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Listening for the First Time: The CAL Tercet MK III

As part of our tribute to vintage gear, Auricauricle has a piece on his new CAL Tercet MK III.
- audioREVIEW

Written by: Auricauricle
The box was delivered with a sudden bump that made both my wife and me jump from our seats, where we sat enjoying a pleasant late-morning breakfast. “What was that?” she asked in alarm. As I gazed through the window, I saw the familiar shadow of my neighbor, Fred, as he skulked down the steps to our porch. “It’s Fred,” I replied. “He’s dropped off a box”.

It is a common enough occurrence around this place that the matter scarcely aroused any attention or comment: boxes and parcels are often brought to our door during the day. My wife orders nearly everything, from shoes to bread, and the fairly large box that Fred brought to the porch was quickly ignored. I sighed with some relief knowing this, for in fact I knew that in the box was neither shoes nor bread, but another piece of electronics hardware for the stereo. Recently, as cash has been made more available, the urge to splurge now and then has presented itself, and now the cabinet is now quite full. My wife, happily, loves music as much as I do; but she is not an “audiophile”, and as I thought about her reaction to the piece and the ultimatum that would finally be delivered, I drank my coffee and planned my next move.

I decided that the best tactic was to come clean. After telling her, I steeled myself for the questions that followed. Well, you can imagine them. At length, the gorilla in the room was finally released: “Why buy a CD player when you have a DVD player that plays CD’s just as easily?”

Why, indeed? Like many here, I was introduced to the digital era at the beginning. CD technology was, at the start, a rather high-tech medium that appealed to the few who were able to afford it and the fewer who were aware of its existence. In short time, nearly everyone was “in on” the CD craze, and thousands of titles flooded into the record stores in profusion. With the increased demand, CD manufacturing firms like Sony produced players to accommodate the dictates of the marketplace. Just about anyone could afford a player, a situation that was great for consumers but spelled disaster to audiophiles who were beginning to view the situation with a familiar sense of vague dread.

Often, discussions among the audiophiles about the CD medium were centered around the sonic quality of the format. While few disputed the CD’s superior dynamic range, its hardiness and its potential to reproduce music faithfully, some audiophiles doubted CD’s ability to reproduce music with the same warmth and vitality that many hours of keen LP listening had provided. Many such critics were the high-end audiophiles, who had cut their musical teeth on turntables such as the Linn and the Sota. They knew and know good sound when they hear it, and to their ears, the laser driven vehicle was described as harsh, sterile and glaring.

Canny CD manufacturing firms like Telarc and Loiseau Lyre seemed to have had a preternatural understanding of these arguments and released CD’s that convinced many audiophiles that, while the CD format was prey to such troubles, the format could meet the challenge. The recordings of Shaw for Telarc and Hogwood for Loiseau Lyre, and many others satisfied many that the CD was quite capable, but not everyone was impressed. Other firms, like EG, Arkiv and Philips were quick to push their recordings out, and their products sound very good even to today’s standards. For the huddled masses, Columbia, CBS, Sony, MCA and others were more than content to push the conventional faire, and the consumers who snapped the discs up were more than happy to dole out the extra bucks for the “cherry” recording of “Dark Side of the Moon”.

In time, the CD player was upgraded. Not at all happy with the sound of widely available players manufactured by Sony, Yamaha, Denon, etc., audiophiles still needed to be convinced that the digital format could reproduce music to meet their exquisitely high standards. In time, boutique brands made their way into the listening parlors and studios; and companies like Meridian, Naim and California Audio Labs (CAL) released their own players to meet the demands of the holdouts. Increased resolution and other features came with a high price tag, but there were enough audiophiles to justify the market and Meridian, Naim and CAL happily met the challenge.

Except for the knowing cognoscenti, most folks are quite unaware of companies like Naim, Meridian, CAL or Wadia. Instead, Sony, Yamaha, Marantz and Denon dominate the shelves of the box stores where most people go for their stereo equipment. To them, and to my wife, the prospect of spending $1400.00 (or much more!) on a player when another costing $200.00 that “sounds just as good” is a ridiculous prospect or a frivolous thing only hard-core music buffs are capable of. It is this backdrop and background that my wife’s canny skepticism emanated when the CD player was withdrawn from the box that morning and I, knowing not how to explain my rationale in less than a minute, kept my mouth shut except to say that it was well within budget and that it was worth it to me.

The CAL Tercet was released in 1991, about 6 years or so after the introduction of the CD player, which makes the machine quite old technology-wise. Upon its release, the CAL Tercet MK II, as it is called, cost around $1400.00—quite expensive then as it is even now. I was not able to afford it then, but two weeks ago this machine was made available for $200.00, and I snapped it up like a trout.

