Almost every month, I hear about a new, midpriced digital-to-analog converter that’s supposedly taking the audiophile world by storm. These flavors of the month typically include the latest, greatest conversion chips and cost $2000-$3500 USD -- sometimes much less. They almost always come with a story about a guy who bought one, got better sound than he was getting with his $125,000 multibox digital stack, sold the latter, and laughed all the way to the bank.
It was just after I’d had a conversation with an audiophile friend about a $500 flavor-of-the-month DAC that Scott Sefton, Esoteric’s marketing specialist, offered to send me for review samples of the company’s new statement models. At the time, the Grandioso line comprised the M1 monoblock amplifier ($21,000 each), the two-box P1 SACD/CD transport ($40,000), and the D1 mono DAC ($20,000 each). There is also, now, the Grandioso C1, a two-box preamplifier ($40,000).
I accepted Sefton’s offer, but passed on the M1 monoblocks -- my YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature speakers contain powered woofers. Still, that left me with the P1 transport and two D1 DACs. To complete this high-end digital feast, Sefton proffered the G-01 Master Clock Generator ($23,000).
In my estimation, this review would be significant not only because it would report what Esoteric could do at the ultra-high end of the market, but also because it would shed light on the question of whether midpriced digital gear has become so good as to make überexpensive statement components relics of a bygone age.
Grandioso looks and build quality
The Italian word grandioso means majestic or magnificent. And that’s exactly how I would describe the P1’s and D1’s appearance and build quality. From across the room, you can’t miss their numerous, large cases and striking faceplates, or the latters’ protruding upper and lower curves and rounded corners. Each faceplate is carved from a single block of high-grade aluminum in a process that requires eight hours on a CNC machine -- a total of 32 hours for just the front panels of the D1’s and P1’s two boxes. Built into the bottom of the lower curve on the faceplate of the P1’s power supply is a downward-facing LED that, when the P1 is powered up, bathes the lower, central portion of the faceplate in a very cool, high-tech, blue light.
Yes, these components know how to make an entrance, and getting up close to them only further reveals their impressiveness. The P1 has two locking DC power cables that run from its transport box to its power box. When I locked these cables in place, I sensed a level of quality that is rarely found in consumer products. Think more aerospace or military quality. And while the sole function of the P1’s disc tray is to deliver discs into the transport mechanism, even this is unfathomably thick -- it’s made from a solid block of aluminum -- with a gorgeously carved disc area that screams precision workmanship. These are just a few examples of the type of craft that a cool $40,000 buys.
Grandioso P1: the right angle
On the Grandioso P1’s front panel are the disc tray, the dimmable display, a clock status indicator, an IR sensor to receive signals from the remote control, and buttons for tray open/close, menu, and disc playback. On the rear panel of the transport box are connectors for seven digital output channels, including two ES-LINK4 channels (see below).
The heart of the P1 is its VRDS transport mechanism, which can read SACDs, CDs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs. It was designed by Esoteric many years ago, and has evolved into what is now called the VRDS-NEO VMK-3.5-20S. Although the transport mechanisms of Esoteric’s P-02 and K-01 disc players also bear this moniker, the version used in the P1 has been further tweaked to improve its performance. The VRDS-NEO mechanism tightly clamps the disc and bends it to a preset curvature. According to Esoteric, this eliminates any shaking and wobbling of the disc. It also ensures that even warped discs remain at the desired angle to the laser pickup assembly reading the disc’s data, thus making possible Esoteric’s use of a fixed-angle assembly. (According to Esoteric, the adjustable assemblies used in virtually all other transports can’t fully read the data.) The transport mechanism also features a vibration-resistant turntable whose weight and shape are precisely balanced. The turntable is made of duralumin, a very hard, strong aluminum alloy commonly used in aircraft construction.
