Art thou troubled? Music will calm thee . . .
—G.F. Handel, Rodelinda
These lyrics from a George Freidrich Handel opera once powerfully struck Ralph Ellison, author of the great American novel Invisible Man, as he turned on an old Philco AM radio connected to a small Pilot FM tuner during the early 1950s. It was the clear contralto voice of Kathleen Ferrier, singing an aria so completely expressive, that it inspired Ellison to an existential choice: “It was either live with music or die with noise,” he wrote in his 1955 essay Living with Music, “and we chose rather desperately to live.” Thus, he crowded his Harlem apartment with “its booby-trappings of audio equipment, wires, discs, and tapes,” and piece by piece, he went on to buy “a fine speaker system, a first-rate AM-FM tuner, a transcription turntable, and a speaker cabinet.” Ellison then built a half dozen or more preamplifiers and “a record compensator” (a phono preamp with varied equalization settings) before finding a commercial one that satisfied his ear. Along the way, he also acquired a tonearm and a magnetic cartridge. “All this plunge into electronics, mind you, had as its simple end the enjoyment of recorded music as it was intended to be heard,” he wrote. “I was obsessed with the idea of reproducing sound with such fidelity that even when using music as a defense behind which I could write, it would reach the unconscious levels of the mind with the least distortion.”
Ellison could have been writing about any of us dedicated to the pursuit of the finest in audio. Inspired by peak moments of musical insight and transport, we seek equipment that will help us most closely match the best of what we’ve heard, recorded or live. We “set” our ears to recognize when a piece of electronics brings our listening, if not to the same heights we’ve experienced, then at least close to their subjective equal in inspiration. Like Ellison, we search for gear that will afford us those peak encounters, building our systems—painstakingly or haphazardly—seeking the perfect sound that is “living with music” rather than noise in life. A longtime audiophile, Ellison was also a noted jazz critic, pursuing, commemorating, and elevating the music of artists like Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Charlie Christian, and Charlie Parker, along with musical genres like flamenco, in essays for High Fidelity, Esquire, Saturday Review, and the New York Review. He celebrated music and musicians, meticulously and constantly curating elements of his system so the experience it delivered came closest to the feeling he hoped to achieve. “[W]hen I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body,” he writes in the prologue to Invisible Man. He wanted to hear the silence of sound as well as its audible range—a meaning beyond its notes, a message of culture and common humanity, a cry of freedom, and a quiescent ode to joy. A thing that, when we are troubled, might calm our hearts.
Esoteric, the high-end Japanese audio manufacturer, has recently provided us with a piece of electronics that may perhaps have impressed Ellison himself in this way, a fully balanced phono preamplifier that advances the achievements of its highly successful predecessor, the E-03 phono preamp, with a plethora of new features, more adjustment settings, and some key technological upgrades. Now with a sleek and sculpted look, a luxurious aluminum casing (with brushed faceplate) that’s somewhat larger than that of the E-03, proprietary isolation feet, and adjustable loading through nine levels of resistance, the E-02 currently retails for $9500 (all prices USD). Early this summer, I requested a review unit from the national sales manager for TEAC/Esoteric, Keith Haas of 11 Trading Company, and it arrived via freight in late July.
Background and development
Keith put me in touch with Hiroyuki Machida, a member of the sales and marketing team at Esoteric’s Tokyo headquarters, who explained the E-02’s development in a recent email exchange. He said that the strictly single-ended E-03, introduced in 2009, was Esoteric’s first phono preamp. Highly acclaimed for its dual-mono design and on-the-fly impedance setting function, and ultimately praised for offering excellent sonic characteristics at a fairly affordable price point ($6000 when last available), the E-03 became highly successful, especially in the US market, and the model was continued for nearly eight years. The E-03 was uniquely positioned in the Esoteric line as its sole phono preamp. In the years since its release, the Esoteric team has been gathering customer feedback and impressions about the E-03’s design and function while continuing internal research and development.
Eight years after its release, in the spring of 2017, the team took all the intended updates compiled during the E-03’s long sales run, and in a burst lasting a mere five months, created the E-03’s successor—the E-02. The key differences included the significant change to a fully balanced design, adding a new buffer technology with high current capability, creating an additional set of inputs, providing a wider selection of load impedance settings for MC cartridges, and developing a larger and more elegant chassis and casing, all while maintaining the E-03’s dual-mono approach.
