Esoteric® UX-3 Universal Disc Player
|Esoteric® UX-3 Universal Disc Player|
|A Magisterial Performer|
Taking the Next Step in Digital Audio
Digital audio has really taken off over the last couple of years, and all but the most hardcore vinyl devotees have recognized it. I think we all have a friend or know of someone who says that when all is said and done, “it’s not as good as vinyl”, then turns their nose up as the little 5.25 inch disc spins on the platter. I would say the previous generation of players made huge strides in what we would typically call warmth and sweetness in the musical reproduction to the point that we could stop pulling out the vinyl copy of the CD and compare them for differences. I will not say that I have heard everything out there that digital has to offer, but feel comfortable making a few generalizations. There were three rather popular CD players that most of us audiophile-types had some sort of experience with at one time or another. Those would be the Electrocompaniet EMC-1, Cary 306/200 and the Esoteric DV50. All three are wonderful performers and all 3 were in that magical $5-6K price range. All 3 players had their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Again, just generalizing, the Electrocompaniet player seemed to have slightly better dynamics and transient response than the others but did not have as much naturalness or warmth. The Cary player has a very pleasant, sweet sounding midrange presentation, but also seems to have a slight midbass emphasis that can be annoying at times. Of the 3, the Esoteric DV50 appeared to have a good balance across the board with most of the strengths and none of the weaknesses of the other two players. Let me be careful to say that even though I might call them weaknesses, they very well could be strengths to someone else and the determining factor as to why a person would buy one of the other players. Interestingly enough, the Cary player has been replaced by the 306/300 and Esoteric’s DV50 has been replaced by the DV50S. So of course, when Clement Perry asked me how I was doing with my digital rig and if I would like the opportunity to do a review on one of Esoteric’s newest offerings, the UX-3, I jumped at the opportunity.
I feel like I’m surfing on a giant digital wave, and I’m right there on the edge of some very exciting breakthroughs. Esoteric seems to be a consistent performer in this realm and are really turning out some truly breathtaking products. I was at one of my favorite local audio “watering holes” and they had an Esoteric UX-3 and a G-25U Upsampler/Clock Generator as the front-end in their high-end system. It was a truly amazing sounding system. I commented to them that their system had never sounded that good before, even when using an analog based front-end. Such are the types of responses that Esoteric’s digital offerings have been garnering of late. Esoteric seems to have taken a large step forward in the furtherance of digital playback. The UX-3 Universal disc player is just one of the fruits of this commitment to produce excellent sounding and performing equipment.
A Well Built, Well Designed Player
The Esoteric UX-3 is a large, solid, and rigidly built machine that instills nothing but the highest amount of confidence in the way it performs. Weighing in at more than 50lbs, it is one of those pieces that once you figure out where you’re going to locate it, you leave it there and get settled in for the long haul. The UX-3 doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles on the outside, and it doesn’t put on any type of George Lucas light show. But what it does give you is what I like to think of as “understated elegance.” Much like a well-made BMW 7-Series automobile, all of the goodies reside under the hood and are easier heard than seen. The unit I reviewed has a beautiful brushed aluminum finish. Some of the technology used in the UX-3 was borrowed from Esoteric’s flagship UX-1/X-01 players and clearly helps to set this player apart from others at this price point. Key among these innovations is the Vibration-free Rigid Disc-clamping System a.k.a. the VRDS NEO Mechanism. This is a massive transport that securely handles your discs and retrieves that last bit of information contained within.
In operation, the UX-3 is dead quiet. After putting up with the nerve-racking way that the Cary 306/200 handled CDs, with its drawer opening and closing at breakneck speed, the smooth, quiet mechanism of the UX-3 is a welcome change. The only times you hear the slightest sound coming from the UX-3 is when the drawer open or closes and when it loads the disc into playing position. Another touch I rather enjoyed was the tray itself. The tray is processed from a solid aluminum block while the disc contact side of the tray is coated for disc protection. There is a 1 ½”-inch hole off center that makes placing and removing discs on the tray a whole lot easier without putting any undue stress on the tray. That’s what I would call a touch of thoughtful, ergonomic engineering.
