In February 2015, I reviewed Esoteric’s Grandioso P1 SACD/CD transport, D1 mono digital-to-analog converters, and G-01 master clock generator. At a total cost of $91,000 USD, these state-of-the-art components in five hefty cases of aircraft-grade aluminum are not for the faint of checkbook or rack space.
Those with shallower pockets, fewer racks, and only one spare audiophile power cord might be more interested in the Grandioso K1 ($27,000), an all-in-one SACD and CD player, and DAC. The K1 doesn’t offer the no-holds-barred performance of the P1, D1, and G-01 stack, which uses a 36-bit digital-to-analog processing algorithm, dual mono D/A converters in separate cases, and staggeringly robust power supplies. Still, the K1 has tricks up its sleeve, perhaps foremost its use of the newest and highest-performing DAC chip from Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM), the AK4497, which has yet to make its way into the Grandioso separates.
With its new DAC chip, and its smaller size and lower price than the Grandioso separates, the Grandioso K1 promised to make for an interesting review.
Transport: One of the most critical parts of any disc player is its transport, and in the K1 is Esoteric’s best: the much-revered VRDS-NEO VMK-3.5-20S. Designed many years ago and since then constantly improved, it can read SACDs, CDs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs, and is used in Esoteric’s other high-end disc spinners, the K-01X, P-02X, and Grandioso P1.
Weighing 11.5 pounds (26.5 pounds including its steel base and feet), the transport makes its competitors seem pitiful. Take the disc tray. Although its sole function is to deliver a disc to the transport, it’s made from a solid block of aluminum.
Also, while many audiophile transports spin discs by supporting them with a small chuck, the VRDS-NEO VMK-3.5-20S uses a 7”-diameter platter of vibration-resistant duralumin not unlike those found in LP turntables. Duralumin, an extremely hard and strong aluminum alloy, is commonly used in aircraft construction. The platter is dyed black to absorb any diffused reflections of the laser beam that reads the disc’s data.
The VRDS-NEO transport tightly clamps the disc and bends it to a specific curvature. According to Esoteric, this stabilizes even warped discs, ensuring that the data spiral of pits and lands remains at the optimal angle for reading by the laser beam. Since discs are then always read at precisely the same angle, Esoteric can use a shaft-mounted, fixed-angle laser first developed in 1997 for Esoteric’s P-0 transport. The laser pickup’s travel over the disc is guided by a thick threaded pole. Esoteric states that the wire-hung pickups used in virtually all other CD transports are adversely affected by vibrations, which can knock them off axis.
The platter is driven by a motor, designed and built by Esoteric, that rests on a rigid stainless-steel bridge almost 0.8” (20mm) thick. Esoteric characterizes this motor as “high-flux-density,” “magnet-driven,” “coreless,” “three-phase,” and “brushless.” In layman’s terms, it’s built to quietly, durably, and rapidly spin discs at extremely precise speeds. To reduce friction, the motor’s spindle, which spins the platter, rests on two ultra-high-precision ball bearings that permit micron-level accuracy of rotation.
The motor is electronically driven by Esoteric’s proprietary VS-DD servo driver circuit, which uses a three-channel discrete amplifier instead of an integrated circuit (IC) chip. The amplifier’s high-quality waveform ensures that the turntable’s speed of rotation is extremely accurate even when powered by the fluctuating voltage of household AC.
DAC: For each channel, the K1 uses four of AKM’s new 32-bit AK4497 DAC chips. The AK4497 is the highest-performing DAC chip AKM has made. (The chip also appears in Esoteric’s new N-01 network player.) The use of multiple chips allows the K1 to use a digital-to-analog algorithm that converts PCM signals at a resolution of 35 bits -- 2048 times the resolution of 24-bit processing. (The mono Grandioso D1 converts signals at a rate of 36 bits.)
When the DAC chips have converted the ones and aughts into an analog waveform, that waveform is amplified by two MUSES 03 operational amplifiers per channel. These op-amps, made by New Japan Radio Co., Ltd., are hand-selected for audio quality.
The Grandioso K1 contains four high-capacity toroidal transformers, one each for the spindle motor, left channel, and right channel, and the fourth for other circuits: the front-panel display, disc drawer, and clock. Electric Double-Layer Capacitor (EDLC) arrays, one per channel, power the buffer (amplifier) circuits. First used in the Grandioso C1, each EDLC contains Nichicon capacitors with a super high value of 1F (1,000,000uF).
Filters: Like all Grandioso models, the K1 has no user-adjustable FIR or slow-delay filters. This is a blessing, as I’ve found that such filters alter the sound in questionable ways. Like almost all DACs, the K1 does have nonadjustable filters to eliminate the aliasing artifacts inherent in D/A conversion.