Customers all over the world wanted a balanced circuit, so Esoteric doubled the internal circuitry and converted the E-03’s basic design into a fully balanced phono stage. Back in 2017, when the E-02 was released, balanced connectivity between a cartridge and a phono stage was considered a new trend in vinyl playback, and this approach became very popular, especially among Japanese audiophiles. For example, Yamaha introduced their new GT-5000 turntable with both RCA and XLR outputs. Machida explained that, as all Esoteric linestage preamps are fully balanced designs already, it was only natural to introduce a balanced phono stage: “We made a working prototype of the balanced version of the E-03, and the result was far more than we expected.” Machida’s colleague Tetsuya Kato, director of R&D, further recalled that the newly created E-02 introduced, in his words, “a whole new world of listening experience,” one that caused him to want to listen to his vinyl collection all over again. The balanced capability became the top feature of the E-02.
The new output buffer technology comes from a proprietary high-current line driver that Esoteric uses across all of the company’s newer preamp models. The 2014 release of Esoteric’s Grandioso C1, the flagship linestage preamp, set this precedent. The HCLD output buffer is very powerful and dynamic, Machida wrote, thanks to its superfast slew rate and strong current transmission capability, neither of which was available in the E-03.
When Esoteric’s engineers noticed that a close competitor had three sets of outputs on their triple-arm turntables, they decided to increase the number of inputs from two in the E-03 to three in the E-02—one set for XLR and two for RCA.
Yet another area of discussion among Esoteric’s customers concerned the loading impedance settings for MC cartridges. There were actually contradictory requests: US and European customers wanted finer increments at higher impedance settings for the newer generation high-impedance cartridges, while Japanese customers wanted finer increments at lower-impedance settings for traditional cartridges designed mainly to work with step-up transformers. The team increased the load options from seven positions to nine in order to accommodate the wide variety of MC cartridges used by all its clients. As a trade-off, the capacitive load settings for MM cartridges were dropped because the MC balanced circuit was the main focus. This capacitive load function was not as popular as the resistive load options, and the Esoteric engineers decided to allow customers to adjust it by selecting the right cabling to match the optimum capacitance for any MM cartridge used.
To accommodate these changes, the E-02’s case height was increased by 1.08″ to house the doubled (balanced) circuitries, which now consist of two circuit boards rather than one. The chassis is constructed of thick aluminum blocks and an inner steel case to minimize vibration. A single-layer steel bottom plate, with laser-cut slits surrounding the area on the left where two transformers are mounted, serves as a means of controlling the inner vibration of all components: the transformers are the components that emit vibration, and the laser-cut slits reportedly prevent transference to the audio boards. Esoteric claims the E-02’s thicker, wider side pillars also contribute to increased rigidity of the chassis and better vibration control, resulting in improved sonics overall. The side pillars on the front panel are now more rounded (like cheeks) to aesthetically match Esoteric’s other current electronics.
The E-02’s increased height made it possible for the main audio PCBs (left and right channels) to be stacked together on the right of the casing rather than placed side-by-side in the center, while the location of the transformers was also drastically changed, moving from their center-rear position in the E-03 all the way to the left side of the E-02 to better reduce magnetic flux entering the audio signal path.
Finally, the E-02 comes with three isolation feet, proprietary to Esoteric, of a spike-and-cup design that separate the entire unit from transmitting and receiving vibration that might smear and interfere with the purity of its tiny analog signals.
The simple beauty of the E-02’s form factor is quite impressive. Its casing is high-grade aluminum, and the hand-brushed front panel is sculpted with parallel beveled edges that stretch along the center top and bottom, thus avoiding the squared-off edges of more common audio gear. Large, machined selector knobs, whose flat facings are ringed with highly polished edges, are positioned at either end (one on the left for input selection and another on the right for impedance loading); their necks are sculpted and tapered to fit elegantly against your fingers and thumb. The loading knob has switchable moving-coil settings of 10, 50, 100, 200, 300, 500, 1k, and 10k ohms, as well as 47k ohms for moving magnet. Between the large knobs are control buttons (left to right) that activate the Demag, Subsonic, and Mono features of the unit. A larger On/Off button (pleasingly resistant and springy to the touch) is located at the bottom left. There is an unmistakable unity of visual music to the overall physical presentation, creating that recognizably sleek and luxurious look characteristic of all Esoteric electronics—a common brand image and design language that’s consistent across the line.
