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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Rotel RCD-971 as transport, Audio Zone DAC-1, PS Audio DL III DAC w/ Cullen Circuits Stage Two Mod [in for review], Pro-Ject RPM 5 turntable, Pro-Ject Speed Box, Ortofon Rondo Blue cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Shrimp, Audio Zone AMP-1, Audiomat Opéra Référence [in for review], Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage
Amp: Manley Labs Mahi monoblocks
Speakers: Green Mountain Audio Callisto (on sand filled Skylan stands), Hornshoppe Horns, AV123 Strata Minis, (2) REL Q108 Mk II subwoofers
Cables: Audience Maestro interconnects & speaker cables, SilverFi interconnects, Actinote cabling [in for review], Stereovox XV2 digital
Power Cables: Audience, GutWire, Harmonic Technology, DH Labs
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier rack
Powerline conditioning: BPT Pure Power Center w/Wattgate 381 outlets, Bybee Quantum Purifiers and ERS cloth, GutWire MaxCon, Blue Circle BC86
Sundry accessories: Grand Prix Audio APEX footers, Isoclean fuses, Caig Pro Gold, Auric Illuminator, Audio Magic/Quantum Physics Noise Disruptors, dedicated AC line with Wattgate 381 outlet, Echo Busters acoustic room treatments
Room size: 11' x 18' x 8', long wall setup, hardwood floors with large area rug
Review Component Retail: $2,290

Initially known for decades worth of OEM turntable work, by the late 80sTokyo-based Chuo Denki Company aka CEC found itself as one of the largest manufacturers of CD drive mechanisms. Somebody -- no doubt an obsessive audiophile at CEC -- must have had one of those eureka moments by suggested they pool together their expertise with both technologies because in 1991, CEC introduced the world's first belt-drive CD transport, the TL1. The response was overwhelmingly positive, several models followed and today, CEC belt drive players are highly coveted by music lovers just as are the SME and Oracle turntables which sport CEC-built motors and bearings.

At first glance the notion of applying a belt drive mechanism to a CD player seems counterintuitive. While a turntable has to spin records at a specific and relatively slow speed (33, 45 or 78rpm), CD transports spin far faster (±200-500rpm) and must vary their speed depending on what portion of the disc the laser pickup is reading. Therefore a rather robust servo control mechanism making lots of tiny adjustments is required to maintain proper speed. Wouldn't a belt-driven mechanism impede speed control by bogging down the motor? CEC gets around this by adding mass to the CD with a heavy aluminum puck to create a flywheel effect. This apparently provides perfect rotational stability without the need for heavy-handed speed correction mechanisms nor the high-torque motors which can produce high levels of electromagnetic noise.

The subject of today's review is CEC's new TL-53Z CD player. It's a top loader with a sliding door and a heavy aluminum puck for securing the disc. The low-torque spindle motor spinning the disc is isolated from the disc turntable by a rubber belt. CEC claims that any vibration or electronic noise caused by the motor is either absorbed or completely blocked, thus reducing one source of jitter.

The TL53Z uses a pair of Burr-Brown's current top-line PCM 1792 hybrid multi-bit/delta-sigma DACs in dual mono config for a whopping 132dB of dynamic range, 0.0004% THD+N and over 120dB of channel separation. There was nothing in the manual to indicate whether the TL53's digital circuitry upsamples to 24-bit/192kHz prior to D-A conversion or not. I couldn't find any SRC chip on the main board, however I suspect it might have been on the board beneath the transport. I wasn't keen on removing the entire sled to find out. Since the companion TL51XR upconverts to 24-bit/192kHz, I assumed the 53 did as well. The sonic signature of the 53 suggested some degree of upconversion to me but as I learned in the end, it does in fact not use any SRC.

Normally, oversampling rates are factory set but in the TL53Z, the user selects one via rear-mounted three-position toggle. An effective oversampling rate of 32, 64 or 128 times is possible. The manual indicates that the lower 32fs "has the smallest impact on the original signal and the highest dynamic response" while the 128fs setting "quiets the sound and delivers the lowest disturbance in the ultra-high frequency spectrum". Furthermore, a second rear-mounted toggle offers a choice of two different digital filter slopes; pulse is optimized for best dynamic response and reduced filter ringing while flat offers better frequency response and sharp filtering of ultrasonic noise.

