Truth of the matter is, there are only two built from the bottom UP in the US, but I only know of one. California Audio Labs CL-2500. AWESOME UNIT, but they are no longer in business.
California Audio Labs was founded in 1985 and has a long history in digital audio. Their very first products were compact disc players and they have been making optical disc devices and other digital components ever since. They have produced a series of high-end CD players, along with CD transports and standalone digital-to-analog converters, and were among the first specialty companies to deliver high-performance DVD-Video players that brought audiophile sound quality to home theatre enthusiasts, along with outstanding video performance.
This digital expertise was utilized to produce a reference-quality digital controller and a unique multichannel amplifier with a zero-voltage- transition switching power supply. I reviewed the CL 2500 SSP controller, the CL 2500 MCA amplifier and the CL 2500 VSW video switch in Issue 38 of Widescreen Review. This review of the just-released CL 2500 DVD-Video player completes the CAL home theatre system series.
While the earlier CL-20 and CL-25 DVD-Video players from California Audio Labs offered exceptional audio performance and had a reputation for outstanding picture quality as well, the introduction of the standard-setting CL 2500 Series components raised the bar for performance requirements from a DVD player, and the CL 2500 DVD was developed to meet these higher expectations. Its not simply a modification of an off-the-shelf player from a mass-market manufacturer. It was completely engineered and constructed by California Audio Labs in Blue Lake, California, utilizing the finest available components and sub-assemblies.
A Complete Design Concept
Most of the high-end DVD-Video players offered by specialty companies are modified Pioneer, Matsushita (Panasonic) or Philips players. The transport mechanisms and the basic electronic components that make them work cant be significantly altered at a reasonable cost, and the performance improvements that can be implemented by aftermarket upgraders are limited to power supply enhancements, improved D/A converters and the use of better analog parts. Most specialty companies operate on a small scale and must purchase complete players or kits from the big manufacturers and discard many partsoften the front panels and sheet metal parts. This is economically wasteful and raises the cost of the end product to the consumer, while providing what may be only minor improvements in performance.
The CAL CL-20 and CL-25 DVD-Video players, which preceded the CL 2500 DVD, were built on a Matsushita chassis, but CALs direct OEM arrangement with Matsushita allowed CAL to offer high-performance players at half the price of some competing products with comparable performance. This approach offered good value to consumers, but set some limits on performance and operational capability. The CAL engineering team, headed by Dan Donnelly, wanted more. To offer a significantly better player while maintaining an affordable price tag, they decided to build a unit from the ground up, utilizing the very latest technology and the finest component parts available. The result is the CL 2500 DVD.
The CL 2500 DVD is beautifully styled to match the other CL 2500-Series components and is one of the best looking DVD-Video players Ive seen. The heavy, machined, black anodized front panel has a trapezoidal Lexan insert in the upper center that looks like black glass. The disc drawer is subtly positioned just below this insert in the center of the unit. There are buttons at the left and right of the front panel to cycle the power from On to Standby and open the disc drawer. Other controls are located in the Lexan panel just below the display. There are buttons marked Play, Stop, Pause and Skip forward and reverse. Key combinations perform other functions during setupand act as software switches to set operational parameters.
The display is visible through the black Lexan panel and shows the usual information about the program being played, and there are lighted indicators to the left that display source typeDolby ® Digital, DTS ® Digital Surround , PCM or MPEG, and sampling frequency 44kHz, 48kHz, 88kHz or 96kHz. The layout of the player offers a clean, simple look and makes it very easy to use.
The back of the unit has an RS-232 port for CALNET intra-system connectivity, a pair of analog audio outputs, optical and coaxial digital audio outputs for bitstream/PCM (including Dolby Digital, DTS Digital Surround and MPEG), additional coaxial single-ended and AES balanced digital audio outputs for upsampled PCM audio, an RCA composite video output, two S-video outputs and one set of component video outputs with BNC connectors. An S- video signal with improved signal-to-noise ratio can be retrieved from the component Y and Pb connectors when S-video output is enabled (soft switchable using front panel controls during setup). A master power switch and a filtered IEC AC connector complete the back panel.
The furnished remote control is a backlit universal unit that will control the entire CAL system and a variety of other components if desired. It is unusually complete yet easy to use. Buttons are nicely arranged and shaped to allow operation by feel, but the backlit buttons can be easily read in a dark room for visual confirmation. This is a very functional remote that is user-friendly. The CAL DVD-Video play-er can also be controlled by the Pronto remote control that is furnished with the CAL CL 2500 SSP controller, and when the two CAL units are connected together with an RS232 cable, they become interoperable. The controller can be programmed to turn on the DVD player and open the disc drawer on power up for instance.
