Soundstage! - Todd Warnke


September 1996

Manufacturer: California Audio Labs
1751 Langley Avenue
Irvine, California 92714

Price: $295

One thing I think about quite often is where the next generation of audiophile is going to come from. Competition from computers (odd comment from a web site, huh), home theater, and other recreational spending seems to drain away many of those who would have joined our club. The stiff entry cost (compared to a $1000 Sony, all inclusive rack system) is also a major factor that limits who can enter, and many interested newcomers are put off by that alone. So, while State of the Art companies like Genesis, Levinson, Spectral and Avalon may interest those of us on the inside, they seldom do anything to attract new blood. To me, that increases the importance of companies such as Audio Alchemy, Adcom and NHT, who have done much to ease the entry price into the high end by offering high value (and high visibility) products with very good to excellent sonics. Another one of those companies offering superb sound quality for modest prices is California Audio Labs. Besides high value, they have often used innovative technology in their products, such as the tubed output stages in some of their CD players and DACs. And several of their products, such as the $895 Delta transport, are insanely good for the price. So, when Cal offered me a chance at their new DAC, the Gamma, I jumped at the opportunity to see what $295 offers someone just starting out, and to see if what is offered is good enough to tempt someone new over the wall and into the asylum we call The High End.

After the Gamma arrived, and after opening the box, I noticed two striking qualities of this budget priced DAC. First, it looks good for the price, and second, it's small. Measuring 7 x 2 x 6 3/4 inches it sat nicely atop my Audio Alchemy DTI-Pro, matching it's size almost perfectly. The front panel is very clean, sporting only three blade-shaped push button controls. Moving left to right they are a power switch (the manual suggests leaving it powered for best results, at least as long as it has adequate surge protection), a phase inversion switch, and a switch to choose between the coax and the optical input. The last two of these switches control yellow lights which indicate their position (the phase lighting only when inverted), while the power switch controls a red LED. The front panel also has the Cal Audio name on it, which lights up in green to indicate a pos itive lock on the incoming datastream. The rear panel is even cleaner than the front, with a single coax and a single TOS link input on the right side, with a pair of line level outputs on the left side. They are separated by the power input jack, which is of the mini-din type and attaches to a wall wart power supply.

Inside things are tidy as well. Everything is contained on a single circuit board, which is cleanly laid out, and besides the normal parts includes the company name and motto, Quality You Can Hear. The input receiver is a Crystal CS8412, which will lock on to digital signals from 28kHz to 55kHz, making this DAC suitable for CD, LD, DMX or DAT decoding. Data conversion is performed by a single Burr-Brown PCM1710U chip. The choice of a single DAC is not surprising at this price point. Everything seems to be of good quality, and very well organized. The 'Made in Thailand' sticker on the bottom of the player is one clue as to how Cal Audio is able to deliver as much it does for $295.

After examining the unit, and per my normal policy, letting it break in for 100 hours, I started listening by popping in the DCC version of Paul McCartney's 'Band on the Run.' I was immediately struck by the relaxing sound of this DAC. Without fancy power supplies, power filtration or high buck engineering, I was expecting to hear at least some of the digital nasties. None were there. While not lacking in foot-tapping ability, everything was presented in a very comfortable, back porch kind of way. The soundstage started several feet back from the plane of the speakers, with the treble being a little soft and the bass slightly warm. While I can't speak for Cal Audio's design intent, I applaud this result. Too many entry level digital products are bright and brittle, giving a false feeling of enhanced detail, while ultimately sucking the life out of the music. The Gamma, while lacking in ultimate sparkle, has a musical presentation that is very non-fatiguing and enjoyable.

Further listening confirmed this impression of the Gamma. It's laid back sound gave the McCartney disk, and most others, a slight softening of textures and dynamic contrasts, that while noticeable was seldom injurious to the music. For example, when playing the Motown, 'Hitsville USA' collection, the Gamma's balance took just enough edge off the recordings to make sitting back and listening for hour after hour pure pleasure. The down side of this softness, on the other hand, can be shown using the McCartney disk. For a pop recording, Band On The Run has a mellow balance and the Gamma's laid back presentation accentuated that. My favorite track, Bluebird, with it's soft feel became somewhat bland. The same track through my Audio Alchemy DDE 3.0 is alive in a way the Gamma just couldn't recreate, with Paul's bass coming to the fore and giving the song a drive that stops it from falling into a pile of goo.

