California Audio Labs Tempest II CD player Page 2

My initial sample of the Tempest emitted a loud mechanical buzz, which turned out to originate in one of the transformers on the main chassis. It also sounded off with a loud thumping noise when playing a disc. A return to CAL resulted in a quick fix to the transformer; they never could find what caused the transport noise. In any event, elves must have repaired it en route; the noise has not recurred.

Sound Quality
If a CD player can be said to define the standard in any particular area, the Tempest II certainly does that through the vital midrange. This is the heart of the musical spectrum, the frequency band we reviewers are constantly yammering about as the one which must be "right" before all the rest of the pieces fall into place. The Tempest gets this region closer to "right" than any other player in my experience. I haven't heard the Accuphase (either model) under controlled circumstances, and, as of this writing, the new Krells and the Spectral have yet to hit the market. But CAL is setting a formidable target in the midrange.

The human voice is the key here. Since more than half of my listening consists of music with vocalist—from pop to grand opera—you might presume, correctly, that I consider top-quality vocal reproduction to be crucial. Too often such reproduction fails to be convincing, and CD is not the sole offender. I have never, for example, been satisfied with opera via LP. Its problems begin with incipient mistracking (or worse, especially on sopranos in inner grooves, footnote 2), proceed to the inevitable intrusion of vinyl noise on pianissimos, and end with a flourish in the compression required even to approach engraving that Triumphal Scene on a lacquer. How often does a manufacturer choose to demonstrate at CES (or elsewhere) with an opera LP? Not often (footnote 3).

But CD has not proven a panacea, having its own set of problems—dryness, glare, and lack of warmth. With the Tempest II, however, CD reproduction of the human voice takes a big step in the right direction. The new CAL player doesn't cure the high-level glare problem; I'm beginning to feel that the major cause of this aberration lies somewhere between the microphones and the A/D conversion. This problem aside, the Tempest's reproduction of human voice can be stunningly impressive. It has a liquidity, a warmth and lushness (without the mushiness or lack of detail the latter might imply) which mimic the real thing. These qualities are enhanced by a believable dimensionality—the singer is a real person and not a cardboard cutout.

Shortly after acquiring the CD version of Joan Armatrading (A&M CD3228), I auditioned it through the Marantz CD-94 and concluded that it wasn't really very well recorded. On the Tempest II it sounded like a different recording. The vocal quality (most notably on "Down to Zero," recorded with a more natural, laid-back vocal perspective than the rest of the album) was superb, with a palpable three-dimensionality, liquidity, and absence of graininess. Michael Hedges' album Live on the Double Planet (Windham Hill WD-1066) has a bit of the artificial tinge which characterizes many Windham Hill efforts, but MH's voice through the CAL was tightly focused, with realistic body, openness, and resonance. And if you can listen to "La Vergine degli angeli" from Leontyne Price—Verdi Heroines (RCA RCD1) over the Tempest II without being moved (even a little, and even if you don't care for the operatic voice), you've departed the living.

The midrange is not exclusively reserved for the human voice, of course, so you might expect the CAL's midband qualities to carry over into its reproduction of other instruments and ensembles. You would not be mistaken. The burnished brass sonorities on The Ring Without Words (Telarc CD-80154, reviewed last issue) were ravishing. Good symphonic CDs, in general, were well served by the Tempest, with a warm, glowing quality which was a definite improvement from frequently dry, cool, detached CD sonics.

It's not possible, of course, to totally isolate the midrange from what goes on around it; it would not have been as convincing as it was from the Tempest if the bass and treble distracted in any way. They did not. But the top and bottom of the musical spectrum weren't quite up to the midrange's level of performance. At the high end, the CAL was consistently sweet, smooth, and fluid, but very subtly rolled or subdued at the extreme top. It did well at rendering musical lines which depend on flowing, unforced detail, lack of grain, and coherent, natural weight and sheen—which is why it did so well with voice and instrumental ensembles.

But it did less well at conveying subtle detail, especially that associated with air and ambience. Softly played instruments to the rear of the soundstage had less sense of "hall sound" than they did on players with a more open, sparkling HF. This had the effect of slightly reducing the ultimate sense of overall soundstage depth (as contrasted with reproduction of the three-dimensionality of individual instruments, at which the Tempest excelled). It was evident on a wide range of recordings. One of my favorite discs for demonstrating subtle detailing is the score from Aliens (Varese Sarabande VCD 47263). The high levels on this disc are not particularly well recorded, being a bit compressed and blarey, but the low levels are phenomenal and hair-raisingly eerie. "Sub Level 3" is particularly telling, the softly played instrumentals having superior ambience, air, and a pronounced sense of depth. Here, where matters of fine detailing and spatial cues are more significant than natural body, liquidity, and warmth, the Tempest II was marginally outpointed by the Audio Concepts/MSB Silver in a head-to-head comparison.

Similarly, at the low end, the Tempest II was strong, deep, and full. But it was short of the snap and ultimate impact of a good solid-state player—the aforementioned MSB. The difference seemed to be as much in upper-range transient response as in low-end extension. The sharp drum whacks on Kodo (Sheffield CD-KODO, band 2) had a snap and immediacy on the MSB that they lacked on the Tempest, even though the overall low-end weight on the two machines was comparable. In general, and on the majority of recordings I sampled, the leading-edge bass transients on the Tempest were softer than on the MSB. But I did find one example on which the Tempest excelled: the bass drum on Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky (Telarc CD-80143), apparently struck with a softer drumstick, was more accurately portrayed by the CAL player, where the character of the padded drumstick was more clearly evident. I have no ready explanation for this discrepancy, but it was the single exception I found. To be fair, the MSB has the best bass I have yet heard from a CD player (although I have not sampled the latest Sony machines).

Summing Up
If the Tempest II's reproduction of the ends of the spectrum falls slightly short of the best, that shortfall is not enough to detract from its overall performance. That exceptional midband, combined with very good performance (and lack of irritating characteristics) elsewhere, makes for highly rewarding CD reproduction, of the sort which just might convert some analog-forever holdouts. My only real reservation concerns the price of admission. Six months ago, in my initial CD-player survey, I wrote that we seemed to be on a plateau of CD development after four years of steady advances. I felt then that further improvements, though still needed, would come at a slower pace. I spoke too soon. We're now getting so-called "18-bit" machines, umpteen-times oversampling, and the beginnings of what could become a whole new subcategory of component—the outboard D/A converter designed for the user's choice of player. And, to repeat what I stated at the beginning, other high-end companies are coming out with (or feverishly working on) their own players.

In short, we continue to live in "interesting times" for CD, and the CD player remains the most technologically volatile of components. The Tempest II is a substantial investment, although since the manufacturer has promised to make updates available at a "reasonable" price, it's more an investment in a company than in a single CD player—an investment, if you will, in your confidence that California Audio Labs will continue to improve the machine and stay abreast of the state of the CD art. I don't believe such confidence would be misplaced, but only you, the reader, can make the final determination.

Footnote 3: Of course, it does tend to clear the room.