The CAL DVD-Video player provides state-of-the- art video performance with an unusually high signal-to-noise ratio and offers improved audio performance with sample rate conversion that doubles PCM sample rates and extends sample size with dithering. Heres how it was done.
The exceptional signal-to-noise ratio achieved by the CAL DVD-Video player is made possible by high-quality component selection and four unique design features: a completely non-ferrous chassis, dual linear high-current power supplies, the Mediamatics Pantera DVD-on-a-chip solution and the exclusive use of active, rather than passive, video filters.
An aluminum chassis and cover cost a lot more than the stamped steel parts found on most DVD players, but the use of non-ferrous material eliminates noise caused by eddy-currents, providing superior isolation between digital and analog circuitry. Additional internal RF shielding is used, of course.
DVD transports and the DSPs that control them require substantially more power than simpler CD players, and then there are the demands of the video processing circuits. Most DVD players utilize switching power supplies to save space and expense. Inexpensive switching supplies raise noise levels and reduce the performance potential of both audio and video circuits. The CL 2500 DVD-Video player has a high-current (45-watt combined dissipation) power supply with separate transformers for analog and digital/ video circuitry.
Most consumer DVD players utilize multiple ICs with fixed firmware to operate and control the transport mechanisms. This requires moving data from one chip to another, which may result in bus-choking and timing errors. The CAL player uses the Mediamatics Pantera single- chip platform, which eliminates the need for data transfer between ICs and allows for expanded operational and performance software and hardware variations that can be specifically tailored to the needs of the high-end market. Firmware updates can be accomplished using a CALUP CD-R disc, making upgrades as simple as playing a CD.
The DVD mechanical mechanism used in the CL 2500 DVD-Video player is sourced from Tokaya in Japan. It combines the best features of consumer and computer drive mechanisms and will read virtually any current 5-inch optical disc except CD-RW. Supported formats include CD, CD-EXTRA, CD-RD/A, CD-R, CD-R MP-3, VCD, SVCD VCD-R, DVD and DAD. DVD-Audio and SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) are not supported at this time.
Video digital-to-analog conversion is state-of-the- art 10-bit, and all video filtering is active; there are no passive video filters. Black level is soft switchable between 0 IRE to 7.5 IRE. Audio DACs are Pacific Microsonics sigma/ delta (1-bit), and audio sample rate conversion (upsampling) is accomplished by a Crystal 8420 chip. Sample rate conversion can be applied to CDs to raise the sample rate from 44.1kHz to 88.2kHz. Upsampling from 44.1 to 96kHz requires DSP processing with mathematical interpolation, which was determined to offer an audibly inferior result compared to simply doubling the basic rate to 88kHz. Sample rate conversion can be applied to DVDs to raise PCM sample rates from 48kHz to 96kHz. Of course, you cant raise the sample rates of encoded bit streams like Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround.
Upsampled audio signals from LPCM material are available from the analog outputs and the AES digital output, enabling the user to make upsampled recordings and to listen to full-resolution audio playback when the DVD player is used in conjunction with a controller that can accept high sample rate signals, like the CAL CL 2500 SSP. Supported audio formats include Dolby Digital, DTS Digital Surround, MPEG, DVD 96kHz and DAD 96kHz. True 96kHz digital audio output is provided.
The video performance from the CL 2500 DVD is exemplary in every way. The exceptionally high signal-to-noise ratio produces a sharp, noise-free picture with a full range of contrast and accurate, well-saturated colors. Picture quality equals or exceeds that of any DVD-Video player Ive seen regardless of price. The Y and Pb component outputs can be utilized (soft switchable) to deliver an S-video signal with lower noise and better quality (than the standard S-video outputs) for those with video displays which cant accept component video signals.
The CAL DVD-Video player is very easy to set up and operate and responds much faster to commands than its predecessor. There is a single setup screen that allows the user to set all operational parameters by choosing from among the menu options. I did the complete setup in less than 30 seconds. Operation was intuitive and quick. This player can skip from chapter to chapter or cut to cut almost instantly.
