California Audio Labs CL-15 CD player Page 3

The superb dynamics were particularly evident on simple, live recordings like Steve Forbert's club disc, Be Here Now on Rolling Tide, an uncanny re-creation of a club performance and feel. With the CAL, Forbert's presence, and the electricity in the air around him, were spooky. I was tempted to go upstairs and down the hall to test the Holiday Inn effect! Another great example was Sister Hazel's live acoustic version of "All for You" from Collector's Edition, the Albuquerque version of the SBR/Salvation Army benefit CD. Just the simple sound of a pick strumming down the strings on an acoustic guitar was enough to catch my ear and establish that the CL-15 was doing something special. Even the dynamics of a solo piano, which are incredibly difficult to capture, were reproduced unusually well.

The CAL's performance was consistent across the frequency spectrum, with Ray Brown's bass and the triangle in Gayne Ballet Music being treated as well as Diana Krall's vocals. On the bottom there was excellent weight, pitch definition, and precision. At the high end, listening to Art Davis' "Evidence" again, I noted how the cymbals shimmered and filled the surrounding space, and particularly how well the CAL reproduced their slow decay at the very end of the piece.

The CL-15's overall tonal balance was just to the cool side of neutral. It sounded just a bit attenuated in the upper bass and lower midrange, and maybe slightly tipped-up from the midrange through the lower treble. Female vocals seemed to have a little more presence than with some players, and there was a bit more emphasis on the head tones, as opposed to a sense of chest and body. There was a great sense of acoustic guitars' body and resonance, but a little less warmth and weight than with some players, or with my 1968 Martin. This tonal balance was certainly a very subtle coloration. Combined with the CAL's other characteristics—detail resolution, forward perspective and largish images, sharp transient attack—it contributed to a vivid, dynamic sound that was slightly forward and placed slightly more emphasis on impact and detail than on precision and coherence.

As a processor/preamp
The CL-15 is equipped with a volume control to facilitate its connection directly to a power amplifier. I've tried this with other players and achieved, at best, mixed results. When CAL's Bob Altenbern admitted that he preferred the sound of the CL-15 when run through a preamp, I wasn't optimistic.

I was pleasantly surprised, however; most of the sonic descriptions in the preceding section apply to the CL-15's performance as a processor/preamp as well. Dynamic transients weren't quite as precise or as powerful, nor was the resolution of fine detail quite as good. On the Dvorák Serenade in D Minor from Serenade (Stereophile STPH009-2), for example, inserting the Sonic Frontiers Line 3 made the recording feel more live. The background noises were more distinct, and there was a better sense of the original ambience. The images were more detailed and dimensional as well, and more specifically located on the stage. Dense mixes, like AC/DC's Back in Black (Atco 92418-2), were slightly more congested when the CAL was running straight in.

On the other hand, images themselves—not just the mix or soundstage—were denser and more solid with the CL-15 feeding the VAC directly. The piano notes on Krall's "Only Trust Your Heart" had more of a ring behind the initial transient, and seemed more tangible. Inserting a preamp resulted in a greater emphasis on transients and outlines, instead of filling in the notes and images. The overall tonal balance was a bit warmer when the CL-15 was used without a preamp, more closely matching what I hear at live performances. There also seemed to be more emphasis on instruments' fundamentals and lower harmonics. This was particularly evident on vocals and solo woodwinds, the oboes on Serenade being a good example of the latter.

There wasn't a huge difference in the CL-15's soundstage re-creation when it was used as a preamp/processor. Overall width and depth were pretty much the same. There was a slight reduction in image size and perhaps the perspective wasn't quite as forward, but the differences were very slight. Adding a preamp did, however, make the spacing between instruments and orchestral sections seem a little larger.

CAL has boosted the CL-15's capabilities further by adding a digital input. My first thought was, "You've already got a great CD player—why would you want a digital input?" In reality, there are lots of digital sources you might want to link to the CL-15's DACs and analog stages, not to mention its HDCD capability. Plus, it's another step away from needing a preamp. After spending time with Arcam's nifty MCD, I've been considering adding a multidisc changer to my system, for background music while working, reading, or exercising. With the CL-15, I could get an inexpensive changer and run its digital output into the CAL. Voil;ga! A great-sounding HDCD changer for what—$150?

