The Japanese brand C.E.C. is easily recognizable by anyone, even marginally oriented in audio. Even more, analyzing this fact I can tell, that this recognition was achieved due to, at least, three aspects. Which ones? How can you ask? First of all – it is a representative from a country known as the cradle of good sound. Secondly – most devices coming from this brand sound at least well, I would even say they sound very well. And thirdly – that the company goes against the development of new technologies and uses in all – even the highest level transports – a rubber belt drive. Yes, yes, I made no mistake. The Japanese from C.E.C. still use this kind of drive not only to rotate the silver disc, but also to move the laser. Is this sick? Absolutely not, what is confirmed by many happy users, as well as myself during the test of the top product. So what will we discuss today? I have a real pleasure to introduce the top drive TL 0 3.0, which is in the catalog for a few years now, and a complete novelty, a DAC, named DA 0 3.0, provided to me by the Katowice based RCM.
I will start the description of the looks of the components from the drive. The main part of it is a seven cm high block of scratched aluminum, based on three spikes, which houses the electronics. Of course we get a set of washers for those spikes as standard. From the platform rise three pillars, on top of the spikes, which are the support for the drive platform, suspended on soft springs hidden in those pillars. The whole is finished with a heavy, slightly larger than a CD, disc clamp. Why heavy? This is related to the belt drive, as in addition to the electronic speed control, the weight of the clamp acts also as a stabilizer, by inertia. This is just simple physics. The front of the TL 0 has a mirror-finished display placed in the middle and four buttons to operate it. The back panel features the SPDIF and AES/EBU outputs, as well as the very important, from the company’s point of view, Superlink connection, based on four sockets. The final touch is a multi-pin connection for the power supply. The supply itself is also housed in an aluminum enclosure, which is rare. It has only an IEC socket for the power cord and the same multi-pin socket as the drive, for low voltage connection. On the front there is a power switch and a LED indicating operation.
It is much easier to describe the converter. For a DAC it is quite high and deep, but its width fits the common standard. The front panel follows the footprints of the drive and features a mirror display and six buttons. The top cover has a milled manufacturer logo. The back panel is equipped with all the standard digital inputs (SPDIF, AES/EBU, USB and optical) and the proprietary Superlink. There are also outputs in RCA and XLR standards. The set of sockets is amended with an IEC power socket integrated with the main power switch. It is worth mentioning, that the whole battery of inputs is hidden in pockets made in the back panel. So this is how the contestants look like, and if you are interested, how the comparison of two Japanese system finished, please read on.
Well, in the life of each and every audio reviewer there comes a time, when something, that to a certain timepoint was the incarnation of a master, becomes still a very good, but not the absolute reference anymore. What am I talking about? To date my view of the Reimyo player oscillated in the area of fantastic analog sound, while the tested Japanese set comes, in the area of imitating a turntable or tape player a step further, and that without becoming bombastic. Things I thought impossible, or almost impossible – and I need to point out, that having a warm, rounded sound, has nothing to do with analog sound, but it turns out, there are still audio constructors, who know, how to find the undiscovered potential of the silver disc. Unfortunately, squeezing everything out of the silver disc goes against the ideas of internet haters, claiming that money does not play a role, as the tested player costs about three times as much as mine, what for many is a clear indication, that I lost my mind. But let us leave the financial aspects aside, we are gentlemen, and gentlemen do not talk about money. So how does the CEC duo sound? The main aspect, immediately drawing our attention, is the above average sound vividness. There is no softening, no rounding off and also no coloring of the sound. And frankly speaking, I am not sure how to explain this. Some of you probably heard a good reel-to-reel tape player with a spool recorded directly from master tape. If not, then you need to listen to tested products and you will know the sound. But if you did listen to a good tape, then please believe me, this is what you will encounter when listening to the top digital source from CEC, so if you do not want to tease your audiophile ear, then you should avoid being exposed to this set, as it will possess your senses for a long time. Important is, that this is not the only aspect of the fantastic sound of the “zeros”. I am thinking about the way the virtual stage is setup, and what was to date realized masterfully by my player, now I need to give the leader’s position to the newly tested set. All virtual sources were perfectly placed in the intra-speaker ether even closer to the truth. I will not try to describe it further, as you might think this is a sponsored article, but I can tell one thing for sure, there was an order of magnitude of difference between the Reimyo and the CEC, in favor of the latter. And when I am comparing both players, after deepened analysis, I would tell, that with other themes, like breath and tonal balance, both contenders presented them at comparable level. If some of the more malignantly inclined people would ask me something like: “Would you change the thing you used to the tested product, if you had not pay any extras?” I would immediately say yes, but with a small “but”. You may ask “What, there is a ‘but’? Your text seems like you have found a holy grail.” Yes, but here come some preferences into play. Yes, the tested separated player is phenomenal, but for me it is too smooth at