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Going Solo: CD Players That Stand Alone

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As consumers of recorded music and hi-fi equipment, we are at a crossroads. For most of us, the CD and CD player have reigned as the principal means for music playback for nearly 20 years. And though the CD will continue its dominance in the realm of music reproduction-no matter the digital download trend-many of us have amassed disc collections numbering in the thousands, and the selection in the marketplace is still nothing short of astounding-most consumers today are switching to the multitasking DVD player as their main vehicle for playback.

The DVD player has, in the seven years since its introduction in 1997, become the fastest selling consumer electronics product ever, with more than 90 million sold-33 million of which in the past year alone. As a result, many mass-market audio-equipment manufacturers have practically abandoned the simple, conventional, stand-alone CD player in favor of all-purpose DVD machines-and for the majority of consumers, that is just fine. For typical music listening, the sound quality of a DVD player is just as good as a CD player’s it is probably replacing, and besides, who wants the clutter and hassle of two machines?

Well, die-hard music fans do.

But where does this current trend leave those who want the flexibility and distinctly higher music quality of a dedicated CD player?

The answer? In pretty damn good shape, luckily for jazz fans or anyone who cares enough about music of any style to attempt to milk the last degree of detail, resolution, focus and musicality from his or her favorite discs. As long as we have CDs, there will continue to be companies that support the format and will continue to improve the overall quality of the extraction of data packed into those millions of digital dimples that translate as music. The fact that Burmester can sell impressive numbers of its $14,000 player, and Linn does the same with its $20,000 player, should speak volumes regarding the durability of the format and its playback mechanisms. The overall number of players available may be decreasing, but most of those disappearing from the market are, for the most part, not what most audiophiles would consider to be faithful, problem-free reproducers of music. So not to worry, the CD player is not obsolete, and it won’t be for a long time to come.

The catalyst behind this month’s column came from a JazzTimes reader who contacted me wanting some recommendations for a moderately priced, dedicated CD player. He laid out his preferences in music to help me narrow down the choices, and then came a long conversation about coffee and other pleasant topics. Though he owns a DVD player, he wanted to have a separate machine for his music playback because he realized the DVD machine would not give him and his wife the level of quality they desired for their late-evening listening sessions. They spend several hours every night absorbed by a wide variety of music, mostly jazz, and have slowly assembled an excellent audio system.

This reader has since reported that he has purchased a CD player that does just what he wants it to do: it delivers the detail all right, but most important, it communicates the music in a captivatingly lifelike way, with all the hair-raising, spine-tingling sensations that go with it, something their DVD player simply cannot do.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some DVD players out there that can reproduce music quite well, some better than the average CD player. But these DVD players are in the above-average category, starting in the $500 range and rising to $9,000 and more. The $125 models that most of us buy-and I have one of those-just cannot do justice to music, at least not at the level under discussion here.

With such a wide variety of machines on the market, we are still faced with that confounding problem of how to select the best player we can. Obviously the first hurdle is budget: Just how much is there to spend? The second hurdle is how a person goes about picking a player, which can be daunting.

“This is confusing even for me,” says Len Schneider, a regular source for this column who has helped more than a handful of companies with CD player design, marketing and dealer training. “I just can’t give any concrete criteria for making that decision. Specification sheets don’t tell you a damn thing because specs for almost all CD players are nearly identical.”

After a slight pause, he amends that statement.

“Actually, there is one spec that can sometimes predict the quality of a player, and that is weight. A heavy chassis and faceplate may indicate that the manufacturer has taken more care with what’s inside and wants it housed in a substantial box. And good transformers are usually heavier than cheap ones. Also, with good, beefy power supplies, along with good transformers, you often get some sign that the sound will be better because these are of prime importance in achieving that goal. And these almost always weigh more. But this is sometimes misleading, so you can’t just assume that a heavier player is always better. You see what I mean about being confusing?”

Schneider goes on: “Another yardstick is the reputation of the manufacturer. If they have a history of caring about sound quality, as many do, their CD players usually offer a higher level of reproduction than that from a manufacturer with no reputation for good sound. If they promote their power supply design, their individual component choices and talk about isolation from external and internal vibration, then the quality of the final sound is probably going to be quite good.”

