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[SOUNDSTAGE!]Home Theater
Equipment Review

October 1999

CAL CL-25 CD/DVD Player

CAL’s nearly identical CL-20 has been reviewed as a CD/HDCD and 24/96 audio disc player in SoundStage! Audio Online in a full-length review by Dave Duvall and a follow-up by Marc Mickelson. Therefore, for this Video Online review, I will forego mention of the two-channel audio performance other than to indicate that it is quite good -- so good that you may find external that DACs are either no improvement or (horrors!) a detriment. For Video Online, I’ll focus on the CL-25 as a main source for a home-theater system.

The CL-25 is the same size and identical in appearance to the CL-20. It is a rather tall box for a DVD player. The extra height is needed to clear a copper-sheet bridge/shield that goes over the top of the transport and main digital circuit board, which also contains the analog output stage. This large board is CAL’s own design and contains the DACs, Pacific Microsonics HDCD filter and a sophisticated analog output stage designed for high-quality sound. This large circuit board mounts on top of the copper bridge/shield, separating it from the digital circuitry and the transport as effectively as if this board had been installed in an external DAC.

As Marc Mickelson mentioned in the CL-20 follow-up, the basic engine of the two CAL players is manufactured by Matsushita and appears inside DVD players by Panasonic, Denon and others. Of course, in those applications, you get DAC boards and analog output stages on circuit boards the size of a few postage stamps. CAL’s DAC/analog board is very large and fully up to high-end parts quality and design standards. The DVD transport itself has a single laser. You can play single- and double-layer DVDs, audio CDs, HDCDs, video CDs, and 24/96 discs from Classic Records and Chesky. You cannot play CD-Rs or CD-RWs.

Audio – interfaces and digital coax cables

For Dolby Digital AC-3 soundtracks, there are two possible outputs from the CL-25: an RCA jack for 75-ohm digital coax, and a TosLink connection. These outputs support 44.1kHz (regular CDs) and 48kHz (DAT and Dolby Digital AC-3 from DVDs) sampling rates. Dolby Digital and DTS are 48kHz digital bit streams, so there is no real need for DVD movie playback use to have a higher output frequency. There is no internal Dolby Digital decoder in the CL-25, so you will be connecting the CL-25 to an external surround processor. The digital connection to the surround decoder is quite sensitive to the digital coax cable that is used. I would have been annoyed with this had I not had the superb $269 Cardas Lightning digital/video cable on hand. This cable opened up the sonics appreciably, so much so that other cables made Dolby Digital sound dark and closed in compared to the sound with the Cardas Lightning.

Two more digital outputs are available for two-channel audio. One is an RCA for 75-ohm digital coax, and the other is an AES/EBU connector. Both are labeled "96kHz" even though this high rate is factory disabled. If and when the industry decides that outputting 96kHz digital audio data is OK, CAL can provide a code to enable the outputs for 96kHz. Since the internal DACs in the CL-25 are so good, I would not consider these two outputs more than curiosities anyway. I think that most people should and will use the CL-25 (or CL-20) without an external two-channel DAC. More on this later.

Through an outboard surround processor, the CL-25 consistently produced better Dolby Digital sound than that available from the internal Dolby Digital decoder in my reference Panasonic DVD A-310 or the Panasonic DVD A-310’s digital output connected to the same surround processor. The strengths of the CL-25’s two-channel audio performance were all readily audible while playing movie soundtracks. There was no harshness detectable at any time. Transparency was everything you could ask for, and bass was tight, detailed and powerful. Some of the best movie soundtracks, Contact and The Fifth Element in particular, contain brief to lengthy scenes where the added performance of a DVD player with superior audio performance proves its worth. In these particularly well-produced scenes, there is virtually no clue in the soundtrack that you are not actually right there in the scene. The sense of heightened realism is such that you have to concentrate very hard to pay attention to the DVD player (and surround processor) rather than get swept along by the movie. I found this particular characteristic of the CL-25 to be one of its most endearing qualities.

Video, video connections and video cables

Video connections are very flexible on the CL-25. Composite? S-Video? Component? RGB? All are supported. Component IRE black level at 7.5 or 0? Your choice. RGB with sync on green or RGB with separate sync cable? Whichever you need. S-Video is your best bang for the buck, with component video being a slight improvement. The larger the screen and better the display device you use, the more you will want to consider using the component or RGB outputs. RGB appeared to give images that were about the same quality as component, though this was never tested back to back on a single display device because none of them I had access to had both component and RGB connections. Component outputs are there to support consumer products where component is the native internal signal processing format. Many projector systems were originally designed for computers, and these use RGB inputs. The CAL CL-25 can go either way.

