February 2010

Esoteric E-03 Phono Stage

Pretend for a moment that you awoke one Saturday morning, shuffled off to the kitchen, and found chefs Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck arguing about who makes the best Eggs Benedict. As you stand there, a little awestruck, they turn to you and demand that you judge, once and for all, who does it best. Now, you know that each has the chops to do the job, just as you secretly know that, however agonizing your decision-making process may be, you’ll end up preferring one version to the other. Will it be flavor over flair? Tradition over innovation?

We sometimes face equally difficult decisions in audio. Which is more important: tonality or soundstaging? accuracy or beauty? The list goes on, but during its stay with me the Esoteric E-03 phono stage had me pondering hard that last dichotomy, and in some ways I still don’t know the answer.

Esoteric, a division of TEAC, pumps out some of the best digital and analog gear around: preamps, power amps, integrated amplifiers, and now, for the first time, a phono stage. These are not entry-level products: the E-03 costs $6000 USD, and it is built to a very high level. Its brushed-aluminum casework is gorgeous, and balances on three pinpoint feet of hardened steel that I thought did an excellent job of isolating it from mechanical resonances. Esoteric claims that inside that beautiful body the audio circuits are separated from the power transformers by a wall that also helps stiffen the overall structure. Rapping the casework with my knuckles resulted in dull, dead thunks that suggested that Esoteric’s anti-resonance campaign has been more than successful. Though a little taller than some phono stages at a hair over 4", the E-03 is a rack-friendly beast; but even made of lightweight aluminum, it still weighs 23 pounds.

You’ve no doubt noticed that I said transformers. The E-03 is a dual-mono design with two inputs; one for moving-coil cartridges only, and one that accommodates both MC and moving-magnet types. On the front panel are three beautifully weighted knobs: the left and right ones let you choose among various loading options for each input, and the central one switches between them. In the interests of sound quality, Esoteric includes no microprocessors in the E-03. All load-switching circuitry is on the audio board, and each turn of the knob results in a delayed click of a relay that is both cool and oddly satisfying. Finally, the 7 o’clock position of each input-control knob is labeled Demag -- select this, turn the volume on your preamp down, and drop the needle on an LP for about 20 seconds. This is said to demagnetize the cartridge, signal path, and/or any step-up transformers. I noticed no difference other than a slight slackening of anal-retentive angst.

Esoteric makes no claims about the quality of any of the component parts used in the E-03, but I suspect that these were thoroughly evaluated, and that the power transformers are something a little bit special. The company does stress the efficacy of dual-mono construction, and that the boards have been laid out "symmetrically to achieve mechanical stabilization," but whatever the cause or the combinations thereof, I found the E-03 an incredibly quiet component that really must be not heard to be believed. I thought the Simaudio Moon LP5.3 phono stage and Moon PSX5.3 outboard power supply were silent when I reviewed them, but the E-03 was something else again. Obviously, there’s no lack of design expertise in Esoteric’s engineering ranks, as they’ve already proven with their line of digital products; these guys know how to do things right.

Associated equipment

I used two systems to review the E-03. The first comprised a Nottingham Analogue Space turntable with Heavy Platter, Waveguide power supply, Ace Space tonearm, and Ortofon Jubilee cartridge; a Cary SLI-80 integrated amplifier on Stillpoints feet; and Red Rose Rosebud 2 loudspeakers. In the second system, other than a Simon Yorke S9 turntable and a Koetsu Urushi Vermillion cartridge, everything was made by Yamamura Churchill: preamp, monoblock power amplifiers, and Dionisio 32 horn loudspeakers. For a while I used the Esoteric E-03’s stock power cord, then switched to Yamamura’s Series 5000 cord, which I use to power my own phono stage. Finally, the E-03’s power button is on the lower left of its front panel, making it convenient to power the Esoteric on and off without having to move like a spider monkey through, over, and around my old equipment rack. However, I left it powered on all the time; I firmly believe that all small-signal analog preamplification gear, as well as all digital components, should be powered up at all times.


