identical to that of the K1X but devoid of controls or display, the PS1 is a stunning visual match. And as the PS1 is turned on and off with the Power button of the player it’s linked to, there’s not even a power button—just the soft, blue, indirect glow of the power-indicator lamp.
On the PS1’s rear panel are connectors for the DC umbilicals, a ground post (spade or bare wire), an LED dimmer knob, and a three-pronged AC power inlet. The PS1 weighs 52.25 pounds and measures 17.5″W x 5.2″H x 17.8″D. It sits on four of the same feet that support the K1X, and it comes with a molded power cord, those DC umbilicals, four felt pads, an owner’s manual, and a warranty card.
Setup and snag
The Grandiosos arrived separately, each secured to a large wooden skid with heavy cords, industrial-size staples, and thick plastic wrap, and nested in four thick-walled boxes with Esoteric stampings that were themselves encased in two layers of unmarked boxes—all as if each unit were an innermost Russian matryoshka doll.
Having eventually wrestled the K1X and PS1 free of all this packaging, I placed them on my Symposium Acoustics Ultimate rack. I used USB and balanced analog interconnects from Synergistic Research for the K1X. But my Esoteric C1 preamp is not equipped with ESL-A, so I couldn’t test that feature.
I’d long ago installed Esoteric’s Windows drivers on my PC. However, the company has recently released firmware updates for the K1X that address, among other things, MQA playback and fix minor bugs. While I’d noticed no quirks from the K1X in these areas, I bought a USB-to-Micro-USB-Type-B cable, ran it from computer to K1X, downloaded the updates from Esoteric’s website, and updated everything.
I began by pressing the K1X’s Open/Close button. The tray emerged with a whisper and a silky-smooth motion that may be unparalleled in terms of precision. Somehow, Esoteric has done the impossible in the VRDS-Atlas: created a transport that seems to better the venerable VRDS-Neo in build quality. I noticed that the K1X’s display has been improved over the K1’s: When I stepped through a disc’s tracks, each track number was briefly displayed in characters big enough to be read from a distance by eyes even older than mine.
As per my preference, I listened to the K1X without having it upsample PCM signals or convert them to DSD. These types of digital signal processing (DSP) options are often implemented very differently from manufacturer to manufacturer, with varying sonic results, and user preferences among them are subjective. I chose the M1 error-reduction algorithm.
To set up the Grandioso PS1, I disconnected the K1X’s power cord, ran the PS1’s DC umbilicals from PS1 to K1X, and plugged the PS1’s power cord into an outlet. However, neither the K1X nor the PS1 would power up. This didn’t seem like rocket science, but I reread both manuals and couldn’t solve the problem. Frustrated, I contacted Esoteric’s American distributor, who told me that the manuals don’t disclose that two power cords are needed: one each for the K1X and the PS1. That’s when I learned that when a PS1 is used to power a K1X, two of the K1X’s transformers remain active. I secured a second cord and plugged it in. Everything worked.
Sound: The Grandioso K1X alone
Each generation of Esoteric digital gear has provided improvements in the things that make recordings sound exciting: transparency, soundstaging, and the faithful reproduction of dynamics, detail, and transients. But in the past few years I’ve heard some digital components that surpass even Esoteric’s former statement DAC, the Grandioso D1, in harmonic richness and refinement. That’s not a criticism, as no single component can provide it all—audio, like life, is a series of compromises. Which is why, in 2019, I considered adding a component to my system that could balance the K1’s exciting sound with a bit more polish and harmonic density, even if that meant settling for slightly fewer thrills and chills.
So imagine my surprise when I first listened to music through the Grandioso K1X. With discs, or with digital streams sent from a laptop running Qobuz, I found that the K1X preserved, and in many cases improved on, everything that makes sound stimulating, and with a sound far more harmonically dense and refined than I’d heard from past Esoteric digital components, including the K1.
Take “Trouble’s What You’re In,” from Fink’s live album Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Ninja Tune/Qobuz). The K1X’s reproduction of vibrating guitar strings and the transients created when Fin Greenall slams his hand against them was astonishing. Compared to the K1, I heard more transparency and detail, and longer decays. However, the K1X’s sound was far more elegant than the K1’s. Notes were harmonically fuller. Coarseness around their edges was reduced, which let me focus more on the music than on its reproduction.
With “Fever,” from Musica Nuda’s Live à Fip (CD, Bonsai Music BON 07 08 01), the K1X reproduced Ferruccio Spinetti’s percussive bass taps with more snap and timbral accuracy than has any of the many other digital components I’ve heard in my listening room. It also more solidly placed Petra Magoni’s voice on the soundscape, and with less noise. Magoni’s vocal swings were also much more graceful and fluid than through the K1.
Mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland and pianist Sergei Osadchuck’s performance of the Gerald Finzi song “Come Away, Death,” from the album of that title (SACD/CD, 2L 2L-064-SACD), is haunting, with superb sound. However, its wide dynamic range can wreak havoc with a stereo system, particularly at high volumes. Even more than the K1, the K1X nailed the utter transparency, close miking, and subtle ringing of this mostly dry recording. Further, Kielland’s most pronounced vocal peaks, which sound a bit rough through the K1, were now tamed.
