November 2009

Esoteric SA-50 SACD/CD Player

Reviewers' Choice LogoIn most cases, reviewing a piece of audio gear is a walk in the proverbial park. Hook it up, plug it in, let it burn in, listen -- then describe in detail what you’ve heard. Not all that hard, really. But every once in a while, a component comes along that forces the reviewer to put in the time. Esoteric’s SA-50 two-channel SACD/CD player is one such.

On the surface, what should be so hard about reviewing an SACD/CD player? You just listen to it, right? Well, in this case, not exactly. The SA-50 has so many features that it required me to not only listen to its replay of SACDs and CDs, but to use all of those variables and describe how each affected the sound. When you read how many choices there are, you’ll understand why the SA-50 is not your conventional audio component -- and might be a huge bargain even at its list price of $5800 USD.

Not only does the SA-50 use one of the world’s better transports -- the Vertically aligned Optical Stability Platform (VOSP), designed and built by Esoteric -- to extract from the disc the maximum data with as little error correction and jitter as possible, but the entire player is designed to maximize that process. The SA-50 can be plugged directly into a power amplifier; its internal volume control makes a preamplifier unnecessary. There are all sorts of input options. Toss in all the sampling, upsampling, and filter variables, and you have a component that makes discovering which combination of options gives the best possible sound for each format a long-drawn-out process -- but given Esoteric’s track record of building top-quality, great-sounding digital gear, a process well worth working through.

Build quality

The innocuous looking SA-50 measures 17 3/8"W x 6"H x 13 7/8"D, weighs nearly 40 pounds, and is built like a brick. The build quality alone seems worth the price. The SA-50 plays SACDs and CDs and has multiple digital inputs -- TosLink optical, coaxial RCA, and USB -- along with TosLink and coaxial RCA digital outputs. Though why you’d want to use those digital outputs is open to debate, due to the dual Asahi Kasei EMD 32-bit DACs (yes, you read that right -- a full 32 bits), plus a fully balanced internal design.

Centered on the front panel is a dark-glass display screen, and nearly centered within that is the disc tray. To the right of these are buttons for drawer Open/Close, Track Forward and Back, and below them, the Stop, Play, and Pause buttons. At the far left of the front panel is the Power button -- which, surprisingly, is not controlled by the hefty remote control.

Next to Power is the Mode button -- and describing what this single button does will take a couple of paragraphs. A series of quick pressings of Mode offers a choice of disc replay and TosLink, coax, and USB inputs. Pressing Mode for two seconds or longer brings up a different set of menu options. With the first, the user chooses the level of upsampling (all upsampling is done at 32 bits): Original (no upsampling), 2Fs (upsamples the incoming signal from 32, 44.1, or 48kHz to 64, 88.2, or 96kHz), 4Fs (upsamples to 128, 176.4, or 192kHz), and PCM (upsamples to DSD). With the next Mode menu, you choose how you want your SACDs played: in Native DSD, 2Fs+6 (converts the DSD signal to 32-bit/88.2kHz PCM), or 4Fs+6 (converts it to 32-bit/176.4kHz PCM); each of the last two modes raises the gain by 6dB. The 2Fs and 4Fs modes do the same thing as 2Fs+6 and 4Fs+6, respectively, but with no change in gain.

The next Mode menu offers choices of digital filter: Finite Impulse Response (FIR) oversamples 8x for a fuller, richer, deeper sound; Short Delay also oversamples the signal, but without pre-echo, natural attack, and reverberation, for a sound that Esoteric says is closer to the original signal. Press Mode again and you’re given the option of adding an external word clock, followed by Master Clock extraction (not having an external clock, I didn’t try this). Next is a choice of turning the digital outputs on or off (I left them off), followed by Attenuator on/off for controlling the volume when the SA-50 is plugged straight into a power amp. Following that, you can choose how you want the analog output terminals set: to Off, RCA, XLR:2 (pin 2 hot), XLR:3 (pin 3 hot), or both. Finally, you can choose to have the USB input circuit active all the time, or only when in use (I chose the latter).

That’s a lot of choices. Fortunately, many of them are of the "find what you like, set it, and forget it" variety. I left SACD replay on Native DSD -- I saw no reason to convert DSD to PCM and thus add another step to the processing chain, especially in an SACD player -- though any difference in the sound was subtle. For CDs, I used 4Fs to upsample to 32-bit/176.4kHz; for USB, I preferred Original with no upsampling. After some experimentation, I left the Filter setting on FIR; I found that Short Delay softened the sound a bit too much for my taste. And while I tried listening single-ended, I preferred XLR for its cleaner, quieter sound. But if your preamp is single-ended only, don’t think you’re missing out -- the differences, while audible, were not pronounced.

