CAL Delta/Alpha vs Music Hall CD25: A comparison
Last weekend Audiogon user Trelja and I compared two popular CD players: Music Hall CD25 ($599 new) and California Audio Labs (CAL) Delta/Alpha (non- 24/96 model) (roughly $750 used for the pair). The Alpha was running with its original stock tubes. Our test system consisted of a Musical Fidelity A3cr preamp, Audio Valve ppp45 amps, and Audio Physic Tempo speakers. We also used two different interconnects between the CD players and the preamp: Virtual Dynamics Audition and Homegrown Audio Silver Lace (both 1m). Our test disc was U2’s Joshua Tree, which was used because we had 2 copies, and thus allowed real-time A/B comparison by merely changing the input on the preamp.
Results: The two players were relatively close in performance with the Virtual Dynamics cable on the CAL and Homegrown on the Music Hall; it required careful listening and real-time A/B tests to determine the differences between the players. Still, however, it was clear that the CAL combo provided more detail and clarity, particularly in the higher frequencies. The light jingle of the tamborine in “With or Without You” was more distinct and better isolated from the rest of the music with the CAL. Likewise, the symbols in “Bullet the Blue Sky” sounded more clear and realistic, as did the slow plucking of the guitar in “Running to Stand Still” and the faster strumming in “In God’s Country”. The CAL combo also produced a tight and not overemphasized bass.
In contrast, the Music Hall CD25 had a warmer, “fuller” sound and deeper bass. The drum beats at the start of “Bullet the Blue Sky” had more impact with the Music Hall, but this comes at the expense of the upper-midrange and high-frequency clarity.
With the cables reversed, however, so that the Homegrown Silver Lace was connected to the CAL units and the Virtual Dynamics was on the Music Hall, the gap between the players widened considerably. The CAL was considerably more clear and detailed than the Music Hall, while the sound from the Music Hall became more warm and full. Note that the silver cables exhibited none of the “harshness” often associated with silver; the improvement in detail was not accompanied by any ill effects.
Conclusion: The results of this test are actually a tribute to the quality of both players. We both agreed that we would have no problem living with either player, which is one of the strongest endorsements we can offer any player. On the one hand it is impressive that the Music Hall was able to be competitive with a system that originally retailed for more than 3 times its own retail price. On the other hand, it is impressive that the 8-year-old CAL Delta/Alpha combination (with 8-year-old tubes) is still able to compete with a highly regarded CD player from the present. Perhaps more impressive, however, is the difference between cables. If you prefer clarity, detail, and upper-end “air”, then the Homegrown Silver Lace ($209 / 1m) is an excellent choice. Alternatively, if your preferred sound emphasizes warmth and fullness, the Virtual Dynamics Audition interconnects ($400 / 1m) might be your ticket.
We still have further comparisons to do. For one, we should try a wider variety of music. We might also want to include HDCD’s, because the Music Hall CD25 can decode HDCD discs while the CAL Delta/Alpha cannot. It is reasonable to expect that the Music Hall would excel on such discs.
Nevertheless, our preliminary comparisons should help people who are interested in a budget high-end CD player and/or interconnects.