In most tracks on Come Away, Death, the same change was evident in the top notes of Osadchuck’s piano, which were now much more polished and crystalline than I’d heard before. As this album begs to be played loudly, I turned the volume high, even though my YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature speakers don’t really do well at sky-high volumes. Nonetheless, the K1X’s ultra-low noise floor became even more apparent—it was now a lot harder to get these speakers to misbehave.
If the K1X revealed more polish and elegance in the above tracks, it transformed “Mario! Mario! Mario! . . . Son Qui! . . . Mia gelosa!,” from Puccini’s Tosca, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan and performed by, among others, soprano Leontyne Price and tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano (16/44.1 FLAC, Decca/Qobuz). At the beginning of this passage, the K1X reproduced the hall reflections triggered by Price’s and Di Stefano’s voices with shocking realism, making the K1X a godsend at a time when opera houses are closed due to the global pandemic. But the real story was the soothingly glareless way the K1X reproduced strings—violins and violas sounded much richer than through the K1, cellos and double basses more silkily seductive.
Compared to the K1, the K1X sounded substantially more polished. Think black-tie vs. semiformal/business attire. And one more thing: At least at first, the K1X sounded a bit more subdued than the K1. However, after living with the K1X for a while, I realized that it gave up nothing to the K1 in transparency, soundstaging, dynamics, detail, and transients. Indeed, it improved on them. And the K1X excelled at reducing the sorts of noise and distortion that at first can sound exciting but that soon grate. Heard in that context, the K1X’s sound was not subdued at all, but extremely elegant and refined.
Sound: K1X with PS1
The Grandioso K1X gets you all the above without your having to spend another $15,000 on the Grandioso PS1 power supply. Nonetheless, the PS1 makes everything about the K1X’s sound better, and by no small margin. With the PS1, music had better transients, bass definition, extension, harmonics, timbral accuracy, imaging, and wider, deeper soundstages. Also, noise rejection improved.
With “Five to One,” from the Doors’ Live at the Bowl ’68 (16/44.1 FLAC, Elektra/Rhino/Qobuz), engaging the PS1 enlarged the soundstage and made the band’s positioning on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl more apparent. John Densmore’s drums were now more piercing, with more detailed pop. Overlapping guitar-and-vocal and guitar-and-keyboard lines were easier to follow. Lower noise made the hall acoustic seem much more apparent. Particularly in such songs as “Horse Latitudes,” the PS1 made Jim Morison’s erratic singing sound even more haunting and visceral.
Reveries of Perfect Sound Forever
Like the old man in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, prematurely dumped onto a cart of corpses in the Plague Years of the Dark Ages, Esoteric’s Grandioso SACD/CD players allow the 4.75″ silver disc to proclaim “I’m not dead yet!” The new VRDS-Atlas transport is a tour de force that for some will not merely further extend the CD’s lease on life, but take a significant step toward fulfilling the promise made in Sony’s marketing slogan for the format of almost four decades ago: “Perfect Sound Forever.”
Transports aside, the Grandioso K1X’s new FPGA converters and other technological features signal that Esoteric is still on the cutting edge of digital audio technology. The Grandioso PS1 power supply takes the K1X one step closer to perfection—but even without a PS1, the Grandioso K1X is a great way to experience ultra-high-end sound.
. . . Howard Kneller
- Amplifier: Esoteric Grandioso S1
- Preamplifier: Esoteric Grandioso C1
- Sources: Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 computer running foobar2000, Esoteric Grandioso K1 SACD/CD player and Grandioso G1 Master Clock Generator
- Subwoofer crossover: JL Audio CR-1
- Speakers: YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature
- Subwoofers: JL Audio Fathom f113 v2 (2)
- Interconnects: Synergistic Research Galileo SX
- Digital links: Mad Scientist Audio Black Magic USB, Synergistic Research Galileo SX USB and BNC digital
- Speaker cables: Synergistic Research Galileo SX
- Power cords: Synergistic Research SR25 (power conditioner) and Galileo SX
- Power conditioners and distribution: Synergistic Research PowerCell SX and QLS power strips
- Isolation devices: Symposium Acoustics: Osiris Ultimate and Standard racks, Segue platform, RollerBlock Series 2+ equipment support system. Synergistic Research: Tranquility Bases, MIG 2.0s. Silent Running Audio VR fp Isobase.
- Room treatments and correction: Synergistic Research: Acoustic Art System, Atmosphere XL4, Black Boxes (2), HFT and FEQ devices, GIK 2A Alpha diffusor/absorber acoustic panels, WA-Quantum Quantum-Sound-Animator
- Misc.: Synergistic Research: Active Grounding Block, Blue fuses, and Electronic Circuit Transducers (ECTs). Mad Scientist Black Discus Audio System Enhancers and Graphene Contact Enhancer, High Fidelity MC-0.5 Magnetic Wave Guides, Telos Quantum connector caps, f.oq damping tape.
Esoteric Grandioso K1X SACD/CD Player-DAC
Price: $36,000 USD.
Esoteric Grandioso PS1 Power Supply
Price: $15,000 USD.
Warranty (both): Three years parts and labor.
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