California Audio Labs Tercet Mk.III CD player Page 2

Blandine Verlet's Hans Ruckers II harpsichord (track 7) never sounded better. The tonal balance was excellent, with no register calling attention to itself. The resonating capacity of the instrument is fully explored in this fiery performance, and the sound did not disappoint. Listening closely, I sensed the entire instrument vibrating from the floor up. Inner harmonics, hanging on their own cushions of air and well-separated from the fundamentals, were captured exquisitely, lending an often-missed depth to the music. The strings "buzzed" as they should (which, in this music, is most of the time).

The music of Louis Couperin came to life on the Tercet Mk.III, resulting in a totally enjoyable and involving musical experience. On track 8, Michel Chapuis's organ sings. Whoops! Let me rephrase that one: On track 8, the organ of the Basilique of St. Christofe at Belfort sings. Mr. Chapuis causes it to sing, and so did the Tercet Mk.III. In fact, I don't believe I'd ever heard as much music in this piece before. Inner voices only hinted at in past listening sessions came to life on the Tercet Mk.III, becoming vital elements in the performance of, and my appreciation of, the music. Low pedals were reproduced with weight, body, and pitch definition, offering a challenge to my Acoustats. My speakers met the challenge, and I was rewarded with some of the most coherent, focused low-bass I've heard. It swelled up like some giant tidal wave threatening to engulf all within its reach, surrounding my listening seat and leaving me, jaws askew, disbelieving what I was hearing. Marvelous!

On track 2 of Chet Baker's music from the film Let's Get Lost (Novus 3054-2-N), I felt I had opened a door into the recording studio, entered, and stood quietly in a corner, privy to all going on within. The sense of "presence" was outstanding, Chet's voice never sounding so seductive or, in retrospect, poignant. His singing is so intimate (and it's to the Tercet's credit this emotion is conveyed), it hurt the soul to listen. No nuance of the performance was missed, including a good deal of off-mike incidental (or coincidental) noise. Chet's trumpet on "Moon and Sand" sounded as good as I've heard, its brassy timbre captured perfectly. It had just the right amount of edge, cutting through the air like a hot knife through butter, yet never getting strident or harsh. John Leftwich's excellent bass is palpable throughout the album. The notes sound firm, full-bodied, and rich in texture.

The title cut from Enya's 1988 album Watermark (Geffen 9 24233-2) bathed this listener in lush, romantic, pastel-like sound. The soundstage width was limited only by my room boundaries—depth seemed to extend beyond the wall behind the speakers. The extreme low-bass notes beginning 56 seconds into the song had pitch definition (unusual on my Acoustat speakers, which often turn such material into amorphous "thuds"). The separation of instrumental and vocal forces was excellent—the ethereal choir, for instance, being set well behind the solo piano with the synth strings, clearly layered, washing around them. Neil Buckley's clarinet on track 3 sounded real; the woody timbre of that instrument was reproduced beautifully, with a palpable sense of air being blown through the body of the instrument. Davey Spillane's Uilleann pipes, heard in the left corner of the soundstage on track 11, had me squirming in my seat. This is crazed, untenable, yet beautiful music suited for a world which David Lynch could define. Enya's voice, despite the processing, sounds lovely on this recording. Sibilants are kept under control, and you can sense her lip movements as she sings the Gaelic lyrics. Her voice is angelic and pristine, yet a ripe character is perceived lying just beneath the surface. This perception was easily made listening to the Tercet Mk.III; not so on many other machines.

I sat listening to CD after CD, reluctant to get up and do something else. This degree of involvement I usually reserve only for LPs! The Tercet Mk.III bettered the Icon in every parameter by which I judge music reproduction, and came close to the Tempest II Special Edition in many ways, surpassing it in some—notably in the Tercet's ability to remove the last layers of "fog" surrounding the high frequencies. Regardless of the type of music played on the Tercet Mk.III, it was handled with ease and an overwhelming degree of involvement. The ability to render the sense of space and the recovery of the "air" in that space is a quality endemic to all CAL products. They seem unsurpassed at this. CAL products are also good at retrieval of fine detail without confusion. Details only hinted at on lesser players became viable elements in the ebb and flow of the musical experience on the Tercet Mk.III, no doubt contributing greatly to my emotional involvement. Spectral balance was excellent, as was the rendering of vocal and instrumental timbres. The texture of music became obvious on the Tercet Mk.III.

