October 2005


“I attach more importance to the purity of brushstroke – I try to give it maximum purity and intensity. It is the passion for beautiful colors which makes us paint the way we do and not the love of “dots” as foolish people say.” – Paul Signac (Impressionist Painter, 1863-1935)

In the mid-1800’s, a new school of painting emerged out of the French Impressionist movement which rejected the technique of applying thick broad brush stokes of mixed color to a canvas. The artists in this new movement, known today as “Pointillists,” utilized the painstaking method of applying tiny “points” of pure color to a canvas relying upon the observer’s eye to mix the colors. One of my favorite masterpieces of Pointillism, created by the artist Camille Pissarro, hangs in the Fogg Art Museum here in Cambridge, MA., and is entitled “Mardi-Gras on the Boulevards” (1897). [This is not the Mardi-Gras of New Orleans, but of a scene of Mardi-Gras as celebrated on the boulevards of France in the 1800’s. Viewing this Mardi-Gras scene, it still gives pause to the recent devastation in New Orleans and the death and displacement of thousands, particularly the poor who couldn’t escape the floods. Pissarro’s vision only reaffirms the role of art as a healing force in such times as ours.]

One of the amazing things about Pissarro’s creative vision is that if you stand very close to this canvas, all you see are tiny points of color and wisps of short brushstrokes. Yet, once you view it from a proper viewing distance, all of those tiny points of color and texture become faces in the crowd lining the street, horses with musculature with riders appointed in bright costumes, as well as magnificent colorful paper streamers that fall from the skies decorating this parade of animals and humanity. The natural harmony of color, texture, line and composition is extraordinarily achieved in this masterpiece of Pointillism technique. 

If we can make an analogy from the visual arts to the world of audio, I would submit that the magnificent achievement of the C.E.C. TL-51XZ CD player is that it achieves the pinnacle of the Pointillist’s aesthetic goal in music reproduction: reproduce from exquisite points of color, notes and texture, a harmonious, natural and whole sonic presentation which results in transporting the listener closer to an understanding and sheer pleasure of a recording and its artists’ musical intentions. The TL-51XZ accomplishes this with such a sense of ease and natural flow to the music that it is very much like viewing a great work of art such as the Pissarro, where one never tires of both dissecting the inner detail of the art form while also simply luxuriating in its full presentation and breadth of meaning. 

Analog Roots
Given its sheer musicality and ease of expression, it comes as no surprise that the design of the TL-51XZ is derived from research and design of analog turntables and high precision phono motors, which C.E.C. has been designing and manufacturing since the company’s founding in Tokyo in 1954. The TL-51XZ is a fully integrated player, incorporating a drive unit and a 24-bit 356kHz DAC. (C.E.C. also offers this model as a transport only model, called the TL-51X). The drive unit utilizes a low torque motor that drives a heavy ceramic stabilizer via a precision belt and a high precision turntable shaft. According to C.E.C., the stabilizer not only secures the CD but also increases its inertia and provides excellent vibration absorption and a strong flywheel effect. C.E.C. claims that such a belt drive design is free from acoustic feedback, has a higher signal-to-noise ratio and virtually eliminates jitter. The heavy drive mechanism floats on a dual suspension system optimized for high noise absorption that isolates the drive and laser motors electronically and magnetically from the laser pickup. The TL-51XZ is a top-loading player, with a sliding door and a heavy gauge puck for securing the disc. Its build construction is beyond reproach, with a modern, low slung and sleek aluminum design reminiscent of my old favorite affordable player, the Creek CD Model 53.

Around back, the unit contains all of the modern digital output interfaces (AES/EBU); TOSLINK; Coaxial; Super-Link) as well as a set of balanced and RCA outputs and power connector for a detachable power chord. All functions on the front of the unit and its remote are laid out ergonomically with the only complaint being that the display is a bit tough to read from a distance. 

I first became aware of C.E.C. at HES 2005 in the Lamm Room, where Lamm electronics were partnered with a C.E.C. front end. After listening to the glorious music making in this Room, I cornered Vladimir Lamm (sitting near his treasured LP collection of course) and his advice lead me to contact Pascal Ravach of Mutine Inc. (the distributor of C.E.C. and other audio products in Canada and the USA), and his colleague, Bruce Kennett, of former Listenermagazine reviewer fame. Bruce invited me up to his serene barn house near Conway, NH. where he has constructed a dedicated listening room for invited guests to audition Mutine product lines while listening to their favorite music. After spending an afternoon with Pascal and Bruce spinning CD’s on the TL-51XZ (partnered with Audiomat electronics, Actinote cabling, Equation loudspeakers and of course, tasty NH cider), I couldn’t see myself leaving without arranging for more time with the TL-51XZ. I reluctantly bid adieu to Pascal and Bruce, two of the kindest and devoted audiophiles you will find on the planet, and headed home to await the TL-51XZ’s arrival.

My Toes Just Touched The Water…
The first thing I did when the TL-51XZ arrived was to substitute it for my long term reference, the Electrocompaniet EMC-1 player, keeping all other components and wire in place as before. (The TL-51XZ unit I received was the same unit that I heard in Bruce’s dedicated listening space, so break in time cannot be accurately reported in this review. Check Mutine Audio’s website for more information on break in time suggestions). With the TL-51XZ in place, I was immediately immersed in a totally new musical event with my favorite recordings, transported by the TL-51XZ’s uncanny sense of naturalness, ease and musical flow. The TL-51XZ captured the Pointillist perspective perfectly: the smallest of musical detail yet also the grand strokes of overall musical composition and message. 

To best illustrate this virtue of the TL-51XZ, I would urge readers to grab Nora Jones’ disc, Feels Like Home [Blue Note 7243] and listen to the first cut, “Sunrise.” I have always loved Jones’ deep and breathy delivery on this disc, but never until the TL-51XZ was in place did I appreciate the musical nuances of her backing band’s creative accompaniment. With my Electrocompaniet player, I had heard “Sunrise” many times, not quite sure what the soft banging wooden sound was in the background of this piece. Substituting the TL-51XZ, there was a new world revealed to me of knuckles being hit on the wood of acoustic bass and drum, with the released air from hollow cavities clearly revealed. What a creative percussive background this was, revealed for the first time so clearly and naturally! I also heard for the first time on “Sunrise” the sparkling of an acoustic guitar, the shimmer of a banjo’s light high treble caress near its end – ah, the colors of the band’s palette were finally revealed! Turning to my favorite cut on this same disc, “Toes,” the TL-51XZ presented a deep, wide river of a soundstage, filled with the colors of brushed cymbals, gentle breezes of acoustic strings in their full natural sense of timing, and the moving well of Jones’ delivery with every one of her sibilants natural, easy and light as air. 

Juxtaposed to Jones’ disc is Ani DiFranco’s Evolve, a catharsis of a different kind. The title track is one emotional ride, as DiFranco pounds out acoustic guitar and bass lines with frenetic pace, raging up and down her great vocal register. With the TL-51XZ, I literally heard this cut for the first time, so fresh and alive it was. When DiFranco sings: “I am finally waking UP” – the “P” was delivered with such texture and natural force that I almost feel out of my chair, literally watching as DiFranco drew her mouth around this word, formed her lips around it and dealt it in the direction of her close positioned mike. The TL-51XZ even exposed the naturalness of DiFranco’s miscues when she rapidly scraps her guitar strings without hitting them clear and clean – adding to the natural texture of her frenetic, searing delivery. 

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