Old CD player back from the dead—prompting many questions!
Now I have questions! (Caution: This may be boring)
For many years (almost 20) I ran a California Audio Labs Icon MkII CD player, purchased new for something like $1500 (a lot of $ back in the late 1990s, for me) and I gave up vinyl (yes, I am an old heretic). It was very highly rated back then.
About 6 years ago I was overhauling my whole system after my beloved 20 year old McCormack DNA-1 amp died (yes, I keep my gear a long time), so I put the CalAudio into deep storage, thinking it was old, and got a well-rated Rega Apollo CDP II cd player. $1200, iirc, and I was very happy with it. I don’t have super deep pockets for audio, and love great bang for the buck. I had been tempted a few years ago, before streaming, to get the Bryston CD player, which one reliable audio reviewer said could be his last CD player, but it was $4000. I just read glowing reviews last night of CD players for $10,000-20,000 but that ain’t happenin’!
Since then I have gone almost 100% to streaming (Small Green Computer Sonictransporter and Sonore MicroRendu, which may get upgraded soon to the Ultra or Optical model Rendu) using Tidal and Roon. In 2018 I bought a (well-reviewed by Robert Harley) DAC/preamp by Audio Alchemy, which I still use though I covet the new T+A 200 DAC/preamp and several other DACs. I am thinking of getting an integrated amp (Aesthetix Mimas) or mono blocks, and until I sort that out I am stuck in place. As they say, you only solve one variable in an equation at a time, and I hate auditioning. For me, if I won the lotto, I would hire a brilliant consultant to hold my hand and help me build my end-game system.
I kept and ripped all my 700+ CDs, but only occasionally play them. I have been pleasantly surprised that when I have A-B’d CD vs streamed hi-res and MQA tracks via Roon, the quality is very close and in the case of MQA, sometimes better (let’s not start an MQA argument!). This week, I fired up the Apollo and grabbed a few favorite CDs I use to audition gear at dealers, especially Alison Kraus & Union Station’s "New Favorite". My Apollo started skipping and stuttering! What the what? For 6 years it’s been flawless. I found their main non-warranty repair guy in CA and emailed and spoke to him, and learned that Rega has discontinued that Apollo II in favor of all-in-one CD/DAC players. Grrr. My unit is repairable for about $325 he thinks, so it will get shipped today. I continue to use it once repaired, and the CalAudio will be the backup. I am now reading CD player reviews but given I mostly stream I am reluctant to spend $3000-4000 on a CD player for occasional use and would rather plow that money into a DAC and other components.
I dug out the old CalAudio Icon to see if it still worked, as a backup. Everything lit up, the tray opened, but pressing play—nothing. Unresponsive—dammit. So, I left it on and ran some errands and a few hours later pressed play and voila! I had music. I guess after 6 years it needed time to awaken from its deep sleep. When I last used it it was before my DAC/preamp, and I used an RCA connection then to my old passive line stage, but this time I am using SPDIF/coax into my DAC/preamp. And it sounds great! A-B testing with Tidal/Roon and it is so very close, which means it is nearly or as good as the Rega Apollo. I am actually a bit shocked... this is a 25 year old CD player!
❓Now to the questions:
Could the CalAudio still really be that good, or is my DAC not good enough to reveal that the Cal isn’t that good? Maybe I wasn’t getting full value from it when I used it all those years without a standalone DAC, and was using a passive line stage and the CalAudio’s internal DAC?
How much better can CDs sound, with a better DAC and player? The guy repairing my Rega assured me that CDs played in a $6000 Audio Note CD player and with top shelf DAC (>$3000? $5000? $10,000?) will absolutely sound MUCH better than anything streamed. He was adamant. I am not yet convinced, but am I wrong?
Is the DAC substantially more important than the player, ie, if keeping the Rega or CalAudio am I going to see a major improvement by bettering my DAC? Maybe a dumb question and the answer is "Duh!"
I know all about the Law of Diminishing Returns in hi-fi, which is why I haven’t considered spending a lot more on a new CD player, but can the $4000 Bryston or an even "better" Audio Note be significantly better? 10% better for 4X the cost? 20% better? Mo bettah? I resist Death by $1000 Papercuts.
