Even the price tag of the N-05XD streaming DAC and preamplifier from Esoteric’s “smaller” 05 series – 13,500 euros – suggests that the Japanese luxury manufacturer (sales: www.aqipa.com ) wants to play at the top, and the appearance of the test device confirms that. There is, for example, the satin-like finish, which almost feels strangely warm under the fingers. Very unusual, very chic! Small disadvantage: The surface has a barely noticeable grain like very, very fine emery paper so that when cleaning with a cloth, some abrasion can remain. Well, I guess I can live with that.
Physically thought out
The Esoteric N-05XD, which weighs just over thirteen kilograms, is exceptionally well made, and I would say “Nothing wobbles!” if that weren’t a flat lie: the lid of the housing has noticeable freedom of movement, as do the feet of the device. Both are the full intent of the designers – the Esoteric R&D team has been working on optimizing screw tensions at both the board and package levels for many years, I learn. Screwing everything together doesn’t necessarily bring the best sound; it’s more about “balance and harmony,” according to the Esoteric developers. And further: “Our team found that the sound became freer and more open when the lid was not firmly attached to the housing. That’s why we introduced the ‘floating’ lid.”
In addition, the three device feet of the Esoteric N-05XD follow a “stressless” design, in which Esoteric only partially connects the feet to the chassis so that they can swing freely to a large extent. The tips of the cone-shaped feet, made of specially machined steel, are positioned to hang from the underside of the chassis and move freely when the device is lifted. This leads to a “more natural, longer sustain,” according to Esoteric.
Incidentally, as far as the power supply is concerned, only linear power supplies with oversized toroidal transformers are found in the N-05XD, according to the manufacturer. One is responsible for the network module; the second handles the digital and analog circuit boards with separate windings and taps.
Own digital ways
Like Esoteric’s even more expensive digital components, the N-05XD works with a proprietary digital architecture called “Master Sound Discrete DAC,” which uses a 64-bit delta-sigma modulator, among other things. Integrated DAC chipsets were not good enough for this architecture, so the Japanese developed the circuit in-house and built it using discrete components and their own FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array). This is also known by other manufacturers such as Waversa Systems. When you get the hang of the FPGA, you have a new world of possibilities.
In any case, the limits of digital processing are set by the third-generation network module, which is based on Esoteric’s top-of-the-range N-01 board and accepts DSD at 22.5 MHz and PCM at 384 kHz/32 bit. More than enough, I think. Esoteric has eliminated the only previously used switching power supply and replaced it with a linear one that, according to the spec sheet, has a filter capacity of 2,333,333 µF (!).
Regarding streaming providers, the Esoteric N-05XD is doing well with integrating Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify in the in-house “Esoteric Sound Stream” for iPhone, iPad, and Android. It is comprehensively equipped with Roon compatibility and the “data convolution algorithm” MQA. The volume of the N-05XD can also be controlled via the Roon app – of course, analog and not on the digital level.
Ready to connect
It goes into the N-05XD digitally via USB-B, optical and coaxial S/PDIF (twice each), Ethernet (LAN), and Bluetooth. There’s a BNC input for an external clock for everyone who thinks excellent isn’t good enough. External storage can also be docked on the front via the USB-A port.
There are also analog inputs and outputs, both balanced and unbalanced. A headphone output with a 6.35 mm jack and a balanced 4-pin XLR socket is available on the front. Behind it is a dedicated, fully balanced dual mono headphone amplifier that can deliver two times 750 mW at 32 ohms to the jack and twice the power to the XLR socket .
In addition, Esoteric also equips its “nest tick” N-05XD with the proprietary “ES-LINK Analog (ESL-A).” This is a “current transmission method” with which appropriately equipped components can be connected via conventional XLR cables. According to the Japanese, current signals have an advantage over normal voltage signals because they are less sensitive to electromagnetic interference and voltage losses due to line resistance. If you are wondering, when you look at the back: the output is a female XLR socket. “For security reasons, we decided to reverse the XLR connection for the ES-Link Pre-Out so that there is no ambiguity about which socket is used for the ES-Link,” says Business Manager Jasper Bol from Esoteric distributor Aqipa.
Symmetry as a mantra
Whether balanced signal paths are necessary for the hi-fi sector is still controversial among customers and developers. Some don’t want to do without it because of the undeniably higher immunity to interference; others see no reason to go to the significantly higher expense at this point – instead of at others – because of the short signal paths, efficient shielding, and the high-quality level of audiophile components.
