China’s ultra-high-end hi-fi

Think you know everything there is to know about the audiophile scene? This will leave you gobsmacked: TONY WAINHOUSE writes about his incredible hi-fi initiation in Hangzhou, China.

Stage left, half of the ESD Acoustic Dragon.

“In the highest room, in the tallest tower.

Standing taller than most men.

Rearing up on hind legs to brandish its menacing horns…

The Dragon.“

 

A native of Hangzhou, China, weighing in at a colossal USD $760,000, the awesome Dragon music playback system eagerly awaited its next victims. The date was set and the venue was fixed. But first, the backstory.

 

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China has its very own audiophile high-end. Who knew? Recently, we spent a few hours with China’s ultra-high-end audio specialist ESD Acoustic, operating right here in my wife’s hometown – the beautiful Hangzhou.

Hangzhou City is a green urban jungle, the size of a small country and home to more than 20 million souls. Repeatedly rated as the best commercial city in mainland China by Forbes, Hangzhou is China’s internet business incubator – and official venue for the forthcoming 2022 Asian Games. It’s a great time to be living in Hangzhou.

Hangzhou, featuring one of 58 arena venues devoted to the 2022 Asian Games

Headquarters to Jack Ma’s celebrated Alibaba Group (Ant Group, AliExpress, Alipay) and other tech giants, Hangzhou is also a veritable magnet for IT professionals and entrepreneurs. As a seasoned audiophile, I was rather hoping that some of this Hangzhou innovation and technology know-how might have rubbed off onto local audio manufacturers. I would not be disappointed.

Arriving at the futuristic ESD Acoustic (ESD) estate on a Sunday afternoon, we were greeted by charismatic front-man – and ESD loudspeaker designer – Mr Jacky Dai. Jacky introduced his family, who were all deeply involved in the ESD presentation. To my delight, my English posed no issue for the Dai family and I quickly learned that China’s high-end audio market is thriving.

ESD began as a partnership formed between the late Dr Bruce Edgar (of Edgarhorn USA fame), his long-time audio electronics collaborator, Mr Sam Saye – and Jacky’s father, ESD founder, Mr David Dai. ESD is an anagram of the three family surname initials.

The late Dr Bruce Edgar

Early in the partnership, UCLA graduate Jacky Dai – now, still in his late 20s – was mentored by Dr Bruce, imparting decades of audio design expertise. ESD continues to develop that tech and current ESD specialities include horn-loaded loudspeakers, active field coil drivers and more.

With its headquarters located just south of Hangzhou’s Qiantang River, the entire street block is devoted to the Dai family business. Modern and inspired, the dazzling campus comprises ESD Acoustic. A health gym. A café. A high-end restaurant. A Montessori-based Kindergarten for up to 380 students. Outdoor walkways, children’s vegetable gardens, water features and large amounts of dedicated parking – a rarity in urban China.

Perhaps I missed something, but absolutely unmissable was the fact that the aforementioned kindergarten boasts its very own full Dragon music playback system. This is not only an uncompromising effort to ensure that the children’s music interests (mostly classical) are meticulously honed and developed – but also an ESD investment in cultivating the next generation of demanding, high-end audiophiles. Smart.

Dai family business campus, including ESD Acoustic

The Dai family also owns a high-end tea plantation, located elsewhere, so I would imagine that this brief account of their business interests is by no means definitive. It is hard not to be impressed by all that the Dai family has already achieved – yet still they have big plans. “Only the best of the best!” explained Jacky, as he outlined the Dai family vision of developing mainland China’s first-ever high-end, luxury brand. It seems the family plan is well underway.

“In the highest room in the tallest tower…”

Rachel and I were privileged to join an audience of around 30 listeners in ESD’s 170m2 main auditorium – one of several on-site ESD listening studios – to sample the Dragon, an entire ESD (only) music playback system (footnote 1).

ESD Acoustic main auditorium, featuring the Dragon

The Dragon is ESD’s flagship and with eight brand-new Dragon owners added this year already, Jacky Dai confirmed that 2021 sales results have been explosive. It must be said that these are very solid numbers for a system that sells in China for more than USD $760,000. Yes, you read that number correctly.

