California Audio Laboratories Aria Mk.III CD player

The face was different, but the look was familiar. It should have been. The $2395 Aria Mk.III is a close cousin to the Aria II that I'd hung around with for about two years. Same sense of style, same heart of tubes. CAL Audio apparently made it what it is today, from the ground up. They even designed its transport and transport-drive circuitry in-house (footnote 1). In a high-end world which has gone increasingly to separate digital processors, CAL has been, up till now, a conspicuous holdout. They've only recently introduced their first outboard converter, and have in the past argued in favor of the all-in-one player. Something about reduced jitter from all the timing circuits being under one roof.

But only if you properly isolate the digital and analog stages within the chassis. To accomplish that, CAL starts with star grounding, moves on to link the digital stages by means of glass fiber-optic cable, and uses separate transformers for the transport (and its associated circuitry), analog, and digital stages. These three transformers drive a total of 22 local supplies with discrete-circuit regulation. With the Aria Mk.III, CAL has stuck doggedly to multi-bit circuitry—18-bit D/A converters operating at an 8x rate, one per channel (footnote 2). To achieve good linearity, CAL hand-trims the four most significant bits of each converter.

The two tubes in the output stage of the Mk.III (6DJ8s, one per channel) are incorporated in a hybrid circuit with FET ICs. The tube stage is AC-coupled, the FET stages DC-coupled. The circuit is configured to provide the required output ultrasonic filtering without the use of complex ladder circuits.

The Mk.III has all of the usual programming functions—including random play (one of the few features accessible only from the remote), which is exactly what it sounds like—playback of the disc tracks in totally random order. Just the thing, I suppose, to freshen up an album you've grown bored with—play "what's the name of the next tune?" And a number of features are available to maximize the efficiency of dubbing your CDs onto cassettes. A rare feature is the incorporation of a pre-emphasis light—indicating discs which are made in that fashion (a rather small percentage). The Aria Mk.III does not come in stock form with a digital output. It's available as an option, however, at $95—either on initial purchase or any time in the future (a dealer can install it).

While the CAL Aria Mk.III had a less rich look and feel than either the Sony CDP-X77ES or the Philips LHH500 players I also review in this issue, it was well-built nonetheless, and was the only player on test with a rack-mount front panel. I didn't care for its drawer mechanism, which made a variety of not exactly confidence-inspiring noises. While the mechanism which a user sees and hears on inserting and removing a disc is merely a carrier, and is not involved in the actual play of the disc, it can still make an important positive or negative impression. The Aria III's front panel was subdued, yet at the same time a bit busy. If you lose the remote, however, you can still access most of its features, unlike the remote-dependent Sony and Philips.

The Inside Story
Looking through the top ventilation grid of the Aria III reveals a number of green lights inside the unit. These turn out to be LEDs used as voltage references. The first thing which strikes you as you remove the cover is, of course, the two tubes, each surrounded by damping rings. The single, large board within the player is extremely well made and takes up a good two-thirds of the internal space. There also appears to be another board beneath it, barely visible from the top. Two large and one smaller transformers are also visible, as are the two Burr-Brown D/A converter chips. The high parts quality on the main board is obvious—as is the relative lack of miniature electrolytic capacitors.

I did have two problems with the Aria Mk.III. One evening before a listening session, I discovered that one channel had failed and was putting out in excess of 7V DC! It seems that a couple of parts had gone out, including an output-stage IC. We had had a power failure a couple of weeks before and the Aria had been on—as had the rest of the equipment in the room. It had not been used in the interim. Had the power loss and subsequent possible turn-on surge caused the failure? We'll never know, of course, but nothing else in the listening room sustained any damage. A quick return to CAL for servicing brought the player back into operation.

The second problem was unrelated—although it was only noticed after the above servicing. On two discs played (out of several dozen), the Aria failed to "read" the table of contents subcode properly and would not play all of the bands on the discs. Attempting to eject the "malfunctioning" disc would then result in its continuing to spin as the drawer opened, until the friction of the drawer slowed it down (which took about a second). These discs caused no problems on other players.

"It's music." That, in any event, is what I wrote shortly after beginning my audition of the Aria Mk.III. I was captivated by its performance. It was not without fault, to be sure, but it caused listening sessions to extend longer than intended. And it was one of two players that seriously challenged the reference Esoteric P-2/D-2 combination. For this listener, the Aria Mk.III was a standout. It combined a striking three-dimensionality with a sense of tactile presence that brought good CDs alive in a way the other players here could not quite manage.

You want depth? The Mk.III will give you depth—at least on those CDs which provide it. Herbie Mann's recent Chesky release, Caminho de Casa (Chesky JD40), displayed a superb sense of layering through the Aria. Individual details on Paul Simon's latest album The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros. 26098-2) were solidly placed, front to back in the soundstage. But depth is, in my judgment, merely a subset of a more important characteristic—three-dimensionality; the sensation that voices and instruments are fully formed, fully rounded. Call it "bloom." Call it clarity. Whatever you choose to call it, it creates a feeling of involvement, of real musicians performing. Instrumental timbres are rich and natural. Ambience is warm and glowing. Armada (Virgin Classics VC 90722-2, reviewed in Vol.12 No.9), a superb collection of small-scale vocal and instrumental pieces from—as you might infer from the title—the time of the Spanish Armada, came very near to making my "top five" recordings in this issue. Through the Aria, it displayed all of the above characteristics, combined with a sensation of hearing the full resonance of the strings and their harmonic interplay in a way I did not experience with the other machines. Textures were grainless, with no hint of etching or artificiality. Yet there was all of the detail I could have desired.

Footnote 1: The transport mechanism and laser circuitry are made for CAL by Matsushita to CAL's design; only the castings are stock Matsushita parts. The remainder of the drive circuitry, as well as the rest of the player, are manufactured by CAL in California.

Footnote 2: Though their new Genesis player and System 1 digital processor use MASH conversion technology.