How to Buy a CD Player

By Michael Riggs (10/13/00)

Although DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) promise to dislodge the Compact Disc from its longstanding position of audio-performance leadership, the older format remains our workhorse music medium-and most likely will for some time to come. Choosing a good CD player therefore remains a major issue for most people buying or upgrading an audio system. So how do you decide, with so many models available?

Key Questions
  • Single-play or changer?
  • How many discs?
  • What programming options?
  • Want HDCD, SACD, or DVD-Audio?
  • What about a DVD player

Although multidisc CD changers are more popular today than single-play machines, they may not suit your style. If you tend to play one disc at a time, you may find a changer less convenient to operate than a single-play model. And if your overriding interest is performance, the best single-disc players still hold at least a slight advantage. Nonetheless, single-play equipment runs the gamut from cheap and flimsy to high-end, ruggedly made, gorgeous, and very expensive.    Changers that play five or more discs dominate the market. These include carousel-type machines (usually the best choice) and magazine-type or cartridge-type machines. Jukeboxes playing 24 to 200 discs have seen the greatest recent growth. The hottest units hold 100 discs or multiples of 100. Some can be daisy chained for even greater capacity. It's an audio arms race!    High-end listeners, less concerned with convenience than sound, often split the CD player's functions into two components, one machine to spin and read the disc (the transport) and one to translate digital audio code into analog waves (the digital-to-analog, or D/A, converter). However, mass-market players and changers have improved to the point where outboard D/A converters seldom offer much improvement.

It's safe to assume that such common digital advances as oversampling and anti-jitter circuits are included in most new players. Most use "1-bit" D/A conversion and oversampling. All of this is secondary to how the player sounds when you pop in a disc and press Play, however. Try not to focus on digital rhetoric that you can barely understand!. User conveniences matter much more.
    The common user features are programmability and time indicators. Beyond those, don't assume all players work the same; they don't.

Most players allow you to program tracks in any sequence. If you're picky about your musical selections, investigate the track programming logic on any player you're considering. Do you have to hit an extra "program" keystroke for every track? Does programming Track 15 require you to hit "10+" and "5," or does the player have separate buttons for at least 20 tracks? If the interface is not intuitive, or if it involves too many keystrokes, that player may not be for you.    Multidisc players usually enable multidisc programming and multidisc random play. Some changers allow you to change several discs while one plays. In a CD jukebox, one feature to look for is daisy chaining-the ability to interconnect several high-capacity multidisc players to create a larger virtual jukebox. Good ones will accommodate as many as five or six units.    Also common are the abilities to repeat one or more tracks or to play tracks in random sequence, a feature known as random play or shuffle play.    Shuffle play does not work identically in all changers. In a cartridge player, for instance, it is apt to leave a greater pause between songs because the cartridge changer takes more time to switch discs than a carousel does. Also, some players' random-play systems delete each track from eligibility after it has played once and stop when all the tracks on all the CDs in the changer have been exhausted, which is good. Less sophisticated random-play systems are likely to play some tracks twice before they have played all at least once and will continue until you stop them.    Although track programming and shuffle play are common, other features are a bit scarcer. For example, some players can store favorite-track settings for a number of discs. Some will display CD Text information stored on specially encoded discs. Are you willing to pay extra for these things?

Recording Options and User Comforts
Many CD players have a direct digital output, either optical or coaxial or both. Optical jacks require a special fiber-optic cable. Highly specialized cables are available for coaxial outputs, though any 75-ohm coaxial cable will suffice. Such cables will normally be labeled for video or digital audio use. (Ordinary analog audio patch cords may do in a pinch, but we do not recommend them for digital audio connections.)
    Any kind of digital jack will let you connect an outboard D/A converter (see above), though a more popular use is digital recording to CD-R. A CD synchro function makes digital recording easier by simultaneously triggering the playback and recording machines.   Elapsed-time displays count up (in minutes and seconds, from zero to the end of the track or disc), while time-remaining indicators count down. You can usually switch between the two. Direct access or instant search takes you to a specific track or time, such as 22:43 into the recording.    A good remote is indispensable to most CD listeners, especially picky ones who like to select tracks on the fly. Some low-end models may lack direct-track selection from the remote, however, so pay attention to the capabilities of the particular players you are interested in.

Future formats
Though the CD format will remain firmly established for some time to come, potential successors are on the horizon. One is DVD-Audio, which allows up to six-channel surround sound instead of (or in addtion to) just two-channel stereo. And all those channels can be encoded with longer data words and higher sampling rates than CD allows-up 24 bits at 96 kHz, as opposed to the 16-bit, 44.1-kHz CD standard. Consequently, the basic sound quality of a DVD-Audio recording can be slightly higher than that of a CD release of the same material. The DVD-Audio standard also allows inclusion of substantial graphic and even some video material in addition to the audio. Most major record companies have announced support for DVD-Audio.   DVD-Audio discs will not play in standard CD players (or ordinary DVD-Video players, for that matter)-but Super Audio Compact Discs (SACD) can. The SACD standard allows for dual-layer discs, with standard 16-bit/44.1-kHz CD sound on one layer and high-res 1-bit digital sound with a stratospheric sampling rate of up to 2.8224 MHz on the other. The effective resolution of the SACD layer is approximately equivalent to that of 20-bit PCM. (PCM, or pulse-code modulation, is the type of coding used for CD, DVD-Audio, and most studio recording.) Like DVD-Audio, SACD supports up to six channels. In fact, the only major difference between the two formats is in the type of digital audio coding used-high-data-rate PCM for DVD-Audio versus Direct Stream Digital (DSD, or bitstream) coding for SACD. So far, SACD's supporters include Sony Music and several smaller labels.   Neither of these embryonic formats is well established, so don't jettison your CD library just yet! Moreover, as with most new technologies, the initial prices are relatively high.    One CD enhancement that is well established and which won't cause compatibility problems is the High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD) technology invented by Pacific Microsonics. HDCD allows close to 18-bit dynamic range on a conventional 16-bit CD. HDCDs will work on any player but may sound slightly better on a model that supports HDCD decoding. And HDCD-compatible players are not stratospherically expensive.

DVD for CD?
One other thing to think about when shopping for a CD player is that DVD-Video (that is, ordinary DVD) players handle both types of discs. In fact, good DVD players routinely deliver excellent audio performance from CDs. So if you're getting a DVD player, you may not need a separate unit for CDs. However, if you use a CD-R deck to record your own CDs, or expect to in the future, make sure they DVD machine you buy can play them as well. Many DVD players are not compatible with CD-R, whereas virtually all straight CD players are.

Single-play machines run from well under $100 list to mid four figures. Though multiplay machines start at $150 list, a well-constructed, high-performance changer costs about twice as much. Jukeboxes go for about $150 and up. D/A converters range from just over $100 to jaw-dropping five-figure price tags.. Transports (a well-made CD player with a digital output will do) start at $500 and level off in the low four figures.