California Audio Laboratories Aria Mk.III CD player Page 2

And voices! I make no secret of the fact that I consider vocal reproduction of paramount importance (footnore 3). A heavy percentage of my listening is done to vocal music of one sort or another. And while the Aria Mk.III was not the only player in this group to present the human voice in a convincing fashion, it managed, somehow, to reproduce it with a combination of natural warmth and tactile presence which wasn't quite matched by the others. Eileen Farrell Sings Harold Arlen (Reference Recordings RR-30CD) is not, in many ways, my favorite vocal recording. But over the Aria Mk.III it certainly sounded real—flesh and blood, not "reproduced." No "film at 11" here; you're on the scene. The long muted-trumpet introduction to band 7 of this disc, "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe," was reproduced with the same sense of visceral reality.

But while the CAL is glorious through the midband, it does have limitations at both ends of the audible range. Some of you will simply not like its bass. I wasn't particularly taken by it, but I can tolerate the lack of hair-trigger low-end response if given sufficient midrange magic in compensation to grab and hold my attention. The bottom two or three octaves in the Aria Mk.III's response are strong and deep, but noticeably soft. That characteristic bloom of the midrange continues on down into the bass, where it's a mixed blessing. Within the limitations of the Apogee Stages—limitations which must be taken into account (the Stages have a powerful, sometimes striking low end, but do not extend into subwoofer territory and have a definite, high-Q (sharp) peak around 40–50Hz)—the Aria Mk.III was outpointed by all the other players I review this month in LF tightness, balance, and detail.

I emphasize that, for me, this did not detract from the CAL's strengths to a major degree. But I seldom listen to music having a continuous, strong bass-line, and the occasional overripe bass "whomp" does not greatly bother me—if balanced out by major strengths elsewhere. The low-end "expansiveness" of the Mk.III only occasionally intruded into the lower end of guitar and male voice—two "instruments" that are important to me—to lend a bit too much warmth and fullness. I dwell on the low end of the Aria not because I was particularly put off by it, but because I suspect some readers will be.

In the top octaves, the CAL displayed no lack of detail and "quickness," but it was just slightly softened at the very top, and shaded toward brightness in the lower treble—not at all unlike the character of much other equipment incorporating tubes. And though I sensed a very slight loss of air and delicacy at the top, the lack of grain and lively, open quality of the Mk.III's upper end more than compensated.

Esoteric Comparisons
I've already mentioned that the Aria provided fierce competition for the reference Esoteric P-2/D-2 transport/processor combination—at less than a third the price. In no way could the Aria compete in apparent build quality and finish, of course, but our concern here is with the sonic comparison. On Armada, reproduction from the Aria was richer, sweeter, slightly more "present." The Esoteric combination (which hereafter will be referred to simply as the Esoteric) was a bit thinner, with individual instruments and voices appearing to be somewhat more two-dimensional (footnote 4). But the Esoteric did have an airier and more delicately rendered extreme top end. The CAL had the more moving presentation, primarily because of its lively and more fluid, liquid sound. Both players reproduced equally convincing soundstages.

On a number of vocal recordings the Esoteric actually bettered the CAL. Not because it was more alive or real-sounding, but because it was better able to handle high-level peaks without glare or edge. On both the Eileen Farrell recording and on Tuck and Patti's Tears of Joy (Windham Hill Jazz WD-0111), the Esoteric displayed an ease at high levels which the Aria III could not quite match.

On The Rhythm of the Saints the Esoteric demonstrated a firm grip on the low end and fine, precise detailing through the mids and highs. While the Esoteric was marginally better at reproducing the overall soundstage here, individual details through the Aria were better separated in space, less homogenized into the overall sonic fabric. I was impressed by the Esoteric's precision and ease, but captivated by the Aria's ability to draw the listener in—at least this one.

Willow (Virgin 7 90939-2) is not exactly James Horner's most hummable soundtrack, and while it is no Rite of Spring, it shares the latter's barbaric intensity and adds its own cinematic twist. Over the Aria Mk.III it was stunning. Only in the low end was it clearly bettered by the Esoteric—the CAL tending toward the overripe on the bass percussive dynamics that heavily punctuate this work. To a lesser degree, the lower treble could also occasionally come on a bit too strongly with the CAL. But the latter had the better overall dynamics, conveying a sense of excitement and immediacy which the more laid-back Esoteric could not match. In depth reproduction, the CAL had the upper hand—though that was not consistently the case on all recordings. The Aria, while somehow less refined, overall, than the Esoteric (most especially at the frequency extremes), simply made this work more involving in a way that the more expensive player did not.

I admit that I vacillated between preferring the Esoteric or the Aria Mk.III on various recordings more than I did on any player reviewed this month save, perhaps, the Sony CDP-X77ES. In the end, I had to admit that the Esoteric was smoother, more refined, and overall the more accurate player. But I found the CAL to be a powerful draw. If it had a slightly tauter low end and a shade more top-octave "air" it would clearly, in my judgment, embarrass most high-ticket processors and transports. And while its low-end character may turn off some listeners, for me the Aria Mk.III provides more of those things I like in analog, and less of those things I dislike in digital, than any of the other players in the present survey.

My top recommendation has to go to the CAL Aria Mk.III. It excels in reproduction of the midband—the vocal range in particular—and while it is not quite as striking at the frequency extremes, the overall balance of virtues ultimately won me over. I marginally preferred the Aria to the Sony overall on the basis of its lively, affecting clarity.

Footnote 3: And the Apogee Stages are, in my opinion, absolute knockouts at properly rendering the human voice.

Footnote 4: More two-dimensional is not the same thing as two-dimensional—which the Esoteric certainly is not.