The CAL Tercet is a heavy machine; belying photos I have seen of it that seemed to depict a rather sleek and not so pretty plastic job that is so commonplace, nowadays. The CAL is no such thing. It is encased in heavy metal armor, and is, actually, quite pretty to look at. The glowing display is a beautiful, cool, lime green. The buttons are very solidly manufactured, and depress with a satisfying sturdiness that is not akin at all to the cheap buttons and knobs that are found on most mainstream units. The buttons—in addition to the ones to stop, play, pause, open, and advance track–correspond to quite a few things the Tercet is capable of, including programming the player to accommodate cassette recording. I won’t go over these matters here. On the rear are two output RCA plugs. There is no digital output—I believe a Tercet MK IV and the similarly styled IKON made this available. Like the buttons on the front, the RCA jacks are quite hardy and ready for business.

The first order of business in getting the CAL set up was a small but significant matter that many a audiophiles here are all too familiar with: the disengagement of the “locking mechanism”. To those of you who have read my previous remarks, I apologize for repeating this matter; but it bears mention here, nevertheless. Many players have this device, located on the bottom of the player, which corresponds to releasing the laser with is kept protected from the various jars and jolts that may knock it out of alignment while the unit is in transit. It’s a small matter of pulling the spring-loaded knob down to re-engage the laser and get things started. Until I figured it out, I spent not a few hours wondering why the player was reluctant to accept my CD’s. Not a couple of times, I actually held the door shut—gently—when the disc was introduced. While the machine processed the discs, it failed to play them. Only when the “locking pin” was pulled out did it finally settle down to the business at hand. (Thank you, thank you! Please, no autographs!)

Almost as soon as the first disc was introduced did I notice a clear and palpable difference between the CAL and the machine that I had been using previously, a Marantz DV6200. Doing double duty as a DVD/CD player, Marantz is a capable and solid performer, playing discs with very good fidelity that is not unpleasing. In contrast, the CAL is dedicated only to playing CD’s, and it is to that task that the CAL excelled. While the Marantz player is a well manufactured player, the CD tray is of the thin, plastic variety. Discs are placed upon the tray and brought into the player with a slight “snick” that is nearly inconsequential. Conversely, the CAL drawer is a heavy thing—there is some plastic yes, but also metal—and when discs are brought into the player the door snaps shut with a formidable “thunk” that is very consequential: much like sealing up a tomb. I should have realized, even then, that even such a matter as the disc drawer was an overture to a performance that was very impressive, indeed.

The stereo was set up in as straight forward a way as I could provide. The equalizers were disengaged, and treble and bass knobs were clocked to zero position. The first disc I put on was Freddie Hubbard’s “First Light”, a disc that I have played hundreds of times before. At the start, I noticed the presence of a darkness that I have seldom heard before, except in high-end salons in Tokyo and New York. This darkness is quite palpable and is well-known to listeners who know from whence I speak—I won’t dwell on this now, but let it suffice to say that it was very noticeable,very heavy, and loomed like a cloud in my living room. As Hubbard began to play, I was struck by the sound of the trumpet, which had somehow transformed into a live thing. Hubbard’s dexterity was quite evident, as it ever was, but, now, so was his fluidity and breath control. The sound was rich and round, characteristics that some musicians have derided the trumpet for lacking—and the brass bell of the horn spoke with an authority and assuredness that I have scarcely heard before. As I listened I could here the familiar sound of his lips kissing the mouthpeice. While the orchestra played, nearly all of the instruments could be discerned in their respective places. Woodwind instruments such as flutes, clarinets and oboes were likewise reproduced in airy and reedy aplomb. While players such as the Marantz have played these instruments well, the CAL captured an essence of these instruments that was far and away much more absorbing to listen to. As I listened, it occurred to me that the clarinets and oboes are wooden instruments that transmit breath; although I know this fact, this fundamental thing had not struck me the way it did now, and I listened for more. As the percussion was played, the sound of the sticks snapped; triangles shimmered and faded, woodblocks knocked quietly in wooden tones that were clear and succinct and not at all anonymous.

The next disc was Alan Parsons’ “Tales of Mystery and Imagination”, a tribute to the works of Edgar Allen Poe. I started the listen with the song, “(The System of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and played the disc to its end. Again, the silence behind the instruments was clearly palpable, but oh, the music! “Doctor Tar and Professor Fether” is a strong piece of music, introduced by a tightly punctuated chord. In turn, as the bass viol and drum lines were reproduced, I heard seldom-noticed immediacy and crispness that were quite amazing to hear. Vocals were smooth, unstrained, but ever lusty. Again, as in the Hubbard however, was the placement of instruments, which could beard through a wide and expansive stage. Each instrument, it seemed, could be located within a clearly discerned area; it was easy to focus on that instrument alone or in concert with the others. Following this number was Parson’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, a five-part suite that opens with the low hum of an ominous note that is followed by the narration of Orson Wells’. As the orchestra proceeds, through a conversation composed, in part of oboe and flute solos, the adventure unfolds. “The Fall” is a truly mesmerizing tale, and Alan Parsons’ depiction of the wanderer’s journey is similarly beguiling. The CAL reproduced the piece with no strain or edge, keeping the music cohesive, clear and tight. “The Fall”’s fourth movement, “Pavane” is a piece that culminates in a climactic moment that is quite startling to hear. As the orchestra winds up, with the violins in deafening crescendo and kettledrums banging merrily away—seemingly on Death’s Door—the soundscape abruptly stops. All quiet. It was here that the CAL punctuated the silent moment with a resounding and ominous silence. Only after the music continued, now quieter and in a different key, did I regain my composure.