Around back and to the left is a neatly arranged array of input and output connections, with an S/N badge (also indicating 120V/26W) and an IEC inlet to the right of the line-out area. Matching inputs are vertically aligned and include (left to right) one set of XLRs and two sets of RCAs (marked RCA 2 and RCA 1). A grounding post is situated to the right of RCA 1. Two sets of line-out connections, also vertically stacked, come next (to the right of the inputs), RCAs first, then XLRs (which double as Esoteric’s proprietary ESL-A connections). Finally, there is an output selector switch that enables users to choose among the three available options: RCA, XLR, and Esoteric’s proprietary ESL-A (ES-Link Analog) outputs.
The top plate is yet another indication of luxurious industrial design; instead of a simple rectangle directly attached to the casing, it’s offset from the unit’s beveled edges by 16mm that narrows to 5mm above the top edge of the faceplate, rises slightly above the edges by about 4mm (I used a micrometer), and is itself beveled with a distinctively brushed surface.
On the bottom are the three isolation feet, two near the front corners and one centered near the back.
The E-02 has a three-year warranty that covers parts and labor.
Installation and operation
The E-02 arrived strapped to a small pallet, triple boxed and shrouded tightly in plastic film, so unpacking it was a touch more of a chore than I’m used to. Inside the outer box, a second box was floated with four bulky Styrofoam corners to further ensure protection. Inside the innermost box (also floated on Styrofoam corners), the unit was tucked inside a thick plastic bag. Other items within were a user’s manual, a power cord, and a warranty card. The E-02 is heavy—nearly 28 pounds—and I had to be careful when moving it to the floor of my listening room to unwrap it.
Installing the E-02 into my rack was a cinch. At a smidge over 17″ wide, 5.25″ tall, and 14.25″ deep, it just fit onto the second shelf of my Box Furniture audio rack directly below the Raven AC turntable. But as the Raven’s motor controller also sat on the left of that second shelf, I had to scooch the E-02 in from the rack’s right side. The isolation footers slid very smoothly and helped make that move easy. It fit perfectly within the available space with just enough clearance above it.
It was a simple matter to connect all my cabling into the XLR inputs, starting with my Cardas XLR-to-RCA adapters. Into those I inserted the RCA plugs of the captured phono cables from my Raven 10.5 tonearm. I wanted to use the balanced inputs and that much-touted balanced circuit all the way through, so I hooked a pair of Audience frontRow balanced interconnects to the XLR outputs as well, taking care to also slide the output selection switch to balanced mode. Rather than the supplied power cord, I used an Audience frontRow MP power cord.
Having been told by Keith Haas that the unit was essentially brand new, having only been used for about ten hours, I spent the better part of three weeks (about 75 hours in total) running it in. Its sound morphed from pretty good to awful and back again, but it was never quite stable or what I expected. Realizing I’d need a minimum of 150–200 hours and not having the luxury of additional time, I remembered a phono run-in CD I’d bought years before but used only once. This was the Granite Audio Phono Burn-In & RIAA Test CD (Model #CD-101.1). After vainly searching for it late one evening, I came upon the vagabond Granite CD the next morning just to the left of where I’d looked the night before.
After disconnecting and removing it from my rack, I sat the E-02 on a small step stool on the Chinese carpet between my audio rack and left channel speaker. Then I connected a Wireworld power cord from a nearby Oyaide duplex on the wall. I ran a pair of Audience frontRow XLR interconnects between my Esoteric K-05x SACD player’s balanced outputs and the E-02s balanced inputs. Simultaneously, I connected a pair of Audience frontRow RCA interconnects between its RCA outputs and the RCA 1 inputs of the E-02. I followed the instructions inside the Granite CD’s casing, set the “Bonus Moving Coil Burn-In Track @ 0.70mV, -60dB signal level” (track 33) on repeat using the appropriate function on my player, and pushed Play. I then let things run for 48 hours, simulating what I guessed would be at least 150 hours of additional burn-in, hopefully the equivalent of 225 hours of real time. Then, I reinstalled the phono preamp on the second shelf of my audio rack.