When I read reviews it is with skepticism, of course. Here is a glowing review of the below-the-radar $2000 Sparkler Ballade CD player (from Japan?) by Marc Phillips: "Then you have the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade,” which is the best of both worlds. It’s not so expensive that you’ll talk yourself out of buying it when your existing CD player loses its laser assembly and becomes a 50-pound paperweight. More importantly, it sounds so musical and right, and it does it with panache and style. I could totally see myself in one of these babies, and never worry again about how I’m going to listen to CDs twenty years from now." I called the distributor in Canada, a very nice fellow named Victor Kung, who proceeded to tell me that unless I was using tube gear and a 300B single-ended amp, he wouldn’t want to sell me one. He said it doesn’t sound good with solid state amps and gear. Really? THAT is a new one for me. https://parttimeaudiophile.com/2022/09/16/sparkler-audio-s515u-ballade-cd-player-review/
I think the smart money is on my upgrading my DAC, which will benefit my streaming, and then audition some CD players who I need/want to upgrade. Yes?
My whole system is in flux, but I know the preamp is the heart, and that is why the T+A DAC/pre is appealing... a 2 for 1 box. Then choose the amp or keep mine (Odyssey Khartago+++) or switch to an integrated.
➡ I would appreciate any thoughtful advice on CD players (to be used as a transport, though the really high-end ones often have excellent onboard DACS). How much is enough, the benefits of spending more than $1000-1500, etc. I have spent a ton of time reading DAC reviews and posts here.
Thanks for hanging in there on this long-winded tome! PD
(I’m running Vandersteen 2CE Signature III speakers (the latest) which may get upgraded to Treo CTs, though I have considered but not yet heard the Larsen 8 speakers). Random item: I’ve thought of getting monoblock amps, but wonder if those really offer something that a good stereo amp doesn’t (especially a true dual-mono amp). Maybe I will do a separate post after searching here.
Hmm, not sure I can hold all that in my head at once. Let me just respond in a general way.
Unless you love fiddling with physical media, the age of the CD player (transport + dedicated streamer + DAC, in one box) is over. You can achieve the same and often better sound quality (higher rez files available) doing streaming (streamer + DAC). Streaming as a music source is nearly infinitely more cost effective… well unless you just listen to the CDs you own.
So that is where you should put your money. Just like CD players, DAC plus streamers have diffferent sonic characteristics… so you need to get those that match your tastes. My investment rule of thumb is Streamer (separate box… not a computer) = DAC = Preamp = amp… for best sound… but each carefully chosen.
I lived with mono blocks and stereo version of the same amp for about two years (see my virtual systems). Unless you have a really high end system then mono blocks are unlikely to be worth it.
I don’t love fiddling with physical media, but I can’t bear to part with what I have. When I find great used CDs at a bargain price I buy them and then rip them to my music server. It’s nice to have a backup when the internet goes down though, or for a different experience than streaming, which sometimes induces ADD/ADHD and I jump around a lot. With CDs, choosing the music is slower and more intentional... physical media like with vinyl, for which I have no patience (too fiddly for me). So I do it sometimes.
I like your systems (sweet AR stack!) and your dog! My dog listens at my feet until it gets too loud. I think we share the same taste in music though. 😎🐶
"I would appreciate any thoughtful advice on CD players (to be used as a transport, though the really high-end ones often have excellent onboard DACS)."
You don’t need a CD player you can get a CD transport (connects to a separate DAC). Decent under $750 - Audiolab 6000, Cambridge CXC ; likely a couple of others. Want better sounding transports (more money involved) such as Project RS2T, Jay’s Audio CDT2 or CDT3, Simaudio 260D, CEC (various models), etc. Then you can go well beyond those e.g. Metronome, Vitus, etc. Not exactly a dead media format
Thank for the tip on the Sim/Moon 260D ... that one had escaped me, though I have heard and been impressed with their integrated amps. I like the option of adding an onboard DAC. Jay's Audio gets praise, but I try to buy from N. America snd EU makers when I can.
If I am building a system and considering my ‘last’ CD player; Aqua HiFi La Diva M2 would be my #1 choice. I realize there are other inexpensive options but once you read the onboard features and future proofing by way modular design, every other CD Transport pales in comparison.
@patrickdownsIf you like Sim they have another model up the line the 650D. The point is that you have quality sounding/build options at various price ranges for a separate CD transport; or for that matter a CD player even up to the higher end such as Metronome, Neodio, Vitus , etc.
I could buy the Aqua, but it would put a big dent in my reserves to be allocated for other upgrades. Given that I do most of my listening via streaming, it would make more sense to invest that kind of money into a DAC/preamp and speaker upgrades than in a CD transport. FWIW.
