California Audio Labs DX-2 CD-player Review

California Audio Labs DX-2
California Audio Labs DX-2

California Audio Labs manufactures a number of "high-end" CD players ranging in price from $600 to $2,000. The DX-2 is the latest addition to the line and one of the company's most affordable models. It is an updated version of the DX-1 player.

According to the manufacturer, the DX-2 has an improved version of the original drive mechanism that uses only 50 percent as many moving parts, resulting in improved tracking accuracy and reliability. The player's circuitry is mounted on a two-sided glass-epoxy circuit board instead of the single-sided phenolic board in the DX-1. Another improvement is an analog audio stage using discrete components, which is said to be superior to one built from integrated circuits. Finally, the power supply has been redesigned with a resin-potted transformer, separate from the analog audio section, that is said to produce less noise and to be more resistant to shipping damage than the previous design.

The DX-2 is a relatively compact, all-black player whose front-panel controls consist of six slender operating buttons and a larger power button. The operating controls, which flank a small display window, are clearly identified with contrasting white markings. Although the buttons operate with virtually no motion, they have a positive and unambiguous feel that leaves no doubt about their actuation.

The controls to the left of the display open or close the disc drawer, start play, and pause play. To the right of the display are the stop button and two track buttons, previous and next. Each operation of one of the track buttons shifts the pickup one track forward or back on the CD in use.

The display window is relatively small (2-1/4 x 5/8 inches). Initially it shows the total number of tracks and the total playing time on the disc, and during play it shows the current track number and the elapsed playing time in minutes and seconds. A small mu-sic-calendar section of the display indicates the unplayed tracks on the disc, but only up to No. 15.

Despite its apparent (and real) simplicity, the DX-2 offers virtually all of the functions of any full-featured CD player. The supplied infrared remote control, in addition to duplicating the basic front-panel control functions, offers several other playback options.

The two search buttons on the remote activate forward or reverse functions at two speeds. The random button rearranges the playback sequence each time it is pressed. The DX-2's display indicates whether random play or any other special mode is selected.

The scan button plays the first 15 seconds of each track on the disc. Pressing the time-mode button toggles the display from remaining time in the current track to remaining total time on the disc to total elapsed time. A twelve-button keypad gives direct access to any track on a disc and can be used to program playback of up to twenty tracks in any order. In addition, you can even turn off the back-lighting of the player's display window in order to "remove any distractions from your listening pleasure," as the owner's manual puts it.

The DX-2's rear panel contains gold-plated BNC jacks for the analog output channels and for carrying the digital output to an external component such as a DAT recorder or an outboard digital-to-analog (D/A) converter. BNC locking connectors are physically and electrically superior to RCA-type connectors, which is why they are used in laboratory equipment. They are not comptaible with RCA jacks, though, so if you plan on using RCA connectors you'll need adaptors (available from Radio Shack for about $3 apiece). There is a three-prong receptacle for the detachable power cable.

The player's specifications state that it has a 1-bit Delta Sigma D/A converter with 32-times oversampling and 16-bit resolution. The analog audio stage uses discrete FET (field-effect-transistor) circuitry.

The CX-2 performed quite respectably in our lab tests. The minor deviation we found in our de-emphasized frequency-response test consisted of a slight hump in the curve centered at 4.5 kHz. Although the hump is located in a critical area, its size (only 0.37 dB) indicates that it will probably not be audible in program material. Harmonic distortion was much too low ever to be audible, and besides, it consisted principally of the third harmonic, which would be masked by the program content anyway. Power-supply hum was also extremely low. Linearity error at -90 dBFS (decibels referred to digital full scale), while okay, was higher than we have seen from some less expensive players. Our excess-noise tests, which measure the amount of noise the player adds to a CD signal of either standard 16-bit or quasi-20-bit resolution, produced average results with the DX-2 (perfect performance in these tests would be 0 dB).

We are experimenting with a new, more critical test methodology for gauging disc-defect tracking. With the new test procedure, the DX-2 tracked a 1,500-micrometer defect, which far exceeds the minimum performance standard for a CD player (200 micrometers). With our previous procedure, the DX-2 audibly mistracked at 2,000 micrometers, the next larger disc-damage increment on the Pierre Verany test disc. The player was also relatively insensitive to physical impact. Only a hard blow on the side of the cabinet, or a slap on the top cover, was able to induce a momentary interruption of the program.

The California Audio Labs DX-2 is a fine CD player. Although it costs more than most comparable major-brand models, it is a good value for the money, combining the most exacting construction and performance standards with a price that should not create a hardship for any reasonably serious audiophile.