In operation, the nine impedance options proved extremely useful. For stereo listening, although the recommended impedance is 400 ohms for the short-body Kiseki Purple Heart MC cartridge (0.4mV, 42 ohms internal impedance) I used with my TW-Acustic 10.5 tonearm, I found myself switching the impedance selector between 300 ohms and 500 ohms, the higher setting sounding best to my ears on most LPs. And, by the way, that selector knob felt absolutely lavish under my fingers and thumb, its scooped neck ringed with fine circular ridges, and it had a nicely pawled movement between each step, muting the unit for a few seconds when switching, then engaging with a soft snick just to let you know it was active and ready to rock. For mono listening, I used a Miyajima Zero MC cartridge (0.4mV, 6-ohms internal impedance with no recommended impedance loading mentioned) mounted on an Ortofon RS-309D tonearm connected to an Ypsilon MC-10 step-up with an Audience frontRow phono cable and to the E-02 with a pair of Audience frontRow RCA interconnects. I ran through the upper range of the E-02’s impedance settings from 500 ohms to 10k ohms, doing most of my listening with the 500 and 1k settings. It was remarkable to me that, even without variable EQ, the E-02 phono’s impedance loading options provided just about the best sound I’ve gotten from pre-1958 mono LPs.
Of the three control buttons located between the larger selector knobs on the E-02’s face, I mainly used the Mono button, but I did operate the Demag and Subsonic buttons at least once. Never having had anything with a Demag feature before, I was curious to see what effect it would have. The instructions said to depress the button after you’d dropped the stylus onto a playing LP, wait 30 seconds, and press the button again to disengage the function. I did this, maybe on two different occasions, just to be sure. It didn’t seem to do much for my system, but your mileage may vary. On a Nat Cole and Lester Young stereo LP from the 1950s, I noticed a buzzing or humming sound in the lower bass range of the old recording, so I tried engaging the Subsonic button. This did absolutely no good as the sound was above the subsonic level, of course. Silly me.
I did switch input selection between XLR and RCA 1 quite a bit (RCA 2 was also available, but idle throughout my review) because I wanted to test how well the RCA and XLR inputs compared (Esoteric converts to balanced internally, even when using RCAs). I found enough of a fidelity drop-off using the RCAs that I much preferred the XLR inputs (with Cardas female-RCA-to-male-XLR adapters). Machida-san explained this as perhaps having to do with the signal conversion process itself: the E-02’s XLR mode transmits the signal generated at the motor of the MC cartridges slightly more precisely than RCA even though the measured frequency response at the lab was exactly the same. My listening observations come from having the E-02 set to XLR input and XLR output (20-ohm impedance, 4Vrms output) almost all the way, wanting to test Esoteric’s claims about its balanced circuitry having sonic qualities superior to those produced by the solely single-ended circuitry in most other phono stages. There are four levels of gain, depending on whether you use the XLR or RCA outs. Via XLR, gain is 72dB for MC and 46dB for MM. Via RCA, it’s 66dB (MC) and 40dB (MM). As I mainly used the XLR outs, gain was 72dB through most of the review period. Signal-to-noise ratios are 80dB for MC and 100dB for MM.
I also tried listening via the E-02’s RCA outputs (23.5-ohm impedance, 2Vrms output), but I noticed more dynamic and resolving sound via its XLRs. When using the RCA outputs, the polarity of the negative line is simply reversed to use both sides of the balanced circuit in parallel, and the RCAs are claimed to produce no difference in frequency response from the XLRs. Yet I found the unbalanced signal less satisfying; the balanced was more stable and there seemed to be less signal loss. Thus, I stuck with balanced output via Audience frontRow XLR interconnects to my Zanden 3100 preamp. Although it lacks a fully differential circuit, the Zanden pre uses transformers at the inputs and outputs to achieve a balanced signal.
The E-02 was completely quiet, with no superficial noise, and its operation was trouble free throughout my month-long review process.
