California Audio Labs CL-20 CD/DVD Player
by Marc Mickelson
Advent is nearly upon us. No, Im not talking about the end of the millennium -- or the world -- but rather the soon-to-be-available next digital audio format. October seems to be the month as both Sony and Panasonic have announced that new digital disc players will be released in October, SACD for Sony and DVD-Audio for Panasonic. Of course, the new players will also spin CDs, and its a good thing because it will be a while before new music of any great interest and quantity will appear in either new format.
That is, either SACD or DVD-A formats. High-sampling- and -bit-rate digital software has been available for over a year, and so has the hardware to play it. Two of the first DVD players aimed at audiophiles were the California Audio Labs CL-20 and CL-25, which are identical except for the inclusion of RGB video outputs on the CL-25 and its higher price: $2995 versus $2495 for the CL-20. Both use 20-bit Burr-Brown PCM1702 DACs and a Panasonic DVD mechanism, and they can play CDs, HDCDs, video DVDs and DADs/SADs from Classic Records and Chesky, but not SACDs or DVD-Audio discs. Both have 24/96 digital outputs (coax and AES/EBU) that are non-functioning due to the DVD licensing agreement that CAL adheres to, but they can be user-enabled with a key sequence on the remote control if the licensing restrictions are lifted. The CL-20 has been formally reviewed in SoundStage! by Dave Duvall, while Doug Blackburns review of the CL-25 is in the works.
So why write about the CL-20 again? Because the DVD format for audio is significant -- no matter what comes down the pike. In fact, DVD-Audio players, when they are available, will play the 24/96 discs you can buy now, so any current DVD-based music software will certainly have a future. But the present is what matters, and in this regard, the CL-20 is a notable value for its high-quality sound with CDs, HDCDs and DVDs -- both music and movies -- making it one of the few players that can make use of every commercial digital-disc format thats currently available.
As a CD player, the CL-20 is very good. It has a recognizable sonic signature that, Im convinced, will please some listeners to no end. It is a very amiable-sounding CD player, with delicate, even tube-like highs and a small emphasis in the midbass that enhances percussive music, especially rock. The CL-20s perspective is slightly forward, but combined with its friendly treble, this gives music a tangible presence thats very appealing. Its soundstage is more enveloping than see-through, leading some more voluptuous discs to sound a tad thick, and it is not the last word in resolution. Used as a transport, the CL-20 is just so-so -- sweet and friendly, but also veiled and uninvolving to my ears. But no matter -- the CL-20 is a very fine CD player, one I could happily live with.
However, as a DVD player, the CL-20 is a knockout.The handful of music DVDs that I have are only a fraction of the titles available -- good titles too -- and they exhibit a few things that are unique to digital playback. First, the sense of space from DVDs is much more acute. The soundstage of the discs Ive heard opens up because theres seemingly more air there -- more singularity to the performers and the space between them too. Classics DVD of Terry Evans Blues for Thought [Classic DAD 1014] is a very spacious recording on CD, but its even more so on DVD. The soundstage of the DVD spreads right to left and front to back with greater acuity than it does on even the fine-sounding CD, casting an airy and highly layered wall of sound. The CD has never sounded as good.
At least as significant as the increased space and air is the CL-20s ability with 24/96 DVDs to sound completely composed in the upper midrange/lower treble, where CDs tend to have their biggest problems. The ease and non-digital nature of Cannonball Adderleys Somethin Else [Classic DAD 1022] on DVD is nothing short of astonishing. When the brass kicks in, the bite is there, but its not the kind of digital bite that hits your ear with a beaming quality. Instead, it has a sense of greater volume; it projects and spreads into your listening room in a way that can only be termed as "like live music." Its easier to turn up the volume when playing 24/96 DVD software because the irritation factor is so low. Although the level of improvement between particular CDs and their DVD counterparts is not always of uniform significance -- some CDs are just mastered better than others -- the differences are recognizable and lead to better sound in every case.
But should you buy a CL-20 with DVD-Audio or SACD around the corner? If you want a high-end source for music and movies, the CL-20 is a great choice because of its sound quality, flexibility and price. At this point, the CL-20 along with 24/96 DVD software is the single most impressive source Ive heard in my system and has me excited about the future of digital audio. Given what Ive heard, 24/96 will allow -- perhaps even force -- manufacturers to design equipment differently, shooting for higher resolution and not having to play tricks that will make CDs sound better. CAL touts the modular design of the CL-20, so its at least possible that the player could be upgraded to decode DVD-Audio discs too.
But for the moment, the CAL CL-20 is at the top of the heap to my ears. Its a versatile piece of equipment that I can recommend to those who want to hear the best that digital audio has to offer now -- and perhaps in the future too.
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