C.E.C. TL 1 CD transport Page 2
Other instruments benefited from the TL 1's gorgeous midrange liquidity. On the Rob Wasserman Duets CD (MCA MCAD 42131), Jennifer Warnes's voice was sweet and delicate, with a bloom that was nothing short of stunning. The TL 1's lush liquidity reminded me of the VTL 225 monoblock tube amplifiers I prize so highly. Those amplifiers—and the TL 1—have a delicious midrange bloom that must be heard to be believed.
The TL 1's treble presentation perfectly complemented the midrange delicacy. High frequencies were similarly soft, sweet, and laid-back. In fact, the TL 1 had the softest treble of any transport I've auditioned. Rather than being forward, immediate, and present, the TL 1's treble was gentle and less likely to call attention to itself. Cymbals were set farther back in the soundstage, and had more brassy sheen and less sizzle than with other transports.
These characteristics made the TL 1 more forgiving of source imperfections than the other transports under comparison. Discs with a forward presentation, hard textures, and an overly bright treble greatly benefited from the TL 1's softer focus. The too-forward cymbals on Return to Forever's Light as a Feather (Polydor 827 148-2), for example, were better portrayed by the TL 1's softer rendering. These characteristics made the TL 1 an excellent match with the somewhat forward Thiel CS3.6.
Although the presentations of the No.31 and the Proceed PDT 3 were polite and refined, the TL 1 was even more laid-back, gentle, and sweet. Consequently, I felt the TL 1 had a greater sense of ease than the No.31. The TL 1's smoothness, however, came at a small penalty in detail resolution. Both the No.31 and PDT 3 resolved more musical information. The snare drum at the soundstage rear in the opening track of Trittico (Reference Recordings RR-52CD) was slightly blurred when played on the TL 1 compared to the No.31's rendering. The No.31 portrayed the instrument with more detail and with a greater ability to hear the individual snares vibrating beneath the drum. The No.31 had more snap, vibrancy, and immediacy, all a result of its better resolution of fine detail. Incidentally, the brass section on this recording, which enters just after the passage described, dramatically illustrated the very different musical presentations projected by the No.31 and TL 1. The No.31 reproduced brass instruments with a slight upper-midrange edge not heard on the TL 1. The TL 1 was softer, more diffuse, and lacked any trace of glare. One perspective would say that the No.31 resolved more information in the recording. Another would contend that the TL 1 was more musical.
The TL 1's soundstaging was excellent, but not to the standard set by the No.31. The No.31—and the PDT 3—had greater transparency, depth, and image focus than the TL 1. By comparison, the TL 1 was less incisive and delineated—almost like a soft-focus filter on a camera. Where the No.31 and PDT 3 had precise and tightly defined image outlines, the TL 1 tended to be a bit more diffuse. The contrast between light and dark was greater through the Madrigal transports.
The TL 1's overall spatial perspective was unlike that of any other transport I've auditioned. The music was set back in the soundstage, with more space between the soundstage front and the listener. This slightly distant character combined synergistically with the TL 1's excellent portrayal of space to produce a stunning sense of depth. By throwing the soundstage slightly behind rather than in front of the loudspeakers, the TL 1 gave the impression of a vast expanse of space on certain recordings.
Keith Johnson's superb recordings on Reference—Three-Way Mirror (RR-24CD), The Oxnard Sessions, Volume One (RR-37CD), and Trittico—were presented with a wealth of spatial information that made the rear third of my listening room disappear, replaced by the recorded acoustic. There was also a terrific sense of air and space surrounding instrumental and vocal images. I felt, however, that the TL 1 didn't resolve quite as many layers of front-to-rear information as did the No.31. The TL 1 was certainly holographic, but the No.31 seemed to have finer gradations of depth between the soundstage front and rear.
The TL 1's bass also differed greatly from those of the PDT 3 and No.31; both Madrigal products had tighter, better-defined bass presentations. The TL 1 was slower, fatter, rounder, and had less pitch definition. The belt-drive unit lacked the ironfisted control and tautness that characterize the Madrigal transports. Moreover, the TL 1 didn't have their precise articulation and detail in the bass. Low frequencies tended to be a little blurred rather than finely resolved. There was a greater sense of weight from the TL 1, but at the expense of bass resolution. The TL 1's bass presentation could be compared to a slightly underdamped loudspeaker—a little slow and fat, but full-bodied and weighty.
Similarly, the TL 1's dynamics were not in the same league as those of the No.31 or PDT 3. The TL 1 just didn't have the sense of slam, punch, or impact as the two Madrigal transports. This is my biggest criticism of the TL 1. Music had less rhythmic energy through the TL 1. On the Robben Ford CD Talk to Your Daughter (Warner Bros. 25647-2), the drive of the bass guitar and kick drum didn't produce the same groove from the TL 1 as from the No.31 or PDT 3. Another rhythmically intense recording, Bill Bruford's One of a Kind (E'G EGCD 40), exhibited a similar lessening of rhythmic power through the TL 1. The music was just a little slower and less compelling. I felt a greater urge to tap my foot with the PDT 3 and No.31, a factor that by itself made those the transports of choice with most music.
Finally, I must point out that the TL 1's strengths and weakness are specific to certain types of music. Music in which instrumental timbre is of utmost importance—such as classical music—was best served by the TL 1's uniquely liquid presentation. Music with drive, impact, and rhythmic power was better portrayed by the No.31 and, to a lesser extent, by the PDT 3 (footnote 3).
The C.E.C. TL 1 is unquestionably a remarkable transport. Its smoothness, ease, and liquidity set a new standard in digital playback. Midrange textures in particular are rendered with a lushness that I find immensely involving. There is no trace of glare or grain, something I greatly value. In these areas, the TL 1 surpasses the performance of even the Mark Levinson No.31 transport.
On the debit side, the TL 1's bass is slower and not as well defined as those of the reference No.31 or Proceed PDT 3. The C.E.C. is less dynamic, taut, and powerful in relation to these two other excellent transports, the result being less rhythmic involvement in the music. Finally, the TL 1 doesn't quite match the No.31 or (to a lesser extent) the Proceed PDT 3 in transparency and resolution of detail.
How much one likes the TL 1's presentation will be highly dependent on musical taste and the characteristics of the rest of the playback system. Some listeners will be unable to live without the TL 1's analog-like ease; others will prefer a transport with more dynamic contrast and better bass definition. If the No.31 and PDT 3 are like excellent solid-state power amplifiers, the TL 1 is the digital equivalent of a classic tube design—more forgiving of source imperfections, sweet at the expense of some resolution, and a little fat in the bass. A careful audition, preferably in your own system, is mandatory before buying.
I must reiterate my praise for the TL 1's superb build, stunning cosmetics, and beautiful operation. The top-loading mechanism, heavy clamp, and sliding glass door provide a tactile dimension to CD playback.
All things considered, I can enthusiastically recommend the C.E.C. TL 1. It is not only an eminently musical transport, but also a gorgeous—and innovative—piece of audio electronics.
Footnote 3: The TL 1's tracking and error-correction abilities were only fair. It played track 32 on the Pierre Verany Test CD, but skipped on track 33.—Robert Harley