After 48 hours of run time, the Granite Audio burn-in CD had done its job. Once it was back in the system, I noticed the sound of the E-02 had stabilized and that there were subtleties, textural complexities, and a solidity of sound and imaging that hadn’t been present before. There were obvious gains in clarity and transparency. I spent two more weeks listening to a range of LPs from numerous music genres, from vintage rock to piano concertos, from opera and acoustic folk to small-combo jazz. Throughout, the Esoteric phono proved as serious an electronic instrument for amplifying the tiny analog signal from a moving-coil cartridge as I’ve ever had in my system.
One of the first LPs I tried with it was Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light (Asylum BB 704), a live double album of a concert she’d performed with her electric band at the Santa Barbara County Bowl in 1979. On this version, which contains Mitchell’s own lyrics set to Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a tribute to Lester Young, Joni’s voice alternated between smoky as a tenor sax and silky in her soprano range. The E-02 rendered her agile voice and its prodigious, multi-octave range with ease, tracking its flatted mordents and shimmering glissandi. On electric bass, I heard Jaco Pastorius echoing some of her vocal ornaments, then mimicking Mingus’s characteristic rapid plucking style. On “Coyote,” Joni’s reminiscence of an affair with actor/playwright Sam Shepard, the odd tuning of her electric guitar created an eccentric catchiness that flew in the air with Jaco’s hyperactive, prancing bassline as she strummed out the hip rhythm and breezily sang through both a melody and a light-hearted recitative.
Emmylou Harris, too, sounded remarkable. On Wrecking Ball (Nonesuch 0755 979 2079), moving through varied performance styles from high-keening soprano to dulcet contralto over a chiming sea, her voice surfed rolling waves of eerie electronic and acoustic instruments. “All My Tears” sounded especially plaintive, her voice emerging out of a spinning, roseate corolla of synthesizer and organ notes, her yodeling and aching decays emphasizing the haunting atmosphere of the production. There was a crunchy lead guitar that played like a cross between Tom Petty and the Edge, a diabolic bass underneath, a kind of aquatic grunt, and a feathery cloud of high-pitched backing vocals chorusing like gentle banshees over them all. The soundstage was wide and tall, higher than the tweeters of my speakers and rising near the 8.5′ ceiling, with a pleasing oceanic depth of at least 4′ both front and back. When I’d played the record numerous times before, it had always sounded thin and bleached out; sonically it had seemed a failure to me, yet it had always been praised for Daniel Lanois’s unique production style of spooky effects on the original Elektra Records release. This special sonic character was finally realized with the E-02 in my system, the phono bringing out a fullness and spaciousness I hadn’t heard before and Harris’s striking vocal creating edge, mordancy, punch, and power over a Walpurgisnacht of electronic instrumentals.
As a final test for female vocals, I played Anna Netrebko’s Amata dalla Tenebre, a double LP (DGG 486 0532) of German and Italian opera arias with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala. On Puccini’s “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly, there were beautifully lush opening notes drenched in pathos and a dark, wrenching undertone to the famed soprano’s voice. It opened on a dramatic pitch with a pulsing vibrato to her top notes in head voice that descended into recitative-like lyric passages, mostly in chest voice. Netrebko was gathering, preparing, flitting back and forth from whimsical thoughts of her character’s past to a suspenseful piteousness and unshakable resolve regarding what was to come (the climactic suicide). The E-02 captured each of these dramatic shifts. In the Russian soprano’s highest register, there were beautifully delicate, then powerful and tragic passages, the E-02 rendering the complicated and dynamically challenging vocal line, following each shift in tone from lyric to heroic with fleet aplomb. It tracked Netrebko’s voice through all its thrills and the La Scala orchestra’s sumptuous accompaniment as well.