the edges of the sound. Theoretically everything is ok, but somewhere inside my head there is a longing for hearing more defined beginning and ending of each note. For some of my friends this is like bending some facts, but when I showed them, what I am talking about, they understood, that when I hear a baroque guitar, I would like to feel the material it is made of, and the process of releasing the string should leave the sustain going on and on. Yet the tested player from Japan slightly tones down this whole thing. It makes it in a very charming way, and you can live with that without any problems, but if we have some idea of the sound in our head, and in direct comparison it fits our taste better, then even if there are some better aspects, in time, we will try to get to our pattern in some way, for example changing cables. But I am just underlining another time, that we are talking about my preferences now, which I can present after listening to some outstanding players from different manufacturers. Of course this kind of sound may be an effect of pairing the “zeros” with my Isis speakers, which have a tendency to sound soft and charming, but I am telling all this to help you make choices, and not to harm the CEC. But to add some substance to the aspects I presented above, I will quote some disc examples. I will not stain this test with macabre metal music fragments, as I have too much respect for the tested company, so I will concentrate on one disc, that can show the capability of visualizing the real musical world as much as possible by the TL 0 and DA 0. Why only one? The case is simple, the hero of the test does not need a big playlist, as already the first position tells everything we need, and further listening would only have me repeating what I already said, and this is something I would not like to do, as I have too much esteem for all of you. I will also not be too innovative, and use for the test the John Potter compilation “Romania”. So let us tackle piece number 2 and the main sources of sound: vocals, the baroque guitar, bass clarinet and violin. Suddenly we stand inside the church where the recording was made and the interesting positioning of the artists materializes. Those artists are no flat stains on our beautiful virtual stage, but we can look at them from the sides, what makes them really equipped with the third dimension. This is a feat that only very few devices can master, and I had the opportunity to witness that a few times, but it was never so spectacular as now. Well, I am analyzing the plan of the stage and what do I see? Nothing out of the ordinary, John is singing in its middle, to his left and back there is the violinist, to the right of him, and also to the back, there is the bass clarinet with its majestic lower notes, and all of those gentlemen are accompanied by a guitarist, sitting centrally behind John. Ok. This is what I heard, but how was it in real life? Each disc is only a vision of the sound engineer recording it, however the music recorded puts emphasis on the true reproduction of the recording session as much as possible. So I am reaching for the booklet added to the recording, and… Eureka! Everything is correct. Maybe during listening the distances between the musicians are somewhat increased, but for once a flat picture does not fully reproduce reality, and secondly – maybe this was intended by the sound engineer? I do not know, but I will also not dig deeper into that, important is that I received the music in a way, that ideally showed me all the nuances of the size of the sound stage, including the height of places, where sound was generated. And when I added to that the earlier mentioned vividness and homogeneity of the sound, it turned out, that this nurturing case of not showing the edges of the sounds as I was used to from my player brought the musicians closer together, what seemed to be closer to the truth showed on the photograph. Unfortunately the higher detail of defining notes in my CD player is more to my liking, but it seems to be interfering with the truth of a given musical event. And this is how sometimes the myths of having the most splendid stereo system are being shattered to pieces. Of course I am exaggerating a bit, but I want to show you, that I can admit, that I am being enchanted by my own player, something that most audiophiles will never admit. And with this, not so optimistic for me, accent I would like to finish our today’s meeting. Like I mentioned, each additional disc would only further, artificially, increase the assets of the CEC set, and it does not any of that. If you do not believe me, then please borrow it, connect it to your system and you will see that I am right.
Who could have thought that. A device that utilizes a belt drive, like an agricultural machine, and it can sound so perfectly. I used it only for music, that delivers me a lot of spiritual food, while Marcin put emphasis on heavier repertoire in his turn. Although I think, his kind of music is reprehensible to be played on such kind of equipment, but when I heard some of it too, I never noticed any hiccup of the CEC in all this madness. Those are surely not my kind of notes, but I can notice the class, in which the Japanese contender handled them. Of course I do not think, that a lover of such kind of music would address his interest to the tested product, but even if, I would not have to worry about the result of such a sparring. So where do I see the tested duo? The palette of possibilities seems unlimited. However it is important, that when we want to put the Samurai to the extremes, we need to have material, that is accordingly well mastered. In other cases, everything will also be all right, but the TL 0 3.0 + DA 0 3.0 will sound only half as good as it can, and it would be a pity to have such a machine not fully utilized. Summarizing our meeting I have only one bad news. The tested set is really very expensive, what makes it limitedly available for music lovers. Still nobody said, that it will be cheap and easy on the quality summit. And if somebody still thinks it is, then he is an incorrigible dreamer.