As you face the rear panel, from left to right are the digital inputs: USB, coaxial, and optical. Next are the digital outputs: coaxial and optical. In the center are the line outputs, both XLR and single-ended, for the right and left channels -- the SA-50 has no multichannel output. Centered between the pairs of right- and left-channel outputs is the Word Sync output jack. At the far right of the rear panel is a signal ground terminal, and below it the IEC power-cord receptacle -- you can use Esoteric’s cord or one of your own. I used my reference Harmonic Technologies Pro AC-11 cord.

The lengths to which Esoteric has gone to make the SA-50 the best it can be are revealed by the player’s feet: touch them and they move. In each foot, a spike descends from the base of the machine to rest in a cup that helps drain unwanted vibrations from the chassis. Nifty. And they work, too.

The remote control is the same long, heavy model Esoteric uses for most of their digital components, so some of its buttons don’t apply to the SA-50.


The system used for this review comprised: a Stello CDA320 CD player/DAC and a Toshiba laptop computer as sources (a Blue Circle Audio USB Thingee and a DH Labs D-75 digital cable connected the laptop to the Stello); an Audio Research LS17 line stage and Bryston’s new 4B-SSTē power amplifier; Paradigm Reference Studio 100 v.3 loudspeakers; Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval interconnects, both balanced and single-ended, and Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8 biwire speaker cables; and a generic, 2m-long USB cable. Power cables were mostly Harmonic Technologies Pro AC-11, with an Analysis Plus Power Oval 10 for the Bryston amp.

Accessories included two Salamander Archetype two-shelf racks, a RadioShack Bulk Demagnetizer, a Blue Circle BC6000 power conditioner, and seven different Symposium products: Roller Blocks Series 2+, Roller Block Jr.s., Fat Padz, Pod Points, Ultra Platform, Svelte Shelves, and an Isis Shelf.


Esoteric recommends a minimum of 400 hours of burn-in before doing any critical listening to the SA-50 -- that’s almost two-and-a-half weeks of 24/7 use. You have no idea of the willpower required of a reviewer, store owner, or buyer to wait for an SA-50 to reach its full potential before doing any listening. But wait I did. I cheated a bit by doing a little listening after the 300-hour mark, to hear how things were progressing. Things sounded promising indeed.

The first thing I noticed after the full burn-in was that the SA-50 sounded a bit more forward than I’m used to. Closer investigation revealed that it wasn’t so much that the SA-50 sounded forward as that it had tremendous resolution. That clarity of sound -- even of the instruments farthest from the front -- gave the impression of an upfront soundstage. The more I listened to well-recorded music, the more clearly I heard that each instrument occupied its own space, just as it would in real life. The other side of the coin was that poor recordings sounded like poor recordings. The SA-50 giveth and the SA-50 taketh away.

At first, I also thought that the SA-50 threw a narrower soundstage than I was used to -- one that didn’t extend past the speakers to left or right. But after some more listening, I found, again, that the SA-50 was only reproducing what was on each disc, not adding to or subtracting from it in any way -- a good thing. Good recordings with wide soundstages spread from wall to wall and well behind the speaker plane; studio recordings of popular music sounded fairly flat in comparison.

Over the years, I’ve found that each audio component I’ve listened to has tended to reproduce one instrument better than others. Some, like the SA-50, may "do" many instruments well, but all do one superbly. With the SA-50, it was the acoustic piano. Wow, could this machine handle the swell and ebb, the power and delicacy, the detail and harmonics of a well-recorded piano. I know that Gary Cooper uses a fortepiano on Vols. 7 and 8 of his and Rachel Podger’s series of recordings of Mozart’s complete violin sonatas (SACD, Channel Classics CCS SA 28109). Cooper’s good-sized instrument was almost perfectly captured by the Esoteric, which let me hear the hammers hitting the strings, as well as the strings then vibrating and exciting the wooden soundboard. Yet the SA-50 also made clear that the fortepiano lacks the range of a concert-grand piano. But Podger’s violin sounded just plain sweet -- all rosiny bow on strings over a much smaller wooden body. And when I gave the SA-50 a powerful player such as jazz pianist Gene Harris, it let me hear how he uses his piano as the percussion instrument it is.