Upon entering the main auditorium, I was somehow mistaken for someone important. An already comfortable guest sprang from his place, leaving two centrally located seats, adamant that Rachel and I take his sweet spot. We were humbled, but rather delighted. As it transpired, we literally could have sat anywhere for the immersive Dragon experience.

As professional as it gets, ESD had prepared a full music playlist, complete with a printed programme for each guest. Our music “menu” resembled an authentic Chinese dining experience, revealing a penchant for variety and good taste. And apart from one Peking Opera track – perhaps essential, given the local audience – the Chinese deep love of melody prevailed.

Music Programme for the ESD Dragon presentation

Before each track, Jacky Dai walked the audience through the music, sharing in Chinese some of his own personal thoughts and opinions.  Rachel later disclosed that Jacky made a point of advising guests exactly what to listen out for.

Waiting for the concert to begin, I had little knowledge about the gear we were about to taste. There were a few clues. An imposing, studio-sized Ampex master-tape machine sat nearby, accompanied by a rack full of unfamiliar components. I wondered if analogue master-tapes could be playing? Or would some form of digital platform provide the music source? What about vinyl? I couldn’t see a turntable. Obviously, the Dragon loudspeakers were horn-loaded – but that was the extent of my ESD knowledge. Importantly, were the amplifiers solid-state, tubed, hybrid or some new variant?

Stage right and the second half of the ESD Acoustic Dragon

I confess that I always approach the latter question with open-minded scepticism. Over the years, I’ve learned to enjoy all music source formats, but I have really struggled to find a solid-state amplifier that provides long-term musical satisfaction. Despite having enjoyed serious affairs (for years) with the likes of the outstanding, solid-state First Watt J2 amplifier by Nelson Pass, other more recent encounters with the latest in solid-state power offerings have had me running from the room like a petulant schoolgirl. Ultimately, I have always returned to tube amplifiers for what I find is a more dimensional, fluid and natural sound. So, I know that I am hard to please. Rachel even more so. What to expect from the all ESD ensemble?

Ready for anything, Rachel and I buckled up and prepared to face the Dragon. From the opening notes of the concert, the sound emanating from the Dragon was absolutely breathtaking. Emerging from its inky-black lair, the big lizard’s gentle way belied the power and fury that would soon follow. The ESD ensemble truly delivered the open and realistically “live” type of listening experience that eludes almost all domestic listening systems. The sound was effortless, relaxed and with a massive sense of scale and weight. All without a hint of tizz or hardness. Importantly, the performance was entirely devoid of the infamous “honk” that many experts caution about horn-loaded loudspeakers.

The first half of the eclectic concert featured music that was foreign to me, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Jacky and his team had obviously prepared well for their mostly Chinese guests.

A stand-out track from the first set featured the solo voice of Inner Mongolian Mr Qi Feng, an artist possessing both impressive vocal range and outstanding control. The starkness of the unaccompanied vocal recording bared all, leaving nowhere for the artist, the recording engineers or the Dragon to hide. From the album entitled My Date With the Grassland, the song performed – simply named ‘Father’s Grassland, Mother’s River’ – showcased haunting vocal virtuosity that tested and fully validated the Dragon’s ability to convincingly render the extreme range of emotive human tones. It was as if Qi Feng was there with us, in the room.

Album cover for My Date with the Grassland featuring Qi Feng

Perhaps the music highlight from round one, was folk music from Taiwan, performed by Chinese vocalist Mr Zhao Peng – considered one of the finest baritones in mainland China. Performing the quirky ‘Grandma’s Penghu Bay’, Zhao Peng’s rich and warm sonority was accompanied by traditional instruments. This type of ethnic fare, featuring random rhythms and unexpected percussive crashes – elements unfamiliar to many Westerners – was awash with exotic tinkles, swishes and thuds. Particularly memorable were the bending flutes (nose-flutes?) floating magically through the auditorium, underpinned by the smacking of real skin against real skin drums. This recording demonstrated The Dragon’s ability to literally breathe the original event into the venue.