Connectivity: The Grandioso K1 has three digital inputs: USB, coaxial, and optical. The coaxial and optical inputs support native DSD up to 2.8MHz, and PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz. The K1 can upconvert the original 16/44.1 PCM signal to 2x, 4x, 8x, or DSD. Via USB, it supports asynchronous transmission and file playback at high sampling rates of DSDx2 (5.6MHz), DSDx4 (11.2MHz), and 32/384 PCM. The coaxial and optical inputs are limited to 24/192 and 2.8MHz DSD.
The K1 does not process Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), the digital music format for high-resolution music files developed by Meridian Audio and since spun off as MQA Limited. Esoteric states that including MQA in its disc players would require a complete redesign of their DAC sections, and that they’re considering its feasibility. They do plan to add MQA to their N-05 network audio player.
The audible effects of MQA remain controversial, but regardless of how it all shakes out, MQA’s absence in the K1 should not be cause for concern. A “renderer,” such as an MQA-compatible music server, can be used to process MQA files and send the “unfolded” (MQAspeak for decoded) signals to the K1. There are also several streaming Internet sites that will decode MQA signals at the desktop level, though such decoding won’t provide all of the sonic benefits claimed for MQA.
The K1 has three analog outputs: XLR, RCA, and Esoteric’s new proprietary ES-LINK Analog connector, which uses analog XLR cables. Esoteric recommends ES-LINK Analog for the highest performance, stating that it is impedance free. Although the only other product that now includes ES-LINK Analog is the Grandioso F1 integrated amplifier, the technology will be implemented in future Esoteric pre- and integrated amplifiers. The K1 also has two digital outputs, XLR and RCA.
Clock: The Grandioso K1’s custom clock, a voltage-controlled quartz oscillator (VCXO), is positioned separately from the K1’s other circuits, such as power and ground. Its large crystal element exhibits extremely low phase noise and has an accuracy of ±0.5 part per million. For increased performance, the K1 can be connected via a BNC coaxial cable to an external clock, such as the matching Esoteric Grandioso G1 ($22,000), which has accuracy of ±0.5 part per billion.
Appearance: Like all Grandioso models, the Grandioso K1 is drop-dead gorgeous, its sculpted faceplate a striking example of contemporary industrial design. Although my Esoteric K-01X SACD/CD player has always looked exquisite to me, now, sitting next to the K1, its looks are plain Jane.
The Grandioso K1 measures 17.5”W x 6.4”H x 17.6”D and weighs a monoblock-like 72.75 pounds. Its thick, rounded faceplate is carved from a single block of high-grade aluminum in a process that takes eight hours on a CNC machine. The massive result is not only aesthetically stunning but functional, shielding the delicate internal circuitry from electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio-frequency interference (RFI). The faceplate’s rounded shape doesn’t permit the use of the interference-repelling retracting tray door found on many of Esoteric’s non-Grandioso models. Even so, Esoteric states that the K1’s faceplate and robust housing provide more protection from electrical interference than do their non-Grandioso models.
On the front panel are the disc tray, the dimmable display, a clock status indicator, an IR remote-control sensor, and buttons for power, tray open/close, menu (to access settings, including a timed-turn off feature), mode (to select disc playback or an external source), and disc playback (stop, play, pause, next, previous). On the rear panel are an AC power inlet, and connectors for inputs, outputs, an external clock (BNC), and signal ground.
The VRDS-NEO transport is supported by four patented pinpoint steel feet (with attached steel cups) that reduce vibrations emanating from the transport. The K1’s internal structure is two-storied: the audio boards and clock on top, and under them the power-supply circuits and drive control. Esoteric says that this prevents magnetic flux and vibrational leakage, and shortens the signal paths.
Esoteric has also improved the isolation of the K1’s digital and analog circuits via the implementation of “isolator chipsets” on the DAC boards. The K-01X SACD/CD player does not include these chipsets.
The K1 comes with Esoteric’s RC-1315 remote control, which has an aluminum body but lacks backlighting. The remote is heavy enough and well made, and I found it acceptably easy to use. Nonetheless, it’s a step back in function and appearance from Esoteric’s previous, backlit remote of leather and aluminum. For a component costing $27,000, I would prefer a remote-control handset that’s more, well . . . grandioso.
Esoteric offers a one-year limited warranty for the K1, to which Integra, the company’s US distributor, adds two years for all units sold here. In light of the K1’s cost and Esoteric’s reputation for overbuilding its products, it would be nice to see something closer to five years.
The Grandioso K1 came exceptionally well packaged, in a heavy cardboard cocoon that was itself triple-boxed. As I’d already downloaded to my PC Esoteric’s Windows driver for use with my Esoteric K-01X SACD/CD player ($20,000), the K1 was good to go out of the box.