Above the turntable is a 20mm-thick steel turntable bridge that weighs 12 pounds. The bridge, dyed black to absorb diffused reflections of the pickup laser, contains, among other things, the spindle motor, which Esoteric cryptically describes as “high-magnetic-flux-density magnet-driven coreless three-phase brushless.” The upshot? It’s built to rotate rapidly at an extremely precise speed, while being incredibly quiet and durable. To reduce friction, the spindle shaft rotates on a pair of ultra-high-precision ball bearings.
The VS-DD spindle servo electronically drives the spindle motor. It, robustly built to damp resonances, has a three-channel, discrete amplifier to optimize the electrical waveform sent to the motor. This helps ensure that the disc’s rotational speed is accurate even under poor conditions, which can include fluctuations in a house’s AC voltage.
The P1’s newly designed internal word clock, also used in the D1, syncs its internal digital devices and times the sampling that occurs in the process of converting a digital signal to an analog signal. It’s positioned separately from the P1’s other circuits, including the power and ground. The clock’s voltage-controlled crystal VCXO oscillator, developed with Japan’s Nihon Dempa Kogyo (NDK), contains the largest crystal element Esoteric has ever used.
Because of the P1’s and D1’s multibox designs, most of the digital filtering controls are found on the D1. However, the P1 does have a control that applies an FIR-type low-pass filter to the signal.
ES-LINK4 is a new, ultra-wideband transmission system, developed by Esoteric, that permits DSD and 48-bit/352.8kHz PCM transmission via HDMI cables. According to Esoteric, ES-LINK4 performs a large amount of the digital signal processing on the sending side, thus improving sound quality by reducing the DAC’s processing load.
While ES-LINK4’s use of HDMI cables may be surprising, such cables have significantly more connector pins than does, for example, an AES/EBU cable. This makes it possible for such operational functions as the word clock to be given their own signal paths, rather than being modulated over a three-pin connection.
Other digital outputs on the rear of the transport box are: XLR (two), coaxial RCA (one), and i.LINK 4/p and 6/p (one each), as well as connectors for an external clock, a grounding cable, and the DC power cables.
The P1’s transport box measures 17.4”W x 6.3”H x 17.5”D, and features a double-decker, “3D-optimized” interior that permits extremely short circuit paths. Despite the P1’s lack of an internal power supply, it still weighs 59.4 pounds. Thick aluminum is used for the external walls, and the steel bottom plate is 5mm thick. Each P1 box -- and each D1 -- is supported by four proprietary pinpoint isolation feet.
The P1’s power supply measures 17.4”W x 5.1”H x 17.6”D and weighs 52.8 pounds. It contains four large toroidal transformers, which supply current to the digital output circuit, as well as the spindle motor, spindle servo driver, and word clock. The front panel contains an illuminated power button and that high-tech power-indicator LED. On the rear are the DC power-cable connectors, a ground connector, an IEC AC power inlet, and a knob for adjusting the brightness of the power-indicator LED.
The P1 comes with Esoteric’s standard backlit remote control, which I’ve written about before. This remote is extremely well made and easy to use, and would be a blessing as an accessory for any other model. Still, I’d hoped for something a bit more reflective of the Grandioso P1’s price of 40 large.
Grandioso D1: kibbles and 36 bits
Each Grandioso D1 measures 17.4”W x 5.1”H x 17.5”D and weighs 52.8 pounds.
On the front panel are buttons for power, menu selection, input selection, and adjusting the filtering, upsampling, upconversion, and clock. Also on the faceplate are a display, a clock indicator, and an IR sensor that permits dimming the display using the P1’s remote.
The rear panel offers the following inputs: ES-LINK4 (one), XLR (one), RCA (two), iLINK four-pin and six-pin (one each), optical (one), and USB (one). Also on the rear are input and output connectors for an external clock, a grounding-cable connector, an IEC inlet for the AC power cord, left- and right-channel ES-LINK4 and iLINK connectors, and XLR and RCA analog output connectors.