The Esoteric E-03 was very quiet. Even with my ear right next to one of the extremely efficient Yamamura horns, I heard next to no noise at all -- the transparency of this phono stage was astonishing. With some recordings, it seemed I could hear past the various players and right to the rear of the recording studio. On the title track of John Williams’ soundtrack album for The Missouri Breaks (LP, MCA MCA-251), the sound of wood-blocks being struck shot from left to right across the stage and clearly echoed off the sidewall. With some recordings, I could easily distinguish ambient cues around players that told me whether everything had been recorded together or had been assembled track by track. On a bone-stock Canadian pressing of Roxy Music’s Avalon (LP, EG/Warner Bros. 23686-1), the female backing vocal in "Avalon" sounded astonishingly real, and the slightly echoey quality of her voice and the halo of air around it were reference-level. In the same way that some single-ended triode amplifiers can sometimes strip away a layer of artifice or murk and make recordings sound more there, the E-03’s captivating clarity just seemed to reveal more about the music.

Because the E-03 is so quiet, I don’t think many people will be surprised to hear that the amount of that revealed detail was also reference grade. I have never heard better. If you live for those moments when you can truly say, "Wow, I never heard that before," then buy this thing right now. I spent a good deal of time listening openmouthed to some of my favorite LPs and hearing, with some of them, not only new things in the mix but entire new perspectives. When I listened to Analogue Productions’ 45rpm reissue of the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debby (LP, Analogue Productions APJ 009), just the information coming off the fretboard of Scott LaFaro’s double bass gave me a deeper sense of his technique -- and the crowd noise was so incredibly precise and panoramic that I felt part of that event of June 25, 1961. From fingers on strings to hands on tablas to just about anything else you could name, this phono stage set my ears on fire with the amount of detail it revealed. Nor was it fatiguing to listen to, as some ultradetailed components can be -- the sound was always a coherent, organic whole presented as a musical event, not an assemblage of tiny detailed parts.

Soundstaging and imaging were equally fabulous. I’ve heard Steve Tibbetts’s Big Map Idea (LP, ECM 1380) through many different systems, but I’d never heard it sound more massive or precise as it did through the E-03. Orchestral music was impressive in size and scale, with instruments laid out and defined in ways that reminded me of the real thing. And yet the E-03 was no one-trick pony; it also served up intimate music with appropriate emotion and delicacy. Daniel Lanois’s "O Marie," from his Acadie (LP, Opal/Warner Bros. 25969-1), was basically perfect -- the surrounding guitars were perfectly placed and accurately voiced. I was so impressed I listened to this track three times in a row and was spellbound each time.

I could go on and on talking about rhythm and pace and timing, all of which were very good to excellent, with a taut, extended bottom end that never seemed to fatten or loosen -- but I would be beating a dead horse. Suffice it to say that the Esoteric E-03 is a brilliant phono stage that is of true reference caliber in some areas, though in other areas you may prefer other alternatives.

The E-03 was all about control, and its control was always clear and present -- nothing ruffled its feathers. On some recordings this served the music well, and the Steve Tibbetts disc was a good example: lesser gear can lose its grip and make this music sound ragged. With other discs that control sat a little too heavily on the music. Tonality was more muted and matter-of-fact. And to my ears, the E-03 was on the drier side of neutrality, missing the liquidity a good tube stage can deliver. However, I’m still trying to figure out if these are actual shortcomings, or if the E-03 is simply more neutral and more accurate than other phono stages I’ve heard. Perhaps because the Esoteric was so very good in other areas, I just wanted more in these.


If you love a controlled, neutral sound, the E-03 is custom-made for you. I enjoyed my time with it a lot. In many ways I found it a reference product, even if, ultimately, I want a bit more tonality and liquidity, and a smidge more freedom from that iron grip. And I’m sure that the guys from Esoteric would question the idea of somehow coloring such a paragon of neutrality. I’m sure they’d equate it to putting ketchup on a fancy steak dinner.

Like the master chefs in my imaginary Eggs Benedict cookoff, the Esoteric has the chops -- the innate excellence -- to transcend the "good enough" and enter that elite league of audio products that must be considered among the very best. All we need ask ourselves is if the finished dish has been served up the way we like it. If you value reference-level transparency, space, detail, soundstaging, imaging, extended frequency extremes, and deep, tight, thunderous bass . . . well then, you’ll love the Esoteric E-03.

. . . Graham Abbott

Esoteric E-03 Phono Stage
Price: $6000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor with warranty-card return (two years without).

Esoteric Division
TEAC America
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA 90640
Phone: (323) 726-0303

E-mail: esoteric_info@teac.com
Website: esoteric.teac.com