Vinyl record sales hit $1 billion last year for the first time since 1986.
Sales of vinyl records last year reached $1 billion for the first time since 1986. That was the year before Esoteric Co. was founded as a niche high-end digital brand for the burgeoning audio revolution ushered in by CD players.
More than three decades and a lot of design later, the company has released its very first analog turntable. And the Grandioso T1 has a weight to match its dazzling price tag.
Priced at 7,700,000 yen ($52,000), the T1 features a molded brushed aluminum chassis similar to the company’s other components. It’s more like something you’d expect in a NASA lab or a five-star kitchen. It’s a behemoth at nearly 100 pounds—about four times the weight of the ubiquitous Technics SL 1200 that’s a favorite of club DJs.
Most of it comes from the solid platter on which the record sits and spins. This is the first feature that catches your eye, it looks more like a single layer metal cake than the inverted board profile of most other models. The piece is hand-polished to remove imperfections and weighs 19 kilograms (42 pounds), providing a solid foundation for minimal vibration.
Esoteric uses unique magnetic technology in the T1 in two different ways. The ‘Magne-Float’ arrangement effectively helps reduce the weight of the disc by approximately 80% to reduce friction on the spindle bearing. Meanwhile, the patented ‘MagneDrive System’ motor spins the platter via induction, eliminating direct contact, as is common with traditional belt or direct-drive turntables. All this is aimed at smooth, distortion-free rotation.
The plinth is designed to further reduce vibration, featuring two aluminum sheets with a piece of wood painted with high-gloss piano lacquer. Up to three tonearms can be attached for different types of cartridges for playing different types of records (pop vs. classic, for example, or brand new 180 gram pressings vs. old worn out vintage records).
The sound room of the company, where I tested the turntable, is an ideal listening environment. Sturdy walls in a loose pleat pattern prevent reflections and soft padded treatments absorb sound. The elephant in the room — about the size of a baby pachyderm, anyway — is the Avantgarde Acoustic Trio and Spacehorn speaker system, which, if you had the space to shine, would cost you over $250,000.
We first listened to Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ performed by the Minnesota Orchestra (Eiji Oue, conductor). Played on the T1 through esoteric amplification, rich, clear horn sounds separated from the ominous rumble of the drums and shimmering tam-tam. The sound was live and beautiful, although admittedly I can imagine that even a Spotify compressed copy played through an iPhone would probably sound great through those speakers in that particular room.
This was followed by ‘Isolation’ by Hiromi Uehara’s quintet. With a wider range of instruments, each tone was different. The warm dynamics of the piano, the silence between the notes, even the most subtle sounds from the bow on the violin strings to the tapping of the key. The whole experience made me regret that I hadn’t been bold enough to bring some of my own rock records for a Risky Business-esque spin, trying to discover details I hadn’t heard before.
So, nearly 40 years after Tom Cruise famously danced in his socks, why did Esoteric finally decide to join the vinyl party?
Because parent company Teac Corp. already has an established presence on the turntable, Esoteric felt it could take the time to develop something that would leverage its expertise and consumer recognition in digital source machines and stand out from the crowd. It took five years to make the T1.
“There had been no innovation in 100 years,” said Hiroshi Oshima, Esoteric’s president, in our review of turntables. While a number of magnetic-drive turntables have appeared in recent years, Oshima said the T1 takes a different approach, using technology used in medical instruments and semiconductor manufacturing equipment to manipulate objects with minimal outside interference or contamination.
The lengthy development time, during which the company gradually leaked details of the machine, created a buzz among fans of the brand ahead of its October release, commemorating Esoteric’s 35th anniversary. Oshima said initial demand exceeded the company’s expectations.
Revenue at parent company Teac increased nearly 10% to ¥16 billion ($110 million) in the fiscal year ended March, ending a two-decade steady decline. Esoteric said overseas business has become the focus, now accounting for 70-80% of demand for high-end Japanese audio products, up from 20-30% in the past.
Although China is seen as an important growth market for the company as a whole, it is not a target audience for the T1 due to the lack of an old record culture. The main target customers are astute, affluent North Americans and Europeans.
And while much has been made of the price of the T1, it’s hardly the most expensive turntable on the market, with some mostly European-made products exceeding $200,000, such as the Transrotor Argos. But still, it’s not cheap.
“Even rich people wouldn’t buy something like that unless they’re an audiophile,” Oshima admitted. “Then there are some who will buy it, even if they don’t have the money — they’ll take a loan.”