The Esoteric SZ-1
|The Esoteric SZ-1|
|SACD/CD par excellence|
The Chicago Triangle
One of my favorite places to go and listen to live music in Chicago is “Andy’s for Jazz” in the trendy River North section of the downtown area, just steps away from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Andy’s is a great watering hole for both locals and out-of-towners, and it also happens to be located in what I like to call Chicago’s “audiophile triangle” because of its close proximity to the legendary Jazz Record Mart and Glenn Poor Chicago. The Jazz Record Mart (billed as “The World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Store”) has one of the most extensive collections of straight ahead jazz I’ve ever seen. Glenn Poor Chicago is just a few years old but they’ve quickly made a name for themselves by showcasing some of the best “cost-no-object” high-end audio systems around, including the gargantuan Avantegarde Trio Classicos with BassHorns and the quarter million dollar Goldmund Reference A/V system.
Believe it or not all of these places are within walking distance. Normally my routine was to stop off at “The Mart” (as I like to call it), head over to GP Chicago and hang out with proprietors Kevin McCann and Kirk Townsend, and then make my way over to Andy’s to hear some live jazz. But over the course of a three week period this past summer my normal pattern of going to Andy’s was interrupted when I kept having memorable conversations with fellow Chicagoan Mark Gurvey, director of sales for Esoteric. It’s always fun to talk to someone from the old neighborhood, so to speak, but it was just as exciting talking about the extensive line of products that Esoteric has to offer and even more of a blast when Mark asked me if I would be interested in doing a review of one of Esoteric’s newest players, the SZ-1.
Enter the Elegance
With a number of accolades and a series of successful product introductions, favorable press from both print and online magazines, the much heralded Esoteric name doesn’t need an introduction. All of their products are extremely well built, have a well executed upgrade program, seem to last forever and are some of the most expensive line of CD players on the market, including their $50,000.00 state-of-the-art combo, the monaural D-01 D/A converter and P-01 SACD/CD transport. Personally, I haven’t heard this enterprise class of player, but I have heard some of Esoteric’s other high-end offerings, the UX-3 and its bigger brother the X0-1. Though these products are very costly they are also beautifully built and sound fantastic. And yet, Esoteric isn’t ready to rest on their laurels. They have recently released upgraded versions of both of these units. The UX-3 is now the UX-3SE ($8500.00) and the X-01 is now the X-01 Limited ($14,000.00).
But what’s even more exciting is the release of the brand new “Elegance” line of Esoteric electronics that includes an integrated amplifier (with master sync clock built in) and two CD players that will cause you to do a double take when you find out how much they cost.
The Elegance line consists of the SZ-1 a SACD/CD player for $3995.00, the UZ-1 universal player for $4795.00 and the AZ-1 an integrated amplifier w/master clock also for $4795.00. Developed from the ground up, all three products share the same cosmetics and if necessary can be stacked on top of one another without disturbing the aesthetic flow. The design is so gorgeous that it could easily be on display at MOMA or for the uninitiated, New York’s Museum of Modern Art. All of the pieces look identical from the outside. They look as though they were sculpted from solid aluminum billet with rounded edges and highlighted with extremely attractive faceplates. On the inside the CD players have a brand new proprietary transport mechanism and the digital integrated amplifier is the first in the industry that incorporates a master clock.
Initially Mark Gurvey didn’t have any review samples available because the products were so new, but he promised once he returned to California that an SZ-1 would be on the next truck headed east. Like I mentioned earlier Mark is from Chicago so I assumed that because of his Windy City heritage that the player would get here sooner as opposed to later. But what also escaped me momentarily is that the Esoteric electronics come from Japan so I could have been at Teac/Esoteric headquarters in California and the SZ-1 SACD/CD player still wouldn’t have gotten here any faster; well so much for perks. Fortunately, after a good three to four weeks I was contacted by customer service and I was informed that the player was on the break-in machine and that it shouldn’t be more than just a short delay before it would be shipped. True to their word the SZ-1 arrived within days after I was contacted by the customer service rep. All I had to do was plug it in and let it play. But before I talk about how the SZ-1 sounds I think it’s important to tell you about some of the new technological innovations that Esoteric has implemented.