The Pentangle’s double LP Sweet Child (Reprise 2RS 6334) has a track on it, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” that’s reminiscent of “All Blues” by the Miles Davis Sextet from Kind of Blue, reproducing the same tempo and chord changes, only it’s performed with two acoustic guitars and Jacqui McShee’s mainly alto (though it shades wispily into her usual soprano range) lead vocal, understated drums, and standup bass. Virtuoso British guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch play complementary parts, one on a steel string and the other on a nylon-string guitar, providing gentle contrasts of timbre, resonance, and attack. I can’t tell who plays which, but the nylon-string strums contribute a deft rhythm while the steel adds percussive fills, bending bluesy notes, while Danny Thompson on double bass pulses a mesmerizing ostinato. At about the midpoint of the cut, Thompson takes an extended solo, plucking with thump and resonance, while Jansch or Renbourn comps loping rhythm chords. All the instruments blend for a coherent and articulated, yet fluidly permeable wall of sound. The guitars peek from the mix with sparkling attacks, interweaving and creating a feast of string timbres in a holographic soundstage. The E-02 got it all.
As for piano and orchestral music, I played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, by Claudio Arrau and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink (Philips 6580 060), several times. In the first movement, Allegro moderato, Arrau hit notes that were crisp and emphatic at the entrance, his trillings sweet and ringing in the air, followed by buttery, midrange arpeggios. I could feel the tactile, sticky delays in some of his key fingerings and his expert control and modulations of intensity and timing. The orchestra was clear and authoritative, with open strings and gorgeously resonant woodwinds, the soundstage spread generously (3′ deep and 3′ beyond the far edges of my speakers) behind Arrau’s piano, a tall center-front image, with a big soundboard presence lifting high towards my ceiling. His bass notes rumbled and his left-hand chordings lingered, as did his chiming treble figures. The E-02 captured the full range between the delicacy and thunder of Arrau’s playing, along with the supple accompaniment and passages of magnificent gravitas from the orchestra.
Paul Siebel, a folkie from the late ’60s and early ’70s, has a first album, Woodsmoke and Oranges (Elektra EKS-74064), that I’ve loved for his richness of tone and operatic vocal range. He sings in an affecting country style somewhat reminiscent of Hank Williams, though in a lower register and a pleasingly roughened tone. His voice is penetrating on “The Ballad of Honest Sam,” an enlivening cowboy aria delivered in a nasal baritone surrounded by honky-tonk instrumentals—a slide Dobro guitar, its quavering glissandi echoed by an organ with percussive acoustics, and a violin played by Richard Greene to sound like Vassar Clements. The separations between sonic images and instrumental textures were often startling, and one of the joys of listening to this old record was gazing at the soundstage and imagining a barroom bandstand spread out right in front of me.
For complex timbral textures, though, I can’t think of anything better than Blood, Sweat, & Tears, the seven-piece band’s eponymous second album (First Day Music 29421 97200, 180g reissue of Columbia original). Though a departure from Billie Holiday’s bluesy original in tone and arrangement, I’ve always liked their catchy rendition of “God Bless the Child.” To start, there’s a gorgeous opening fanfare with complex harmonics from the blend of trumpet, trombone, and alto sax. Once the basic tune, which starts languorously as blues, is established, the time signature changes abruptly, becoming fast and syncopated, with punchy horn choruses, rapid press rolls and tomming from the drums, and a dramatic, rapidly plucked bassline in a calypso interlude. The organ sounded like a sweetly rumbling sea of clouds behind it all, with strong timbral contrasts against the brass section. From within a soundstage that was 10′ wide and maybe 5′ deep, layered with horns on top, organ at mid-center, and electric bass spread across the bottom, I heard a plethora of tonal colors and deftly timed changes—an action painting of musical timbres and textures.
I want to close my description of the E-02’s sonic abilities by making a strong mention of its mono game. I’ve never enjoyed hearing my collection of old hi-fi LPs as much as I did with the Esoteric phono in my system. I played Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable (Capitol T-357), Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’s Far East Suite (RCA LPM-3782), Carmen McCrae’s Blue Moon (Decca DL 8347), Sonny Rollins’s The Bridge (RCA LPM-2527), and Clifford Brown and Max Roach’s Jordu (Trip Jazz TLP-5540), as well as a half-dozen other LPs by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Julie London. Singers were staggeringly present with rich vocal textures, horns were lush in magnificent ovals of sound, clarity, and timing and frequently astonishing, affording fresh reveals of sonic character I hadn’t noticed before. There is an unusual transparency to the E-02’s capabilities that woke me to a wider palette of expressiveness in all of this music. The one quirk I’ll mention is that I set my impedance loadings far higher than I was used to, as that got me the best sound; I bounced from 500 ohms to 1k ohms, even setting the selector knob to 10k on one occasion. Given the phono lacks variable EQ (more than half these LPs were recorded prior to RIAA standardization), this was quite remarkable. When I asked Machida-san about it, he said that it was difficult to explain technically, but that the most significant intended and manufacturer-tested sonic signature of the E-02 is its deep and punchy bass, which may give old mono recordings an extra dimension, stability, and liveliness.
