California Audio Labs CL-15 CD player Page 2

The computer interface is obviously a big advantage for inclusion in a multiroom installation. In a standard system, however, it's probably not a big factor. Once the novelty wears off, I can't imagine anyone preferring to mess with a computer instead of just using the remote. Similarly, listening to different configuration settings and optimizing for a particular system is a nice capability, but I had no quarrels with CAL's default settings.

Where the interface would come in handy, however, is in problematic listening rooms. In an asymmetric setting, the balance could be tuned with the PC and set as a default. In some high-gain systems, it also might be useful to set the default voltage output to a very low level, to prevent any nasty surprises if the power is cycled. This seems like a particularly good idea if the CL-15 is to be mated directly to an amplifier.

Over the course of three months I used the CL-15 in two rooms and with a wide range of associated gear. I didn't notice any unusual synergies or mismatches, but I did find the CAL to be unusually picky about the cable connecting it to a preamplifier. For example, it didn't work well at all with Kimber KCTG, which I've found to be a good match for most anything. With the CAL, the sound was edgy and a bit grainy, with over-contrasty edges. The effect was one of ragged discontinuity, as if the images had been ripped from the surrounding space. Nirvana S-L was at the other end of the spectrum: a beautiful match for the CL-15. The combination yielded a vivid, musical sound with a near-perfect balance of detail and continuity. Other cables I tried—MIT's MITerminator 2 and 5, Synergistic Research's Resolution and Designer's Reference, Nordost's Blue Heaven and SPM—were somewhere in between, but all sounded quite different with the CAL.

The bulk of my listening was with the CAL in a system consisting of Thiel CS2.3 speakers, a VAC Renaissance 70/70 amplifier, and a Sonic Frontiers Line 3 preamp (although the CAL is feeding the VAC directly at the moment). Cabling was Nirvana S-L throughout. Bright Star Big Rocks supported the Line 3 and VAC, a Little Rock sat atop the CL-15, and VPI bricks were used above the transformers in the Line 3's power supplies. The CAL sat on a StandDesign Stand 5 equipment rack and received AC through a Nirvana isolation transformer (as did all of my digital components). CDs were treated with Nordost ECO3 (label side) and Music Fidelity DiscSolution (data side) prior to playing. The system was set up in my larger listening room, which uses home-brew panel resonators and room-treatment products from Echo Busters. CD players from Ultech (UCD-100), Arcam (MCD), Parasound (PCD-1000), Marantz (CD63SE), and CAL's own DX-2 were on hand for comparison.

As a CD player
I did most of my listening using the CL-15 as a standard, fixed-output CD player. One old favorite that I use to test a player's resolution of inner detail is Diana Krall's Only Trust Your Heart (GRP GRD-9810). I cued up the title track and sat back. The CL-15 did superbly. The vocals in particular sounded superb, wonderfully vivid and "in-the-room" tangible. I could imagine Krall singing at her piano, her head tipped slightly and moving back and forth. At the end of the title track are a number of subtle vocal maneuvers that I'm always aware of, but with some players, they just sort of happen. The CAL had me frozen in my seat, stunned by the delicacy of the inflections, and the seamlessness with which they were integrated into the overall image of Krall's voice.

The saxophone on the opening track, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?," was another great example. The CAL perfectly captured not only the tone, but the breathy sense of air whooshing through the instrument, and the quick deflection of the airflow when a valve opened or closed. When Stanley Turrentine bent and tore off the end of a note, I caught myself grinning at how right it sounded: simultaneously powerful and delicate, all the detail beautifully integrated into a seamless portrait.

Most players sound pretty good on "Only Trust Your Heart," but the CAL's resolution of details also benefited less-well-recorded discs. On the Jeff Healey Band's Cover to Cover CD (Arista 07822-18770), "Stuck in the Middle with You" and "Angel" are great cuts, but the sound is edgy and congealed. The CL-15 didn't turn it into a Diana Krall CD, but the improved detail did help sort out the mix and give the instruments more distinct identities. Granted, I haven't had the exposure to top CD players that some of my colleagues have, so I can't talk about "the best"; but the CL-15's reproduction of inner and low-level detail absolutely blew me away.

I was also more aware of ambience and background details whenever the CL-15 was in the system—not in a distracting or exaggerated way, but in a way that added natural energy and life. There was a little more of the electricity you feel at a live performance. The first time I heard "Evidence," from Art Davis' A Time Remembered (Jazz Planet 4001-2), on the CAL, I was stunned by the amount and clarity of the ambient noise. I switched to the Ultech UCD-100 and, yes, the background sounds were there. They weren't nearly as distinct, however, nor as integral a part of the sonic environment. Instead of adding to the live feel by placing everything in a living, breathing studio environment, the ambient sounds seemed more like canned noise superimposed on top of the recording.

The CAL also did a great job of re-creating larger acoustic environments, and of creating a soundstage that was wide, deep, and seamless. There was a believable sense of the hall on the Dorati/London reading of Khachaturian's Gayaneh Ballet Music (Mercury 434 323-2), and of the instruments' locations. On "Dance of the Rose Maidens," the violins established the left front of the stage as straddling the left speaker, and it was easy to gauge the distance to the side wall by their echo. Ditto for the trumpets and horns at the stage rear, and the wall behind them. About midway through the piece the string sections pluck their way down the scale from the first violins to the cellos and double basses. As each section chimed in, their positions on the stage were clearly established on an arc, and as the notes propagated outward, the overtones merged to fill and define the space above the orchestra.

Another of the CL-15's dominant characteristics was its somewhat forward perspective. The front of the soundstage was projected slightly forward of the plane of the speakers. With most players I've heard, the soundstage begins at or just behind the speakers, and with some—the Ultech UCD-100, for example—even farther back. The CAL's perspective wasn't associated with a change in front-to-back depth or spacing between instruments, just a shift forward. The CL-15's images were a bit larger than life, however, or at least larger than the images created by most other players I've heard.

I'm convinced that sharp dynamic transients are one of the main things our brains use to distinguish between live and recorded music. These transients can, in the first couple of notes, tell us that the sound coming from the hotel bar—even from down the hall and around the corner—is a live band. The CAL didn't turn my listening room into the local Holiday Inn, but its reproduction of dynamic transients was extraordinary. On "Dance of the Rose Maidens," the leading edges of the instruments—the xylophone, the triangle, even the muted trumpets—were so sharp and precise that the notes actually did seem to dance. The vibes on Miles Davis' Bags' Groove (JVC XRCD-004602), and the drum set on Art Davis' "Evidence," were two more examples in which the dynamic transients contributed significantly to the spatial perception of an image. And it's not just that the speed and precision of the transients were unusual—the CAL's dynamic swings actually seemed to be larger than other players'. The ebb and flow of the strings as they swelled and receded in the Khachaturian piece was a good example—they were almost disconcerting in their power and urgency.

California Audio Labs
no longer trading (2007)