Zhao Peng – Grandma’s Penghu Bay

Midway through the concert, ESD called a 20-minute comfort stop and as always, Chinese hospitality was second to none. ESD Founder and family head, the charming David Dai, presented guests with complimentary cups of simply divine vintage tea. Quite the brew, at over USD $4000 per pound of leaf. Heady stuff.

ESD Acoustic guest intermission and server area

Returning to the main auditorium, the music programme took a welcome swing to the west, as we stepped through a well-chosen – if commercially thrashed – collection of audiophile favourites.

Whitney Houston’s remake of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ kicked-off the second set. And while this schmaltzy chestnut is more than a little dated and worn, there is no denying that the production values – and the late Houston’s delivery – are both top-drawer. The Dragon took flight and brought the big tune home effortlessly. Personally, I was deeply touched and again reminded just what a truly gifted vocalist the world lost in 2012.

Following a bit more opera and some perfectly enjoyable Enya, another chronically overexposed radio song took its turn.

Aaron Neville’s ‘Everybody Plays the Fool’ sits near the top of a growing list of songs that I could very happily never hear again. In fact, we own the original (mint) Euro LP pressing of this album – so we know how well this music is recorded. Yet, it rarely gets a spin. A far cry from the compressed radio mush that made this track infamous in the first place, the Dragon opened the studio door and redeemed this song with unprecedented intimacy and insight. From the opening bars, the cavernous sense of space was simply astonishing. The fretless bass weaved and snaked, gently sparring with the scant percussion, revealing new levels of artist interplay. Neville’s distinctively lilting falsetto was palpable and the (musically rushed, IMHO) chorus exposed the true complexity of the rich harmonies at play. That the Dragon was able to illuminate this particular track, despite my radio-jaded ears, speaks volumes. Perhaps I won’t sell that Neville LP, after all?

Being asked to sit (once more) through The Eagles’ indomitable 1994 remake of their 1976 hit ‘Hotel California’ felt somewhat inevitable but entirely necessary. Like other indispensable test tracks that I’ve played to death, every split second of this latter-day classic is a known quantity to me. Therefore, to hear this immaculately recorded event on a system of the Dragon’s calibre was a genuine indulgence – and one which provided an invaluable reference point. In the opening seconds of the live recording, the audience’s applause sounded tangible and present – as opposed to the irritating “heavy rainfall” impression often left by lesser systems. In an instant, we were transported to Burbank, California and took our place amidst the adoring crowd. The familiar opening 12-string guitar chords jangled and shone like steel wires should, in sharp contrast with Felder’s opening licks – his instrument clearly sporting a more tactile set of strings. By the time the big conga bass notes entered the fray – with the Dragon distinguishing the differing pitch of each drumhead – my toes were already tapping and my head was swaying. A quick glance around the auditorium confirmed that I was not alone. As expected, the Dragon took wing allowing Don and the boys to check us in, one more time. Nobody checked-out.

One quibble. Through much of the concert, the music volume was set way too high for my comfort. Rachel’s younger ears also protested during some of the musical climaxes. The high volumes did not seem to bother the other guests at all, who remained comfortable in their seats. Perhaps they were all too polite to quietly cover their ears at the climaxes, as I did? I guess I will never know, but in fairness to ESD, these peak volumes correctly emulated the highly dynamic experience of a live musical event – and enabled the audience to enjoy all of the very quiet passages.

Could any of us really live with listening volumes that realistically reflect a live musical performance? Probably not. But nobody left the auditorium questioning the Dragon’s capabilities around control, dynamics and stability at high volumes. In that regard, the Dragon never once sounded strained and certainly never ran out of puff. The good news is that during the break and after the formalities had ended, the Dragon sound proved to be equally dynamic and beguiling at much lower listening levels.

With reference to the Dragon system topology, I was more than a little surprised when I discovered that we had been listening to CDs. Hot off the press, we were also privy to a “first listen” to a new ESD Acoustic compact disc. The ESD album entitled “Touch the music” is an all-digital recording of audiophile pieces that reminded me that digital has well and truly come of age. For those of us who may have forsaken spinning CDs some time ago, in favour of ripped or downloaded files – guilty as charged, here – the ESD CD player is a revelation.