Because the SA-50 is, first and foremost, an SACD player, I began by listening to as many different SACDs as I could. Picking one of my best-recorded jazz discs, Steve Davis’s Quality of Silence (DMP SACD-04), I got an instant education in how well the SA-50 plays the format. This was simply the best reproduction of this wonderful-sounding disc I’ve ever heard from my system. Davis’s drum kit was alive, from his brushes on cymbals (I could almost count the bristles) to his sticks on drum heads. Each sounded lifelike, with good, solid, crisp transients, plenty of air surrounding the kit, and enough harmonic information to make each note stand out distinctly from its fellows. No smearing was evident. The piano sounded as noted above -- superb -- the bass was deep, taut, and woody, the guitar had the requisite electric signature, and the soprano sax had a brassy sound more akin to that of a clarinet than an alto or tenor sax. This disc also revealed how the SA-50 handled the spaces between the notes -- as large a part of the music on this album as the notes themselves. What I heard more closely resembled the living silence of good analog than the dead digital silence of CD.

There was a delicacy to the SA-50 that could, with the right disc, simply take my breath away. It drew me in, making me feel as if I were in the presence of the musicians. Take the hollow-body guitars of Herb Ellis and Joe Pass on Seven, Come Eleven (SACD, Concord SACD-1015-6). Each individual pluck or strum of strings was almost perfectly captured. Plus, I could hear how the body of the guitar itself shaped the sound, as well as how the amplifier simply amplified the sound of that body.

But with power music such as Roxy Music’s Avalon (SACD, Virgin 5 83871 2), I could hear that the SA-50 didn’t shrink from dynamic range or volume. I reveled in the opening drum roll of "More Than This." There was power behind each beat, and the electric guitars had the appropriate crunch.

Finally, voices sounded wonderful. Male or female, from David Clayton-Thomas to Carole King, the lead singer was always front and center. I got the feeling of being in the presence of an actual person. I got a real sense of air being forced up from the lungs, through the vocal cords, and out the mouth. And background singers were presented as individuals standing in their own spaces, as opposed to a simple wall of voices.

But even I realize that there aren’t enough SACDs to constitute a decent music library, even if you’re a classical-only fan. Any SACD machine must, at the least, do a decent job of playing CDs, as most of us have large CD libraries. Because most dual-format players seem to focus on SACD at the expense of CD replay, one might be concerned that the SA-50 falls into that trap. However, I found that the SA-50 did a very good to excellent job of playing CDs. Depending on which level of upsampling (if any) I chose -- as well as those 32-bit dual DACs and the quality of the individual disc -- the SA-50’s playing of "Red Book" CDs was as good as or better than what I’m used to.

While Original mode (no upsampling) offered very good CD sound, upsampling CDs to 32-bit/176.4kHz offered the most detail without any of the softening of music that I’ve heard with other upsampling rates and players. Plus, I liked that the SA-50 produces only whole multiples of the input signal, upsampling 44.1kHz to 176.4kHz, and not to 192kHz. This means that the Esoteric has a simpler mathematical job to do. But I suggest experimenting for yourself; you and I may hear different things.

With the SA-50 set to 4x upsampling, well-recorded jazz discs such as Thunder, by SMV -- Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten (CD, Heads Up HUCP 3163) -- sounded superb. Each of these three bass players was easily identifiable. From the elegant fusion leanings of Clarke to Miller’s precise power to Wooten’s slap style, each had his own sound. Plus, that distinctive purr of their electric guitars was readily evident.

The SA-50 plainly displayed the details encoded on any well-recorded disc I placed in its drawer. A quick listen to The Django Reinhardt Festival: Live at Birdland -- Gypsy Swing! (CD, Kind of Blue 100010) showed off this quality in spades. This disc boasts multiple acoustic guitars, and the SA-50 sorted them out, placing each firmly on the soundstage with its own unique sonic signature. And when I listened to live recordings, I almost felt a part of the audience. But just because the SA-50 did detail so well didn’t mean it shortchanged the music’s rhythmic content. Gypsy Swing! still swung like crazy -- as befits a tribute to Django Reinhardt.

Mark Knopfler’s Kill to Get Crimson (CD, Warner Bros. 281660-2) is a study in precision and delicacy. As Knopfler has aged, he’s discovered how much can be said with fewer notes, if those notes are the right ones -- much of his later solo work is more about the right note played at precisely the right time. The SA-50 kept those notes in the proper and precise order, and the delicacy of Knopfler’s playing came shining through.

