California Audio Labs CL-15 CD player Just for Fun: A Format Comparison

Sidebar 1: Just for Fun: A Format Comparison

Like a lot of folks, I've adopted a "wait and see" attitude toward the emerging digital formats. On one hand, I've got a two-turntable, 10,000-LP commitment to analog. On the other hand, I've been mightily impressed by the initial 24/96 releases, and by demos of Meridian's Lossless Packing and Sony's DSD. In between, there are great-sounding CDs and players like the CAL CL-15. Until it gets sorted out, my strategy is to hunker down with my records and reasonably priced CD and DVD players.

As I was listening to the CL-15, I found myself thinking about how great it sounded in the system. I got to wondering how its sound might compare to an LP or high-bit-rate disc, and then it dawned on me—I had the gear and software, so why not compare the three formats? For analog, I used a VPI TNT IV, JMW Memorial tonearm, and Benz-Micro L04 cartridge, running through a Sonic Frontiers Phono 1 phono stage. The CL-15 and Denon DVD-3000 DVD/CD player covered the CD and 24/96 DAD digital formats. The software I used was Classic Records' LP (S 1206), CD (16/44.1 Sampler), and 24/96 DVD (DAD 1003) versions of Red Rodney's 1957, specifically "Stella By Starlight."

I started with the CD. 1957 is a good, not a great-sounding CD, but I love the music, and the CAL's virtues were immediately apparent. The sound was very dynamic and had a good sense of pace and drive. The images were detailed and well defined, and there was a moderate sense of air around the instruments, if no real soundstage per se. On the downside, Tommy Flanagan's piano was noticeably recessed and the drums lacked power, and the cymbals sounded a little ragged and somewhat incoherent. All in all, though, an enjoyable, musically engaging performance.

Next up was the DAD, which was a real eye-opener. There were some of the characteristics I associate with mass-market gear—a threadbare harmonic structure and electronic glaze—but overall, the sound was stunning. The trumpet was much more vivid and detailed on the DAD, and had far more impact. Musical and technique subtleties were much more apparent and captivating, and images went from 2D to 3D. The trumpet and sax had noticeably more depth and body, and popped out realistically from the background. The piano was still muted but seemed to come alive. Instead of just notes, there were inner detail, changes in dynamics, and distinct hammer strikes. The hashy cymbal was gone, replaced with a shimmering golden halo that seemed to fill the air around it and go on forever. The pace and drive were improved over even the CD's excellent performance, and the sound was sweeter, and completely grain-free. Wow!

Finally, I cued up the LP version on about $12,000 worth of analog front-end—after dutifully adjusting the turntable's level, tweaking the stylus pressure and scrubbing its tip, and double-cleaning the disc itself, first with the Disc Doctor's system, followed by a scrub and rinse with the VPI 16.5. Was it worth it? If the goal is the ultimate in musical enjoyment, then, in a word, yes. The first time Joe Jones hit one of his toms, the differences were obvious. There was a harmonic "rightness" that surpassed even the DAD, a mix of dynamics and pitches that sounded like a drum instead of an electromechanical illusion. The sax and trumpet, too, had an additional level of subtle detail, and a wonderful, liquid coherence that extended throughout the soundstage. The DAD had me tapping my feet; the LP had me swaying with my eyes closed, totally immersed in the music.

Across the board, however, the LP wasn't quite as sharply focused as the DAD or, in some cases, the CD. Nor could the LP match the DAD at the frequency extremes. On top, the LP's cymbals had a bit more of the fundamental ring than the DAD, but the extension and air weren't as great. With the DAD, the bass was more precise as well, with the notes' leading edges much clearer, and adding to the piece's drive and pace. The LP had more absolute weight on the bottom than either the DAD or CD, and a warmer tonal balance. The music had drive and urgency with the digital discs, but with the LP, it created a warm cocoon that enveloped me and pulled me along.

In the final analysis, all three formats were enjoyable. The CAL CL-15 is a superb player that made the most of the 16/44.1 standard. The DAD format is a big improvement—especially in just the sort of subtleties that define high-end performance—and highlights the current standard's limitations. That I was listening to an $899 mass-market player makes the format-based improvements all the more impressive, and makes me wonder how good the first generation of high-end DVD systems might be.

If you can bear the expense and extra work, LPs are still the way to go, no doubt about it. Even though there are a few specific areas where they excel, the digital formats—at present, in my system, and based on my limited experience with one DVD player—don't make quite as direct a musical connection as the vinyl. Don't expect me to sell my turntables and vinyl anytime soon.

The 24/96 discs do close the gap, however. And with CD players like the CAL CL-15 and the super-sounding CDs coming out of places like Mobile Fidelity, John Marks Records, and JVC xrcd, the standard 16/44.1 format can sound awfully good.

It's an exciting time. I'm glad I've got all three bases covered, and I can't wait to see how it all evolves.—Brian Damkroger

California Audio Labs
no longer trading (2007)