I tried the CL 2500 DVD in my high-resolution stereo system as a CD player in order to evaluate the sample rate conversion or upsampling of compact discs. I compared the CAL DVD-Video player to two high-end CD players: the Mark Levinson #39 and the Wadia 860, through the Audio Research Reference 2 preamplifier. Then I installed the DVD player in my home theatre system using the CAL CL 2500 SSP controller. The results were very interesting.
Associated Equipment Used In This Review
Pioneer Elite CLD-99 LaserDisc player, California Audio Labs CL-2500 DVD-Video player, California Audio Labs CL2500VSW video switcher, Faroudja LD-200 line doubler, CineVision IDP950C CRT projector, Draper Silhouette Series V motorized screen (M1300 material). CinemaQuest RGB-3, S-3 and Video Pro video cables.
Wadia 860 CD player, Mark Levinson #39 CD player, Linn Sondek LP-12 turntable with Ittok arm and Troika cartridge, Audio Research Reference 2 preamp, California Audio Labs CL2500SSP digital controller, Proceed HPA-3 amplifier for center and surround channels, Mark Levinson #33H mono amplifiers or Theta Dreadnaught amplifier (four channels in vertical biamp configuration) for front left and right channels, Vandersteen Signature 3A speakers for front left and right channels, Vandersteen VCC Signature center channel and Vandersteen VSM Signature surround speakers. Four Vandersteen 2W-Q subwoofers for main channels and either one Energy ES-18XL or one Mirage BPS-400 subwoofer for LFE channel only.
Four Richard Grays Power Company 400s power line conditioners with Straight Wire HTC power cables, Vantage Point Contours equipment racks and amplifier stands, AudioQuest Falcon and Apogee Wide Eye digital cables, AudioQuest Anaconda and Python interconnect cables, AudioQuest Volcano and SA-20 Hyperlitz speaker cables, Checkpoint sound alignment system, ASC Tube Traps.
As a CD player, the CAL unit performs very well considering its price, but is limited by the sigma/delta audio DAC used to deliver analog output. Upsampling allows this player to provide better sound than other 1-bit players, but it cant equal the resolution of the high-end multibit CD players and still sounds a little less refined and not quite as natural. Compared to other DVD-Video players Ive tried, however, the CAL sounds exceptionally good from the analog outputs. When used as a CD player, it sounds a little better than its predecessor, the CL 25, in my opinion. In high-end audio terms, however, its a so-so performer. Using the upsampled digital output into the CAL CL 2500 SSP controller changed my perspective entirely.
In combination with the CAL digital controller, the CAL DVD-Video player really comes into its own. The CL 2500 SSP controller has a true, 96kHz-compatible digital input to allow the full utilization of the CL 2500 DVD-Video players upsampled digital output. The digital-to- analog conversion in the CAL digital controller uses state-of-the-art 24-bit linear DACs to allow the full resolution of the upsampled audio to be heard. I set up the combination using two digital connections: one from the PCM output of the player and one from the AES upsampled digital output so that I could compare the sound and gauge the effects of upsampling. The sound of the upsampled signal played through the high-resolution DACs in the CAL controller was very impressive indeed.
Upsampled CDs played on the CAL DVD-Video player through the CAL processor sounded amazingly good. The pair of CAL components produced sound that was frighteningly close in quality and resolution to the combination of the Mark Levinson #39 CD player and the Audio Research Reference 2 preamp! The Wadia 860/ARC combination still outperformed the CAL pair, but not by as much as the $8,500 difference in price would suggest. The two CAL pieces, used together, consistently delivered sound that rivaled high-end stereo components costing thousands more.
Upsampled DVDs sounded better than Ive heard before, regardless of the electronics used previously. I had nothing with which to compare here, but I tried several discs that I play frequently and know quite well. Only the 48kHz stereo PCM tracks on DVDs can be upsampled, which limits this features usefulness. I liked it because some of my favorite music video DVDs have high-quality LPCM tracks. You cant upsample an encoded bit-stream, such as a Dolby Digital or DTS Digital Surround movie soundtrack.
When used as a transport, utilizing the audio signal from the digital outputs, this is simply the best sounding DVD-Video player Ive tried so far. It also performs better than most other DVD players when used as a CD player, taking the audio signal from the analog outputs, but its not as good as some high-end CD players. I think the video performance is outstanding, but I intend to get further thoughts about this from WSRs Shane Buettner (see below).
The CAL CL 2500 DVD-Video player costs more than mass-market brands, but far less than other high-end competitors. I think it offers outstanding value for the money and I recommend it highly.