Esoteric is crystal clear and uses a fully balanced dual mono construction from input to output in the N-05XD. This design has been adopted from the Grandioso C1X preamplifier and they are convinced of the sound-improving results. Accordingly, the N-05XD also has the analog QVCS volume control (Quad Volume Control System), which works in four ways. Two amplifiers per channel and the analog resistor attenuator system enable high channel separation and very precise phase characteristics, according to Esoteric. But that’s not all: high-current drivers should ensure a very high slew rate of 2000 V/μs and help the sound to come across as dynamic and powerful as possible. Warning, spoilers: and how!
What the Esoteric N-05XD delivers as a complete package (i.e. streamer, DAC, and preamplifier) after a proper break-in period – at least 120, better 200 hours should be given to it – can only be described with the word “amazing.” And I mean that almost literally, assuming you have the right speakers. Hardly any electronic component has ever played so powerfully and quickly with me. At cranked and maxed out volumes, my ATC SCM50PSL ‘s 25’s bass blow-dry with the bass drum on “This Boy” on Brendan Perry’s album Ark (streamed via Qobuz/Roon) on Brendan Perry’s album Ark (streamed via Qobuz/Roon) such a remarkably dry yet energetic impulse towards the seat that the autonomic nervous system immediately switches to the adrenaline rush.
This is also because the N-05XD counteracts real deep bass less limiting than most other components. Gentlemen, push that down! Without really exaggerating, but damn fundamental, with a lot of energy and substance. Last but not least, this helps with low-frequency effects in films. The deep bass runs through to the bottom with a rarely heard consistency, which goes well with the rest of the bass range. It also has fire and drives; yes, one could even speak of a mini-emphasis on the lower frequencies because the Esoteric fires impulses from hanging drums and the like in the upper bass and fundamental tone from its outputs, as if running at full steam. And this is “only” a streaming preamp and not a power amplifier,
Speaking of the preliminary stage: Even the more expensive Linnenberg Georg Philipp Telemann (17,800 euros) cannot threaten the Esoteric N-05XD in this regard. However, the highly musical German manufactory pre-DAC asks the not entirely unjustified question about the fine dynamics and whether so much dynamic firework doesn’t outshine the subtle nuances.
The answer is “in principle yes,” which means in plain language: The N-05XD can also fine dynamics, i.e. small level fluctuations in the lower audible volume range, diligently and precisely traces them. But the German DAC preamp delivers the somewhat more sensitively fanned-out nuances when things get going. It gives more intimate insights into musical relationships amid the coarse dynamic events, while the Japanese indulge in the acoustic orgy more unrestrainedly and pay less attention to small tenderness. It remains to be seen whether this is due to “better fine dynamics,” the “relative inadequacy of the coarse dynamic capabilities” of the Linnenberg, or a “relatively less subtle fine dynamics” of the Esoteric N-05XD. In the end, of course, there are nuances, right,
There and away
The second immediate takeaway is that I have yet to hear any electronic component in my chain that can hold a candle to the Esoteric N-05XD in terms of precision. This has a lot to do with the superior impulse and transient speeds this streaming preamp is capable of, but it doesn’t stop there. Because the “there” is only one part, the “way” is just as important. And when I listen to “Cosmic Sea” by Death (Album: Human (Remastered)), I have the impression that the gifted musicians around the genius Chuck Schuldiner, who died much too young, have taken tutoring lessons on an atomic clock. It’s unbelievable how all the tones are suddenly gone again.
This is not only due to the incredibly short rise times (see above) and the equally lightning “removal” of the voltages but also to a rarely heard cleanliness and clarity of the sound image. It doesn’t look sterile, even if the Esoteric N-05XD spans an almost eerily clear, clean, black background that remains present even in dense acoustics.
Where most of the other components I know – except the Linnenberg GP Telemann and, if memory serves me, the glorious pre-end combination Balanced Audio Technology VK-53SE (15,200 euros) and VK-76SE (14,200 euros) – at some point weave the curtain of the acoustic events imperceptibly tightly and thus block the view behind them, the N-05XD, to stay with the picture, seems to take thinner threads, the more happening on a recording. No matter how dense and physically palpable the choral voices are onstage in Loreena McKennitt’s “Dante’s Prayer” (Album: The Book of Secrets), they never entirely obscure the black, backstage stuff they’re standing on. That’s what I call true transparency.