A quick caution before we go further. Before you read too much into this Gamma/3.0 comparison I need to remind you that the 3.0 retails for $799, and that I use the optional PS3 power supply, which at a list of $259 is almost as much as the Gamma itself! By using the 3.0 as a counterpoint for most of this review I am not trying to set an unfair standard for the Gamma, rather I'm trying to see how it stacks up against an established DAC, as well as one that occupies the next rung up the price ladder.

After switching back and forth between these two DAC's set out in search of a disk that would let me easily describe the differences between them. Gil Evan's Out of the Cool seemed a logical choice. By the way, if this album is not in your collection, you are missing out on one of the finest examples of ensemble jazz ever recorded. I came across Gil, as many have, through his association with Miles Davis. Besides his role in the 'Birth of the Cool' sessions he was the arranger for the Davis disks, 'Miles Ahead,' 'Sketches of Spain' and 'Porgy and Bess.' Originally released in 1961, the title, 'Out of the Cool,' is thus a play on Gil's role in the 'Birth ...' sessions as well as a comment on the album itself. The recording, while recently transferred to 20 bit SBM as a part of Impulse!'s recent re-release program, is beginning to show it's age. Peaking is often evident, as is its multi-track heritage. Nevertheless, it is of both sufficient clarity and complexity to make it a good test disk.

As for the music, like Miles, Gil often took a less is more stance (allowing room to hear each instrument cleanly) and in spite of his role as an arranger, encouraged improvisation where ever possible. The opening cut, 'La Nevada,' is a superlative demonstration of Gil's skills and virtues. Piano, trumpet, trombones, tuba, saxes, flute, piccolo, guitar, bass, drums and percussion combine with absolute clarity. Each voice is unique, adding a color purely it's own, and yet is an organic part of the group itself. The sound of the ensemble is open, transparent and richly textured. This is jazz as a mid '60's Ferrari, sleek, distinct but not overly flashy. It is the single-minded blending of various parts in service of a common goal. With the 3.0 in place the ensemble was delivered to my room, in toto, without regard to the recording flaws. Each player occupied his ow n space, and each instrument had its own distinct character. I was able to pick out individual lines and follow them with ease, and then easily shift gears and lock into the mood of the entire ensemble. With the Gamma, as enjoyable as it was, individual textures were less distinct. For example, the bass trombone had less of a unique color and was more of a part of the brass section, blending slightly with tuba. This made jumping from instrument to instrument a little more difficult to do. Yet, and here is where the essential goodness of the Gamma came through, the feeling of the song came through unscathed. My foot was tapping out the beat, and my soul was happy to be along for the ride. After comparing the two DAC's on this song I was impressed more by what the Gamma did right then by what it failed to do. That may not sound like high praise, but it is. The Gamma allowed me to focus clearly on what was going on in the recording, and did not draw attention to its faults. In my mind, and at this price point, an excellent achievement.

Earlier I mentioned that the Gamma had a foot-tapping ability. As my time with it went on I came to appreciate this facet of its presentation. In fact, that foot-tapping part soon came to dominate my listening. The Gamma delivered the rhythmic (and emotional) goodies so well that I found myself seeking out my 'groove' disks one after another. It mattered not whether Lee Morgan's 'The Sidewinder' or James Brown's 'Live at the Apollo' was on, when you walked in the room, your foot felt the beat. Hard bop from Horace Silver; pop/funk from Earth, Wind and Fire; Clapton's '70's albums, and Joan Osborne's 'Relish' all seemed to take to the Gamma like a skier to Vail. One thing for sure, if you have a monkey bone the Gamma will find it.

Moving on, I wanted to look at the rest of the Gamma's abilities so I put the 'groove' disks away and jumped into a more analytical mode. I find piano to be an excellent test of a DAC's fine detail, micro and macro dynamics as well as test of it's subtle rhythmic abilities, so that's what went in next. My current fave piano disk is Cyrus Chestnut's 'Earth Stories.' The opening track begins with a quick comment on the lower keys and then accelerates up the keyboard and explodes in dynamics. The Gamma did a respectable job with the entire piece, but more especially with the lower registers of the piano. On the top, when Cyrus's fingers dance like a young Fred Astaire, the notes lost some of their bell-like crispness and fine decay. Instead of sounding like the top octave of the Steinway Grand he's playing, through the Gamma the notes sounded more like those of a good upright. Some of the subtle micro dynamics were also a little short of their presentation through the Audio Alchemy DAC as well (the soft treble?). As you can guess, the rhythmic ability was a little slower than that of the 3.0, but just as it had been with my 'groove' tunes, the Gamma was always easy to follow and easy to enjoy.