If you do most of your listening via streaming then It makes sense to prioritize Pre/DAC purchase. The key to put together a well thought out system is Patience. It took me 2.5 years of financial planning to pull the trigger on my ultimate streamer. Exciting times ahead!
I’m not familiar with your player or the audio alchemy gear but it sounds as if you’ve already tested it in use as a transport and liked it (meaning digital out to your pre). There is always going to be a better performing piece of gear but if the choice were mine I would prioritize a better dac (and possibly amp/preamp) before blowing $$$ on another disk player. Your system would have to be very revealing to see the all the benefits of a $5-10K disc player.
I just went through this myself. I use an Oppo 105D as a transport through my Aqua La Scala dac. I cannot stand the sound of the Oppo when processing digital through its internal dac (Sabre 9018)- it’s just to forward and harsh sounding.
I looked into the Aqua transport that lalit mentioned but decided the spend was not worth it to me as my issue was not with how the Oppo functions as a player but rather the implementation of its D/A output section. Run the digital out to an R2R tube dac and problem solved,
I buy new CD releases from CDJ and play on PS audio SACD transport/DAC linked with I 2S cable. no edgy sounds, much better clean ,warm sound than high res Oppo 205 player even better than better than MCD350.
Yes it pained me to spend on digital end but I am happy and that is all it matters.
So the California audio labs stuff was always interesting to me. They were really modded name brand players and where a lot of the mods were was in the DAC if memory serves me. Mike Moffat, now of Schiit, was the brains behind cal audio labs. If I was you I'd actually try that CD player plugged into your preamp with RCAs and see what it's DAC sounds like. To me, if it sounds good, then it ain't broke and doesn't need fixing. I've overhauled most of my system in the past few years but each upgrade was to achieve a sound that I found pleasing. You might already have the piece.
Just a couple of thoughts. Before you go and buy a new player, have you cleaned all the contacts and the ends of the interconnects? It can make a difference.The second would be, to get it checked out by a repair department you trust.
Just a couple of thoughts. Before you go and buy a new player, have you cleaned all the contacts and the ends of the interconnects? It can make a difference.The second would be, to get it checked out by a repair department you trust.
Thanks to the OP for the detailed post and no, it wasn't boring. But my main accolade is for your diligence in comparing the sound quality of different sources by using a control. You are about the only other member here (besides me) who does it this way and interestingly, you and I have come to very similar conclusions.
I have had quite a few CD players, DACs, and transports and my experience is that their sound quality differences are pretty subtle. In fact, it's usually difficult to make any sweeping comments at all about their sound.
My control is a Marantz KI Ruby player. I have a Berkeley Audio Alpha Reference 2 MQA DAC, an Audio Mirror Tubadour IV DAC, a Black Ice FX Tube DAC, and a PS Audio PerfectWave Mk II DAC (soon for sale). I'm also running a Jay's Audio CD3 Mk III transport and I also use the KI Ruby as a transport. I just sold a PS Audio PerfectWave transport. I stream Qobuz through an ASUS ROG laptop using a USB connection. I'm running a pair of Thiel CS6 speakers with a Krell KRC2 preamp and KSA 300S amp.
When I compare digital sources I always use a control. My method is to use my KI Ruby as the standard and compare other sources against it. I play a song through the Ruby and then play the song through the other source, being careful to match the volumes. The results have been consistent and somewhat disturbing. You might think that the $21K Berkeley would blow away the other sources but if it does, I can't hear it. You might also think that streaming through a laptop would be inferior to playing the corresponding CD through the same DAC. Well, not in my system. It sounds the same as the corresponding CD.
Bottom line, I don't think that modern digital sources sound very much different than one another. Component selection comes down to features, price, and pride of ownership. Does my Jay's Audio transport + my Berkeley DAC blow away my KI Ruby? No, it doesn't. Am am I glad I bought the Jay's and Berkeley pieces? Yes, I love them. If I play a well recorded CD through them I can easily convince myself that it's the best sound I've every heard. But I'm afraid that I could easily fail an ABX blind test with my digital gear.
Thank you—though it is clear that you are by far the more diligent tester, something at which I do not excel usually. Your array of digital gear is impressive in breadth and quality, and the conclusions you have drawn are fascinating to me and confirm some suspicions.