Absent was the homogenized character of the sound which has given digital reproduction such a bad name. Granted, bad CDs sounded terrible on the Tercet Mk.III. On the other hand, well-recorded performances caused me to suspend critical judgment and give myself over to the pleasures derived from participating in a special event. The Tercet Mk.III made such special events possible.

What can I say? I've admitted to being a devotee of analog recording and playback, yet I felt, listening to this CD player, no compelling desire to get up and turn them off and return to listening to records. That is, perhaps, the greatest compliment I can give. As to which is the better player, the Luxman or the CAL, I leave that decision to the reader, who must get out there and listen.

If I had to choose, and one of the privileges of a reviewer is that he/she doesn't always have to choose, I would go with the Tercet Mk.III. To me, it succeeded in not only capturing but conveying, often inexplicably, that elusive element of a musical experience—emotion. It's one thing to get all the "bits" read, quite another to transform those bits into an emotionally involving experience. I felt the CAL player did this to a greater degree than the Luxman. Both products excelled at capturing the ambience on a recording and, when the recording allowed, the creation of palpable images. Similarly, both players exhibited an uncanny ability to extract the subtlest low-level detail from a performance. Be it the movement of lips while enunciating a word, the brushing of a sleeve against the fingerboard in a guitar or lute recital, or the touch of the fingertips upon the keys of a piano or harpsichord, each CD player revealed these nuances free of the bane of surface noise or the other artifacts taken for granted, and usually tolerated, in analog reproduction (footnote 2).

Musical dynamics were handled with ease. From Bach to rock, the Tercet Mk.III allowed the music to speak, without being held back. One track from one of my favorite CDs might crystallize my listening impressions of these products. "My Funny Valentine," from the Fairytales CD (Odin CD-03), is an example of the perfect marriage between art and technology. The music is timeless, the performance spellbinding, and the recording exceptional. When Radka Toneff enunciates the word "mouth" 1:49 into the song, the Tercet Mk.III captures the second half of the word as it rolls off her tongue without a hint of coloration. The word positively blooms. The D-105u seems to color the rendering of the "tth" side of the word. The coloration is inhibiting, though, for it seems to me to separate, for a microsecond, the voice from the body of the singer, rendering her presence less one of flesh and blood and more like a recorded entity. This is the difference I'm trying to convey to you.

The gap between the "sound" of analog and the "sound" of digital is swiftly narrowing, as these products amply demonstrate. If you have $1200 or so to spend on a CD player, I don't see how you could go wrong in purchasing this player. If you're unsure about outboard processing and the extra fuss involved in its implementation (as I am), go with the CAL Tercet Mk.III. I feel confident in giving this CD player a strong Class B recommendation. It succeeds in suspending the arguments against digital reproduction in general and CDs in particular, allowing the listener to enjoy the music—which is, after all, the end goal of all this. Isn't it?

Footnote 2: As I listen to more and more of the latest generation of CD players, I find myself becoming less and less tolerant of these things. I shudder to think of the day when I'll no longer accept them and give myself over entirely to CDs. I'm sure I'll make record collectors happy if I ever decide to dispose of my collection!
California Audio Labs
Huntington Beach, CA 92641 (1991)
company no longer in existence (2020)

LinearTracker's picture

I had purchased one of these based on this review back in the day ☹️. Still spinning vinyl.

Ortofan's picture

... saved $400 and bought a Sony CDP-X55ES.

Or, for the analog disc aficionados, $1,300 would have bought a Pioneer PL-90 turntable, along with your choice of a Stanton 881S Mk II or an Audio-Technica AT-ML170 cartridge.