Movers and Shakers
As you can see from photographs, Esoteric’s Elegance series components are very attractive, and with their slim line features can be interpreted as designed for the “condo crowd” or the more modern aesthetic conscious consumer. Like a number of major U.S. cities, there has been an extensive building boom in Chi-town with a lot of the generation X-ers looking to live the fast-paced life of the concrete jungle, where most of the residents are concerned with creating a cozy intimate and visually stimulating urban villa while also having enough space to integrate their A/V equipment with their other lavish furnishings. So Esoteric was not only up to the task of designing a great sounding player, but a smaller, sleeker looking model as well. This change in cosmetics also required a brand new transport system for the SZ-1 and UZ-1 and a move away from the highly acclaimed VRDS (vibration-free rigid disc clamping system) that is used in their other players because the VRDS transport simply would not fit in the new Elegance series chassis.
The SZ-1 is only 3” inches high, a little less than 16” wide and 13.5” deep. It is not extremely heavy but at 18.5 pounds you won’t toss it around lightly. Esoteric has always believed in using higher grade materials and all of the control buttons on the front and the circular feet on the bottom are also made of aluminum just like the exterior chassis. The SZ-1 has the standard play, pause, stop, forward, reverse, and standby buttons, and the digital display on the front is a soft blue. Velvet pads are on the bottom of the aluminum feet and reduce ringing just in case some owners have glass equipment shelves. The rear of the unit is laid out nicely with both XLR and RCA outputs, coaxial and optical digital outs (that needs a little further explanation), a BNC word clock input and an i.link connector for connections to amplifiers such as the AZ-1. This output can also be used for two channel and multi channel SACD output. I tried connecting the digital audio coaxial output to a Blue Circle BC501 D/A converter but I could not get a signal lock. So I checked the SZ-1 owner’s manual and was told that the digital audio output is a ‘post internal DAC’ for a connection to digital amplifiers, receivers, preamp/processors or digital recorders. I was hoping to test it’s capabilities as a separate transport but I guess Esoteric must feel so confident in the execution of their design that the use of an external DAC is not necessary. To the far right is an IEC plug for the power cord connection. According to the promo sheet the photograph shows an on and off switch but I had one of the very first units and it did not have a power switch. That’s not a problem for me because I generally leave everything on anyway unless I’m going on an extended vacation.
The SZ-1 uses a Cirrus Logic CS4398 chipset for decoding of both DSD and PCM data streams. Esoteric has always been in the business of building a better mouse trap and with the Elegance line of products they continued the practice of creating a transport mechanism from the ground up. This new conventional transport was designed by Esoteric as a vertically aligned optical stability platform or VOSP for short. VOSP is used in the Esoteric SZ-1, UZ-1, SA-60 and DV-60. The only differences in the implementation of this transport between the Z series and the SA/DV series are in the size of the top weight and cover plates that aid in stabilizing the disc during rotational playback.
The VSOP transport mechanism in the SZ-1 is made of aluminum instead of plastic and has a scratch resistance coating on the aluminum tray. It has its own isolation and framing mechanism that utilizes CNC precision built gears that allows the servo controlled laser beam to move across the CD with great accuracy. Some lesser transport mechanisms are made of plastic molds, have plastic gears and rubber pulleys. This metal mechanism is fairly heavy which should improve longevity and help to reduce vibrations.
The SZ-1 also does some interesting things regarding optical pickup. According to Esoteric:
Most disc players allow for “off axis,” vertical tracking which requires a need for extensive off axis error correction. Esoteric’s tracking ability and VSOP greatly reduces the need to error correct embedded data because the unit never tracks data other then in a circular (rotational), pattern or vertical plane. The sliding shaft structure in the SZ-1 and UZ-1 is also designed to prevent laser pick-up, off axis tilting during movement of the lens. This structure ensures stable motion of the pick-up and much more precise reading of all embedded material within the disc.
So of course after reading about the new transport the Curious George in me couldn’t resist the temptation to take a look inside by removing the SZ-1’s cover. Once inside I was duly impressed by the layout and thought of suggesting a Plexiglas cover as an option to the aluminum top but that would probably add a little more to the cost and take away some weight and rigidity from the chassis and furthermore be a waste if the player is located in an entertainment center.
There are a still a number of other design innovations that I could mention but if you are interested in reading about them feel free to go to their website. But now it’s time talk about what is really important; how does the SZ-1 sound?