CEC's unique Current-Injection circuit built with discrete components converts the DAC output current into an output voltage without a feedback loop. The TL53Z's analog circuit is basically a balanced design with an extremely short signal path and nary an opamp in sight. The big red plastic modules seen in the interior shots of the player are CEC's LEF or Load Effect Free output stages.

The TL53 uses an advanced switching power supply with plenty of onboard power purification to keep the AC gremlins at bay. Many listeners frown on the notion of switching power supplies and cite the grunge dumped on household AC by appliances and computers which sport similar supplies. But as with anything, implementation is the key. After all, Linn's highly respected CD-12 utilized a switching power supply. There are separate power supplies for the transport and DAC plus separate voltage regulation for the disc motor, servo, display, digital and analog sections.

Five robust metal buttons on the front panel control power on/off, play, pause, stop and track forward/back. The included remote is a heavy metal monster. There's little chance of misplacing this brute. The remote replicates the controls on the player plus adds the usual direct track access, fast search, program and display time features. Unfortunately, the filter and oversampling settings are not accessible here. Why go to all the trouble of offering these options to not include them on the remote especially since the manual suggests experimenting to determine best settings for any given disc? It's a trifle difficult to determine that when you need to keep getting up to flip the toggles manually. All of the programmable features of the DAC and digital filter of the Zero One Mercury player I reviewed a few months ago were user accessible on the remote - and that machine wasn't that much more expensive than the TL53.

On the rear panel are RCA and XLR analog as well as Toslink, S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital outputs. Basically the player takes up half the real estate of a full-sized component. It measures 8.6" wide by 3.9" high by 16.3' deep. Weight is 13.2 lbs. CEC also offers a matching amp, the AMP53. If space is at a premium, this combination cheek-to-cheek might be ideal.

I did most of my listening with Audiomat's Opéra Référence, Actinote cabling, Green Mountain Audio Callistos and REL subs. My Manley Labs seafood combo also saw action and an Audiomat Tempo 2.5 DAC was on hand for a few days.

I initially experienced no issues with my loaner but within a few days, many discs in my collection would skip especially during the last two or three tracks. Upon consulting Mutine, I discovered that my sample was one of the first production units destined for North America. Clearly something was wrong with the overburn read of the player. Within a short period, I received a new unit with upgraded board. It performed flawlessly. According to Mutine, all TL53Z's available in North America have the new boards and should pose no skipping problems.

The TL53Z was attractive, well built and smooth in operation. The disc mechanism appeared far more robust and better isolated from vibration than any other transport I have seen. The differences between filter slopes and sampling rates were quite subtle and difficult to pin down. However, I ultimately preferred the pulse filter setting and the 32 times oversampling rate. Music playback was ever so slightly more natural and rhythmically correct so I left the settings there throughout my review.

The TL53Z moved right in and made itself at home in my system, something that rarely happens with CD players and usually requires a little getting-to-know-you time instead. Overall, this was an engaging and very smooth player with a surprisingly analog sense of ease. There really was nothing whatsoever unpleasant about the CEC's ability to play back music.

Tonally, the TL53 was well balanced with a refined, sweet treble and textured, slightly warmish midrange. Subterranean deep, ironfisted control down low was not in the TL53's sonic lexicon so bass fiends beware. While a tad lean, bass was well articulated, fluid and slightly rounded - very similar to what I hear with vinyl. Think Rickenbacker versus Fender Precision, Paul McCartney versus Bill Laswell. I played bass virtuoso Les Claypool's Of Whales and Woe [Prawn Song 0011] and while the windows didn't rattle, there was more than sufficient bottom end. Claypool, arguably one of the best bassists around, comes from the more percussive strumming school of bass playing and uses plenty of slapping and popping. My old Rotel RCD-971 makes a sonic mess of this disc. With the CEC, pitch definition and flow were spot on. I had no trouble following Claypool's playing. Rarely has an electric bass sounded so pleasing on a CD player for me.

Voices came across naturally with little sibilance or the other weird tonal aberrations I hear with many other Redbook players, especially upsampling ones. The TL53 set music behind the plane of the loudspeakers with a terrific sense of depth and recorded acoustic particularly evident on classical discs recorded in a large space. Ambient info retrieval was indeed exceptional.

Two striking aspects with Valentin Silvestrov's music are the silence between the notes and the fields of reverberating echoes that help create the eerie atmosphere and unnerving feeling of nostalgia his music evokes. The TL53 captured this perfectly. The frozen-in-time atmosphere of Silvestrov's 5th Symphony [Sony 66825] was far more real and tangible than I had heard previously. I was considerably more aware of the subtle cues and scoring of this piece.

