Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

Have You Seen?


Are you not entertained? Is it a spectacle you want? Well, ESD Acoustic, a new-to-me company that’s just thrilled to tell you it’s from China, presented a truly over-the-top spectacle at High End 2023. In all my days, I’ve never seen anything like this outrageous system. I mean, just look at this setup.

I can’t even . . . I can’t even . . . For the first time in my life, words fail me. I find it impossible to find adjectives that will do justice to the scale of this thing.

Get yourself together, Thorpe. Obviously, the horns are front and center in this system. At first, I thought that the system consisted solely of horns, but there’s a subwoofer cabinet hiding behind each of those big “ahooga” ship-sized collector-vent horns.

Jacky DaiCEO and chief designer Jacky Dai

I sat down for a chat with Jacky Dai, CEO and chief designer at ESD Acoustic, and my head began to spin. There’s far more going on here than I initially thought. ESD Acoustic was founded in 2016 and is based in Hangzhou, China, which, incidentally, is the home of Alibaba Group. Also incidentally, Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma is an ESD customer, and he owns this exact system, which ESD Acoustic calls Super Dragon.

The speaker lineup here consisted of seven horns and three dynamic woofers per side. The powered dynamic subwoofers hand off at 50Hz to the biggest horn, which does duty from 50 to 100Hz. Next size up handles from 100 to 500Hz. Moving north, the midrange horn covers 500 to 2000Hz. There are two tweeters and two supertweeters, covering from 2000 to 8000Hz and then 8000Hz up, respectively.

All the horn speakers are driven by field-coil electromagnets, which means there’s no traditional magnet and each driver requires AC power. The horns themselves are made from carbon fiber, which is startling considering just how much horn there is in this system. The system that ESD Acoustic was displaying was dressed up in a traditional Chinese lacquer, as were the face plates of the amplifiers. It’s a beautiful, unique finish.

ESD Acoustic

The system employs an analog active crossover that feeds five amplifiers for each channel, one amp for each horn component. The amplifiers operate in single-ended class-A mode and produce 10W each. The amplifiers are juiced up by switch-mode power supplies specially designed for audio by one of the world’s largest manufacturers of such.

Now the price. I was expecting a system of this scope to be expensive, but while speaking to Dai and learning about the amount of tech that’s gone into this thing, I began to increase my estimate. So I wasn’t taken aback when Dai quoted a price of €3.6 million for the special Super Dragon version shown here, which is finished in Chinese lacquer. The standard version, without the Chinese lacquer, retails for €1.08 million.

It’s huge and it’s complicated, but how did it sound? They were playing the system loud, really loud. The room was very large, as it needed to be to accommodate speakers of this size. From our listening position (a little farther back than normal), the horns integrated surprisingly well, giving no indication that there were ten distinct drivers per side punching out at me.

ESD Acoustic

The tonal balance was excellent, without the slightest strain and without any sense of horn coloration. Even at these high volumes, which were as loud as I would willingly endure, there was an impressive clarity and purity of sound. I also noticed an overall lack of bite in the mostly symphonic music they were playing. Some of the massed strings had a bit of a glassy sheen, but that could easily have been a result of the far-louder-than-life volume level. I can understand the exhibitor’s desire to show the top speed of this system, but I don’t think the high playback levels did them any favors with the symphonic program material.

Once the music was flipped over to some straight-ahead blues-rock, I could tell that this company seemed to know what it was doing. If I wasn’t looking at this conglomeration, I’d for sure have thought I was hearing a large, dynamic speaker system, albeit one with dynamics that could stop a cavalry charge. Quick and snappy, with the female voice centered nicely between the speakers. This system didn’t really do conventional pinpoint imaging. Instead, it countered with a sense of scale and size, a density of sound that seemed like a totally fair tradeoff.

ESD Acoustic

As I looked around the room, I saw printed banners showing other ESD Acoustic products: conventional standmounted speakers, headphones, a mini-DAC, and a “beryllium diaphragm coaxial Bluetooth speaker.” So it seems that there are several different product lines clumped together under the ESD banner. My gut tells me that a product as outrageous as this horn-based system should stand on its own. But who knows what’s up from down in this interconnected world?

Regardless of any potential dilution of the ESD Acoustic brand, it’s clear that this is a very serious audio company with money, dedication, and talent at its back. I came to Munich looking for audacious audio, and this room definitely delivered. I can’t see how there could possibly be anything else lurking at this show that could top it. No matter. I’ll keep trying. Stand by for more.

Jason Thorpe
Senior Editor, SoundStage!