Does my Jay’s Audio transport + my Berkeley DAC blow away my KI Ruby? No, it doesn’t. Am am I glad I bought the Jay’s and Berkeley pieces? Yes, I love them. If I play a well recorded CD through them I can easily convince myself that it’s the best sound I’ve every heard. But I’m afraid that I could easily fail an ABX blind test with my digital gear.
I have done the A-B test using my Rega CD player and Tidal (via Roon) from my SGC server/streamer, matching the levels and going back and forth, back and forth, on the same tracks that I know oh so well. The differences are minute, to me. Using same DAC and preamp. So, either my system (or ears!) isn’t resolving enough to hear the differences, or my playback devices don’t resolve to that level? I have read reviews by Jason Victor Serinus in Stereophile (he is a social media and email acquaintance and lives near me, but we haven’t met yet), and he details the nuanced differences he hears between MQA and non-MQA versions of different songs/records, and the noticeable improvements moving between high-end DACs. Typically using VERY high end gear. Maybe his hearing is better and his gear’s resolution is too. Same with reviews by Robert Harley and Jon Valin, but they are playing systems worth >$250,000 or more, sometimes 2-3X that. On the other hand, reviewer Steven Stone, who is all about finding gear affordable to Working Everyman, has reviewed DACs that he says are near-reference grade and they are in the $1,000-2,000 range and some even less!
I am all about bang for the buck, and putting those bucks where I will yield the most improvement and easily heard results. When I read reviews talking about the dramatic improvement by going to this or that $10,000 to >30,000 DAC, I will certainly re-read your post. Maybe if one’s system if of the highest resolution it would be more evident? My modest system isn’t that. I think an upgrade to my speakers and preamp may yield the best improvements and ROI. DAC afterwards. The T+A 200 DAC/preamp is said to have a great DAC section (and is a better version of what I have with my Audio Alchemy, and almost the same form factor, a DAC/preamp), but I may go in the direction of a really good integrated (maybe Ayre or Aesthetix Mimas) and get a standalone DAC.
It would be interesting to have you do your A-B test—streamed vs CD playback— using a really good streamer, Aurender or the like instead of your laptop, and see if you hear a real difference using your great DACs.
Yes on the contacts. I have just shipped the Apollo off to be repaired (hopefully), and then I will have 2 working CD players. I am in no rush to do anything, which is perfect because I make hi-fi decisions at glacial speed! "The man who doesn't make a decision is making a decision." ~Yiddish proverb
Sorry, I know this is off topic, but I am interested in the difference between the Sig IIIs and Treos. What is causing you to consider upgrading?
Welllll, how much time do you have? 😂
I am resistant to change and changing favorite brands (loyal to a fault). When it came time to replace my 20 year old Vandersteen 2CEs about 3 years ago, I found a like-new pair of the well-reviewed Treo CTs at Audio Connection (Johnny Rutan) for $6k. So, I went and auditioned them against the newest 2CE Signature III at my local dealer, at great length. The Treos lived up to the reviews, and are superb but were $9000 new then ($10k now) and $3300 for the 2CE SigIII—no small difference. As I went back and forth between the 2CE SigIII and Treo, what jumped out at me is that the 2CE was excellent in comparison. I think it really deserves its place on the Absolute Sound List of 50 Greatest Buys in High End Audio. But—the Treo CT is also on that list! So, I got a new pair of 2CE SigIIIs to replace my old 2s.
The bass goes lower on the 2CE, but though the bass extension isn’t as low with the Treo CT, the quality of the bass is absolutely better, tighter, more accurate. Quantity vs quality.
As Richard Vandersteen admits, the 2CE is still a great speaker (they have sold >100,000 pairs, iirc!, which no doubt launched Vandersteens’s success and all his other great speaker development), but with the Treo the goal was to build something that took it to the next level, fixing the shortcomings of the 2CE. Hence the Treo has a cabinet within a cabinet which is VERY solid and reduces cabinet resonances; the carbon tweeter really is special and an improvement; the Treo is designed to be placed very near the front wall (2CE should be out at least 24", but more is better); and last but not least, the Treo is gorgeous (not wrapped in a big black sock) and has a great spouse/partner acceptance factor. My dealer told me many times men have brought their wives to hear the 2CE and their comment was "It’s ugly. No." Then they look at the Treo and say "I want that one" even though it is 3X more expensive!