The D1’s monaural configuration optimizes channel separation and permits the use of dedicated power supplies. All of the D1’s analog circuitry is electronically separated from its digital circuits.
Each channel of the D1 uses 16 32-bit AK4495S DACs, manufactured by Japan’s Asahi Kasei Microdevices Corporation. By combining several of these chips, Esoteric has been able to use an encoding algorithm that converts PCM to analog at a record-breaking resolution of 36 bits. Esoteric states that this is 16 times the resolution of 32-bit conversion, and 4096 times more than 24-bit.
The D1’s USB input supports asynchronous data transmission at rates of up to 32/384 PCM, 2.8MHz DSD, and 5.6MHz double DSD. Transmission of 2.8MHz DSD is also supported by the ES-LINK4 and optical inputs. The inclusion of native DSD processing corrects a significant source of annoyance for owners of Esoteric’s prior flagship DAC, the D-02: while many of the inexpensive flavor-of-the-month DACs could handle native DSD, the D-02 could not.
In addition to providing playback at the source’s original PCM sampling frequency, the D1 provides the option for 2x, 4x, and 8x upconversion. There’s also digital-to-digital conversion of PCM to DSD. The circuitry of the D1’s high-current output buffer is on its own board, far from the conversion chips. It comprises one circuit for the hot and cold pins of the balanced output connections. Two large toroidal transformers supply power to the D1’s digital and analog circuits.
When I reviewed Esoteric’s C-02 preamplifier, I said that the then-applicable limited warranty (two years, parts and labor, extendable to three years with registration) was inadequate. The Grandiosos’ warranty is different but not better. While the three-year term with registration remains the same, the two-year non-registration term has been lowered to one year. As someone I know who speaks English as a second language often states, “I no like” -- especially at these prices.
Setup: box invasion
The Esoterics’ large cartons arrived in wrapped pairs, each palleted pair weighing almost 200 pounds. Getting them into my house was not easy.
Once the Grandiosos were in my listening room, I stacked them on two amp stands. On one stand were the P1’s transport box and power supply and the G-01 clock, and on the other was the D1s -- admittedly, an inelegant configuration for guests of so distinguished a pedigree. It was also a reminder that the Grandiosos are not casual purchases even when price is no object. Finding space for them will require forethought, if not the purchase of another rack. Or two.
The D1s and P1 each come with an HDMI cable for the ES-LINK system. I ran two of these cables from the transport, one into each DAC, and a single HDMI cable from DAC to DAC. The latter cable permits digital inputs such as TosLink, coaxial, and USB to be connected to the left-channel DAC only. During operation, right-channel information is transmitted via ES-LINK from the left to the right channel. This eliminates the need for a third-party outboard digital splitter, as was needed with Esoteric’s older mono DAC, the D-01.
I ran the P1’s DC power cables from its power supply to its transport box. For AC power, and to connect my Esoteric C-02 preamp to the P1, I respectively used Synergistic Research’s Element power cords and a pair of Element interconnects.
As an alternative source to the P1, I connected the D1s to my Windows laptop, which runs JRiver Media Center 17. (I’d already loaded the appropriate drivers on the laptop for use with my Esoteric K-01 SACD/CD player.) I was lucky to have on hand several USB cables, from companies such as Belkin, JPlay, and Synergistic Research. I get the best results -- including a large, holographic soundstage and detailed yet nonfatiguing sound -- with Synergistic’s Galileo LE USB cable, so I stuck with that.
As for the P1’s digital settings, I mostly activated the FIR filter and used mild (2x or 4x) upconversion. Higher rates of upconversion, including going to DSD, sound a bit too smooth and syrupy for my taste. At the end of the day, the optimal settings will be based on personal preference, the characteristics of the recording, and the type of music played. Just note that the P1’s FIR filter won’t engage unless upconversion is activated.
My findings below were obtained with the G-01 clock, which, though not a necessary purchase, certainly improved the Grandiosos’ performance.
