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.

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Mike & Joe: I always find this kind of stuff interesting. One thing that you forgot to mention was what cable you used to link between the Delta and Alpha ? In my experience, simply changing that cable could make a noticeable difference in percieved sonics. Sean
Stock CAL tubes-garbage! My alpha came with cheap chinese tubes, try upgrading to anything respectable and you will instantly notice a change.
Well, as I basically agree with Michael 100%, there is not much I can add other than to say that I had a good time taking part in this test. Michael is a great guy, and really knows what he is talking about.

Both players I feel represent good sounding digital. Not the best attainable, but probably as good as the non - exotic players.

I think Michael and I are quite similar in that we are both audio cheapskates, proof that one doesn't need to spend crazy money to obtain good sound. It seems as if we both gravitate to products which offer a lot of sound for not all that much money. As stated in the heading, the HomeGrown Audio Silver Lace cable really proved to be a factor in the comparison. At just above entry level prices, I honestly believe that it delivers reference cable sonics. I just don't understand how an interconnect could ever sell for more than maybe $300 - $500, but that's just me.

Based on the above comments from Sean and Elevick, there may be some room to further improve on the CAL, which would definitely be interesting. Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe Michael may have tried different tubes in the DAC.
Hey Mike,

Great CD player comparison. As a former CAL Delta/Alpha owner, I do agree with you and also Joe that the CAL does seem to excel in higher frequency energy/sparkle. They also throw a very wide sound stage. Both of these qualities matches very well with the type of music genre such as U2.

I never listend to the Music Hall before, but I surmise the Music Hall might fair a bit better compared to the CAL if you were listening to some classical or jazz.

To add to what Sean was saying, besides the digital cable between the trans and dac that is a big factor, what powercords were used? Also, didn't you buy some NOS from Upscale not too long ago?


ps, glad you got the AP home.
I went all out to see just how good the Delta-Alpha I've owned for seven years can get, Mullard tubes, Orchid balanced digital cable, Shunyata King Cobra V-1 on Delta, and a Cobra on the Alpha, this setup has really shined quite well, and even if I change front ends, I'm keeping the Cal stuff, it's that good.
Thanks for the feedback.

The cable between the Delta and Alpha is a bettercables 0.5m balanced cable. And yes, I do have Mullards for the Alpha but I left them out for two reasons: 1) The stock tubes provide a better reference point for most people with Alpha's, and 2) I didn't notice much improvement with the Mullards on my system. The Delta and Alpha both have Virtual Dynamics P3 power cords. The Music Hall used a Homegrown Audio power cord. We did not investigate changing power cords.

And Joe, thanks for spending the time with me on Saturday to do this test.

Nice review guys. I bet it was an enjoyable Saturday!

While I have no experience with the Cal Audio, I do with the Music Hall (currently). For it's cost, it is a tough act to beat. Besides it sounding very good with redbook, it's the HDCD that really makes me go "Wow". Until the DVD/SACD stuff works it's way out, I won't own a CDP unless it has HDCD capability. It really makes the Music Hall that much more of a bargain. Gotta change the PC on it though...


You cant help but notice, at least to a causual reader that many of the golden oldies can provide a run for the money with a lot of the new designs.
Matty, I feel the same way about my HDCD upgraded Alpha WOW!
I have owned well over a dozen different CAL DAC's. All i can say is that none of them sounded the same, even when taking tubes from one and putting them into another DAC and using the same transport / digital cable / power cords feeding them. I guess it just boils down to the difference in parts tolerance. This happens when you have ANY product mass produced.

As to the one Alpha that i hand picked out of the bunch, i tried a few different tubes in it and found that some Russian tubes gave me what i was looking for. As to a Sigma that i have, which is phenomenally rich and sensual sounding, one ( and i do mean ONE ) OEM Chinese tube worked best in it. I tried a lot of other tubes in it ( several different OEM's, Mullard's, BriMar's, etc... ) and that one specific tube really sounded far better than the others. Don't ask me what is so special about that one tube, cuz i don't know.

When it comes to tubes, you've either got magic or you don't. When you get it, you'll know it. That's my story and i'm stickin' to it : ) Sean
So what they say is true. High end audio is all smokes and mirrors; hocus-pocus.