I experimented a bit with the CL-15's digital input, using a Parasound CDP-1000 and Denon DVD-3000 as transports. In both cases, the performance was dramatically better than when using the units' analog outputs. Neither sounded quite as good as the CL-15 itself, but both sounded great, and more like the CL-15 than a CDP-1000 or DVD-3000.

Functionally, the CAL worked fine as a bare-bones processor/preamp. The digital switching worked perfectly, as did the digital volume control. I used a wide range of output levels and noticed no degradation in resolution. I would have preferred much finer gradations in the volume adjustment, however, and some sort of indicator of where the volume level was set. And it would sure be nice to have a balance control, and an indication of which digital source has been selected.

Preamp or no preamp, the CL-15's performance was excellent. Still, I preferred the system's sound with the Sonic Frontiers Line 3 in the system. The improved detail resolution and handling of dynamics, particularly microdynamics, made the performance seem more live, and resulted in a stronger musical and emotional connection. It wasn't a huge difference, however. With a lesser preamp or in another system, the scales might tip the other way. And if you're starting from scratch, I'm sure that the CL-15 run straight in will give you a lot better sound than you'll get by splitting the money between a player and a line stage. In any case, the CL-15's "Player/Processor" designation is certainly legitimate.

Bad news, caveats, and glitches
The good news is what you've read so far: I found the CAL CL-15 to be an outstanding performer. The bad news is that all the above reflects listening through the single-ended outputs, and that I wasn't at all happy with the sound through the balanced outputs. I did realize some of the benefits I associate with balanced operation—lowered noise floor, and a better sense of image size and inter-image space in the depth dimension—but the sound was also recessed and curiously "phasey."

I mention the anomaly for the sake of completeness, but I don't want to make a big deal out of it. I didn't have enough balanced equipment on hand to play as much mix'n'match as I would have liked, so I'm not certain where in the CAL/Sonic Frontiers match the problem might lie. Nor am I confident that everything was working perfectly with the balanced outputs. I'll reserve judgment and request the opportunity to do a Follow-Up in a future issue, after the unit has been pronounced fit, or perhaps with a second sample. If you're shopping in the meantime, I suggest that you audition the balanced-output option before springing for the extra $500.

The CL-15 is simple and intuitive in normal operation, and proved essentially bulletproof over the review period, though the front-panel Open/Close button seemed to get a bit flaky when I used the CL-15 without a preamp: Occasionally it would have to be pushed a couple of times, held in, or wiggled to get it to work. I suspected a system grounding problem, but swapping things around didn't seem to make a difference. Nor was the problem consistent. As soon as I'd write that it had "ceased to function and I needed to use the remote to get the drawer to open," I'd give it one last try and the drawer would slide open. A sure-fire way to get it to work was to tell Bonnie that it didn't. Unfailingly, she would walk over, lightly touch the button, and it would work perfectly.

Summing up
The California Audio Labs CL-15 is a great-sounding CD player that I would be delighted to have in my system. It does everything very well, and some things—detail resolution and handling of dynamic transients, for examples—superbly. It has a definite personality, however: big, dynamic, bold, and vivid. If you were to describe your listening preferences using expressions like "laid-back," "warm," "sweet," and "pristine," I'd suggest a good long listen before buying.

I'm less enamored with the balanced output option, but again, I suggest caution and reserve judgment for now. Similarly, the software option is a nice capability but not something I'd use in my current system. Both options can be retrofitted to existing units for the same price, however, so the solution is simple. If you're not sure about these options, don't check the boxes and keep your money in your pocket.

Bottom line: The CL-15 has a distinct personality, but its performance holds its own with the best of the competitors I've heard, which include great-sounding players like the Rega Planet, the Ultech UCD-100, and the Arcams. It's an excellent value at its base price of $1695, even as a fixed-level CD player. Throw in the gorgeous cosmetics, advanced engineering, HDCD decoding, and processor/preamp capability, and it seems like a steal.