Performance: assault on the SOTA
The last Esoteric component I reviewed was the C-02 preamp ($24,750). It offered better detail, imaging, and three-dimensionality than did the outgoing and lower-priced C-03 ($11,500). But the C-02 didn’t provide $13,250 worth more of these traits. Where the C-02 handily surpassed the C-03 and earned its keep was in its ability to, among other things, portray realism and delineate timbres.
The Grandioso P1 and D1 were not so discriminating. They assailed the state of the art on every front, every audio benchmark, including: air, soundstaging, noise reduction, detail retrieval, transient impact, three-dimensionality, openness, and transparency. Moreover, they threw an even bigger soundstage than did the D-02 and its matching transport, the P-02, this despite the fact that those components are known for producing supersized soundstages.
Doesn’t every new generation of digital gear improve on some or all of these benchmarks? Perhaps -- but the P1 and D1 did so in ways of which flavor-of-the-month digital components can only dream. From Glenn Gould’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Partitas Nos.1-3 (CD, Sony Classical SK 87767), take the Allemande of Partita 1 and the Sarabande of Partita 2. These feature Gould’s bizarre vocal ramblings, which seem to be tolerated only because he’s widely regarded to have played Bach’s keyboard music better than anyone else. Through the Grandiosos, his mumbles, groans, and hums were captured with an intelligibility and spatial presence that I’ve heard from no other front-end component. And while this might seem like a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla for new, statement digital components, what was so remarkable was that Gould’s vocalizing was not deliberately miked, and thus extremely difficult to convincingly re-create. I could go on about how the P1 and D1 obliterated one audio benchmark after the next -- and they did. However, in my mind, their greatest accomplishments were twofold:
First, they effectively disregarded the conventional distinctions between analog and digital music reproduction that exist even today for the vast number of audio components. Did the P1-D1 combo sound like a Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond turntable? No, but I don’t think that you’ll feel that the Grandiosos give up anything to the Walker. The Esoterics sounded as natural, textured, sweet, smooth, and flowing, and as free of grain and etch, as anything I’ve heard. They made large, clean, creamy, unfatiguing, nonabrasive sound that luxuriously and effortlessly floated between and around my YGA Kipod speakers. Think of the very best that analog has to offer, without its traditional limitations in detail, speed, transparency, extension at the frequency extremes, control of the bass, and rounding off of the leading edges of transients.
In the Dena Piano Duo’s performance of the Allegro con spirito of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K.448, from The Nordic Sound (24/192 FLAC, 2L), notes were so natural and pleasing that they stopped even non-audiophiles in their tracks as they passed the door of my listening room. Yet the noise floor appeared to be nonexistent, the piano notes’ crystalline structure breathtakingly developed, transients crisp, and highs extended. The sound was so stunning that I’d wager even many audiophiles might mistake it for the real thing.
Wolfgang Plagge’s Duels for Two Violins -- Vivo, also from The Nordic Sound, features the violins of Stig Nilsson, concertmaster of the Oslo Philharmonic, and his son, Anders Kjellberg Nilsson. On this track these instruments reach well into the upper midband, where our ears are most sensitive and fundamentals can be brittle and screechy. Indeed, this is what makes the sounds of the violin, which reaches the highest frequencies of any of the stringed instruments, so difficult to reproduce. But through the P1 and D1, the sounds of the Nilssons’ fiddles lacked any hint of the fingernails-on-chalkboard treble that I’ve heard not only from many flavor-of-the-month DACs, but a surprising number of high-end ones.
In fact, the collective sound of the P1 and D1s was so nonfatiguing that they reminded me that I rarely listen to digital components for long periods or at loud volumes, and never both. However, due at least in part to the incredibly natural silkiness the Grandiosos brought to Stan Getz’s tenor sax on The Very Best of Stan Getz (16/44.1 FLAC, Verve), I listened to that album at volume levels and for lengths of time that would have been unthinkable with most other DACs.