Did I think the Treo was 3X better than the 2CE, because it is 3X more expensive? Not even close. Not 2X better. Maybe 10-15%, though that is so subjective and I am terrible at auditioning gear. I do think the Treo CT is like the superb Quatro CT (which I cannot afford) but without the powered onboard subs in the Quatro. The Treo sounds great and looks great, and I can’t get it out of my mind. It really is special, but for bang for the buck, the 2CE SigIII is a no-brainer and I don’t ever feel inadequate because that is what I chose. I have kicked myself for not buying the near-new pair for $6000 though! The Treo CT has a musicality that is superb, imo.
Part of my reasoning at not getting the Treo CT is that it is a next-level speaker, and I think to get the most benefit from them, I would want/need to do some expensive system upgrades to bring my whole system up several notches. So, $7k more for (a new pair of) Treos, maybe another $5-10k upgrade in amp/preamp/DAC at least, and especially upgrading my speaker cables to Audioquest Mythical Creatures or their upper level cables, which is $3-5K for a short run (using monoblock amps). The slippery slope of upgrades! Treos would cost me at least $10,000 in upgrades besides the speakers. Ouch. Maybe not mandatory but why do it if I am not going to realize full benefit from the speakers? By doing all those, the results would really be excellent and substantially better than my current system.
Oh, one thing my dealer salesman said to me, as someone who also owned 2CE SigIIIs but loves all the Vandys, is that the 2CE rises to the occasion when paired with much more expensive gear than one typically would do. He said they had paired them with a $30,000 Audio Research stack and they sounded great, rather than being totally outmatched. So I believe they will give me results as I improve my front end.
That is the long-winded answer. The 2CE SigIII is a great speaker (and value) imo, and so is the Treo CT. It is all about budget, and there is no wrong answer if you love the Vandersteen sound, which I do. Had I big bucks, I would get the Quatro CTs—or better yet the Kentos—and Vandersteen monoblocks.
(If @tomik, who has both the Treo CT and the Vandersteen 7, is reading this he will want to strangle me because he has seen/heard me do this back and forth too many times! Sorry!)
I am running my 2nd Icon MK II (I broke the digital out connector on the first one, long story) into a Kora non oversampling dual mono tube DAC and could not be happier. The Cal's are bullet proof, very well made machines, just look under the hood. And they make great transports.
Also, Steve McCormack turned my DNA 1 into a SMc Audio GT-22+ last year- WOW- now it's a truly amazing-goose bump producing piece of gear.
Send it back for an upgrade or sell it to him. He ALWAYS has use for chassis's.
Thanks @grossman616! That's great to know that your Cal Audio is still going strong. Oh if I only knew then what I know now, I never would have sold my dead DNA-1 chassis to SMc. I would have just kept it and waited to have a new amp built.
I had a issue with my Sony SCD-1 modded by Vacuum State to 5+. This player is amongst the very best SACD players made and very good on CD. The mods took it to another level.
More than 20+ years later the SCD-1 died and I had no way to play my SACD’s or CD’s except a used $200 OPPO player that is actually slightly mechanically noisy.
I was thinking of buying a new SACD/CD/DAC, however, before I did that I remembered the D.BOB. This device takes the HDMI output (along with DSD) from the OPPO, does some magic, and then sends it via SPDIF to my Schitt Yggi+ Less is More DAC (an excellent DAC).
The sound is pretty good. In many ways better than the 20-year old SCD-1. Though the SCD-1 still had some overall magic that makes me miss it. The OPPO plays more SACDs than the old SCD-1 and has ended my need to buy a new SACD player.
I think the elimination of streaming when playing disks has some benefit from what I am hearing. My streaming is top notch using fibre.
Keep the Vandy 2CE Signature III and enjoy the savings for other gear/music. The Treo is not 3x better. What cables/cords are you using? IMO, Steve McCormack could manufacture a new CD/SACD if he wanted to do so.
The old CAL was a very nice musical sounding player. It can be upgraded to make major improvements. The Aqua is nothing really that special to my ears. (yeah I know three is a big fan club on them). The CAL can be upgraded for a ton less that buying a new CDP. It still can be a special sounding unit especially for the money.
This post may not be 100% consistent with the OP’s. However, after reading the thoughtful comments here, I figured I’d ask my question: I have a CAL Tercet MK-IV from back in the college days (Still works with the original remote!). After some searching, I have not found many reviews on this piece. there are a few review/articles about the MK-III, just not he MK-IV.
Is this a considered to be a keeper? or should it go by way of the donation center?
Any thoughts/comments/reviews about the MK-IV is greatly appreciated.
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