Compared to the Grandioso separates, setting up the K1 was much less demanding not only of cables and rack space, but also of my back. I used cables from Synergistic Research: Galileo LE USB, two Galileo UEF analog interconnects, and a Galileo UEF digital power cord. I placed the K1 on Symposium Acoustics’ Osiris Stealth Ultimate audio rack and used several aftermarket footers, but mostly Synergistic’s MIG 2.0s and Symposium’s Series 2+ Rollerblocks. During part of the listening period I experimented with connecting the K1 to Synergistic’s Active Ground Block.
Each of the above products substantially improved the K1’s performance. The possibility that anyone would use a Grandioso K1 with its own stock molded power cord or a very inexpensive aftermarket cord, or place it on a $9.99 IKEA Lack table, seems as unlikely as a monkey typing Hamlet’s soliloquy.
To stream and read digital files, I used a desktop PC modified with JCAT audiophile components and the JPlay audio player, the latter using Audio Stream Input/Output (ASIO) and Kernel Streaming (KS) drivers. JPlay offers exceptional sound quality, particularly through its KS drivers. However, those drivers are not supported by Esoteric, which advises using only the ASIO drivers. Using KS drivers with Esoteric DACs frequently causes JPlay to stop working, and it can be restarted only by closing and resetting JPlay in WASAPI output mode. This problem needs to be considered by anyone who wants to use the K1 with an audio player that uses KS drivers.
Esoteric also sent me a Grandioso G1 master clock generator. However, I mostly listened to the K1 without a clock -- my report on the effects of the G1 on the K1’s sound will be forthcoming. And while Esoteric offered to also send me a Grandioso F1 integrated amplifier, it was impossible to fit it into my review queue, which meant I was unable to evaluate any effects that connecting them via Esoteric’s ES-LINK Analog connection might have had on the sound.
But be prepared to bleed
-- Joni Mitchell, “A Case of You,” from Blue
Esoteric’s much more expensive digital stack of Grandioso P1, D1, and G-01 substantially betters the Grandioso K1 in speed, timing, timbral delineation, resolution, weight, transient impact, imaging, and vertical soundstaging. However, the K1 produced sound of greater liquidity and fluency, and lower overall distortion, than any other gear I’ve had in my room, including the Grandioso separates. The result was that the K1 uncovered previously hidden fluctuations of intonation and articulation that allowed music’s emotional content to come through recordings as I’d never before experienced with them.
Although I could hear the K1’s stunning liquidity and fluency with well-recorded music of all types, it was particularly audible in the recordings of wind instruments and solo voices, the realism of which the K1 absolutely nailed. This may have been due to the workings of the human respiratory system -- attacks and decays fluctuate erratically, compared to the more predictable, often even linear sounds of strings and percussion.
The K1 revealed newly heard microperturbations in Neil Young’s vocal tone and articulation in “Love in Mind,” from his Live at Massey Hall 1971 (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Reprise). Rather than having a single uniform tonal quality, the tone of Young’s voice now frequently changed in quality and intensity. The result was that his voice sounded uncommonly realistic and emotionally expressive.
Conversely, the K1 revealed several examples of a startling absence of microvacillations of frequency and amplitude. In her sublime recording of “Misty,” from Pure Ella (CD, Verve 539206), Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was free of shimmer and distortion, embodying a serenity that soothed my soul. This was starkly contrasted with the realistic way the K1 reproduced Louis Armstrong’s coarse, ragged voice.
Note that I’m not talking here about pure resolution of detail, though that was certainly a part of the K1’s unique abilities. The Grandioso digital stack is even more resolving than the K1. Yet those separates still somehow lack the K1’s tonal and articulative fluidity, and, to some extent, its ability to convey emotion. Thus, the liquid, textured, and emotionally communicative K1 has taken one more step away from digital’s historic shortcomings.
For example, with both the Grandioso separates and, later, with the K1, my significant other and I listened to numerous recordings by Diana Krall, including Doing All Right: In Concert (16/44.1 FLAC, IMC Music Limited). But it was only with the K1 that we cried throughout the listening session. Despite the never-ending stream of components that have traveled through my listening room -- including the Esoteric K-01X SACD/CD Player ($20,000) -- that had never happened before.
At this point, I wish I could tell you something insightful -- that, say, the Grandioso K1’s sound was better or worse with CDs than with SACDs, or that it reproduced some types of music better than others. I can’t. Whether from disc or digital file, classical music, rock, or jazz, the K1 offered remarkable performance for a one-box player. This was no surprise to me -- I have long maintained that at least a part of what makes Esoteric’s digital gear so good is the company’s excellent analog circuitry.
In addition to its fluency, the K1 possesses many standout talents, not least of which are its timbral delineation and pace, rhythm, and timing. I listened to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K.364 (16/44.1 FLAC, Channel Classics). This gorgeous composition gives the two solo instruments equal play in a complex series of exchanges between themselves and the orchestra, the writing for the latter including two sections for violas divisi -- that is, the orchestral violas are divided into two sections playing different parts. For the solo viola, Mozart mostly calls for a scordatura tuning: the four strings are tuned a semitone above their normal pitches. The resulting brighter timbre very closely resembles that of the solo violin.