Second, the P1 and D1 are, by far, the most musical front-end components I have heard in my room. They induced foot-tapping, finger-snapping, dancing, and singing out loud. Try listening to “Jamming,” from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Exodus: 30th Anniversary Edition (CD, Island 314 586 408-2), through these components without wanting to do at least two of the above. Impossible.
But the P1 and D1 were musical in another important way. In my system, they unleashed blasts of sonic information that continually taught me new things about the compositions, musicians, and instruments I was listening to. I’ve listened to Glenn Gould’s recording of the Rondeaux of Bach’s Partita No.2 countless times through all types of gear. Although I hadn’t realized it, each time, the composition’s melodic lines were always more or less homogenously treated. That wasn’t the case with the Grandioso P1 and D2, which made those lines starkly obvious. This taught me two things: the extent to which Gould had mastered counterpoint, and the fact that these Rondeaux are far more complex than I had realized.
With Plagge’s Duels for 2 Violins, the P1 and D1s astonished me with their ability to render the timbres of the Nilssons’ violins -- as my experience with the Esoteric C-02 taught me, not an easy thing to do. For the first time, it was apparent to me that one of the violins has a sound that’s darker, more sonorous, more reminiscent of a viola. I’m not sure whether the two violins are of different periods and/or makers, or if Nilsson père simply plays differently than Nilsson fils, who plays violin and viola (though not the latter here). However, this tonal difference was something that I hadn’t previously discerned with any of the high-end components I’ve auditioned, including the Esoteric C-02 and K-01.
And with almost every symphonic work I played, the P1 and D1 reminded me why 90 or so musicians bother to gather together to make music. With the Grandiosos, subtle and easily lost instruments, both small (e.g., flute and bassoon) and large (piano), were no longer lost in the mix. As a result, harmonies blossomed with jaw-dropping fullness and diversity, and were not hollow and pitted, as they are with most front-end components. For example, the bassoon in Concerto Grosso Berlin’s A Cavalier’s Tour Through Baroque Europe (CD, Berlin Classics 300424) was not overpowered by the other instruments, as is often the case. Moreover, the Grandiosos taught me that, despite reaching lower in pitch than any woodwind other than the contrabassoon, the bassoon is not only very articulate, but can actually reach quite high into the audioband.
In fact, no matter what I played through the P1 and D1s, I learned something new about music that had not been uncovered by some very expensive and highly respected gear. Owning the P1 and D1s would probably be like studying music theory at Juilliard -- though I’m not sure which would be more expensive.
Comparison: calling all super-high-end digital competitors
Thinking of products that might compete with the Esoteric Grandiosos, only a few come to mind. An obvious candidate is dCS’s Vivaldi stack of digital components, whose disc spinner houses a modified Esoteric VRDS transport mechanism. When the Vivaldis were introduced, I heard them at a local dealer. Although my impression is that the Grandioso P1 and D1s had a fuller, more romantic sound than the Vivaldis, the dealer’s showroom offered less-than-ideal listening conditions. Further listening with the Vivaldi stack in a good room, with good associated components and cables, is necessary before I can draw any definitive conclusions.
A couple of years ago I reviewed EMM Labs’ DAC2X DAC ($15,500), the only other digital component I’ve had in-house whose musicality has completely blown me away. As I said in that review, the DAC2X marries digital’s traditional strengths with a midrange sound that’s stunningly non-jarring, full, and romantic. If you can’t spend more than $15,500 on a DAC, the DAC2X must be on your short list.
But time has passed since those listening sessions, and aural memories have a short half-life, so I’ll keep my observations brief. While the Esoterics and the EMM both pushed at the limits of what’s now possible in audio, the Grandioso P1 and D1s produced a large, cleanly luxurious sound with a saturation of tonal colors that I just hadn’t heard before in my room, with or without the DAC2X. Moreover, as musical as the EMM is, it was only with the Esoterics that counterpoint was so apparent, harmonies so instrumentally rich, and timbres parsed so well that a violin’s luthier suddenly mattered.