I've been harping a little on the Gamma's treble, but it really only suffered compared to the 3.0. When I jumped back and forth between the two units differences were noticeable, but when left to run for an extended period of time, the Gamma did superbly. As for the rest of the tonal reproduction of the Gamma, the midrange was very capable. It had presence, warmth and detail. Female vocals were nicely rendered and males were also presented in good balance. The bass was a little soft, but only in the lower reaches, and even then it was always tuneful and satisfying. All in all, a good balance. What errors there were there were errors of subtraction, not of addition.

Staging, as suggested earlier, was also short of the 3.0 but otherwise was quite respectable for a DAC in this price range. Macro dynamics were presented smoothly, and with great rhythm. It was only when the music took on great complexity, or strong volume shifts that things congealed slightly. I wonder if the power supply is partly to blame, as well as the reliance on a single DAC to handle both channels. Still, for $295, the sound quality is superb.

After spending several weeks comparing the Gamma to my 3.0, I sought out a more even match for it. I borrowed a friend's Audio Alchemy DITB for a quick shoot out. Running both DAC's through a night of LD movies, and a day of audio disks served only to confirm my very positive view of the Gamma. It easily out distanced the DITB, a DAC I have had a very positive view of for some time. The slightly soft focus of the Gamma seemed more natural than the harder sounding AA DAC. It made the DITB seem etched and slightly brittle in comparison. And while the DITB seemed to deliver more of the ambiance of a recording, the Gamma gave you a larger slice of it's emotional pie. Given a choice, in most systems, I'd give the Gamma a good edge over the DITB.

As a final step, I decided to see how the Gamma would stack up against the output of my Philips (using it as a stand alone CD player), since I imagine that most Gamma customers will be in a similar situation, using a budget CD player, and looking to upgrade without spending a lot of big green. Well, to make a sad story short, the Gamma was a decisive winner. The Philips was clouded and grainy in comparison. The bass from the Gamma was more powerful, and reached deeper. Staging was roughly equal, but over all it was no contest. The Gamma was a real step (maybe two) up.

At the end of my time with the Gamma, and being as impressed with it as I was, I decided to give it a shot at my LD player. When used to decode the LD signal, the Gamma was able to make the most of it's mellow touch. Compared to the player's internal DAC, the Gamma was a runaway winner. Every disk sounded more accurate and more enjoyable. The thumping of the Imperial Walkers in the opening snow scene of 'The Empire Strikes Back' had more impact and power. The hot top end of 'Crossing Delancy' was nicely tamed. In fact, the softer focus treble and warm lower bass helped many of our older disks, and disks of older movies as well. This made 'My Fair Lady' a tolerable experience for me (Robin loved it). 'Pride and Prejudice' (Robin's favorite movie, I even enjoy it, if only for Greer Garson) took on a sound much closer to what I imagine the original soundtrack was like. All in all, a jolly good showing.

So, after my time with the Gamma, do I see it helping to expand the audiophile base? You bet I do. This is a quality product that does it's job with real elan. Music has a drive that invites you in, and it's gently rolled top avoids the digital nasties. It's price makes it very attractive for someone looking to upgrade an existing mid-fi player, or for someone looking for a good quality, entry priced DAC with which to start a true high end set up. Compared to the DITB, I found the Gamma to be the more musical. It's balanced recreation of disk after disk made it easy to fall for. Compared to the over 3 times as expensive 3.0/PS 3 combo the Gamma did a very admirable job. While falling behind in absolute terms, it consistently revealed the musical message in a way no $295 DAC has a right to. And, as a replacement for the digital to analog stage of my Philips the Gamma was so good it was silly.

Eight years ago when I started out in this hobby if I had been able hear a system built on this DAC, with say a Creek integrated and some decent speakers, I could saved myself a lot of time and money. It reveals so much of what the High End is about that it's short comings are easily forgivable. In fact, I've got a friend who has asked for some help putting together his first 'real' audio rig. Since he has only $1500 to work with we're looking at a Jolida integrated to go with some NHT's, decent stands, a Philips cd player and the Gamma. The Gamma was the piece that made this setup gel for him. It also helped him (and me) see that high quality sound is available for affordable prices. So, if it's Cal's mission to help ease the entry of newbies into the audiophile world, in my book they have done so wonderfully. And, as for us existing audio-nuts, I highly recommended the Gamma as an inexpensive step up DAC for your LD player, DMX receiver, digital TV DAC, or to upgrade a second system. Good stuff, you betcha! Be sure to check it out, and to recommend it to anyone looking for an inexpensive entry to the real High End.

.....Todd Warnke