I listened to the SZ-1 configured in quite a few systems including one with the AZ-1. As you might expect the synergy between the two units was exceptional. The sound with the AZ-1 had a wonderful presentation and I’m quite sure that the built-in word clock had a lot to do with it. I also compared it briefly to the UX-3 and even though they are from the same family it really wasn’t a comparison. Everything that the SZ-1 did well was bettered by the UX-3 and at twice the price I wouldn’t expect anything less. My colleague Michael Wright wrote an excellent piece on the UX-3 and if you can afford to spend close to nine thousand dollars for a CD player, then the UX-3 may be the way to go. It should be noted that as an added benefit to users, the SZ-1 and UZ-1 (A/V version), use the same horizontal sled and optical assembly that is found in Esoteric’s X-03/UX-3. These higher grade optics help to insure that more data is recovered with less interpolation.
The system that I used for this review consisted of gear in the sub four thousand dollar price range. On a number of occasions I’ve read reviews where all the rest of the components in the chain were considerably higher in price and once you plugged it into your own system you wondered why it didn’t sound anything like what you read in the magazines. So that I wouldn’t make the same mistake, I substituted the Goldmund Mimesis 18.4 monoblocks (close to $19,000.00 for the pair) that I’ve been listening to for the last six months for the Bel Canto Design REF 1000 monoblocks ($3990.00). I also used the Bel Canto Pre3 preamp which is pretty remarkable for only $1695.00. Bel Canto products are no slouches and are a lot less expensive than the Goldmunds.
All cabling was from Acoustic Zen. The interconnect cables used were the Silver Reference II. The power cords were Gargantua II and an Absolute series power cord on the preamp. I also used an eight foot pair of Absolute series speaker wire. Rounding out the system were the Acoustic Zen Adagio loudspeakers ($4300.00).
From the start, I really enjoyed what this player could do especially with male and female vocals. One of the first things that I noticed was that the SZ-1 adds character to the voices. By that statement I don’t mean that it adds extra color or warmth, but performers had body and listening to music using the SZ-1 created an emotional experience that I found stimulating. Each artist had a prominent presence within the soundstage. Bass lines were easy to follow with plenty of power and authority. The top end was good but I didn’t experience the ultimate sweetness that I heard with the UX-3. It’s important to note that I didn’t detect any overall haze or glare on cymbals but it lacked that last bit of clarity and high frequency tonality that are a compelling trait of the other ‘X series’ Esoteric players. The SZ-1 provides plenty of detail but not to the extent that you begin to concentrate on individual musicians and forget to listen to all of the music. The SZ-1 has wonderful dynamics and on selections that emphasize intensity (particularly on drum solos), the SZ-1 painted a realistic picture (both visually and aurally) with impressive force. Timing is good but bettered by the UX-3 because the pace of the music allowed me to get more involved in the performance.
After listening to a number of discs that I consider reference material, I queued up Jessica Williams’ Live at Yoshi’s volume one [MaxJazz MXJ210]. This recording features Williams on piano, Ray Drummond (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums). The track that moved me the most is “Heather”. I don’t know anything about the relationship between Jessica and Heather, whether it was a close friendship, relative or treasured furry companion but since music is supposed to convey a message the SZ-1 did a good job of letting me know that Heather has a very warm and compassionate spirit. Jessica’s intimate and inviting performance on piano and Ray Drummond’s strong and soulful execution on bass were slightly reminiscent of the real thing. His exemplary bass play anchored this tune and each note was airy and resonated with precision and appropriate weight. This was another one of the strengths of the SZ-1; low-end information was displayed with the right amount of feeling and texture.
I also listened to another pianist on the MaxJazz label, Geoffrey Keezer’s [MXJ207]. Geoffrey Keezer is an excellent pianist and composer and one of my favorite tracks on this CD is “Featherfall,” which features vocals by Claire Martin. The SZ-1 presented this delicate and beautiful song with all its tenderness and intimacy. Claire Martin’s vocals were clearly focused and extended well beyond the front plane of the Adagios but not too far in the room. While listening to Mr. Keezer on the keyboards, I noticed that he has a smooth pace to his performance. The SZ-1 seemed to add soul to the music and captured his ability to create a piece of work that is natural and honest. Although Jessica’s style of play is slightly different from Mr. Keezer’s there was similarity in that both piano pieces had a sweet seductive sound and maintained my enthusiasm for the music from one disc to the next.