Album cover for Touch The Music, a compilation by ESD Acoustic

I also learned that the Dragon amplifiers – one 10W amplifier per loudspeaker driver – are of the Class-A, solid-state, single-ended variety. At 114dB efficiency, the Dragon horn-loaded loudspeakers can breathe fire on just half a watt. Thus, 10W provides virtually unlimited headroom. Small wonder the Dragon could torch the room in a heartbeat.

The Dragon sound gave no real clues around its solid-state engine room. It just sounded natural. Jacky Dai also commented that much of the Dragon’s neutral character stems from their choice to apply Switch Mode Power Supplies (SMPS). Joining the dots, this is evidently trickle-down tech, following David Dai’s considerable time as CEO of Inventronics, one of China’s foremost SMPS providers. Again, smart.

Throughout the session, I never lost sight of the fact that we were listening to a music playback system that costs more than the average New Zealand home. Putting that into local perspective, gaining Dragon title is roughly equivalent to buying sixteen brand-new Tesla Model Y cars here in China. A first-world buying decision, to be sure.

The ESD Acoustic Dragon is certainly an ultra-high-end, cost-no-object proposition. Yes, it is priced well beyond what most well-heeled audiophiles would ever be able to pay for a music playback system. That said, for the privileged few who can afford Dragon ownership – and that should include cinemas, theatres and large performance venues – ESD has crafted a system of rare synergy and capability; a system that demands to be heard. Our small party were certainly very impressed. Even Rachel was smiling.

During our ESD visit, Rachel and I were also rather smitten with ESD’s Panda series of loudspeakers designs: the 86dB efficient ESD Acoustic Panda (USD $17,000) and the 92dB efficient ESD Acoustic Panda Plus (USD $28,000). Here we encountered a couple of high-end loudspeakers that well-heeled audiophiles can afford.

ESD Acoustic Panda Plus loudspeakers with ESD electronics
ESD Acoustic Panda Plus loudspeaker

No real surprise, the Panda sound was utterly superb. Producing bass that reaches down to a very useful 35 cycles, these ESD siblings share some of the magic that infused the Dragon performance – in a form-factor that would be right at home in the typical audiophile listening room.

The deceptively large, stand-mount, 2-way Panda loudspeakers are impeccably-built and really are something to behold. Replete with massive CNC precision-machined aluminium inner-cabinet frames and baffles, the Panda bucks recent design trends by incorporating a fully enclosed (sealed) cabinet – my personal preference – and powered field coil drivers; à la Dragon. There’s definitely something very good going on with these active field coil drivers.

ESD Acoustic Panda Plus, stand junction view

Not unlike their cute namesakes, these loudspeakers are not active, so the Panda still needs an amplifier. You’ve also gotta plug ’em into the AC mains to power the active field coils. Available in almost any colour you like, the Panda looked truly stunning in white and should be of strong interest to serious audiophiles everywhere.

ESD Acoustic Panda loudspeakers and electronics

Wrapping-up our visit, to say that the ESD experience was a bit overwhelming is an understatement.  It was easily my finest hi-fi experience in the many decades I have been listening. And there were more ESD components begging to be heard. We simply ran out of time.

ESD Acoustic is a very serious and capable high-end player that deserves global recognition. No doubt, international reach is a challenge during the pandemic, but for ESD, eventual worldwide success looks certain. Meanwhile, operating in a city of 20 million souls, located within a province of 60 million, in a country containing a third of the planet’s population, I’d say the Dai family business is doing just fine.

I can confirm that high-end audio is alive and kicking in Zhong Guo – the middle kingdom – and that the Who’s Who of China are already enjoying ESD Acoustic pleasures in their mansions and their kindergartens. Lucky them.

 

* Footnote 1:

The ESD Acoustic Dragon systems comprise: –

  • CD-player.
  • Solid-state Preamplifier.
  • Multiple solid-state, single-ended, Class A, 10W Power Amplifiers.
  • Active crossovers.
  • Full-range, 114dB efficient, 5-way Horn Loudspeakers; and
  • Multiple solid-state Field Coil Power Supplies.

©2021, Tony Wainhouse

One Comment

  1. what’s so special about a switch mode power supply. they’re in charger and computer in your house.

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