To further guide readers in the selection of a CD player, here are a handful of choices. (But these are just a few, so be sure to visit your favorite local audio specialist to get a better idea of what might suit your needs.)

Integra, the high-end and home installation line created by Onkyo, offers a solidly built six-CD changer, the CDC 3.4 ($300), which was designed to offer good sound from a machine that would integrate well into whole-home audio installations. The 3.4 includes all the features that allow incorporation into such systems and is capable of playing your CD-R/RW/MP3 discs as well as conventional CDs.

If six discs are not enough to have online at one time, then check out Sony’s CDP-CX455 400 Disc MegaStorage CD changer ($299.95), which could potentially mean well over 400 hours of music available at the touch of a button. If you have the patience, energy and, above all, the time, you can type in basic disc information and even catalog discs by artists’ names. By the way, this is one of only three dedicated CD players Sony offers-a pretty interesting fact considering the company was a co-developer of the format.

Cambridge Audio is a British firm that has offered well-engineered audio products at extremely affordable prices for more than 30 years, and it’s unfortunate that it is not better known on this side of the pond. Cambridge Audio offers two players in its new Azur line, the 540C ($379) and the 640C ($529). Both of these have been redesigned from the ground up, utilizing the best electrical components for the money, particularly the digital-to-analog converter chips. Plus Cambridge has taken steps to help eliminate chassis resonance-this is a good thing. If you are on a tight budget, these players are well worth seeking out.

If your father or grandfather was an audiophile in the ’50s or ’60s, chances are he owned, or wanted to own, a piece of Marantz equipment. Well, Marantz is still around and cooking hotter than ever with a wide variety of equipment in a wide variety of price ranges. The company has just introduced a new CD player that has, like the Cambridge Audios, been designed from scratch, offering a taste of high-end quality at a very nice price. The CD5400 ($349) comprises solid alloy construction, a double-layer bottom to help kill vibration, premium components and gold-plated connectors. And like most new players these days, it can also handle CD-Rs and CD-RWs.

The reader I referenced earlier settled on a relatively unknown player from C.E.C., a Japanese company with a long history in the audio industry. C.E.C. was founded in 1954 when it began building precision motors for LP turntables, and later introduced its own line of turntables. The company began CD-player production in the early ’80s, and in 1991 it developed and patented the belt drive CD drive mechanism, which served to isolate motor vibration and noise from the spinning disc-the design used in all great LP tables today. This system was then incorporated in C.E.C.’s critically acclaimed line of CD transports. (A transport is, more or less, a separate CD turntable; its sole job is to spin the disc, extract the digital information and output it to a separate converter that transforms this info into an analog signal for eventual amplification.) C.E.C. currently offers one integrated CD player in the U.S., the C.E.C. 3300 ($590,) and according to our reader it’s an amazing buy for the money-in fact, its price in Europe is closer to $1,300. A heavy, robust design, the 3300 features vibration control in the chassis, but not in the belt-drive transport mechanism because it is too costly for this price point. Another C.E.C. one-box player with belt drive will be available here soon after you read this-but at about twice the price. (Since C.E.C.’s U.S. distribution has just started, its players may be a bit hard to locate. Go to mutine.com/pages/cecen.html to learn more and to contact the company about finding a dealer in your area.)

Roy Hall has made his mark in the design of high performance analog turntables at very reasonable prices sold under the Music Hall moniker. At a trade show in Asia a couple of years ago he stumbled onto a CD player that rocked his analog world. He has since begun importing this player and marketing it under his coveted Music Hall name. The Music Hall MMF-CD25 ($599) has been hailed as an incredible performer for the money, and it consists of premium components and a well-designed power supply housed in a heavyweight aluminum chassis with a thicker than average faceplate. Another highlight of this machine is its HDCD decoding capability, which improves playback even with CDs that are not HDCD encoded and that comes close to the sound of SACDs for those that are encoded.