There is a single set of four connectors for component and RGB. You must select the mode (component or RGB) you want to use via a combination of front-panel switches. Only three of these connectors are used unless you select RGB + Sync, which uses all four of them. These four outputs have BNC connectors, and this is a somewhat gutsy move by CAL since RCAs are the common connector for component connections. However, RCAs are not true 75-ohm connectors, but BNCs are. Thus, there is likely to be a small advantage when using BNC connectors. The problem you might have is that pre-fabricated component video cables may have RCAs on both ends. Be sure you know what you are getting for cable terminations when you purchase component or RGB cables for the CL-25.

Processing of anamorphic images for letterbox presentation on 4:3 monitors is excellent, living up to the well-recognized standards in the Panasonic/Matsushita video processing circuits. However, CAL has done something extra. I’m not entirely sure just what it is, but in a direct comparison of video image quality with a Panasonic DVD A-310, the CAL CL-25 had a consistently better image than the Panasonic player. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was a detectable and worthwhile improvement. The most obvious improvements are in sharpness and dimensionality. The CL-25 images look a little more detailed and have a slight roundness that doesn’t exist in images from the lower-cost DVD player. That roundness is what lends the sense of improved dimensionality. In the world of high-performance video products, every little bit helps, especially when images are greatly magnified by rear-projection sets or front projectors. I would characterize the CL-25’s image as very well balanced with no detectable color casts. Using Joe Kane’s Video Essentials setup DVD, I found it was very easy to set any display device to produce very pleasing images using the CL-25.

During all the movie-watching I did with the CL-25, I never saw an image artifact that I could attribute to video decoding. There were plenty of artifacts to see, but they were all NTSC interlace artifacts or artifacts encoded on the DVD. Fortunately, all of the DVD-related artifacts didn’t last long or appear too often. Interlace artifacts are something you have to live with unless you get into a video display system that converts every video input to progressive scan displays.

Features SnapShot!
CAL CL-25 CD/DVD Player
Price: $2995 USD

Weight: 20 lbs.
Warranty: One year parts and labor

Outputs:

  • Digital - one coaxial (up to 48kHz, CD & AC-3 compatible), one TosLink (up to 48kHz CD & AC-3 compatible), one coaxial (up to 48kHz PCM digital audio w/96kHz capability), one AES/EBU (up to 48kHz PCM digital audio w/96kHz capability)
  • Video -  one composite RCA, one S-Video, one component BNC, one RGB BNC
  • Audio - one left/right analog

Features:

  • HDCD compatibility
  • BNC connectors (component/RGB video)
  • RS232 digital interface

Optimizing the CL-25

As with any home-theater component, there are things you can do to the CL-25 to improve the sound and image quality it produces. The CL-25 improves in both sound quality and very slightly in image quality if you use a good-quality isolation base, like the LaserBase (review in SoundStage! Audio Online Archives). When I used the LaserBase with the CL-25, there was a more expansive soundstage and more definition between individual sounds. Video image quality "de-fuzzed" to a very slight degree, just enough to be noticeable and repeatable.

For video image quality, Nordost’s recently introduced Optix video cables produced a noticeably better video image than other cables that were tried with the CL-25. This held true for both composite and S-Video. There is no reason to expect that RGB or component would be any different since the frequencies involved are the same. The CL-25 output some very good 16:9 images from anamorphic DVDs on projectors. An LCD projector was not revealing enough to show differences with a Sony 7000 player, but in the CRT-based theater, the CAL’s image quality was subtly better than the Sony’s with the same cables, no power conditioning and no isolation base.

Conclusions

Is there enough extra beef in a $2995 DVD/CD/HDCD player to justify the cost over, say one of the better $1000 players like the Sony 7700 or Pioneer Elite DV-05? I’d say no if you were only going to use the player for DVDs. If you are going to make this component the centerpiece of your system and have high expectations for music as well as movie sound and image quality, then you are looking at a situation where the capabilities of the CL-25 make it a no-brainer purchase. And remember that if you don’t need the component or RGB outputs, you can save $500 and get the same performance in the CL-20. These CAL disc players deliver such a high level of performance on music that you would very likely feel no need whatsoever to invest additional funds in an outboard DAC. With no outboard DAC, you have no use for an anti-jitter device, and you can save as much as the CL-25 costs by not engaging in component proliferation! If you seek top-quality DVD movie performance and true high-end-audio performance on CD, HDCD and 24/96 discs, the CL-25 makes a cost-effective choice.

...Doug Blackburn
db@soundstage.com

Manufacturer Contact:
California Audio Labs
Box 1218, 133 Taylor Way
Blue Lake, CA 95525
Phone: (707) 688-1736
Fax: (707) 668-1923

E-mail: info@calaudio.com
Website: www.calaudio.com


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