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California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD/CD Player Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 February 1998
Image"California, a profit on the burning shore"....... Estimated Profit, Grateful Dead. Like that song of wisdom and spiritual fulfillment coming to fruition, the California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD/CD player is a flier into the promise of what the digital audio and video medium is capable of today and a good measure of what we can expect as the technology matures into the future. Capable of processing 24/96 DVD audio, the CL-20 gave me my first extended exposure to what this new medium is all about......about to turn 44.1kHZ into the likes of a faded childhood nightmare.

The CL-20 has HDCD processing, DAC outputs at 96, 48 and 44.1kHz. Other outputs include two Dolby Digital AC-3 5.1, two 24bit/96kHz PCM digital audio, coax and AES/EBU and RS-232 digital interface for future software upgrades. Video outputs are composite and S-video. Well constructed and fairly massive at 20 lbs. the CL-20 cuts a pretty clean profile. The angled bevels on the burnished metal face plate add interest to the units otherwise average appearance.

Starting with the standard 44.1kHz CD format, the CL-20 proved to be more than competent. Warm and full throughout the spectrum the CL-20 was easy on the ears yet it's immediate and well focused soundstage was engaging and always held my attention. Listening to track 7 "Willow Weep For Me" from Duke Ellington's Mood Indigos (CK 44444) The spread of the Orchestra is well defined with the solo trumpet appearing to the rear and above the right speaker in much the same way other far more expensive players handle the cut. This tonal balance held true when the recording possessed warmth, yet the CL-20 was sufficiently neutral to reveal the thin and cool character of Pete Townshend's' "Empty Glass"(Atlantic-82811).
Before I get into the HDCD capability of the CL-20 I must confess, I have never really got the whole fuss over HDCD. In my experience, HDCD sounds like really well recorded music, not unlike other well-recorded non HDCD releases. At best the improvements seem to be incremental and that is what you get with the CL-20. Listening to Reference Recordings "All Blues" from their HDCD sampler, instruments are extremely focused and open sounding particularly in the upper-midrange were the sax cuts loose dynamically. The piano solo that follows is backed by some crisp cymbal work that is also well delineated and devoid of the grain and grit that can over-emphasize the transient attack. Is this the result of HDCD or the carefully crafted recording session? I couldn't tell you.

Controversy aside, the real story here is the CL-20s ability to play back DVD (or DAD) audio discs. Theoretically, the higher sampling rate and 144 dB dynamic range should translate into improved performance and WOW, Does it ever! Starting with the title cut from Classic Records "Open Sesame"( DAD 1019) featuring Freddie Hubbard, I was immediately struck by the CL-20s ability to flesh out the bodies of the instruments and focus the image so solidly in the surrounding acoustic. While this recording is a touch on the hot side, there is a portrayal of the complex color saturation of the instruments timber that has been absent with even the very best CD players. Listening to Classic Records "Gershwin-All the Works for Orchestra and for Piano and Orchestra"(DAD 1018), I am again struck by the natural beauty and explosive power preserved in the pits of this DAD. The space between and around the instruments is so clearly delineated creating a whole new level of realism achieved by this new medium. And the sound of the piano backed by the massed strings at 2:30 of the opening track is really so wonderful. How good the CL-20 is at rendering this new technology in a relative sense will be determined by future comparisons of competing products. But for now, the CL-20 is making a very strong case to get into this technology today.

I almost forgot the CL-20 does video as well as audio! Compared to the Toshiba 2108 I raved about last month I found the CL-20s image a little softer. Edge definition was a tad less crisp than the Toshiba, though this did not really bother me. Color saturation was very good to excellent and rendition of detail, as one should expect from DVD, was very impressive. One area the Cal clearly out performs the Toshiba is it's AC-3 audio performance. The CL-20 was able to render explosive dynamics with the authority and bass extension that seemed to elude the Toshiba. This rendered the train crash scene from "The Fugitive"(Warner Bros. DVD) with earth shaking power and enormous proportions.

The Downside
As for the sound of the CL-20 my quibbles are few. First, there is an opaque quality to the sonic image that diminishes the air and complexity of an instruments inherent character. This was most noticed in the bass where things got just a bit thick. Secondly, the highest treble lacked the last measure of refinement and focus that allows the total suspension of disbelief when getting lost in the music. These criticisms are less pointed when applied to DAD playback.

The California Audio Labs CL-20 is an ambitious product that delivers impressive results. Incorporating DVD video playback, standard CD, HDCD and the revolutionary 24/96 DAD audio playback, we have a complete home entertainment front end neatly housed in a single chassis. While I can't find any real fault in the CL-20s overall performance, The units greatest strength, DAD audio, is at present limited by a shortfall in software selection and an uncertain commitment to the future of the 24/96 format by the major labels. On the other hand even if 24/96 audio goes the way of Beta-max, you are still left with a very good CD and DVD player. While the units $2495 price is more than fair for the amount of technology delivered, the products ultimate value has yet to be determined.

But if you are like me, and you just got to be the kid with the latest toy, than the CL-20 is just the product to keep you on the leading edge of what seems to be the first true advancement in home entertainment since the advent of stereo.

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