Another obscure machine, but one touted by critics to be better than players at two to three times its cost, is the Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 ($699; available exclusively from UpscaleAudio.com). This product starts out as a stock player made by a well-known manufacturer that is gutted and completely rebuilt in the Netherlands with higher-quality parts, including a new transport mechanism, new discrete components, new heavy-duty transformers and a vacuum-tube output stage. Careful attention has been paid to every detail of this unit, particularly the revamped power supplies-it even includes an AC Noise Killer to help reduce the nasties that come in through your AC wall outlet. One of many options offered is a plug-in board ($349), which transforms the player into a 24-bit/192 kHz upsampling player that, according to reviewers, improves every aspect of the sound.

Britain seems to be overrun with native audio manufacturers, and almost all of them produce very good, very solid and very reliable equipment. Arcam is considered one of the tops in this field, something that could be guessed by the Swiss-watchlike build quality of all of its components. Arcam’s entry-level CD player is the DiVA CD 73T ($699), which, though very good in the stock configuration, allows the buyer to upgrade the machine to one of the higher-level players in the Arcam line by changing a simple-to-install module. Parts quality is the same used in some of Arcam’s $2,000-plus models, and this unit includes six separate power supplies for added stability and it adds damping to a number of key components that can degrade sound quality if allowed to vibrate.

Another one from Britain is Roksan, which made its biggest splash in the U.S. with its high performance turntables. But Roksan’s product line also includes amplifiers, DVD players, tuners and, of course, CD players. The Kandy Integrated CD Player MKIII ($1,095) is solidly built and includes a perfectly regulated power supply and the usual attention to vibration control. Moving on up the Roksan ladder we encounter the Caspian M-Series player ($2,195), which improves on the Kandy by beefing up the power supplies, improving the internal parts quality and fine tuning the laser system to help in playing difficult-to-read CD-Rs. Needless to say, the chassis and face plate are thick and rigid.

The Scottish company Linn established its now-legendary reputation by building a better turntable. Now it builds one of the best CD players available, the Sondek CD12-but at $20,000 it is out of the reach of most of us. On the other hand, the Genki, at $1,950, is a relative bargain. And as the owner of a predecessor to this machine, I can attest to the wonderful music that can come forth from Linn CD players. The company’s engineers are famous for their dedication to pursuing the high road when it comes to Linn’s designs, not cutting a single corner. This diligence stems from the Linn philosophy of making music that is as lifelike as possible, both in achieving stunning detail, but also in guaranteeing accurate pitch and precise rhythmic pace from every note of every bar of music.

Long regarded as the leader in turning out quality LP spinners at reasonable prices, the British company Rega has accomplished the same status with its two CD players, the Planet at $895 and the Jupiter 2000 at $1,695. The Jupiter’s extruded aluminum case, supported by a heavy metal base, contains seven power supplies as well as separate custom built digital-to-analog converter chips for the left and right channels. The top-loading CD mechanism eliminates the possibility of stuck drawers and helps to increase the stability of the CD itself. Many reviewers say each of these Regas achieves a solidly analoglike sound-not surprising considering Rega’s history.

Now on to an American legend. McIntosh has been recognized for more than 50 years as one of the leading manufacturers on the globe of extremely high-quality audio equipment. For years, owning McIntosh meant owning the Rolls Royce of home hi-fi. Well, the company still builds its product better than most, and the McIntosh MCD205 Five Disc CD Changer ($2,600) seems to follow that line of thinking. Weighing in at 21 pounds, the 205 is around five times heavier than the average mass-market machine and its appearance is solid and impressive-glass front and a glowing-blue display-just like every other McIntosh product I’ve ever seen. This player features an interesting transport, the Music Bank, made by Nakamichi, which is also used by IBM for data storage, so it has to be strong, fast and reliable. The internal circuitry, power supplies, DACs and so on, are equally brawny, so typical of McIntosh design and construction. This is one player that will stay the course for a long time to come.

Most of these machines can be a bit hard to locate, especially for those outside larger cities, so check the Web sites indicated. Or check RedTrumpet.com, AMusicDirect.com or AudioAdvisor.com as sources for many of the others. Your ears and tapping feet will appreciate the effort.

Originally Published