California Audio Labs Tercet Mk.III CD player

At $1295, the Tercet Mk.III represents a step up from CAL's $750 Icon, which I enthusiastically recommended back in April 1990 (Vol.13 No 4, footnote 1). Externally, with the exception of a wider and slightly thicker front panel, it appears to be a carbon copy of that unit. Like the other products in California Audio Lab's stable, the Tercet Mk.III is designed from the ground up in-house. It is totally solid-state, and, like the Icon, uses the same linear-drive, glass-optics, single-laser transport and noisy loading drawer (equally loud but lower in pitch than the Luxman D-105u CD player that I also review in this issue).

The Mk.III features the same 8x-oversampling, 24-bit digital filter as its lower-cost sibling. Additional similarities are a custom clock module, EMI filtration on the inbound AC line, dual, hand-trimmed, Burr-Brown PCM 61P 18-bit DACs, and a turn-on mute timer (which allows the circuits to stabilize before sound is heard).

The differences lie elsewhere. For instance, the Dual Orthogonal Optical Fast Asymmetrical Power Supply (whew!) is said, by CAL, to be the most advanced design in the industry. I'll let the engineers out there mull over just what exactly that means—CAL literature says the benefits are low ringing and rock-solid power delivery to the digital and analog sections. There are 23 separate regulated power supplies in the Tercet Mk.III and the analog section is all discrete, featuring FETs with a complementary, servo-controlled, DC-coupled output.

Like the Icon, two solid, gold-plated, Tiffany-like RCA jacks grace the right side of the rear panel. A standard set of pushbutton operational controls is located on the front panel just beneath the fluorescent display window. Alas, they're as hard to read as those on the Icon. All but three (which deal with disc-to-tape copying) are duplicated on the remote control, however, so convenient operation is not hindered. The Tercet Mk.III's operation and control flexibility are identical to the Icon's, so I refer the reader to the earlier review for details.

Suffice it to say I did not feel shortchanged by the Tercet Mk.III's options. I never listen through headphones, so the absence of a headphone jack (with or without a volume control) does not upset me. And since I have found variable outputs to degrade the sound, I don't miss them either. I don't use an external processor, so I don't miss the coaxial digital-out. Apparently, neither do others; CAL's Art Paymer says only about 5% of sales include this optional feature. Construction quality is equal to that of the Icon; ie, excellent. The single, large printed circuit board, though filled with topnotch components, is not crowded, and the solder work is excellent. The power supply is located well away from the pcb, to the rear on the left.

The CAL Tercet Mk.III is sold with the usual 1-year parts and labor warranty. Incidentally, you won't find printed specifications in the Tercet's instruction manual. The underlying philosophy at CAL toward such matters is to let the consumer hear, by listening to music through the product, how good it sounds. Specifications, according to CAL, only tell part of the story—the current crop of CD players all have excellent specs—and cannot convey the emotional satisfaction one receives from a musical performance. Only listening will provide that opportunity; CAL puts faith in their products' abilities to do just that.

Before delving into the musical performance of the Tercet Mk.III, I can't resist discussing its performance on disc 2 of the Pierre Verany Digital Test CD (PV.788032). Don't panic, I haven't turned into an audio nerd—yet. Objectivity has its place, especially when it's as easy to achieve as this. Tracks 25–38 on this disc contain dropouts in the reflecting disc surface which increase in length as the track number increases. The better CD players reproduce the higher track numbers without audible errors. The Tercet Mk.III did not run into trouble until track 36, which corresponds to a dropout 2.5mm in length. This performance comfortably exceeds the CD standard. In another test, which measures a player's ability to correct successive dropouts, the Tercet Mk.III sailed up to track 49, where two 2.4mm dropouts occur per revolution. Quite commendable performance, since the test ends with track 50 (two 3mm dropouts per revolution).

But reproducing 500Hz sinewaves, to me, is not the reason to own hi-fi equipment. Reproducing music is, and it is to this experience I now turn.

The Astrée sampler (E 7699), which belongs in every reviewer's collection (yours too!), presents a wide spectrum of music ranging from the 13th through the 20th centuries, in outstanding performances captured in exemplary sound. It's a shame it's out of print (at least in this country), but you can write to Harmonia Mundi USA and demand it be re-released. Track 3, the John Dowland lute Fantasy, played with great finesse by Paul O'Dette, was immediately captivating when heard on the Tercet Mk.III. The image of the soloist was extremely well-focused, with palpable outlines. O'Dette's placement within the recording venue was excellent, with unmistakable ambience clues lending a sense of believability to the performance.

