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Disc-o-Rama: CD, SACD, DVD-Audio Players

It wasn’t that many years ago that most consumers assumed that all CD players sounded the same, while at the same time, some elitist-sounding audiophiles persistently campaigned that all compact-disc players were not, in fact, created equal. With time, more and more people began to understand that a $200 player just couldn’t perform the way a $600 player could and, lo and behold, like it or not, a $20,000 Mark Levinson was laser-light years ahead of them all.

These days we know there are differences and if we choose to, we can, just as we once did with better and better turntables, go up a seemingly never-ending Jacob’s ladder in the search for the ultimate digital player, only stopping when our pockets, or our eardrums, are turned inside out.

With the onslaught of new formats like SACD and DVD-audio, and the confusing profusion of 20-bit, 24-bit and who-knows-how-many-bit digital processors, buying a new machine has never been more difficult. Plus, not all players will read CD-R or CD-RW discs, as many of us have discovered over the last few years, so you have to make sure the unit you choose is capable of reading those formats if you burn your own CDs.

Many are afraid of investing in a new player when everything is in such flux, but consider where most of your collection lies: most likely it consists primarily in traditionally formatted compact discs-just like 99% of the discs available for sale today. So buying a decent sounding conventional player is not money down the drain. But if you are considering a move into SACDs or DVD-As, players for both of these formats are backwards compatible, so your present treasures will not become obsolete, even with the purchase of one of these otherwise format-specific machines.

“Is there an audible difference between a well-designed 16-bit machine and a poorly designed 24-bit machine?” asks Len Schneider, founder of Technicom Corporation, communication and product development consultants to consumer electronics companies. “In fact, it’s quite likely the 16-bit machine will sound better because all CDs are limited by the Red Book standard adopted early on in the development of the technology which established 16-bits as the standard digital ‘word’ length, the sample of the original wave form, of which there are dictated to be 44,100 per second. So, with a 16-bit source, a 24-bit converter doesn’t really make a difference because there are only 16-bits there in the first place.

“What matters is not so much the architecture of the converter,” Schneider, who has worked for Sony, Onkyo, Marantz, Adcom and others, continues, “but how the manufacturer handles the analog section that comes after the conversion from the digital domain. There needs to be a balance between the digital-to-analog converter and the analog sections, a synergy. Bad analog design will make a good converter sound pretty bad. But a properly executed CD can sound pretty damn good.”

Schneider makes an instructive analogy to drive home the point about the potential of even today’s Red Book standard.

“If you had a stack of typing paper 24-feet tall and took out one sheet from the middle, would you be able to tell the difference? Well, that’s what we’re talking about with those 44,100 samples per second. You can’t spot the errors that a 20-bit converter supposedly fixes, but, as I said, with good analog design, we can get respectable sound.”

So, what’s the rule of thumb for attaining the maximum music from your current CD collection? Rely on manufacturers who are striving to raise the bar with the present Red Book formulas, who are striving to squeeze the last nth of resolution from your 1990 Pat Metheny CD. And if there is a new format in your future, consider the software offerings because that is what should determine, at least for now, which machine is right for you-the new format that has the music you are most interested in is the one to jump on.


A good place to start is the Rotel RCD-1070 CD player ($699). It is the latest in a long line of affordable, yet high-performance players from this much-respected British firm. A hefty machine that wears its quality on its sleeve, it’s clearly well built and packed with sophisticated features, such as HDCD decoding, which make it a favorite in its price category. For a little less jack, consider the NAD C541i ($499) which also offers HDCD playback and will handle those ever-more ubiquitous CD-R compilations you make for your own personal use. One more to investigate is Cambridge Audio’s D500 ($479), which offers clean, honest presentation with no trace of digital grittiness, plus the option of black or silver faceplate.

Arcam is a British firm that is finally gaining some recognition in this country for superior performance far exceeding its products’ relatively modest prices. Consider the DiVA CD72 ($799), which utilizes internal mechanical damping, a hefty transformer and a newly devised low-jitter clock mechanism to achieve a silky-smooth sound that is nonetheless full of detail and verve. The DiVA CD92 ($1,699) exhibits all these qualities and more, including HDCD capability. The CD92 uses the Ring DAC (digital-to-analog converter) patented by dCS, Data Conversion Systems, a British professional audio manufacturer whose digital converters are among the best for recording studio applications. Through some shrewd electrical engineering, the dCS Ring DAC helps eliminate noise and distortion caused by errors in reading the bits from your Billie Holiday discs. The result is reproduction that further eliminates “digititis” and all its symptoms, and closer approximates the ease and grace of analog, i.e., warm and inviting with lots of detail and resolution. The CD92 also includes HDCD filters and the CD72 can be upgraded to the CD92 if you decide you need the extra level of refinement down the line.

As long as we are talking increased refinement in the Arcam family, there is one more step: the FMJ CD23T ($2,199). That FMJ prefix really means something: it indicates this unit belongs to Arcam’s “Full Metal Jacket” line, an obvious allusion to the eight-millimeter brushed aluminum faceplate that adorns this marvelous machine. But that’s not just another pretty face; it adds strength and stability to the player. And the Swedish-designed chassis is also tanklike in construction, fabricated from a trilaminate material consisting of two layers of steel sandwiching a layer of vibration-absorbing rubber polymer. Needless to say, the CD23 is quite a jump, even beyond the CD92. This is a killer CD player that rivals machines costing two or three times its price. Now I would call that a bargain.

