Esoteric’s N-01XD DAC/Streamer

Two years ago, we awarded Esoteric’s N-01 network player our product of the year in the digital category. Now, they return with the XD version of this highly capable network player and world-class DAC.

At $20,000, this will not be an impulse buy for most, but on one level, it is an even better value than the product it replaces.

 As much excitement as there is over high-resolution formats, the true mettle of a great DAC is often how well it decodes standard 16/44 files. Listening to the title track of John Klemmer’s Barefoot Ballet is simply stunning. Klemmer’s use of the echoplex with his sax makes for an open, airy presentation. This is an average recording, yet the N-01XD shines as much as it will on your favorite 24/192 or DSD recording. The level of realism the N-01XD offers up is incredible. And I’m guessing that most of you with extensive digital libraries, or those streaming music, still have a disproportionate amount of your music at standard CD resolution. The ability to present extraordinary reproduction at 16/44 is a huge win, and the N-01XD delivers.

Getting to the music

While Esoteric offers its own music player, it can also be used as a ROON endpoint. This is where I did the bulk of my listening. With five systems between the studio, house, my wife’s office, and the garage, the ROON ecosystem makes it easy to merge NAS, Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify effortlessly. If you happen to be an audiophile sticking to one streaming service, and maybe a NAS, you may not need the functionality that ROON provides. In this case, the Esoteric player will serve you just fine.

Those still spinning physical digital media can use one of Esoteric’s excellent transports (if you want to keep it all Esoteric  – and why would you not?) via their high-performance ES-Link inputs. This also allows native DSD playback from SACD discs – a bonus for those with extensive SACD collections. 

The high-quality Ethernet connection offers the next best sound quality making the N-01XD easy to locate far enough from your NAS (if you are using one) to not have to hear it. And all the more convenient for those just using a streaming service.

Rounding out the picture, RCA, USB, XLR, and even optical inputs are available. Don’t laugh – connecting my 90s era SONY ES 10-disc changer to the N-01XD via a 12-foot long optical cable from an adjacent room still provides incredibly good performance. As I did not have an Esoteric transport on hand, I used the one in my dCS Vivaldi, but an Esoteric transport will provide even better performance because of the ES Link. Sometimes you gotta use what you have on hand.

Finally, the N-01XD offers both RCA and balanced XLR outputs. Both easily drive a 30-foot length of cable, so if you need to place yours away from the system, that’s easy. This is of particular advantage here; we were able to use the balanced outputs to drive the main system in room one, and the RCAs to drive the system in room two as well. Again, the ability to drive two separate systems if the need arises, adds to the value proposition of the N-01XD

Tech talk

The N-01XD provides a level of playback that few DACs can match. Much of this comes from the XD model’s improvements – many of them courtesy of the Master Sound Discrete DAC circuitry in their top Grandioso D1X DAC. The DAC section of the N-01XD actually has 64bit resolution, so this is as future proof as it gets. Now using FPGA circuitry instead of individual DAC chips, the N-01XD will be able to be updated to future functionality via the data socket on the rear panel.

As with our Aqua Audio, dCS, and PS Audio DACs, an FPGA configuration is easy to upgrade when the time comes. With a DAC based on a chipset, you’re at the end of the road. The experience I’ve had with dCS and PS have been fantastic, so I expect the same with Esoteric.

Though this is an expensive piece of gear, it will have a long service life. 

Because all of the digital processing is performed in software, Esoteric is able to provide unique decoding algorithms for DSD and PCM files. With no conversion taking place, each can be processed optimally. Those with extensive DSD libraries will be able to take full advantage of the N-01XD.

Because it incorporates so much of the tech from the Grandioso series, the N-01XD can easily be the last DAC/streamer you buy.

If you get the itch for more performance, you can always add an external clock. My experience with the Esoteric clock is indeed exciting. While I haven’t heard their Grandioso clock with the N-01XD, I have listened to it with the Grandioso player, with stunning results. The extra timing accuracy that a top-quality external clock brings can not be understated.

Esoteric offers three clocks from about $9,000, all the way up to $26k for the Grandioso. Their mid-range G-01X ($20,000) would probably be the one I’d pair with this player. When I’ve heard Esoteric DACs with and without the clock, it’s the last bit of icing on the cake. Switching the clock on lifts the last veil of digital sound, so it’s nice to know that even the lofty N-01XD does have an upgrade path.

More listening

The Esoteric N-01XD is one of the few digital components that renders digital files so naturally and effortlessly, you might find your turntable collecting a lot of dust once you install it into your system. I can honestly say I was not itching to spin any vinyl while the Esoteric was here. If you don’t have a turntable, you might not jump off the analog cliff. As much fun as my favorite rock records were, thanks to the incredible dynamic range the N—01XD provides, it really shines with acoustic material.

The two violins and cello that make up the Janaki String Trio are breathtaking, streamed at 88.2/24. Reproducing the violin and piano with enough acoustic space and tone to feel real is tough for analog, but to nail this in the digital domain is something that few digital players at any price can accomplish. When violins are wrong, and they nearly always are, you just want to leave the room, but here, you just might be brought to tears. It’s that good.