The Tercet Mk.III's apparent ability to extract a maximum of low-level detail was demonstrated effectively here, passing over no subtle nuance of the performance and convincingly converting the physical aspects of music-making on such a fiendishly difficult instrument as the lute. I sensed the demands made on the soloist in the performance of this music by the large amount of incidental noises heard—body movements related to the drawing-out of the notes from the strings. Tonal balance of the instrument was excellent in all registers. Highs sparkled like sunlight through crystal, and the bass carried an appropriate sense of weight without becoming "woolly." The sound was pleasing and emotionally involving, euphonic but not dull. Dynamics were handled with aplomb (yes, even lute music can be dynamic), contributing to the ease with which the musical line could be followed. At no time did I have the sense I was listening to a CD.

Jordi Savall's 17th-century bass viol, track 4, had rarely sounded so convincing. That instrument's rich, woody sound was captured with ample body and resonance. Nor did the notes "drop dead" after being bowed, instead dying out naturally in an acoustic space made palpable through the rendering of the "air" in the recording venue. The col legno effect at the end of the piece is especially exciting, the sound of the notes literally bouncing off the surrounding walls. The resulting echoes become overwhelming, contributing to the sense of the performance taking place in a cavernous space. The Tercet Mk.III, like the now-discontinued Tempest II Special Edition which was my CD reference for quite a while, excelled at retrieving such information.

Footnote 1: Robert J. Reina reviewed the California Audio Labs Icon Mk.II Power Boss CD player in June 1996.—John Atkinson
California Audio Labs
Huntington Beach, CA 92641 (1991)
company no longer in existence (2020)

LinearTracker's picture

I had purchased one of these based on this review back in the day ☹️. Still spinning vinyl.

dial's picture

As a student I had long holidays from june to october so I did a lot of jobs. One of them was salesman -during two years- at a high end shop, where you can buy Piega, Swiss Physics or Threshold if you were wealthy. They have other brands but I remember well these three as they seem very well built. One day someone came with a Goldmund studio 2 with their Gold cartridge, saying he doesn't play vinyl anymore. We have to find him a buyer at huge discount as he was buying a lot of gear (only sources cos for electronics he owned some Jadis separates I fall in love with)from us it was done quickly. He had just bought the 2 chassis version of THE CAL player.

Ortofan's picture

... saved $400 and bought a Sony CDP-X55ES.

Or, for the analog disc aficionados, $1,300 would have bought a Pioneer PL-90 turntable, along with your choice of a Stanton 881S Mk II or an Audio-Technica AT-ML170 cartridge.

dial's picture

Yes but it's less exotic.
For me direct drive turntables offer the best speed stability and less vibrations because the motor turns at the right speed, very low.
About CD players I liked the looks of the 2-chassis CAL, the sound well I can't remember. Shame there's no market for these old digital gear (even tubey), would like to get one cheapo if the mechanism is easily replaceable and still available. At the shop (long closed), we've got bad surprises concerning build quality and to get some parts especially for Sonographe- by Conrad Johnson.
Today I use a very old (1996 !) Micromega Drive 2 (Philips pro laser section still available but now made in PRC). Is there a big difference between this and a BR player ?!

Ortofan's picture

... vintage CD players have become unobtanium.
Plus, players that are two decades old, or more, may need to have the electrolytic capacitors replaced.

So, is it worth the expense to acquire and refurbish a vintage high-end CD player, or would one simply be better off applying those funds toward a brand new unit, such as a Denon DCD-1600E or a Yamaha CD-S1000 (either of which cost about $1,200)?

dial's picture

My budget to play CD to BR is only 150$ max ; my CD (drive only) has his own converter (AES-EBU wired), my preamp (an old vintage Isem Quark) has another built-in especially for HDCD so I keep it for that only (coax link). And at last I have a 3D Lab. Nano for Hirez files (384 K max -enough for me can't tell the difference !-) linked to a cheap Samsung BR via coax Kimber. I only keep the Quark to play vinyls with a Thorens MC pre and a Project phono.
I love old gear, especially exotic brands when the looks are my taste.

dial's picture

Saw one for sale with a Tempest for 120$ but none in working order