California Audio Labs Tempest CD player Page 3
The most immediate impression was of a slightly bright—but not hard—tonal balance, coupled with excellent staging and a tight, if a little dry, low register. Violin tone was about as natural as I have heard from CD, and discs that had hitherto been a little strident—Sting's Dream of Blue Turtles, for example—mellowed out a little in character, despite the Tempest's slightly thin tonal balance. CDs that were already excellent, such as the London Rachmaninov Piano Concertos 2 and 4 from Ashkenazy and Haitink, opened up even more. (This disc is one of the few concerto recordings in which the producer has seen fit to leave the balance between piano and orchestra as the composer intended it, the solo instrument image naturally small, the orchestra surrounding it rather than peeking over its shoulders—buy it.)
The delicacy of imagery, with a believable depth, was the consistently most impressive aspect of the Tempest. The Nigel Kennedy Elgar Violin Concerto recording on EMI (another CD to buy) was revealed as being recorded so that there is actually space around the instrument—which remains small and natural sized—no matter what else happens within the soundstage. The passage where Elgar sets the solo violin cadenza against thrumming strings was magical. There was actually ambience and space, all the kinds of things audio critics expect as their right. (Contrast the dreadful sound of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Brahms concerto on DG, the artificialities of which were even more clearly laid bare by the Tempest.)
The Tempest gets closer to the spirit of the music. Consider the Michael Murray Telarc CD with Bach's Fugue in D. History tells us that this is very juvenile Bach, its main subject a little up-and-down scale and its answer a descending half-speed scale! The CLS/Krell/Tempest combination, however, let me forget musicology and get into the music—from CD, no less.
It's not all roses. The output impedance appears to be a high 5k-ohms, which could give rise to a prematurely rolled-off bass with preamps having an input impedance much below 22k. With my minimalist Hi-Fi News DIY AMP-01, which features an unusually low 6k, the combination of this with the Tempest's high output impedance and choice of coupling capacitor leads to a -3dB point at 40Hz. Take care that your preamp will be compatible in this respect; those who like to use a passive preamp should be warned that unless interconnects are kept very short, there may also be some HF loss.
One apocryphal problem with tube gear is noise. Although I don't have access at the moment to measuring gear sensitive enough to assess a CD player's noise floor, that of the Tempest was way below what I could hear with the preamp gain up, and way below breakthrough from other inputs. I don't think that there is any problem here. The other problem concerns tube life. I used the Tempest for seven weeks in all, leaving it on nearly all the time. Again no problem.
I checked that the Tempest's slightly bright sound, similar to a typical moving-coil, was not due to a frequency response anomaly: the measured response was flat to around 13kHz, above which there were the usual minor ripples, rising to +0.4dB at 20kHz. I can't see that this will lead to a subjective brightness. AHC has suggested that this tonal character is typical of 6DJ8s nearing the end of their useful lives and adding increasing amounts of second harmonic distortion; he will be discussing the results of his findings in a future issue of Stereophile.
Although I would happily live with the CAL Tempest, this was nevertheless a hard conclusion to write. Given its excellent performance, it is still on the pricey side. Not for a front-end component, I hasten to add, the price is about par for a high-end LP player, but high for one that uses digital technology that will most likely be superseded within a relatively short time. The 16-bit-with-oversampling Philips machines are now appearing, for example, from Mission, Tandberg, and Meridian, as well as Magnavox and Marantz, and preliminary reports of their sound are good.
Is it worth spending a lot of money on any CD player, given what many feel to be the medium's general sonic underachievement? Shouldn't you just buy the cheapest respectable player, spend the money saved on discs, and wait to buy the ultimate machine—the one that will get the most from those discs—in two, three, four, or five years' time?
To be honest, the last strategy, sensible enough on the face of it, means that you will probably never get a machine which lets you enjoy your collection of discs. Cheap CD-player sound just doesn't get you involved enough to want to play the discs much, and if you don't play them, you won't make CD a large part of your musical life.
If your system has high-end pretensions, then, grab the discs that give you musical enjoyment, march down to your CAL dealer, and audition the Tempest. I like what it does; if you do too, buy it and forget it. What else would you spend $1895 on? Enjoy the glow of the tubes, but more importantly, enjoy the music.
It may or may not become your main source of reproduced music. To paraphrase Prospero, "But this rough magic I here abjure: and, when I have required some heavenly music...", I'll still put on an LP!