Another acknowledged bargain in high-performance audio is the Rega Planet 2000 ($950), which one audiophile pundit told me recently was “the only CD player that doesn’t give me a headache.” It only makes sense that Rega, much touted for its very reasonably priced turntables and tonearms, would also make a splash in the digital arena as well. The Planet debuted a few years ago to immediate critical acclaim, and the 2000 is an improved version which, like its predecessor, is a top-loading player, meaning there is no tray to slide in and out, thus fewer mechanical vibrations, particularly since, when the top closes on the disc, it acts as a clamp to hold the disc more firmly in place. When music pours out of this player, it sounds like music: clean and detailed, revealing profound bass and, again, none of those grating digital irritants that have made listening so unpleasant for the last 20 years for so many people.

The Rega Jupiter 2000, at twice the price ($1,895), may not deliver twice the performance, but the improvements are real and audible thanks to beefed up power supplies-there are actually seven in this model, all of which help isolate various functions such as the motor, the DACs, the analog circuitry and so on, to decrease signal degradation and improve focus-and improved clock circuitry which also helps eliminate jitter. Both these Rega units are praised for their more analoglike sonic signature, meaning a more involving and less fatiguing listening experience.

Other players to consider include the Classe CDP.3 ($1,595), a sleek Canadian entry that offers HDCD playback, the Adcom GCD-750 ($1,399), also HDCD-friendly, and the Music Hall MMF CD25 ($600), which sports a handsome face and HDCD filters as well.

In the arena of SACD players, though there are worthy contenders from the likes of Philips, Marantz, Denon and more to come in the near future, Sony dominates for the obvious reason that the SACD format is its baby (with the Philips name also on that birth certificate). Just as with primal CD players, the first SACD units were in the multi-thousand dollar range; now, for just a few hundred, the benefits of SACD sound can be had in any system, though certain compromises are made in less expensive units: no, not all SACD players sound alike either. I’ve been using Sony’s SCD-CE775 ($350), a five-disc, multichannel player with far more features than will fit here, for the last few months and have enjoyed it immensely.

I have made no secret of the delights I’ve found with SACD and hope to continue doing so. Monk’s Straight No Chaser in its SACD release offers a focused, crystalline portrait of the music-all the little cues we hear in a live performance that are so often missing with most CD playback are there in spades with SACDs. Attacks are better defined, such as the pluck of a bass string or the hammer of Monk’s piano hitting the strings, or the tip of Ben Riley’s drumstick hitting a cymbal or his snare head-these are dynamic and defined to a degree that most listeners, lulled with the lazy sound of standard CDs, will be shocked upon first listening. All the instruments are sculpted in a three-dimensional fashion that only a handful of high-performance CD players, or good LP playback, would have been capable of achieving before now.

Notching up the scale a bit, well, perhaps more than a bit, is Sony’s SCD-C222ES ($800), the ES indicating we are now into Sony’s bag of hot tricks. This is also a five-disc multichannel changer with excellent bass management like the CE775, but the standard CD playback is far better, coming closer to the non-SACD players in this price range discussed above. Right near the top is the SCD-XA777ES ($3,000), a slightly downscaled version of their flagship SCD-1 ($5,000). Its solid build and remarkable performance place this top-loading machine in the upper echelon of players, which includes several, priced at two or three times as much. Given the budget, this is the player I would pick to faithfully reproduce my irreplaceable library of standard CDs as well as preparing for the growing body of SACD jazz releases.


The hottest item in home entertainment equipment is the DVD player and many consumers don’t want to have stacks and stacks of disc players, so Sony also offers SACD playback in several of their outstanding DVD players. I had occasion to audition the $999 DVP-S9000ES and found it to be exceptional as a CD/SACD player and as a DVD player. I was impressed by its heft and obvious build quality, and though I was unable to take advantage of its progressive-scan features (allowing higher-quality pictures on high-definition televisions), I was more than impressed by the standard video playback this machine offers. I was sorry to have to return this baby to Sony. For those with tighter purse strings, the DVP-NC650V DVD/CD changer ($329) offers basic DVD playback as well as multichannel SACD for an easy entry into the world of SACD.

The other new format for music we’ve discussed in previous months is DVD-audio. Onkyo’s premium line, Integra, offers a fantastic player, the DPS-7.2 ($800), which I’ve been lucky enough to audition for a generous period of time. It is THX Ultra-certified, which pretty much guarantees good performance for home theater, but it also offers six-channel DVD-audio playback that extracts the best from the handful of discs I have on hand. Larry Goldings’ Moonbird, a DVD-A reissue from Hi-Res, a new company dedicated to blistering versions of some old jazz favorites, comes into the room with startling realism-you can practically feel his fingers caressing the keyboard. It handles conventional CDs with aplomb and the video output is flawless. I just picked up a DVD of Paul Simon’s You’re the One: In Concert From Paris and, thanks to the crisp video and stunning surround audio provided by the Integra, I felt like I was at the Olympia Theatre bathing in Simon’s clever lyrics and sophisticated pop stylings.

Rotel has recently introduced an excellent DVD-A player, the RDV-1080 ($999), which, of course, fulfills the expectation of Rotel’s famed attention to detail and performance. This machine, like the Integra above, plays DVD-A discs as well as standard CDs, and was designed first with music in mind; only when they refined the multichannel audio was the video brought into the picture, so to speak. Needless to say, Rotel hasn’t scrimped on that front, featuring progressive-scan outputs for those with compatible televisions and a full complement of video outputs to accommodate just about every possible need.

The availability of DVD-A players is improving weekly, but other units are available from Toshiba, Pioneer, JVC, Technics and Onkyo, among others.

Careful shopping will allow the purchase of a player that will extract the most from your existing collection of discs and, if you so choose, one of the new high-definition music formats which are brewing on the horizon. In any case, the possibility of improved reproduction is more than a reality and can be achieved at just about any price point if you are a careful shopper.

Originally Published