To Howard Kneller,

I hope you don’t mind me asking you for your insight!

First, my setup:

  • PurePower 1500 power regenerator for all my components
  • NAD Masters Series M50 streamer/CD player
  • Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DAC
  • Esoteric A-03 amplifier
  • Onda Ligera Wave 168D speakers (also the smaller Onda Ligera Wave 16 and my very special 50+-year-old Yamaha NS-30s)

My system is now based on streaming. As you can see, I don’t use a dedicated preamplifier. Instead I use the preamp inside of the Antelope Zodiac Platinum DAC.

A couple of months ago I bought an Esoteric A-03 amp. I can hear the quality, but am not completely happy with my sound. My system’s sound doesn't grab me like it should. I presume some of my source equipment is now the weakest link.

I am considering a couple of next moves to try to get the sound to be better/more involving. I need to work hard to plunge myself into this crazy audio hobby of ours, so I am hoping for your advice!

Of course I am asking you because you had the A-03 yourself (did you sell it?) and have a lot of experience with the Esoteric brand! What is my best next move going forward?

  1. Buying an older Esoteric K-01 SACD player/DAC: I understand I can drive the Esoteric A-03 direct with the K-01. Will I lose a lot by not including a preamp? A big positive is that I can start to listen to SACD discs of very high quality!
  2. Buying an older Esoteric C-02 preamp: I will continue to use the Antelope DAC for the foreseeable future. This is a more expensive route to take and I am wondering if the Antelope DAC will not limit the sound.
  3. Buying an older Esoteric D-02 DAC: I think it will be possible to drive the A-03 direct.

What do you think of going direct to the A-03 from K-01 or D-02? Is the DAC inside of the K-01 of a lesser quality than the D-02? How big is the difference in your opinion? I am now focusing on building a system with Esoteric components, but maybe you have other suggestions?

I am very curious about your ideas what next step is best to take!

Kind greetings,

Thanks for writing. I did have an Esoteric A-03 amplifier. To say the least, that model is excellent and it was hard for me to let go of it. But, I ultimately did so and replaced it with the company’s S1 Grandioso amp, which in fact betters the A-03 in every way, albeit at a much higher cost.

From the upgrade choices that you laid out, I think that you should add an external preamplifier, either the C-02 or even the less expensive C-03. Upgrading your source will almost certainly improve the sound, but I don’t believe that is where your issue lies or where you will get the best bang for your buck (or in this case, euro). Also, in my opinion, while the ability to play SACDs is nice, it’s not crucial given the somewhat limited availability of titles, the premium price that many SACDs still fetch, and the availability of DSD audio files.

In my experience, preamplifiers that are built into other components such as DACs, or relying on a DAC’s digital or analog volume control, are good if you need to use them in a pinch, but they will not come close to performing as well as adding a high-quality external preamp. That’s not to mention the extra connectivity options that an external preamp often brings. Also, for reasons beyond the scope of this response, I am not a fan of going sans preamp, although there are some people who may disagree.

I have extensive experience with the preamp that is built into the Esoteric K-01 disc player -- its performance does not in the least change my view on this issue. Although I have not tested the Antelope Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, I would be surprised if its built-in pre performed at a level that would affect my thinking. This is especially true in light of your dissatisfaction with your system’s sound.

Finally, I am not a big fan of buying older DACs, although cost is certainly a part of the analysis necessary in deciding on any such purchase. They usually do not perform as well as newer models. In any event, I believe that changing your DAC at this time would likely be going in the wrong direction. If you are aspiring to build an all-Esoteric system, you might want to sell the Antelope at a later date, but I would first add the external preamplifier.

I am sorry to recommend to you what might be the most expensive option, but I feel confident in my recommendation. As noted, there is always the C-03 preamplifier, which is less costly than the C-02 and can be very reasonably priced in the used market. . . . Howard Kneller