As I learned on my Japanese audio excursion (Issue 279), purity is the country’s overriding sonic goal. But how to achieve it? The answer, of course, varies by price point. With its cost-no-object Grandioso series, Esoteric has sought to eradicate distortions and colorations in two ways: 1) by taking a fresh look at entrenched norms, and 2) by scrutinizing every last design detail—no matter how minute. The result: Even in the rarified uppermost tier of the high end, the Grandioso stack stands out.
Consider the Grandioso D1 DAC—or I should say DACs (plural) because the D1 is actually a pair of monoblock DACs. Unlike virtually every other DAC on the market, the D1 doesn’t inflict upon its stereo channels the noise, crosstalk, and space constraints inherent in sharing a chassis. The two DACs talk to each other via an HDMI connection that enables the pair to act as one stereo DAC. Thus, when you switch the input on the front panel of one, it’s changed for both.
The D1’s dual-monoblock layout is an example of Esoteric’s willingness to rethink an established macro-level design approach. But the Grandioso stack applies the same no-compromise philosophy to the tiniest of details. For example, circuit boards “float” above the chassis, isolated from vibrations. The holes on those boards, through which small parts are mounted, are smoothed on the inside to promote better contact and to prevent corrosion. The solder that fills those holes is an ultra-dense, in-house formulation. Esoteric tested every solder on the market and, after determining that exactly none of them met its standards, decided to mix its own.
And on it goes. The D1 employs AKM’s top DAC chips—sixteen of them—in a technique that smoothes out any irregularities between chips and that also provides a wealth of sheer processing power. Clocking those chips is a custom-designed NHK unit with an oversized crystal for increased stability. The Grandioso P1 disc transport, which also benefits from a stand-alone power supply (bringing the total number of boxes comprising the digital front end to four), employs Esoteric’s rare, top-of-the-line VRDS-VMK-Neo 20S module. The “20” in the model designation refers to the 20mm structural steel plate on which the mechanism is mounted. The P1 and D1s communicate via a pair of HDMI cables, whose high bandwidth is ideal for DSD. And throughout the Grandioso series, Esoteric eschewed the large-but-sluggish capacitors to which many companies default, opting instead for multiple parallels of small, dual-layer, super-high-speed caps.
Esoteric lavished the same intense consideration on the Grandioso series’ aesthetics and operations. Grandioso component front panels are milled from solid blocks of aluminum. A single unit requires eight hours on a sophisticated tri-plane CNC machine. The panel’s “swirl” motif is subtly ribbed, imbuing it with a unique combination of matte and glossy finishes. Gratifying operational touches include the P1’s surreally smooth and whisper-quiet drawer, and the two knobs on the Grandioso C1 analog linestage, which connect to a complex bearing array that imparts a luxurious, satisfying weight. The knobs bathe in a soft blue glow that brightens when you touch them. In addition, the speed at which you turn the volume control affects the rate of volume change. Turn the knob slowly and the volume alters by small degrees; turn it quickly and volume shifts rapidly. It’s enough to make you forego the remote, although that device, too, is beautifully-honed and intelligently arranged. The C1 is housed in a separate chassis; two boa-constrictor-like umbilical cords ferry power from the PS to the C1.
Needless to say, the Grandioso stack is a delight to regard and to use—and, as it turns out, to hear. All those design tweaks yield a sonic purity that sweeps away distractions and enables listeners to access an unprecedented level of musical detail. One of my standard tests for detail retrieval is the deep mix of Peter Gabriel’s So. For instance, on the chorus of “Mercy Street,” Gabriel doubles his primary vocal with one that’s an octave lower. Played through mid-fi gear, that second vocal line is essentially inaudible. Through a good high-end system, you can always hear it; but the better the system, the more detail is unearthed, and the more evident the doubled vocal becomes. Via the Grandioso stack, for the first time in my experience, the second line achieves parity with the main vocal. Similarly, while other good audio gear has allowed me to hear all the nuances of this detail-rich CD track, I’ve never been able to follow each musical line as easily as with the Grandioso stack.