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New Spins on the Old CD

Talk to a tech pundit and you’d think the CD was as defunct as the film camera. Talk to someone at a hi-fi show and you’d think the CD was invented yesterday. While there’s no denying the slow commercial decline of the digital disc, there’s also no denying that it remains the primary format on which most of us buy and collect music. So it only makes sense that audio companies would continue to make CD playback better and more convenient than ever.

WHAT’S THAT SONG?

The CD players of today sound better than the ones of past decades, but until recently they all worked pretty much the same way: drop a disc in the drawer, hit play, listen to music, hit eject, repeat. The relatively recent migration of music to the computer makes this operation seem rather unfriendly-or, to be more accurate, uninformative. Computers can go out to the Internet, find out all sorts of things about the music you’re playing, and display it for you. With a conventional CD player, the most you usually get is a track number-not much help when you’re struggling to remember the name of the great standard that kicks off Sonny’s Way Out West.

The hottest new CD players of 2009 are stealing some of the computer’s capabilities, displaying the artist name, the album title, the song titles and sometimes even the album art on a front-panel display. The most extravagant and exciting example of this trend is Boulder’s new 1021 disc player, a truly state-of-the-art machine that combines many of the best elements of the audiophile CD player and the computer. Slip Way Out West into the 1021 and you’ll see the name of the artist, the album and all of the track titles (leading off, of course, with “I’m an Old Cowhand”). Although the 1021 has an Ethernet jack for an Internet connection, it also includes a large internal database of information about thousands upon thousands of CDs, so you can enjoy its info-intensive display even if you don’t have a network connection at your audio rack.

The 1021 uses its computing capabilities to deliver better sound, too. It employs a DVD drive mechanism, which allows it to read high-resolution audio data from CDs and DVDs. It reads the data from a disc into a memory buffer then sends it out from the buffer in perfectly pristine form, free of the jitter (or timing errors) that CD-drive mechanisms produce. The result is sound that’s probably as good as anyone has ever wrung from the CD.

At $24,000, the 1021 is intended for use in the world’s most elite audio systems. But similar technology can be found in PS Audio’s $2,999 PerfectWave transport. Like the Boulder 1021, the PerfectWave feeds CD audio data into a buffer then emits it with the jitter removed. The PerfectWave’s front LCD displays all the same artist/album/song data, and adds the album art, so you when you’re listening to Way Out West you can see Sonny all decked out in a Stetson hat and a pistol belt. The PerfectWave Transport’s front display is an especially great feature for those who keep all their CDs in folders (or worse, in stacks) and toss the jewel cases into a closet. The PerfectWave Transport is just a transport-it doesn’t have an internal digital-to-analog converter (or DAC), so you’ll have to connect your own. PS Audio would of course suggest the matching PerfectWave DAC, which also runs $2,999.

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