That brings us to that stage. And if you have a dilemma: how do I make it clear to you what distinguishes the Esoteric N-05XD in this respect, i.e. the spatial representation of what is happening?
In short, the sober facts. The image begins just before the speaker level and, in most cases, extends to about one or two steps behind it. Normally, the Esoteric projects most of the acoustic events between the speakers, with sharper edges and a more solid and clear three-dimensional drawn quality – and slightly smaller dimensions – than I’m used to from my Norma Audio REVO SC-2 DAC preamp (7,400 euros ). However, the latter can be related to the clearer focus on the edge sharpness of voices and instruments because the area remains smaller where no fringes are clinging to the hem. So the Norma seems a bit more diffuse but almost always spatially a little freer and larger.
Almost always? Yes, “almost,” because if effects, voices, or instruments are immortalized far back in the depths of space or extremely far left or right, up or down on a recording, then the Esoteric manifests them far outside the space that the norma allows them. Pinpoint, out of nowhere, as if it were the most natural thing in the world – just like that, without any fanfare or the feeling that the N-05XD wants to impress with artificial effects. Neither the speakers nor the room walls limit what is happening on the sides, and the same applies to the ceiling. The masonry is almost just a visual boundary from the moment the music plays, and the recording allows it.
So, on the one hand, we have a relatively compact, clearly structured stage populated with realistically delimited sound sources, and on the other hand, the potential to present sound events that are independent of the main focus of this stage at almost absurd distances in all dimensions. Does this mean the Esoteric N-05XD has found the “holy grail of spatial representation”? Well, that’s probably a matter of opinion because I can well imagine that there are listeners for whom a self-contained presentation that all sound events are more closely intertwined – even if they don’t separate them so clearly – seems more natural.
tonal and analytical
“Finally, the hi-fi basics!” you may be thinking. Yes, I understand. But I have my reasons for almost neglecting these points. After all, tonality and resolution are necessary for a device in this class. In the range of over 10,000 euros, you can’t afford to make any major blunders in this regard, or you have to provide insights that cheaper devices can’t offer.
And so the magic of the Esoteric N-05XD doesn’t lie in the fact that it reproduces the bass a bit more powerfully than would be one hundred percent neutral (it does see above), slightly warms up the beautifully colored mid-range (yup…) and yet retains a lot of transparency for articulation and texture (check), or in the treble dissects even more details from Yello’s synthesizers and the drum cymbals sparkle even more silvery and finely in “Polite” by Erika de Casier (he does too ). While this is all coherent, the aforementioned dynamics, the energy, and the precision with which the Esoteric N-05XD acts distinguish it and set it apart from most of the competition.
Duty with freestyle
Nevertheless, I want to pick out two or three things with concrete examples from the “compulsory exercises,” the characteristics of which I consider exceptional in the Esoteric N-05XD: There is the already mentioned talent for pressure and energy in the bass and deep bass, which, however, goes hand in hand with an unusual structure and agility in both frequency ranges.
One of the most criminally underrated albums in metal history is Disharmonic Orchestra’s Pleasuredome. After turning away from grindcore/death metal on the first two albums, the Austrians alienated many of their Kutten customers with an experimental fusion of rock, melodic death, and prog, in which bassist Herwig Zamernik, in particular, stands out with an outstandingly original playing style. Fortunately, the sound engineer Olaf Wozniak gave this artist an adequate presence in the mix. With the Esoteric N-05XD, I can follow his brilliant playing, in which he very often relieves the guitars of the melody task, so clearly and focused in all color shades and tonal nuances that a vivid image of his fingers on the strings arises in my head. Neither bass drum nor guitar chords disturb the comprehensibility of the tone sequences; the electric bass remains completely itself and reveals itself completely.
The second point is the changeability of the high frequencies. From silky-fine to crystalline-clear and metallic-hard, the Esoteric N-05XD has everything the high-frequency range offers and delivers a high level of detail resolution. It’s quite outstanding, the tweeters of my ATC have only once reproduced the metal percussion in Erika de Cassier’s “Polite” as finely, floatingly, iridescently, and clearly as with the Esoteric N-05XD, and that was with the Linnenberg GP Telemann. However, this gives the treble a silky tendency, while the Esoteric transitions to the steel-hard, jingling sheet metal work of Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo on the mega-classic Seasons in the Abyss more clearly.