On Tangerine Dream’s “Force Majeure”, Klaus Krieger’s drums were crisp and fluid. I could really sense that the drums were actually played with sticks on skin, something that I really never gave much thought to before. In similar form, familar sounding synth-work of Edgar Froese and Chris Franke became much more interesting and viceral. TD’s synths often sound quite electronic and alien sounding, but now they were quite organic, dare I say analogue, reminding me of their early moog-work. This same uncanny occurrence was also noted when I played TD’s Pergammon, which also features a very lengthy guitar solo, which the CAL played warm and liquid throughout the performance. This last disc should be especially noted, for it is one that has, at various times been subjected to some physical abuse through the years. While the Marantz has managed to play this disc, it has only done so reluctantly and with some attendant skips and omissions. Not so the CAL. It played the disc all the way through–warts and all–with nary a hitch, with detail and in perfect, unblemished form. Try that in another player!

On playback of V. Horowitz’s 1978 performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no.3 with Ormandy and the New York Phiharmonic (RCA), the piano is crisp and strong. Horowitz’s fingers are all over the place, and the performance is assuredly robust. The CAL never lost its focus, and every note was given its voice in crisp and distinct form. Admittedly, the disc is representative of RCA’s “High Performance” line of discs which uses 24/96 technology; it was, very nicely reorded and the Philharmonic and Horowitz are presented here in full bloom. Decay of the piano was arrestingly realistic: I could even clearly hear the strings of the magnificent instrument as the notes were played, something I have only seldom descried. Pedal tones were giant, sonorous things that thundered as Horowitz bore down on the piano with terrifying ferocity and agile speed.

For sampling of vocals, the CAL was taken through its paces with a variety of discs. I can say with absolute conviction that this player is perhaps one of the best ones I have ever heard. Vocals were produced in all their finery and imperfect splendor. Whether it was the bell-like clarity of Cecilia Bartoli’s supple, honeyed voice or the fluid-creak clip of Roger Waters singing “The Tide is Changing”, the CAL brought a rarely heard humanity back into the recording that is so often lacking with most players. Likewise stunning was playback of Sevara Nazarkhan, whose supple Uzbek voice was played with a hushed and immediate breathiness that was never a bore to listen to.

But it is CAL’s staging of sound, which is quite wide, that really sets this player apart from all others I have listened to. With the Tercet it is possible to listen to performances with attention focused on single instruments, if one so desires to. The CAL’s uncanny ability to do this has opened my ears to things I have only heard absent-mindedly. At the risk of using a cliche, I would not hesitate to say that, in some respects, I am now listening to much familiar music for the first time.

In a similar sense, the CAL is a wonderful instrument for headphone users. The Tercet produces a prodigiously immense sound that is downright scary. As an example, let one describe his head as the face of a clock, with 12:00 located at the forehead, with 3:00 and 9:00 at the ears. With this in mind, the music covered a wide expanse, extending the listening to well beyond 3:00 and 9:00 to 7:00 and 5:00. This is where the CAL really showed its mettle, presenting all artists in a wide array and with tight, solid dynamics that was nothing short of astonishing.

I have used the word dark to describe much of what I have heard—for those of you who know what I mean, you will understand—for those of you who don’t know, I adjure you to keep your ears in preparation, for this is, Oh Best Beloved, where the music truly is. Small ensembles as well as large orchestras are reproduced with great and simple fidelity on this player, which shows no sign of force nor strain and is never boring to listen to. I found myself pulling out many discs, listening, it seemed, as though for the first time—yeah, it was that good.

The CAL Tercet MK III is a player of great distinction and is a must-audition for those interested in acquiring a used high-end CD player for a reasonable price. At around $1400.00 when it first came out, the CAL was not a player for everyone. Now as years have passed, so too has the price of the unit which can be found in various sites through the Internet, at prices that are quite within reach. For those audiophiles who are tightly leashed to a budget, are not ready to enter the SACD arena, this is a really, really good deal. Simply put, this instrument was built to last and the sound will keep you happy for a very long time! It is that good. Period.

Oh, and better yet: you don’t have to hide the box!

California Audio Labs (CAL) is not out of business, but you can see products a read reviews on CAL components at the manufacturer site on audioREIVEW. Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to pick up a hell of a deal at a thrift shop or else where on something still awesome but not longer in demand.

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