Paranoia related to the pending clean-sweep of 'bit-stream'
technology hasn't stopped the independents from issuing new models – however short their shelf-life may be. Having only heard bit-stream in systems other than my own, I've yet to join the converted and remain quite happy with the near-analogue bliss of the California Audio Labs Tempest II.
The company obviously wasn't, so it introduced what is called the Special Edition. At first, I thought it would be merely a tweaked Tempest II, but all that remains of the earlier player are the transport, chassis, power supply and faceplates, the latter with
new logo and gold rather than white legends. What's different includes an entirely new digital section with 18-bit, 8-times oversampling and a redesign of the analogue section with 46 parts
new to the SE. All that's left of the Philips bits are the drive, controller and display. If you put them side by side, as I did, all that tells you of a change are the logo and the colouring.
And side-by-side listening revealed why the SE exists. There are a couple of reasons why I prefer the Tempest to all other CD players, the same strengths recognized by everyone else. The Tempest II sounds more like analogue than any other CD player I can name, it has what just might be the best soundstaging capabilities of any CD player available and it is the least
fatiguing CD playback device I've used. The gains made by the SE are all in those three areas, with the added bonus of even quieter operation.
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CDs played through the SE are even more realistically '3-D' than
before, the superlative Chesky jazz releases sounding better than I
thought – like and extra [*]'s worth. Traces of grain I didn't even
notice in the Tempest II were made obvious by comparison. What the SE does is add some of the Marantz CD-12's precision without tampering with the Tempest's virtues.
It remains, however, less purely accurate than many other players, as
I've mentioned before. Music still has a slightly artificial bloom that
will drive transistor fetishists up the wall. This, though, is the
trade-off for musicality, which is what I prefer; I do not, as some
readers have recognized, listen to music as some form of penance but
wholly for pleasure. The Tempest II Special Edition – the upgrade being
retrofittable to the Tempest II – is merely the closest CD player yet
to a good old-fashioned LP spinner.