In times of the more and more visible hegemony of the audio files, however rarely of quality at least conform with the Red Book standard, and the renaissance of the analog, the CD format has been put in a defensive. Linn resigned from manufacturing CD players years ago, Hegel presented his “last” Mohican at this year’s Munich High End show, and in fact not many want to tackle against the crowd wanting to get rid of the physical carrier altogether. But it is not the time to fall into reverie, not the time and not the place … at least for now. Because there are some individuals claiming, that the potential of the silver disc is not yet fully exploited, and who bring to market devices, which confirm their claims. In addition, instead of being on a leash of the thawing OEM drive manufacturers, they use their own, proprietary solutions. So it should not come as a surprise, that the tested gear comes from the Japanese manufacture C.E.C., known not only for squeezing everything out of the digital carrier, but also for doing that in a characteristic, analog way. So when the Katowice based RCM was able to get the newest version of the top transport TL 0 3.0 (the previous version was marked as X), as well as just placed in the European version of the company catalog, as probably the Japanese pages require an update, top DAC DA 0 3.0, as they wanted to showcase it during the Warsaw Audio Video Show, we could not resist taking this duo for a test drive. So if you are interested, what the Tokio Samurai can do with the, theoretically decaying format, please read on.
Looking at the two-box transport TL 0 3.0 it is hard to find similarly uncompromised solution. Although the isolation of the “filthy” power supply from the signal section is not so uncommon in extreme High End, but further solution – proprietary solutions I must add – are one off thing. But let us start from the beginning. The main unit, seated on three cone feet with dedicated anti-vibration washers, is in fact a segmented construction. It consists of a rectangular box, with a reflective, blue display, houses all the electronics, while on elastic and damping elements – D.R.T.S (Double Rubbers Triple Springs), hidden inside three chromed columns, a massive aluminum brass sandwich (20 mm aluminum and 10 mm brass) is placed, which provides shelter for the mechanical drive section. To make things even more interesting, instead of a standard, cogwheel mechanism, a proprietary drive system is used, with two rubber belts – one driving the disc, while the second moving the laser assembly. And finally the best of it – the disc is placed on a massive roller with a long shaft, on which the puck is then placed, weighing 460gm and having 125mm diameter. This would seem obvious for a top loading player, until you realize, that the stabilizer will rotate together with the disc. Do you see the analogy with a turntable? Yes, but there is a difference – the vinyl rotates at 33, 45 or 78 rpm, while the CD turns 200-500 times per minute. Quite a significant difference, is it not?
The back panel is also looking very intriguing, as besides the standard digital outputs – Toslink, Coaxial and AES/EBU CEC proposes something very interesting – a proprietary four terminal (BNC) Super Link and a terminal for an external clock. The whole is amended by a multipin power supply input socket.
A similar technological level of advancement is presented by the dedicated DAC DA 0 3.0 based on … how could it be else, a proprietary solution based on a DSP controlling a discreet resistor ladder called by the manufacturer plain and simple R2R. While not diving too deep into the technical aspects, it is worth mentioning, that the CD signal (16 bits 44.1 kHz) is converted to 32 bits 384 kHz and this is the format that is used for further conversion on the DAC chip to the analog signal. How the DSD64 and DSD128 signals are handled, which can be supplied to the unit using the USB input, remains a mystery, as the Japanese did not provide that information. However as we will restrict ourselves to the sixteen bit PCM signal, it does not really matter.
Similar to the drive part, the central part of the unit is occupied by a reflective display with six function buttons around it. The company logo etched on the top cover can be seen as a decorative element.
The back panel is plain superb. Besides the terminals dedicated to the Super Link, we have all kinds of conventional digital inputs, but doubled in amount. For now the USB input is the last of the digital interfaces, but there is a sealed Ethernet socket in place, but I will not try to guess where it can be used for. The analog section has outputs in RCA and XLR standards, and we can choose the active output via a small switch. The IEC power socket integrated with the main power switch is located in a separate cave.
