California Audio Labs DX-2 CD Player: And Digital for All
by Marc Mickelson
It appears that digital has finally arrived. By this I mean that although there are still a few naysayers (and there always will be), the CD is regarded as the primary music-delivery medium for high-end audio, with the DVD just waiting on deck. I still own a Sony CDP-101, which is the very first commercially produced CD player, and I don't want to go back to using it--its sound is as sterile as an operating room. But back in 1983 when I bought the player, it was hot, providing obvious increases in bass extension and dynamic range. Nowadays, most cheap CD players sound better than my first Sony and even give expensive digital separates a run for their money. Yes, digital has come of age--and it's only taken 15 years.
California Audio Labs is a veteran in the war for digital's honor. CAL manufactures a plethora of CD players and digital separates, including a novel "Multi-Disc Server" that plays up to six discs and interfaces with your home computer--PC only. It even has its own Windows 95 software package that lets you adjust the output level, program track information, and set the dither type of its internal digital filter. The DX-2 is considerably less cutting-edge; it's a standard single-disc unit with remote that sells for $649. It's currently the least-expensive CD player that CAL makes and in this regard is worth consideration for those who shun digital or have strict budgets.
The DX-2 is attractive, with a backlit LCD display and only a few buttons cluttering up its front panel. Of special note given the DX-2's price is the transport mechanism, which is custom-made for CAL, and the proprietary "Pure Beef" power supply with its own circuit board. The DX-2 uses 1-bit Delta-Sigma data conversion, 32x oversampling, and doesn't include HDCD circuitry. Its relatively low output voltage, 2.3 volts, makes it a borderline choice for use with a passive linestage, but a coaxial digital output is included to make the CAL DX-2 ready for connection to an external DAC. The remote control is intuitively laid out and includes buttons for opening the CD drawer and turning off the display--two of my favorite from-the-listening-chair features. All in all, the DX-2 is a nice visual and ergonomic package.
To get the full sonic measure of any piece of equipment that comes my way, I insert it in my reference rig: ProAc Response Four speakers, Lamm M1.1 monoblocks, Lamm L1 linestage, Timbre TT-1 DAC, Wadia 20 transport, all connected with JPS Labs' new Superconductor2 interconnects and NC Series speaker cables. However, I used the DX-2 primarily in my budget reference system, which has gone through a number changes as components come and go: Merlin TSM speakers on Osiris Audionics Osiris speaker stands; Meadowlark Kestrel speakers; Clayton Audio M-70, Mesa Baron, and Joule Electra VZN-80 Mk III amplifiers; Mesa Tigris integrated amp; and a Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III linestage. The only constant has been the interconnects and speaker cables: DH Labs Silver Sonic.
Like all classes of equipment, CD players come in a variety of sonic flavors--from hyper-resolving to soft and full-bodied with stops in between. If given my choice, I would want a CD player or set of digital separates that's more musical, in the classic high-end sense of the term, than clinically precise, although too much sonic sweetness can spoil the sound too. It's balance that counts, the sense that all of the music is present and accounted for but not overly forward or analytical, and the very best equipment proves this by never tipping its hand too far one way or the other.
Well, I'm happy to report that the DX-2 walks the fine line very well--better in fact than some very expensive digital gear that I've heard. No it's not the equal of my Timbre/Wadia combination, but it is similar in its ability to mine lots of detail without throwing it in your face. CDs played with the DX-2 sounded easy and refined, and I was especially pleased with the way it rendered many of the remastered classic jazz works that I own. Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth is both challenging and accessible, and the Impulse! remastered CD (Impulse! IMPD-154) sounded wonderful through the DX-2--with an especially wide soundstage and fine combination of grace and resolution. If it weren't for the reduced bass depth and impact of the original recording--both of these measured by today's standards--the remastered version of The Blues and the Abstract Truth would hardly be recognizable as a nearly 40-year-old recording. Certainly the fine 20-bit remastering is responsible for the sonic face lift, but both my reference digital rig and the CAL DX-2 deserve some credit too.
Tonally the DX-2 is very even, never sounding overly light or dark in either of my systems. While some listeners may find its lack of pizzazz boring, I found that it put the music at the center of things. In fact, the first night the DX-2 spent in my reference system turned into a CD orgy. Instead of playing disc after disc, though, I played a select handful through to the end, and then in some cases played a track or two over just to hear them again. This happened with Guy Clark's Dublin Blues (Asylum 61725-2) and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Endangered Species (Capricorn CXK 42028), a couple of not-so-old favorites that I've heard with too much equipment to mention. Although my Timbre/Wadia combination betters the DX-2 in essentially every way, and especially in the areas of image focus and bass extension, the DX-2 only made me care about the ways it deviated from the reference while I was reviewing it and not when I was enjoying the music. Ask yourself which of these activities, analyze or enjoy, you want to do in your free time and interpret my comments accordingly. Or better yet, I'll do it for you: Take the music, man.
The depth the DX-2 portrays in even familiar recordings is most welcome. Throughout Keith Richards' Main Offender (Virgin, V2-86499), the drumkit has a rear-of-the-hall perspective, and this is exactly where the DX-2 places it--waaaaay behind the speakers. While the Timbre TT-1 does the layering thing more realistically--on "Runnin' Too Deep" from Main Offender, the left-channel guitar is more immediate and "whole" through the Timbre--the DX-2 is more than credible in this regard, and even downright impressive when used along with the Merlin TSMs, which can resolve subtle nuances and large-scale effects with great dexterity.
I briefly used the DX-2 as a transport and was generally as impressed with it in this capacity as I was with its overall sound. However, although the DX-2 would make a good transport, why someone would want to use it as such is a mystery to me. It will certainly take a DAC that costs as much or more than $649 to better the DX-2's performance, even with the steady forward march of digital sound. Thus I would recommend not worrying about what the DX-2 may not do and rather enjoy its unalloyed musical qualities. I bet you'll live longer too.
Who Are You?
Let's say that you're someone who hates digital--who simply refuses to deal with it. Too bad because you're going to miss a lot of good music that's available only on CD. Besides, the CAL DX-2 is waiting. It sounds wonderful--and not just "wonderful for digital"--and it's cheap enough that you can still pay inflated prices for new vinyl and have a CD-club membership to get the music you really want.
But then maybe you're not an analog diehard; you just want a good-sounding and well-made CD player. The DX-2 is for you too. I freely admit that I didn't expect the CAL DX-2 to compete with my much-more-expensive reference digital rig, but in some broad ways it did, holding its own in terms of tonal balance and ease before falling off in the focus and bass departments. Of course, the comparison isn't a fair one because the CAL DX-2 costs a fraction of the price of my Timbre/Wadia setup. But the DX-2 brings the game to the more expensive equipment, demanding respect.
The no-nonsense DX-2 has given me great admiration for CAL products. It's the first one I've heard, but I hope it won't be the last. Let the DX-2 take your favorite discs for a spin. It's music and wallet enhancing.
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