I own two solid-state phono preamps—a single-box Zanden 8120 with variable EQ (used with an all-Helius analog front end) and a two-box (separate power supply and control) Pass Labs XP-25. For comparison, I chose the XP-25 ($10,600 when last available), as it was very close in price to the Esoteric E-02, and it’s what I usually pair with my TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable and Raven 10.5 tonearm. Like the Esoteric, it has balanced output (albeit with RCA-only input) and variable resistive impedance loading (30, 50, 100, 160, 250, 320, 500, 1000, and 47k ohms). Unlike the E-02, though, it has a second knob for capacitive loading (100pf, 200pf, 320pf, 430pf, 530pf, and 750pf) and no mono feature. There are three levels of gain: 53, 66, and 76dB (I usually set it to 66). Like the Esoteric phono, the XP-25 also has a mute switch and a rumble filter. But as a two-box unit, its aggregate weight—about 50 pounds—is nearly twice that of the E-02, and it occupies two shelves in my audio rack. Both phonos were dead quiet, without hiss or buzz.
Comparing tracks by Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris, I found a slight but perhaps significant difference for those who listen mostly to rock. On “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Joni Mitchell’s mezzo voice sounded just as smoky and silky with the XP-25 in my system, the timbres of reed instruments were comparable, and drums were delivered with similar kick drum thump and tomming. The difference was Jaco Pistorius’s bassline: the XP-25 emphasized the upper bass more, sounding more melodic than with the E-02, with a touch less emphatic rhythm. Harris’s “Wrecking Ball” was as rich in textural detail, with a lively sonic field, but it was a smidge less eerie and not as affectively edgy. Her keening sounded more natural and less electronic, and a level of the disturbingly haunting character I got with the E-02 was absent. Likewise, there was a softer bass drum, lighter impacts, and the rest of the kit failed to sound quite as crisp. Electric guitar, too, was a touch mellower, not as thrillingly piercing, and a tiny quantum of attack bite seemed to be gone.
Via the XP-25, Anna Netrebko’s voice on “Un bel di vedremo” sounded just as liquid and plaintive, with similar power and emotional affect, clear in its bold top notes and providing comparable emotional shadings and heroic dynamism. However, I also noted a slight trace of raggedness in its decays during the tragic climax of the aria. The E-02 was more refined here, with slightly better finesse.
On Arrau and the Concertgebouw’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, however, the Pass Labs phono was more than comparable, violins glossy and silky, cellos and double basses turbulent, with all strings mounting a fine overall orchestral thrum, the whole presentation presenting wonderful scaling and a luxuriant sweetness. Arrau’s piano was clear, his chiming gorgeous and nicely forward in the mix and soundstage, positioned similarly to center front as it was with the Esoteric. I felt the XP-25 provided a more well-balanced and natural sound—violins never over-shining or too lustrous, Arrau’s forte passages on piano not leaping too forward from the sonic field. It was “truer” and more tonally accurate to live instruments for my taste, timbres all at equal levels of representation.
Both phono stages excelled in presenting Paul Siebel’s cowboy arias on the “Woodsmoke and Oranges” album, the Pentangle’s “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and BS&T’s “God Bless the Child.” Vocal timbres sounded true, instruments were presented with pleasing separations of image and tone, and all three recordings possessed stable imaging in playback on either piece of gear. With the XP-25, the sonic tapestries on the Pentangle and BS&T tracks were equally intricate, with the BS&T performance demonstrating an airy organ, punchy horn choruses, and rhythmic agility throughout. Strong upper bass and midbass were delivered via both phonos. Comparisons were a dead heat here.