I will not hide, that for long time, from the moment I heard for the first time a CEC player, in the nineties, it was probably the TL51, later its variants with different letter combinations, I like those digital sources, and I believe those were the most analog sounding ones. Of course I knew, that this was not the most neutral sound, but frankly speaking, I did not care. Because contact with them was as pleasant as eating a few pieces of dark chocolate and drink splendid cognac. Time slowed down and life seemed more bearable. A kind of audiophile anti-depressant. But in those times I thought sound coming from the speakers is slower than usual, that the emphasis on timbre and saturation required the transport to slow down. Of course this was just an autosuggestion, but so intensive, that I rarely tried to break it with harder repertoire. Those “phobias” disappeared when I reviewed the CD3N and were completely forgotten when I heard the CD5, and when having contact with the DA 3N and TL 3N those were just fossils.
Based on previous experience and knowing the difference, that the proprietary Super Link makes, I did not hesitate even a moment, when choosing the right communication path and eventual format war. We just decided to stick to the alleged potential of the CD, and later, when it will be possible, return to the DAC and test it again, but then using all the different “dense” formats.
In the first part of the review Jacek mentioned the delicate, but still observable, rounding off the edges of the sounds and contours of the virtual sources. I will not hide, that initially I had the same observations, and I would be blaming the tested set for that, with clear conscience, if not for one thing, very essential at this quality and price level – cabling. And I am not thinking about signal cables, as the top Silver Diamond Tellurium Q and the dedicated Super Link cables did not leave any doubts about their role and characteristics, yet the power cords had a significant influence on the final effect. And so we can scrap the Hijiri Takumi Maestro, connected to the DAC from the list of suspects (its review will appear shortly, so I will not reveal to many details), and the responsible for the rounding and the captivating smoothness, which turned out to be too smooth and almost unreal, was the Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved Version. I could play around with that cord for extensive periods of time, and practically in all configurations it was visible by slightly thickening the contours and quieting down the sound, and that also happened in the tested system. So this extra polishing I would not attribute to the Japanese electronics, but to the characteristic, yellow-black cable.
Taking into account the sound signature of the 350 and subtracting it from the final effect, I must tell you, that I have not heard such an analog sound for a long time. But please do not identify this analog sound with the stereotypical “tubeyness”, which means pushing the midrange out and saturating it, on the cost of sound spectrum extremes. Here is was dynamics and resolution unreachable for other digital sources. And I want to underline, that the set from CEC does not only approach that, what is offered by turntables on the same price levels, but it delivers dynamics similar to reel-to-reel recorders playing of master tapes. Is this an absurd, a fairytale or marketing pulp ready for a sponsored article? Not this time. This is a possibly cold, and devoted from any tries to please the distributor (I cannot afford the tested set and probably will never be able to afford it), observation, of if you prefer, subjective opinion. I will not quote the words that came to my mouth during the first hours of listening to the tested set, when I could not believe what I hear and I nervously juggled with the disc I have brought for the occasion, reaching for heavier and more complicated material, to catch the CEC on anything, on the smallest hiccup, something characteristic for a digital source. But when the schizophrenic “Naked City” John Zorn, or the possessive-agonal “Repentless” Slayer did not make the slightest impression on it, I eased down and went back to my normal listening. This did not mean, that I did not hear any growling coming from our Isis, but it was not for the purposes of splitting the hair in four, but just to have some fun.
The pop-jazz “Possibilities” Herbie Hancock nicely covered with a soft quilt of soothing sounds, at the same time giving a phenomenal insight into the recording. Even on the seemingly disobliging “A Song For You” with Christina Aguilera you could hear, or even see, what was a natural, real presence and what was only a studio “gimmick”, an added effect. It was similar with the more emotional, more entangled with our human sensitivity cover “Don’t give up”, where besides Herbie we have also Pink and John Legend. For such moments it is worth being an audiophile and go through tons of audio gear during the years. Because if the chemistry present in the studio is also audible in our room, then it means “something is happening here”. The borderline between what we perceived as a certain reference point and its complete re-definition was crossed. Maybe for some of you this might sound like a heresy, but compared to the CEC, our player on duty, the Reimyo CDT – 777 + DAP – 999 EX Limited, was so pale and without saturation, that I started wondering, if it was not broken. Fortunately it is absolutely fine, but only the quite drastic difference in quality, as well as in price, made me realize, that the slogan “money does not sound” is as true as the populist election catchwords used by the politicians.