Backing this up with a spin of another Yarlung Records great – The Yuko Mabuchi Trio, vol.1 is incredibly engaging. Ms. Mabuci has such a delicate touch on the keys,reproduced flawlessly is lovely. You’ll find yourself lost in the music in seconds. Great as the piano playing is on this album, the depth of the applause from the audience is hauntingly real. You’ll be looking for the surround speakers, yet there are none. This is two-channel audio in its finest moment.

And of course, my favorite Crosby, Stills, and Nash records sound great too. The N-01XD unravels the three voices, giving each one their own distinct space between the speakers, providing more than a few moments where you can close your eyes and feel like you are right there in the studio.

As real as it gets

Rather than bore you with all the specs and such (though you can read them here if you like) the Esoteric N-01XD needs to be experienced to believe. In 2020, the digital vs. analog ship has sailed. The combination of low-level resolution, and tonal gradation is some of the finest going. The only thing taking away from the sheer value of this player is that it might just force you into a major analog upgrade, should you be playing analog files. But that’s part of the fun.

The latest version of Esoteric’s network player is a digital tour de force.

The Esoteric N—01XD

MSRP:  $20,000


Preamplifier Pass Labs XSPre

Amplifier Pass Labs XA200.8 monos

Speakers Sonus faber Stradiveri w/six pack of REL no.25 subwoofers

Cable Cardas Clear

Issue 103


Old School:

The Audiophile Apartment:

Mine: It Should Be Yours


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Future Tense

Gear in our immediate future

Cover Feature

Michi By Rotel: High performance without the high price

Flagship Focal Utopia Phones

Having lived with a number of Focal speakers over the last five years, the family resemblance between the Utopia headphones and their floorstanding speakers is unmistakable.

The quick, lively, accurate sound I’ve grown accustomed to is now available for personal listening. Short story, I love them.

At $3,995, these are top tier premium phones to be sure. Yet unlike some of the other big guns, the Utopias sound incredibly good merely plugged in to my first gen Astell & Kern player or even the Dell desktop that I use to control ROON in my main system. Ditto for the iPad, so these are not like a number of other premium phones that absolutely require a major headphone amplifier to deliver great sound.

Past experience with Focal speakers (and their beryllium tweeters) shows they need a while to break in properly, sounding slightly edgy out of the box. The Utopia headphones are similar, so they stayed plugged into the Dell with music on repeat for a solid week before beginning serious listening. I suggest you do the same, or the brittle sound you start with may scare you off.

Plugging in to a number of different headphone amplifiers, Kevin Deal from Upscale Audio suggests the Feliks Audio Elise. At only $1,649, this makes for an incredible combination, where my Pass HPA-1 is still a touch forward for my personal taste. The Elise transforms the Utopias, mellowing them out that last bit. Passing from my desk to the living room where a pair of Focal Kanta no.3s are playing (via an all tube VAC i170) the sonic signature is wonderfully similar. You can read our review of the Elise here.

The Utopia uses a single, full-range beryllium driver, and I firmly believe that this lack of crossover is a big part of the coherent, open sound these phones deliver. Thanks to the low mass of this driver, the Utopias sound remarkably similar to my favorite planar phones.

No matter what kind of music you gravitate towards, the seamless quality of the Utopias will bring it out. Tracking through a long playlist of Blue Note classics shows off how well these phones capture the fine details of acoustic instruments. Horns and piano are full of texture, and thanks to the ultra dynamic nature of the Utopia driver, drums take on a new level of realism, capturing the initial strike of the drum heads with amazing precision.

Listening to Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! reveals what makes the Utopias worth the price. Their ability to disentangle complex recordings is fantastic. Anyone who happens to be a student of Zappa knows how much he packs into any tune. The massive bass riff in the opening of “Who Are The Brain Police?” is kept in balance with all the tinkly percussion bits, surrounded by layer upon layer of vocals – with Zappa staying front, center, right inside your brain as you listen.

The Utopias do and equally enticing job with sparse musical selections. Moving all the way through Twin Peaks (Music From the Limited Event) I’m stopped dead in my tracks on Sharon Van Etten’s “Tarifa.” If you aren’t/weren’t a Twin Peaks fan, at the end of the new episodes (produced around 2017) there is a different band playing in the bar. David Lynch had an incredible sensitivity for the music featured in the original series, and continues this trend here. It’s worth a spin on your favorite streaming service, you might find a few good test tracks!

As you take the Utopias out of their supplied carrying case, you’ll quickly notice the high level of fit and finish these headphones offer – just like a pair of Grande Utopia Ems. Everything is machined to a standard that you might expect from an F1 car or fine wristwatch. With Focal, engineering and craftsmanship always serves the art. Beautiful to behold, yes. But remarkable to listen to.

Well worth the price asked, these belong at the top of the premium headphone mountain.