Yes, even a single D1 costs well more than a DAC2X, you need two D1s if you want to listen in stereo, and at this altitude of the high end, more money doesn’t always buy better sound. Here, it does.
Conclusion: 0 to 60 in 2.2 seconds
Comparing the Esoteric Grandioso P1 and D1 to a flavor-of-the-month digital component is like stepping into a Porsche 918 Spyder and realizing that, no matter how good the Porsche 911 may be, it doesn’t provide the unearthly 0-to-60-in-2.2-seconds experience that the statement model does. That’s bad news for those with $2500 in their pocket and a strong wish that expensive digital stacks would go the way of the Dodo bird and DVD rental stores.
Yes, just as many lower-priced sports cars will one day better the performance of today’s Porsche 918, the flavor-of-the-month components will one day outpace the Grandioso P1 and D1. That day is not today -- and I’m pretty certain it won’t be tomorrow or even the day after. But in today’s fast-paced world of high-end digital, after that, all bets are off.
For now, the Grandioso P1 and D1 play on a field where the sign outside the stadium says “SOTA.” Remarkably, at this level you can spend even more. However, I’m not certain that, if you do, you’ll see a decent return on your money, if any. Highly recommended for those with deep audiophile pockets and the desire to go from 0 to 60 in 2.2 seconds now.
. . . Howard Kneller
- Amplifier -- Esoteric A-03
- Preamplifier -- Esoteric C-02
- Sources -- Esoteric K-01 SACD/CD player, Windows 7 laptop running JRiver Media Center 17
- Speakers -- YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature, JL Audio E-Sub e112 subwoofers (2)
- Interconnects -- Synergistic Research Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver (all electronics, including active bass modules of YGA speakers)
- Digital cables -- Synergistic Research Galileo LE USB, JPlay JCat USB
- Speaker cables -- Synergistic Research Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver (tweeters) and Element Copper-Tungsten (midrange drivers)
- Power cords -- Synergistic Research Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver Analog (amplifier, preamplifier), Copper-Tungsten-Silver Digital (disc players, DACs), Tesla Precision AC SE (speakers), Element Copper-Tungsten (Powercell 6 SE and Powercell 10 SE Mk.III power conditioners), Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver Analog and Digital (Enigma power supply fed by two power cords), Tesla Hologram A (QLS Lines strips with Galileo MPCs)
- Power conditioners and distribution -- Synergistic Research Powercell 6 SE (digital components only) daisy-chained to Powercell 10 SE Mk.II
- Isolation devices -- Synergistic Research Tranquility Bases (sources, preamp), Custom Isolation Products amp stand (Enigma power supply), Silent Running Audio VR fp Isobase (amp), Synergistic Research MIGS, Mapleshade Heavy Hats, DIY amp stands
- Room treatments and correction -- Synergistic Research Acoustic Art System, Synergistic Research HFT and FEQ room-treatment devices, Synergistic Research XOT Crossover Transducer, DSPeaker Antimode 8033 Subwoofer Equalizers with Channel Island Audio linear power supplies
- Misc. -- IPC Disc Energizer, Black Discus Audio System Enhancer, Synergistic Research Galileo Universal interconnect and speaker-cable cells, Hi-Fi Tuning CD/DVD Demagnetizer
Esoteric Grandioso P1 SACD/CD Transport and Power Supply
Price: $40,000 USD.
Esoteric Grandioso D1 Mono Digital-to-Analog Converters
Price: $40,000 USD per pair.
Esoteric G-01 Master Clock Generator
Price: $23,000 USD.
Warranty (all): One year parts and labor; three years with mailing of warranty card.
Integra Home Theater
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (201) 818-9200