However, I much preferred the E-02 to the XP-25 on mono playback. There was less flesh on the bone with the Pass Labs unit, and vocals were a touch less full compared to the Esoteric. I set the impedance loadings comparably to the ones I used with the XP-25, in steps ranging between 500 ohms and 1k ohms. Both units exhibited impressive rhythmic and timbral agility on tunes by Cole and McCrae and the Brown-Roach and Rollins LPs, rending instrumental colors with dash and verve, and convincingly dynamic swings when called for. The Pass Labs phono could at times sound mellower, presenting more of a whole, but the Esoteric was decidedly more thrilling and resolving in vocal and brass plosives and impacts, sounding more stable and consistently “alive” on all cuts I chose. On the Ellington Orchestra’s “Isfahan,” though Hodges’s alto sax solo came across as elastic via both phonos, the difference was the E-02’s sharper delineation, greater dynamic expressiveness, and more consistent solidity of tone. It better rendered all individual instruments, in fact, whereas the XP-25 gave them less presence in the mix. Emotionally, on vintage mono, the Esoteric was my big winner.
The Esoteric E-02 is as serious a piece of electronic kit as I’ve ever had in my system, revealing better qualities than I’ve experienced before in terms of its powers of resolution, textural detail and finesse, impressive soundstaging, bass presence, and slam. My reference Pass Labs phono certainly delivers the goods and has a mellower touch, particularly with orchestral music. But the E-02 is notably the more powerful of the two units—blessed not only with its own velvet hand for rendering acoustic music but also a closed fist in a velvet glove for rock, jazz, and dynamic vocals. What’s more, it has fine physical lines—with a luxurious though understated aesthetic to its build—and a plethora of useful features that are supremely elegant to engage with, all of which make it instantly recognizable as part of the Esoteric line of prestige electronics. If I could summon the great novelist Ralph Ellison from his “hidey-hole” in Heaven to experience just what the E-02 can get from the likes of Nat King Cole, Ellington’s Orchestra, and contemporary opera diva Anna Netrebko, I guarantee he’d join me in a chorus of hosannas and kyries, as Esoteric’s phono preamplifier extracts a music both jubilant and pensive from my mono and stereo cartridges that is a sonic séance of body and soul. If you’re in the market for one of the best phono stages at the $10k price point, I urge you to audition the Esoteric E-02.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog sources: TW-Acustic Raven AC-1 turntable with TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm with Kiseki Purple Heart MC stereo cartridge (0.4mV) and Ortofon RS-309D 12″ tonearm with Miyajima Zero MC mono cartridge (0.4mv).
- Digital source: Esoteric K-05X SACD/CD player.
- Preamplifier: Zanden Audio Systems Model 3100.
- Phono preamplifiers: Pass Labs XP-25, Ypsilon MC-10 step-up.
- Phono cable: Audience frontRow.
- Phono input adapters: Cardas.
- Power amplifier: Zanden Audio Systems Model 8120.
- Speakers: Ascendo System M.
- Power cords: Audience frontRow powerChord HP and MP.
- Interconnects: Audience frontRow (balanced and unbalanced), Zanden (balanced).
- Speaker cables and jumpers: Zanden Audio Systems speaker cables, Synergistic Research Galileo Universal Speaker Cells with Foundation jumpers.
- Power conditioner: Audience aR6-TSSOX with Audience frontRow powerChord.
- Record cleaner: Loricraft PRC4.
- Accessories: Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack and amp stand, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, fo.Q Modrate HEM-25B and HEM-25S Pure Note Insulators, ASC SoundPanels, Zanden Audio Systems AT-1 Acoustic Tubes and AP-1 Acoustic Panels, GIK Acoustics 4A Alpha Pro Series Bass Trap Diffusors/Absorbers, Winds ALM-01 Arm Load Meter, Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions Premium One-Step Formula No. 6, TW-Acustic Raven cartridge alignment tool, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab record cleaning brush, AudioQuest anti-static record brush, Furutech GTX-D NCF(R) AC duplex receptacles, Oyaide R1 AC duplex receptacles.
Esoteric E-02 Phono Preamplifier
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.
11 Trading Company, LLC
Keith Haas, National Sales Manager
3502 Woodview Trace, #200
Indianapolis, IN 46268
Phone: (949) 374-4487