The latest desktop system from Technics

Technics has just announced a new, Mk.2 version of their successful SC-C70…

While they haven’t given us a full MSRP yet, the MK1 tipped the scales just under $1,000, so we suspect this will be somewhat the ballpark number for the Mk.2. The major upgrades include a revamp of the 2.1 speaker system, a more powerful amplifier, utilizing Technics’ “JENO Engine,” and their “Space Tune” DSP, optimizing the woofer for the environment in which it’s used – to deliver the most natural bass response.

It supports all the major streaming services, and includes a tuner too. There’s even a CD player on top – very nice. We’re looking forward to a review unit as soon as they are available. And…they come in black!

702 Signature from Bowers and Wilkins

We’ve just received the 702 Signature floor standing speakers from B&W…

Again, the UK manufacturer sticks to their path of constant refinement, with the
new Signature model of this speaker borrowing heavily from the technology
developed for the top of the line 800 series.

While there is no diamond tweeter sitting on top of the enclosure, the newest
version of the Carbon Dome tweeter uses a similar vapor deposition process
(developed for the 800 series diamond tweeters) in its construction.

We’ll have a full report very soon.

McIntosh returns to mobile audio with Jeep

It’s hitting the web today, that McIntosh is providing the audio system for the concept car, that will eventually become the new Jeep Grand Wagoneer next year.

Ralph Gilles, Jeep’s head of design made it clear in their launch this morning that McIntosh is a big part of the Grand Wagoneer concept’s package. His smile when discussing the McIntosh system says it all, when he talks about the extent that they went to making this part of the new vehicle. Showing off the lighted speaker grilles with McIntosh, he says “yeah we went a little overboard on this, but you’ll be able to show off that you went the extra mile to get the McIntosh system.”
Most importantly, to dispel all the rumors that have been flying around, this was not an off the shelf solution, adapted to Jeep. The McIntosh group is no stranger to mobile audio, having done the stunning system for Ford’s GT40, and a killer line of aftermarket components that are still revered by mobile sound enthusiasts today. However, Poggi’s experience with mobile audio at Harman and Bose really came into play on this project, and he makes it clear this has always been a priority for him at McIntosh. “When I joined the McIntosh group, this was something I wanted to accomplish. We felt Jeep was a perfect overlap for the two companies.”

Poggi mentions that while they approached Jeep, the meeting of the minds went extremely well, and it didn’t take long for both teams to be on board with this project. Many of the technologies that exist in home Mac components, like Power Guard™, will be in the mobile system for maximum benefit.

This nearly three-year project had engineers from McIntosh as well as Jeep cross pollinating each others’ laboratories and design studios, with every aspect of the system fine-tuned to match the Grand Wagoneer’s environment. Poggi says this part of the process to him is “being given control of the room.”
Viewing the rest of the Jeep video, the team has clearly gone all out to offer an incredibly immersive experience for everyone in the cabin, and the integration of the McIntosh system is beautiful to behold.

Automotive car companies often launch concept cars as far as a few years from production, and the final result does not often mirror the concept car. You need look no further than Porsche’s Boxster to see the deviation. However, with Jeep saying that this vehicle will be available next year, it seems unlikely that there will be a major design change between now and then, so fingers crossed.

At this point, the cost of adding the McIntosh system is not available, but the system in the concept car features 23 custom-designed speakers connected to a 24-channel amplifier providing an immersive audio experience. The audio elements are housed in aluminum and gloss black, true to the design aesthetic of McIntosh’s high-end home audio systems. Again, to extrapolate based on what other SUV companies offer, there will most likely be two or three trim levels offered on the Grand Wagoneer, perhaps with the top line featuring it as standard equipment (As Range Rover does with the Meridian systems) and it being an add on for the other models.

Jeep is claiming the Grand Wagoneer will start at $45,000. We wouldn’t be surprised if a fully optioned version approaches double this price, but time will tell.

ED NOTE: A release from Car & Driver reveals the new Grand Wagoneer is going to start at $60k, with a fully loaded version “topping $100k,” so I guess our guess was on the money...

So, if you’re going to be shopping for a new SUV next year and you want to rock in style, what could be a more American experience than cranking up your mobile McIntosh system in a Grand Wagoneer. We look forward to taking one of these for a test drive. Here’s to seeing the finished product, and here’s a look at the past for a reminder where it all began.

New Premium Integrated Amp from Technics…

Building on the success they’ve achieved in the high end audio market over the last six years, Technics brings a new integrated amplifier, with some exciting new digital technology.

The SU-R1000 takes advantages of advances in power supply, output stage and overall amplifier design. It even features digital phono EQ in the phono stage. The stark, handsome front panel achieves a minimalist design ethos, with merely a volume control, input selector, power switch and headphone jack.

It features two sets of speaker outputs, and while no mention of power output was made in the press release, the front panel power meters illustrate 100 watts as the 0dB point, suggesting power somewhere around 100 watts per channel. In addition to the new, sophisticated phono stage, there is also an onboard DAC, with optical, Coax, and USB inputs. There are two RCA line level inputs, and one balanced XLR, as well as a standard RCA phono input and a balanced XLR/MC input.

Suggested retail has been hinted at just under $10k, but we will announce a final figure when it becomes available.