Finally, I decided to test the SZ-1’s ability to play music from SACD’s to see if there was an incremental or big difference in sound compared to ordinary red book discs. So I grabbed Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue on Columbia/Legacy records [CK 64935]. This is the 20-bit, digitally re-mastered version. I have the same disc in SACD format also from Columbia/Legacy records [CS 64935]. This is a classic recording and the first track, “So What” is still popular to this day. However, I’m a little partial to the second track, “Freddie Freeloader.”
It didn’t take long, more like three bars on name that tune, to figure out that SACD sounds much better than current red book CD’s, at least with this player. On red book CD compared to SACD the bass was recessed and didn’t have the bloom of Super Audio. All of the horn players, Miles Davis on trumpet, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, and John Coltrane on tenor saxophone had much longer lines. Jimmy Cobb who is phenomenal on drums sounded more lifelike and had better attack. The splash on the cymbals that was over emphasized on the red book version was removed and listening to the same track on SACD was a lot more involving and sounded more natural. There was more air around each of the musicians and it was a smoother presentation. Each performer had more body and brass instruments had more bite. In case it isn’t obvious by now the sound was exponentially better and there seemed to be a lot more music. After hearing the Super Audio version against the re-mastered 20 bit Redbook edition there was no doubt that SACD sounded better and that point I wished all of my CD’s were SACD.
Back to Normal
I believe that the Esoteric SZ-1 is a very good sounding CD player and that the engineers who work for Esoteric are committed to excellence. It’s evident that they are on a quest to build some of the world’s best equipment. While this unit has great low-end performance, it’s midrange performance is where this unit shines. On a lot of selections that I listened to, especially female vocals, the SZ-1 delivered the essence of each performer’s presentation with ease and romanticism. This is a very musical player with good bass and good details. It is not as airy and sweet up top as the UX-3 but it is does not leave you wanting either.
It’s hard not to give the Esoteric SZ-1 further consideration when you think of the exceptional build quality, thoughtful design features, the fact that it plays both SACD and red book CD, and offers a word clock input (that definitely improves the sound quality) all of this for $3995.00. It is priced perfectly in between the one to two thousand dollar high-value CD players and the megabuck, state-of-the-art X series players. The SZ-1 performed admirably and if I owned one I would feel confident that I have a good sounding player.
On a final note, the SZ-1 sounded its best with a steady stream of current running through it and connected to a preamplifier via the XLR analog outputs. I also liked the fact that Esoteric offers tremendous customer support from TEAC. There’s still some uncertainty about whether the SZ-1’s digital outputs can be used with an external DAC or not. So there may be a follow-up to come.
It has been a number of months since I’ve actually seen Mark Gurvey but we continue to talk over the phone and communicate via e-mail. Hopefully by the time this review gets posted I will have run into Mark again, and he’ll be asking me if I want to review the updated Esoteric X-03SE. But just in case that doesn’t happen I’ll still venture over to the “audiophile triangle” and buy CD’s at the Jazz Record Mart, have some tea at Glenn Poor Chicago, head over to Andy’s for Jazz, and try and keep warm while I cherish the memories of those hot summer days when I spent some time with the wonderful Esoteric SZ-1 SACD/CD player.
Craig “Craigy G” Fitzpatrick
SZ-1 Main specifications:
Input / output terminals
Audio output (Analog Audio) RCA ×1 (L/R) + XLR ×1 (L/R)
Audio output (Digital Audio) iLink ×1+ COAXIAL ×1+ OPTICAL ×1
Word synchronization input BNC x1
Input level TTL level / 75 ohm
Input frequency 44.1/ 88.2/176.4/100 kHz
Analog audio response Output: DSD / Setting: Normal
Frequency response 10Hz～50kHz Super Audio CD
S/N ratio 130dB Super Audio CD
Dynamic range 107dB Super Audio CD
Total harmonic distortion 0.002％ Super Audio CD
Power supply AC 120V, 60 Hz (US) / AC 230V, 50 Hz Europe
Power consumption 18 W Stand-by: approx. 1.5 W
External dimensions (W×H×D) 400 mm×77 mm×342 mm 15-7/10” x 3” x 13-1/2”
Weight 8.4 kg (18.5 lbs)
TEAC America, Inc.
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA. 90640
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