Many components don’t fully parse the timbres in this work, producing a homogenized miscellany of instruments that are scored to play discrepant orchestral roles. The K1 revealed to a very impressive degree the violin’s silky, soprano-like sound, which exaggerated high frequencies above about 5000Hz. Very expensive state-of-the-art digital playback systems, such as Esoteric’s Grandioso separates and dCS’s Vivaldi stack, reveal a bit more of the violin’s brilliance and sweetness. Even so, with the K1 there was no mistaking solo violin for solo viola, even though the latter was tuned higher. Further, the K1 gorgeously contrasted the vibrant and lustrous tones of the solo viola with the deep resonances of the orchestral violas.
Many consider J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, written for harpsichord, to be some of the most profound and complex music ever written. The harpsichord has long been eclipsed by the piano, which can convey far more nuances of expression. Nonetheless, a master harpsichordist can express great amounts of nuance through a good instrument, while more accurately representing Bach’s original vision. The key is in the timing.
The slow-tempo canons at the unison, third, and octave in Mahan Esfahani’s unique take on the Goldbergs (CD, Deutsche Grammophon B002537902) were impeccably reproduced by the K1, no doubt due in large part to the rotational accuracy of the VRDS-NEO transport. The K1 not only beautifully showed off the harpsichord’s clean, silvery tone, it also demonstrated Esfahani’s commanding control of tempo and rhythm, both of which are often lost with many digital and analog source components.
The K1’s speed, leading-edge transient impact, and pinpoint imaging all bettered, to a greater or lesser extent, those of the K-01X. On Ondekoza’s percussion track “Fujiyama,” from YG Acoustics’ Test CD II (CD, YG Acoustics), drumstrokes were incredibly clean, detailed, and unveiled. In Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, with Jan Willem de Vriend conducting the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra (CD, Challenge Classics CC72550), piccolo transients were so crisp and succinctly rendered that they brought a remarkable penetrating leading edge to orchestral melodies. In “Walking on the Moon,” from the Yuri Honig Trio’s Star Tracks (16/44.1 FLAC, Jazz in Motion), the three-dimensionality and pinpoint image of Honig’s tenor saxophone was only bettered, in my experience, by much, much more expensive digital gear.
Other than a lack of fluency (i.e., graininess), digital’s archetypal foibles -- sibilance, brittleness, peakiness, and limited decay and sustain -- were either not present in the K1’s sound or were much lower than in lower-end gear. What the K1 didn’t deliver were those last, extremely expensive degrees of timbral delineation, resolution, weight, transient impact, noise rejection, and deep vertical soundstaging, all of which are offered by the Grandioso digital separates.
The Grandioso K1 is an obvious contender for the best one-box digital performer. Further, at least until AKM’s new DAC chips become more commonly used, it challenges and may even better many of today’s state-of-the-art digital front ends in its ability to convey music’s emotional content. That is quite an accomplishment. Thankfully for most of us, multiple component racks, a large loom of cables, and a six-figure bank account are not required to experience just how good it is.
. . . Howard Kneller
- Amplifier -- Esoteric A-03
- Preamplifier -- Esoteric Grandioso C1
- Sources -- Desktop PC with JCAT USB Card and JCAT USB Isolator running Windows 10, JPlay; Esoteric K-01X SACD/CD player; Stanford Research PERF10 and Esoteric Grandioso G1 rubidium clocks
- Other electronics -- JL Audio CR-1 active subwoofer crossover
- Speakers -- YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom v2 (2)
- Interconnects -- Synergistic Research Galileo UEF
- Digital links -- JPlay JCAT USB, Synergistic Research Galileo LE USB
- Speaker cables -- Synergistic Research Galileo UEF
- Power cords -- Synergistic Research Galileo UEF and Atmosphere Level 3
- Power conditioners and distribution -- Synergistic Research PowerCell 12 UEF SE and QLS power strips
- Isolation devices -- Symposium Acoustics: Osiris Ultimate and Standard Racks, Segue Platform, RollerBlock Series 2+ supports; Synergistic Research: Tranquility Bases, Silent Running Audio VR fp Isobase, MIG 2.0s
- Room treatments and correction -- Synergistic Research: Acoustic Art System, Atmosphere XL, HFT, FEQ
- Misc. -- Synergistic Research: Active Grounding Block, Black fuses; Mad Scientist Black Discus Audio System Enhancer, WA-Quantum Quantum-Sound-Animator, Hi Fidelity MC-0.5 Magnetic Wave Guides, f.oq damping tape.
Esoteric Grandioso K1 SACD/CD Player-DAC
Price: $27,000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (201) 818-9200