Nothing to criticize?
Okay, is there anything to criticize? Well, maybe in the sense that a Porsche 911 Turbo will not satisfy every type of driver. It doesn’t deliver the relaxation and floating comfort of a (cheaper) S-Class, even if it may be the better or at least more involving a car in many aspects.
In a similar sense, my Norma DAC/preamp and certainly the Linnenberg Georg Philipp Telemann can let the musical flow more calmly and relaxed; they both give the distinguished limousine. That doesn’t mean the Esoteric N-05XD is a truly uncompromising tough dog; Even a 911, to stay with the allegory, is by no means the most extreme load in the garage, but compared to a Lamborghini Aventador it is downright comfortable and suitable for everyday use …
Whatever the case, the Esoteric N-05XD is nothing for romantics who want to listen to music in a deeply relaxed manner – it invites active listening, which can be too demanding for some tastes.
Anyone who associates Japanese high-tech high-end with an analytically sterile sound is wrong with the Esoteric N-05XD. On the contrary, the excellently processed and fully equipped streaming DAC preamplifier delivers a rousing performance that is so energetic that it hardly allows the listener to breathe and makes them almost permanently lean forward on the edge of the sofa yearning for the next impulse and the next MPH.
The N-05XD should conjure up an ecstatic smile on the faces of adrenaline junkies and resolution fans. For pure pleasure listeners primarily looking for musical relaxation and the quiet nuances, there is a risk that they could feel overwhelmed at some point given the disposition of the Esoteric N-05XD, which is in a permanent, watchful position. On chains that lack acoustic fire and/or pressure in the bass range, it can be a welcome energy booster.
In short, the Esoteric N-05XD is neither “everybody’s darling” nor is it cheap -, but the sum of its capabilities should be hard to beat at this price point.
The Esoteric N-05XD…
- Offers an energetic music presentation with fast, precise impulse and transient reproduction. This trait makes the N-05XD one of the most entertaining and exciting devices I know. The other side of the coin: Those who value a relaxed, flowing presentation will probably not succumb to the charm of the esoteric.
- Convincing fine dynamics, even if the cracking coarse dynamics can steal the show from gentle intermediate tones.
- Produces an extremely powerful, minimally emphasized, but largely linear and exceptionally structured, agile, and controlled bass with a lot of energy, even in the deeper than usual sub-bass. Such a successful combination of pressure, structure, and control over the entire bass range is rarely heard.
- Continues its energetic presentation in the catchy basic tone, which is nevertheless very well defined and always remains understandable and transparent.
- Is largely neutral in the midrange with a minimal warmth bonus that comes from the powerful bass/fundamental tone.
- Has a neutral treble with impressive resolution and open airiness. Although it is blessed with the ability for crystal-clear analysis, the highs do not seem superficial; they have a realistic texture that can sometimes be delicate and silky, sometimes uncompromisingly metallic.
- Sets up a stage that is not audibly limited in any direction. It holds the action around the speaker base together. Still, it projects recorded effects, instruments, and voices in the room’s depth, width, and height exactly where they belong – and that is further “outside” than with most other components.
- Has a very good, clearly delimited three-dimensional display that does not have to shy away from comparison with separate components in this class but displays individual sound events more compactly than many competitors.
- Retains its energetic, powerful, clear character even as a pure preamp and integrates a full-fledged and powerful headphone amplifier.
- Model: Esoteric N-05XD
- Concept: network player with DAC and preamplifier
- Price: 13,500 euros
- Colors: silver, black
- Inputs (digital): 1 x USB-B, 2 x S/PDIF each optical and coaxial, Ethernet (LAN), Bluetooth, clock input (BNC); Front: USB-A
- Inputs (analogue): 2 x XLR, 1 x RCA
- Outputs: 2 x Line-Out adjustable (XLR/ESL-A, Cinch); 1 x ESL-A Pre Out; Front: headphone output unbalanced (3.5 mm jack) and balanced (4-pin XLR)
- Dimensions & Weight: 445 × 131 × 377 mm (WxHxD), 13.8 kg
- Power consumption: 38 watts idle
- Guarantee: 2 years