One of my favorite classical works is Mozart’s Serenade for Winds in B-flat Major, K.361, "Gran Partita," and I thoroughly enjoy the performance recorded in 1976 in London’s Kingsway Hall by Daniel Barenboim and members of the English Chamber Orchestra (CD, EMI 4 76918 2). Barenboim takes this serenade a bit more slowly than do other conductors, but that just gives me more of a chance to concentrate on the music. The 13 winds and double bass bloomed fully through the SA-50. I could pick out each instrument if I chose, while never losing a sense of the overall beauty of the work.

But while the SA-50’s 32-bit/176.4kHz upsampling made CDs far more enjoyable, it still didn’t equal the sonic quality of a well-recorded SACD.

Plugging my Toshiba laptop into the SA-50’s USB input and running my iTunes library (ripped to Apple Lossless) through the SA-50’s dual 32-bit DACs revealed just how much wonderful sound -- and how much fun -- can be had with even this most rudimentary of music-server systems. One interesting thing was that, using my laptop, I preferred the Esoteric’s Original mode (no upsampling). I thought that using any upsampling denigrated the sound to a noticeable degree. But even with the excellent VOSP transport, a hard-drive-based replay system needed no extra help in reproducing superb sound from the 16/44.1 source. I heard no smearing or discontinuation that would indicate the presence of jitter, which told me that all the design work Esoteric has put into the SA-50 was paying big dividends where it counts: in the music.

Solo piano is always a good test of how well a system is designed, so I pulled up my rip of Walter Davis Jr.’s In Walked Thelonious (Mapleshade 56312) and kicked back to see how the SA-50 would handle it. In the liner notes, Davis claims that he felt the ghost of Thelonious Monk was helping him along as he played Monk’s compositions. Listening via the Esoteric’s USB input, I could hear what Davis meant. There was a noticeable feel of something extraordinary happening, and Mapleshade has captured the sound of Davis’s piano so cleanly and clearly that I felt I was in the studio with him -- and Monk. Once I’d heard how well the SA-50 reproduced solo piano, I found that whatever disc I played sounded as good as what the recording and mastering engineers had laid down. Plus, having the ability to hear what I wanted at the touch of a screen was a treat. What I liked best was to simply put iTunes on Shuffle play. It’s the best radio station I know -- it plays only the music I want to hear.

Finally, I decided to hear how good the SA-50’s internal volume control was. Could it really obviate the need for a preamplifier in an all-digital system? Well, in two words, pretty much. If I didn’t need multiple analog inputs for my phono stage, I could see where running an SA-50 directly into my Bryston 4B-SSTē power amp could keep me happy enough. The sound was clean, clear, precise, and with slightly more depth than the SA-50 run through my Audio Research preamp. But there was also a tad bit more digital edge, as well as a tiny sense of discontinuity to the overall sound. But then, nothing’s perfect, and the SA-50, doing double duty as a preamp and CD player, wasn’t. But if you don’t need multiple inputs (outside of digital ones), I recommend giving it a try -- you may be in for a pleasant and money-saving surprise.

Comparing the SA-50 to Esoteric’s own entry-level SA-10 SACD/CD player was instructive. It showed that, at least with Esoteric, if you pay more, you really do get more. In SACD or CD mode, the SA-50 passed on more of the music in a more lifelike manner than the SA-10 could muster -- and the SA-10 is no slouch in this regard. But whether it was acoustic jazz or classical music or popular electric music, the SA-50’s reproduction of it all was much more realistic, and a closer approximation of the actual event. Nor could the SA-10 compete in the upsampling or filtering departments.

My Stello CDA320 CD player and the Esoteric SA-50 both did wonderful jobs of playing 16/44.1 digital, but where the Stello’s sound is more organic and rich, the SA-50 was more detailed and precise. Pick your poison. Each will appeal to a certain type of listener (though I could easily live with either). Both offer upsampling and digital inputs, though the Stello forgoes the USB option -- so if that’s important to you, then listen very closely to the SA-50’s CD replay to see if it’s your cup of tea.


The Esoteric SA-50 may be the one digital component that will not become obsolete anytime soon. From superb SACD replay to outstanding CD reproduction to USB input to its ability to function as a preamp in an all-digital system, the SA-50 offers so many options from its multiple digital inputs that, even for $5800, it represents a genuine bargain. Toss in the fact that it does all of these things well, and some of them excellently, and you can see where it will give you more than your money’s worth.

If you’re like me and own a decent collection of SACDs, a large CD library, and want to future-proof yourself with digital inputs that include a superb USB jack, then the Esoteric SA-50 may end your search for a single machine that can handle all these choices well. It’s ended mine.

. . . John Crossett

Esoteric SA-50 SACD/CD Player
Price: $5800 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