Having the opportunity to listen to the CEC I wanted to exploit it fully and I did not allow them any time to cool off serving the album “The Astonishing” Dream Theater followed by the much heavier “A Dramatic Turn of Events” from the same group. Usually when the speakers start to produce some prog-metal phrases, Jacek remembers he has something to do elsewhere and hides in the far away part of his home. But not this time. He stayed, and was visibly surprised, that something he thought was just “noise” is complicated and heavy, but still beautiful music. Dream Theater played by the CEC was not just “making lots of noise”, but they played breakneck riffs with virtuosity intrinsic to them, and the multi-planes of their composition gained momentum and power unknown to date. There was no bass slow-down, or any pushing out of the midrange. Nothing like. Here we just reached full saturation of “sugar within sugar”, which was then supported by at least 100% single malt from our beloved Islay. Why this distillery region? Well … I searched for an adequate comparison to the openness and amount of micro-information produced by the treble, and the amount of heard nuances. Standard descriptions like: resolving, detailed, etc., seem to be pale, bland and two-dimensional compared to what the CEC offers. Because with the tested duo we come to the borderline of “poetic description” of what the person writing these words is hearing. At times I felt exactly like the late Frank Zappa once described: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Or like hearing a radio broadcast, where the person commenting some out of the ordinary event tells: “too bad you cannot see it”. I go into a murderous mode then – if I could, I would for sure want to see this even with my own eyes!
This is the reason I will not try to propose some more or less adequate tries of describing something, that escapes such a description. But I have something much more interesting and sensible for you. Please do whatever you can, and if you do not have the opportunity to borrow the set to listen at home, then you should go to the Warsaw Audio Video Show, where the C.E.C. TL 0 3.0 and DA 0 3.0 will be exhibited. I strongly believe that even bad hotel acoustics will not destroy the potential hidden in the CEC.
C.E.C TL 0 3.0: 29 000 €
C.E.C DA 0 3.0: 29 900 €
C.E.C TL 0 3.0:
CD Drive System: Double Belt Drive // Spindle & Pick-up
Playable Discs: Audio CDs & finalized CD-R/RW
Power Supply: AC 120-230V / 50-60Hz
Suspension: D.R.T.S. (Double Rubbers-Triple Springs)
Floating Chassis: Hexagonal two layers structure
CD Stabilizer: brass, plating (ø 125 mm, weight: 460 g)
Digital Input: Word Clock (BNC x1): 44,1kHz
• SUPERLINK: (BNC x 4) 2.5Vp-p/75Ω
• Coaxial (SPDIF): 0.5Vp-p/75Ω
• TOS (optical): -21~-15dBm EIAJ
• AES/EBU (Balanced XLR; HOT=2): 2.5Vp-p/110Ω
Dimensions: 300 (W) x 317 (D) x 158 (H) mm
Power Supply: 128(W) × 260(D) × 103(H) mm
Weight: approx. 21 kg with Power Supply
C.E.C DA 0 3.0:
DAC: Universal DSP controlled resistor ladder 32bit/384kHz Audio DAC
Power Supply: AC 120-230V / 50-60Hz
• SUPERLINK: (BNC x 4) 2.5Vp-p/75Ω
• Coaxial (SPDIF): 0.5Vp-p/75Ω
• TOS (optical): -21~-15dBm EIAJ
• AES/EBU (Balanced XLR; HOT=2):
• USB 2.0: PCM 32bit/32-384kHz, DSD 64/2.8224-128/5.6448MHz
• balanced XLR connectors
• unbalanced RCA connectors
Digital Filter: Selection of 4 digital filters
Power Consumption: 30 W
Dimensions: 432 (W) x 400 (D) x 120 (H) mm
Weight: approx. 21 kg
System used in this test:
– CD: Reimyo CDT – 777 + Reimyo DAP – 999 EX Limited
– Preamplifier: Robert Koda Takumi K-15
– Power amplifier: Reimyo KAP – 777
– Loudspeakers: TRENNER & FRIEDL “ISIS”
– Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ + Harmonix HS 101-SLC
– Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
– Power cables: Harmonix X-DC 350M2R Improved Version, X-DC SM Milion Maestro, Furutech NanoFlux – NCF
– Table: SOLID BASE VI
– Accessories: Harmonix Beauty Tone Milion Maestro, Harmonix TU 505EX MK II, Stillpoints „ULTRA SS”, Stillpoints ”ULTRA MINI”; antivibration platform by SOLID TECH; Harmonix AC Enacom Improved for 100-240V; Harmonix Room Tuning Mini Disk RFA-80i
– Power distribution board: POWER BASE HIGH END
Drive: SME 30/2
Arm: SME V
Cartridge: MIYAJIMA MADAKE
Phonostage: RCM THERIAA