Okay, I admit it: I still listen to CD. But far from apologising for that fact; instead, I’d argue that CD doesn’t just remain relevant: for a number of reasons CD users have never had it so good. The rush by record companies to monetise their back catalogues while they still can means that music on CD has never been more available, nor more affordable, but there are also very real sonic and musical developments appearing on a regular basis, which many music lovers are either discovering or rediscovering. So, not only are there more CDs than ever before, they sound better too…
Listen to the chattering classes and nobody in their right mind would invest in CD replay – either as a manufacturer or an end-user. In a world where it seems to be impossible to sell a CD player that doesn’t offer a USB input, it seems sensible to conclude that file-replay is well on the way to eradicating optical disc – and in overall market terms you might even be right. But, if you are primarily concerned with performance, then you are facing a very different reality. The simple fact is that, irrespective of how big the numbers on your download are, or how many times you up-sample the signal, it’s no guarantee of musical performance. Listening to the lamentable results that issue forth from the vast majority of highly touted file-replay systems – systems that invariably boast the biggest numbers and latest software – it soon becomes obvious that in this instance size really doesn’t do it. What actually matters is data integrity, and that’s where file replay struggles, both in the provenance of the files themselves and how they are handled in the replay chain – and where optical disc offers a host of very real advantages.
For starters, play a CD and you can instantly define several performance critical factors: the physical medium itself is of course, closely defined, but so too is the data rate coming off the disc. Replay and decoding may well be two separate problems, but at least they’re singular in nature and both depend on mature, targeted technologies. Likewise, data transfer standards are clearly defined and the cables and connectors employed benefit from 30-years of development. Compare that to the computer derived hardware, multiple file types, and system topologies that constitute a file replay system. If you also factor in the volatility of the replay chain itself, you can begin to understand why even the best sounding file replay solutions are so frustratingly inconsistent.
When it comes to high-end systems, file replay is not only a long, long way from the premium source so many claim and assume it to be, but it’s also generally well off the pace. So what are we to make of those ubiquitous USB inputs? File replay may not be all that just yet – but it’s coming. More to the point, its impending arrival as a genuine, high-end source (while it might not be as imminent as some would have you believe) has driven the development of multi-input DACs and that in turn, opens up the opportunities for other digital sources, be that CD or an A-to-D bringing digital versatility to record replay. Opportunities? Indeed, because as I noted earlier, optical disc replay and decoding are discrete operations and there are sound reasons why putting them in separate boxes can deliver serious advantages.
This rather circuitous route brings us to CEC’s TL5 CD transport; a product that offers a fascinating take on the advantages, practical and sonic, currently enjoyed by optical disc based systems, a chance to not only put file-replay in context, but to appreciate and acknowledge the on-going development of optical disc reading. I’ve been using the (outwardly almost identical) TL-3N for some years so a new model from CEC was always going to be of interest. That earlier model was built around CEC’s twin-belt drive mechanism, a dedicated CD transport as opposed to a repurposed DVD or ROM drive. Round the back it also featured a row of four BNC sockets, as well as a fifth for an external clock, all part of CEC’s proprietary Superlink data transfer standard. Look at the back panel of the TL5 and the absence of those five BNCs might suggest that this is nothing more than a cut-back version of the TL-3N, but in fact it’s an entirely new machine, built around a newly developed single belt transport – a transport that CEC claims outperforms the twin-belt version in the earlier unit. By stepping outside of the CEC eco-system, the company is also able to dispense with the Superlink hardware that can only be used with their own DACs. That facility still exists on the new TL-2N, a comprehensive update of the TL-3N with a revised twin-belt transport. But the TL5 is a completely different animal, a pared-back, hair-shirt transport that’s both genuinely universal in design and considerably more affordable than previous CEC machines.