There are eight pushbuttons on the front of the unit. The two buttons on the left are for “POWER” and selecting the “CLOCK MODE” if you have an external word sync source connected to the back of the unit. I’ll have more on this in a moment. The other six buttons are for the basic functions: “OPEN/CLOSE”, “STOP”, “PLAY”, “PAUSE”, and “SKIP” (forwards and backwards). There is a soothing cobalt blue light that emanates from behind the selected button. The display characters are blue as well and I was able to easily read it from my seated position, over 15’ away.
The rear panel is where things begin to get interesting. Keeping in mind that this is a universal player, the UX-3 offers its owner a large amount of flexibility with both audio and video connections. For audio, you have your choice of single-ended (RCA) or balanced (XLR) outputs, single-ended digital and optical digital out, and a “word sync” input to connect an external device such a “word clock generator.” From what I understand, devices such as “word clock generators” (such as Esoteric’s own G-25U or G-Os/G-O) go a long way toward removing jitter noise and such audible artifacts that we take for granted as just being part of the recording. The job it does is subtle, and upon first listen, may not seem to be making an impact on the listening experience. Take it out of the system and you will definitely hear the difference this device makes and you’ll want to put back right away. The UX-3 allows you to plug in one of these devices directly. It also has an “i.-Link Audio” output for digital surround audio from SACD and DVD-A audio discs. Now, I do not have a surround sound system so I did not test this unit’s i.-Link capabilities, but I did see a demonstration of it at one of the local dealers’ and it really does work. If you have a surround sound system and can use the features the UX-3 offers for taking advantage of i.-Link technology, your listening experience with multi-channel SACD or DVD-A will be enhanced even more so. When playing a conventional DVD video disc, the multi-channel signal’s output can come from your choice of coax digital or optical (Toslink) connectors. The back panel also has composite, S-Video, and component video (via BNC connectors) video outputs. Whatever your digital audio/video system needs are the UX-3 can readily be placed in the middle and elevate the performance of your setup.
It Even Sounds Esoteric
There is a lot more about this player that I could have talked about, such as the hardened steel pinpoint isolation feet the UX-3 rests upon and some of the programming flexibility, but that would take up a lot more space and not allow me to share with you what ultimately is what matters to all of us. Performance is what this player has a tremendous amount of. It’s hard for me to focus in on a specific strength of this player because it does so many things “more right” than what I have been accustomed to listening to. It made my best sounding discs sound better than I thought imaginable. We all have SACDs that are well recorded and some that were poorly recorded. Well-recorded SACDs have a breathtaking realism that remind me why I spent the extra money for them. The average everyday red book discs actually sound surprisingly good and discs that I wouldn’t play because of bad recording, were suddenly as a good listen. By this, I mean to say that the discs were still bad, but I could at least appreciate the performance more in spite of what was going on inside of the recording studio. If you are familiar with the very popular and excellent sounding Esoteric DV50, and this may be hard to do, but just imagine every performance aspect of that player being bettered and you’ll just start to realize how good the UX-3 is. Upper frequency information contains more air, more ambience, and more life but not at the expense of sounding strident, edgy or enhanced. Instruments decay naturally and notes seem to linger ever so slightly longer without seemingly being cut short. The UX-3’s midrange was neither overly detailed nor was it “warm” as these terms do not apply. The midrange sounded natural, clear and coherent and allows you to follow individual instrumental lines, such as those in Latin jazz or the dulcet tones of a string ensemble quite easily. Bass is authoritative, deep, full, without any bloat, and has a surprisingly large amount of detail. Listen to any bowed instrument and the amount of information from the bow traversing the strings will astound you. Images are locked in, palpable and project presence in three dimensions across a wide and deep stage.
