Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.
CD Players: A Mature Technology?
Q: I'm looking to buy a CD player and have narrowed it down to a few choices:
AskAvi responds: (September, 2001)
When buying audio gear, performance is my top priority. However, to my ears, on almost all program material, on almost all speaker systems, almost all modern CD players sound the same. (This wasn't the case ten years ago.) The key is in digital-to-analog conversion circuits, which have become extremely sophisticated and extremely inexpensive. Today, any differences are so subtle that you need an absolute silent room, top notch speakers and amplification to even hear them, never mind to justify paying extra for the different nuances. That doesn't mean you won't find people who justify paying extra for the different nuances, and who will describe these nuances using definitive, declarative, life-or-death verbiage. I'm just not one of them.
While you can pay extra for the "upscale" manufacturers or lines like you’ve listed here (Denon, Nakamichi, Sony ES) to ensure the top quality digital-to-analog circuitry, you should also keep in mind that you may be paying for something you won't use. If you pass the signal digitally from the CD player to your receiver, the receiver is doing all the digital-to-analog conversion work, and your expensive CD player is nothing but a transport. You could just as reasonably buy an inexpensive player and spend the $200 you save on music.
There are two exceptions I'm willing to concede:
So, what's left? Features and ergonomics. One feature worth having is HDCD decoding, which makes a slight audible improvement in CD's encoded with HDCD (many more than you think - you probably have a few dozen HDCDs in your collection already and don't know it). If you like only certain tracks on your discs, then Sony's memory feature may be worthwhile for you. If you want to store all your CDs in the player itself, get a mega-changer – but keep in mind that switching from disc to disc can be slow, and setting up the changer to list the names of the discs can take an entire weekend.
So for modern CD players, ergonomics is the most important factor. Which of these players switches discs the fastest? If you're going to use the supplied remote control, is it well designed? Does the remote from your (same brand) receiver control it? Does the color scheme match your other components or your wallpaper? Seriously - there's little cost difference or performance difference in these things any more, so if aesthetics is important to you, it could be the determining factor.
My advice: if you have a modern receiver, buy an inexpensive 5 disc changer from a known brand such as Panasonic, hook it up to the optical input on your receiver, and spend the money you save on what the system is for - more music.
Please note: All submissions to AskAvi@Greengart.com become the property of Greengart.com, and Greengart.com retains all copyrights of both questions and answers. (Don't send us anything you intend to copyright or patent.) Not all submissions will be answered.
© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart