California Audio Labs Tempest II CD player

Snickering was heard from the major consumer electronics purveyors when California Audio Labs came out with the original Tempest, their first CD player using tube output stages. But not from the audiophile community. It was, all things considered, an inevitable product; I'm certainly not the only one who wondered—before the emergence of California Audio Labs—who would be the first to build such a unit. The obvious candidates were Audio Research or Conrad-Johnson. But those companies apparently read the audio tea-leaves and, perhaps perceiving the early high-end hostility toward the new format, apparently decided to bide their time. (With regards to tube players, they're still biding it, though C-J has had a prototype player up and running for some time.)

666caltemt2.jpgAs a new company, however, California Audio Labs had nothing to lose by embracing the new technology. They managed to catch the bow-wave of audiophile-oriented modification and rebuilding of Philips/Magnavox CD players, carving out a niche for themselves as one of the leaders in high-end compact disc technology. For those who consider that to be a contradiction in terms, be assured that CAL would not agree. Neither, apparently, do several other companies with solid high-end credentials. Like it or not, the handwriting is on the wall, and despite a strong contingent which holds that the very best sound reproduction still comes from good old analog LP (an opinion I definitely share), more and more manufacturers are jumping into the first-class section of the CD bandwagon, Krell Digital (a spinoff from Krell) and Spectral being the most recent additions.

The new Tempest II is a complete redesign of the original. Still based roughly on the latest Philips/Magnavox players, it is now a two-chassis unit. The main chassis houses the transport, controls, all analog and digital stages, the power supplies for the transport and DACs, and transformers for these supplies. The other case holds the major power supply, or supplies—there are 17 of them in the Tempest II. Those driven by the main, very large power transformer are in this secondary chassis (footnote 1). EMI filtration is also provided to minimize garbage from the power line. The power supply is solid-state; there are no tubes in this second chassis, and as it generates little warmth, ventilation should not be a problem. CAL does not, however, recommend stacking the player atop the power supply, claiming possible sonic degradation. I maintained more than the recommended 6" spacing throughout my evaluation. The two chassis are connected by a heavy, multi-pin umbilical. Care should be taken in making this hookup; there are alignment tabs on the connectors, but they're not immediately obvious. The stiffness of this cable, combined with the deep connectors, means that you should plan to allow an additional 2–3" to the rear of both player and power supply for clearance.

Inside the main player case are the six 6DJ8 tubes used for both the analog output stages and for current-to-voltage conversion coming out of the DACs. The digital circuits themselves are not simply stock Philips circuits, but the result of considerable work by CAL's own design team. The analog stages are DC-coupled using servo circuits; there are no capacitors in the signal path. And last, but perhaps not least, the chassis are all-aluminum (nonferrous).

One factor of concern with tube circuits is tube life. CAL states that the tubes in the Tempest II are used at 30-40% of their rated capacity. They consider a one-hour warmup sufficient, however, and do not recommend leaving the unit on at all times. I followed that advice after the initial break-in period; CAL advises that a new player, out of the box, will not sound its best until 15-20 hours of actual use—playing a disc, not just warmup—despite the fact that they do an extensive factory burn-in on each unit. I have no idea why this should be so, but followed their advice, setting the player for repeat play in two separate break-in sessions, totaling over 20 hours. No, I did not listen to the player during those sessions. Once the break-in is complete, shutting the unit off apparently does not require a new break-in. Fortunately. Otherwise you'd never be able to actually listen to it unless you did leave it on all the time.

The Tempest II has all the features of top-grade Philips/Magnavox players, including the new loading drawer. This mechanism feels comfortably slick and solid, if not as fast on intake and outgo as the current crop of Japanese machines. I did encounter a minor problem with the operation of this drawer, which appeared to be a function of the drawer itself, perhaps combined with CAL's front-panel design. Occasionally, not often but enough to be disturbing—four or five times in two weeks—this drawer would try to "eat" one of my CDs. That is, instead of ejecting cleanly, the CD would become wedged between the top rear of the drawer and the front panel, requiring mechanical fiddling to remove it. The player scuffed a few CDs on doing this, though they remained playable. This happened once with the new Audio Concepts/MSB machine, but occurred a number of times with the Tempest II.

It may have been a sample defect, but the fact that it occurred at least once in a different machine with the same mechanism indicates at least the possibility that it might be something other than an isolated flaw. As a footnote on this subject, Philips makes a more robust, and perhaps better, transport mechanism, used in their CD-960 (a $1000 player marketed under their own name) and in the Marantz CD-94. A player the price of the Tempest deserves this better transport, although it's possible that it's not available to manufacturers outside the Philips/Marantz corporate fold.

Footnote 1: There may be 17 "separate" supplies, but they are not totally independent in that most of them are driven from separate secondaries on the main transformer. Admittedly, 17 separate transformers would be impractical in a consumer product, and probably of dubious benefit.

Footnote 2: Teeny tiny sopranos.