To me, CD players generally exhibit an almost chunky, ever so slight stop/go effect when it comes to rhythmic integrity that I don't hear with vinyl. I wasn't aware of any timing or pace issues at all with the '53. It was always engaging and my toes never failed to tap.

The CEC nailed the disheveled up-yours swagger of the Replacements' classic Let It Be [Twin Tone 8441]. The bubblegum-popping, finger-snapping "I Will Dare" never sounded so alive and bouncy. It simply boogied. I was so caught up in the '53's way with the flow of music that I listened to this album twice in one sitting. Considering how this is a pretty crappy sounding disc, this was a good sign. The TL53 won't make your poor-sounding discs unlistenable.

Rather than sharply chiseled images separated by vast spaces, the CEC's presentation was more cohesive and intermingled, again not unlike vinyl. There was plenty of fine detail and nuance but it wasn't etched nor was the music stretched out on the vivisectionist's table. Voices and instruments sounded life-like and tonally correct. Tom Waits' Bone Machine features an exotic array of percussion instruments which tend to sound synthetic on other players but on the CEC, they were far more real and natural and Waits' I-gargle-with-broken-glass voice was fully realized in all its dilapidated splendor. I hadn't realized until the '53 arrived just how sonically good this album was, albeit in a garage sort of way.

I didn't have the highly regarded and less expensive TL51XR on hand but according to Mutine's Pascal Ravach, the 53 is superior due to its higher spec DACs, advanced power supply and the larger aluminum disc stabilizer.

As good as the 53's DAC section is, it didn't come close to the considerably more expensive Audiomat Tempo 2.5 DAC. A slight haze and sibilance that I hadn't noticed disappeared and the 53's DAC section wasn't nearly as dramatically full bodied and tonally saturated as the Tempo - to my ears one of the finest digital pieces I have yet heard. However, that's a review for another day as is the PS Audio DL III modded by Cullen Circuits. The latter matched with the TL53Z was another excellent, more wallet-friendly digital front end. Audio Zone's Peter Daniel-designed non-oversampling DAC-1 was also excellent but in a very different manner than the other two. It's something I'll cover in greater detail in my upcoming DL III review. Much to my surprise, many of the characteristics I noted with TL53 flying solo above were evident when I paired it with any of these DACs. Transports clearly do not sound the same and I can understand why many listeners pair CEC players/transports with their favorite DACs.

I wished I still had the Zero One Mercury HD/CD player on hand as it and the CEC seemed quite similar in many respects. Both extracted plenty of detail but with a beguiling sense of ease. However, the Mercury was far more flexible with its myriad of sampling and word-length settings. Then again, due to RF issues inherent in computer-based systems, shielded signal cables were mandatory. While there is considerable buzz about the convenience and alleged sonic potential of hard drive and computer-based music storage systems, for me the jury is still out especially considering the volatile nature of magnetic storage.

The eventual failure of the 53's belt is a concern but hardly serious. The manual claims the belt should last 5 years and while CEC recommends that
an authorized dealer replace the belt, anyone who has changed a turntable belt should have little difficulty as the photos prove. Also, CEC has been around since 1954 and I don't think they'll be disappearing anytime soon.

The TL53Z is a tactile device not unlike analog that requires a little more effort before playing music. Anything worthwhile in life requires a little effort - raising kids, tending a garden or building a piece of furniture. It's not so much the end result but the process of getting there that counts. Music is the same. A little ritual, here the insertion of the flywheel disc, helps to prepare one to be more open to music or other spiritual pursuits.

The TL53Z offered a very organic, coherent presentation. There is nothing about this player's presentation that I'd call analytical or typically digital. It was consistently engaging and never boring with little if anything by way of top-end brittleness. The words suave and sophisticated kept coming to mind. Those lusting for typical digital cyborg bass and more explicit dynamics may want to look elsewhere. But for 'analog' types, I strongly recommend tracking down a CEC dealer and having a listen yourself.
Quality of packing: Excellent.
Reusability of packing: Appears to be reusable several times.
Quality of owner's manual: Easy to read and comprehensive.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect.
Website comments: Informative with good quality pictures and pricing info.
Warranty: One year parts & labor.
Human interactions: Professional, helpful and friendly.
Pricing: Quite reasonable
Final comments & suggestions: Mutine also throws in an upgraded power cable with Hubbell AC connector gratis.
CEC website
Mutine website