From the Victor Wooten & Steve Bailey CD Bass Extremes [Tone Center], the track “Tropical Storm” gives a good rendering of the UX-3’s dynamic capabilities. The bass playing assault on the senses provided by these two heroes combined with the driving percussion were handily on display without any softening of impact or dulling of transients. At the same time, when the music called for a smooth, tuneful re-creation, the UX-3 was more than up to the task. The track “People Make the World Go Round”, from the discSunflower, shows Milt Jackson doing some of his best work, coaxing the melody from the keys. Female vocals were portrayed as rich, breathy and detailed. Jacintha’s, “One For My Baby” from her Autumn Leaves CD [First Impression] came from a totally black background and caused her to magically appear in my listening room as it was easy to close my eyes and feel her presence. Actually, all of the discs I played for vocal testing had this eerie ability to make singers magically appear into my room. Large orchestral works were delivered in grand fashion. Gustav Holst’s classic composition, The Planets, is a sonic spectacular. This is an Ultradisc UHR SACD [UDSACD 4005] copy of this performance with Walter Susskind conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. From the room shaking dynamics of “Mars”, to the ethereal “Neptune”, the UX-3 passed on all of the information held within the disc to enhance the music enjoying experience. On the Poncho Sanchez CD Latin Spirit [Concord Picante CCD 4981-2], I took particular note at how this performance, as delivered by the UX-3, gave me a greater appreciation for music of this genre. I had always considered Latin jazz to be too strident or aggressive because of all the brass, feeling that the musicians were just playing loud. The UX-3 portrayed the performance contained on this disc with a wealth of detail and information that was musical and never hard nor bright. For me, this was quite an accomplishment and is an example of what the UX-3 has in store for those fortunate and well-heeled enough to own one.
This is a little bit different territory for me to be in. What we have here, in the Esoteric UX-3, is an $8,500 universal disc player that I find myself having to tell you that it does indeed provide good value for the money. I haven’t even begun to tell you how wonderful its video capabilities are. I have DVD players and recorders by Sony and Toshiba. I thought I already had excellent quality video when watching movies on my 62-inch Mitsubishi. I was stunned by the improvement the UX-3 wrought upon my DVDs rotating in its platter while watching video via the component video out. The UX-3 is a definite step-up from the DV50 and it’s direct competitors. You take a step up not only in build quality and functionality, but in every sonic parameter by which you judge music. No need to get into what the bass, midrange and highs do differently, as it just does them all better.
Now, the Esoteric UX-1 and X-01s are even better players, if you can imagine that, but at $13K, that’s getting way up there. I would really have to spend some time with them to convince myself that their performance justifies such a lofty price. On the other hand, the UX-3 is more than capable of filling the bill for a reference quality CD player at its price point. Prior to having the UX-3 in house, the best digital performance I had in my home was one glorious weekend spent with April Music’s Eximus T1 CD transport in front of my Levinson No.36 DAC. That transport there, my friends, is a difference maker. By difference maker I mean it can make a significant change in the way your system sounds and not just an enhancement in one area or another. The UX-3 easily falls into the category of being a difference maker. Every aspect of its performance will be a step up from what you’re currently using. That, plus the fact that it’s an all-in-one player means you don’t have to worry about purchasing separates, that is, unless you really want to get radical and consider purchasing a “word clock” or “clock generator”. That would turn your digital playback system into something truly special. Even if you can’t take your digital system to that level of improvement, the UX-3 can get you close to your goal and receives my highest recommendation.
Frequency response: 5Hz - 80 kHz (DVD-Audio)
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 112 dB (Super Audio CD 1kHz)
Dynamic range: 106 dB (Super Audio CD, 1kHz)
Total harmonic distortion: 0.001% (Super Audio CD, 1kHz)
Decodable format: DTS, DTS 96/24, Dolby Digital PCM 44 1kHz-192kHz/16-24 bit, DSD
Plays: DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, DVD-R/RW, Video-CD, Super Audio CD, and CD
Power Supply: AC 120V, 60Hz (USA/Canada model) / AC 220V, 60Hz (Korea Model)
Power Consumption: 37W
Weight: 23.5kg (51.8 lbs)
External Dimensions: W17-3/8 x H6 x D13-7/8 (442mm x 153mm x 353mm)
TEAC America, Inc.
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA 90640
Esoteric® is a registered trademark of TEAC America, Inc.
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