Are CD Players Still Relevant?

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

What kind of question is that?


The End.

That is honestly what I wanted to write when posed with this question.

However, I know the audio community not only deserves more, but would likely demand a digestible explanation behind my opinion.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago explaining 5 Reasons Why CDs Should Make a Comeback. The more I swim through the many groups and forums dedicated to the format, I am finding thousands of people are still very enthusiastic about what many music listeners thought was something that died in the early 2000’s.

CDs have found a huge place in the used market. I see dozens of posts on social media everyday where Compact Disc enthusiasts share their haul from a local thrift store, or gloat about a rare find at an estate sale.

Does that make a strong enough case to warrant the statement that CD Players are still relevant?

Well, it’s a start.

The convenience and quality of streaming through services like Tidal and Quobuz as well as the recent announcement that Spotify is entering the world of hi-res streaming has deterred many from returning to compact discs.

Just like vinyl records, there is a particular ceremony when listening to compact discs. You get to thumb through the booklet and learn more about the artist you are listening to, you also get to sit back and immerse yourself with an entire album in the song order the artist had intended for it to be consumed.

You cannot do that when listening to a random playlist.

There is also the chance that you discover a new song that you can fall in love with that you had not heard before from one of your favorite artists.

There are only a few manufacturers still offering (CD Players), which have a built in DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), and (CD Transports) which need an external DAC to function. I personally use the latter because I honestly have not been too impressed with the DACs that are offered with lower priced CD Players.

I have also heard many people ask, “I have a DVD/Blu-ray player, can’t I listen to my CDs through that?” The short answer is, Yes.

The long answer is you should not want to. There aren't many cheap Blu-ray players out there that can produce reference quality CD playback. They are likely to have a very cheap analog preamp/output stage.

CD players have come a long way from that old Sony you have in storage that you’ve been meaning to get rid of. I completely understand why you would want to toss it; it is old.

However, over the past several years, the technology of DACs has jumped leaps and bounds improving the quality of the latest-generation CD Players and Transports.

For example, the latest CD players are normally matched with a high-quality DAC that can offer a true high-resolution performance.

They offer improvements like jitter reduction circuitry which can be an article on its own, however, to explain it without going into too much detail, jitter is a problem with the timing of digital audio.

When samples are taken during a digital recording or being decoded during a digital to audio conversion and are done at uneven intervals, the result is an imperfect representation of the original and creates a non-linear distortion.

There is a great debate, like the cable debate, whether these imperfections are even audible to the human ear.

I suppose those who believe, believe.

Good isolation is a feature that has been added to many higher end players, which a vibration free transport system can improve the chances of error-free reading of the CD itself.

All those features are great too, however, when we get down to brass tacks, many audio enthusiasts are concerned with two simple numbers: the bit depth and sampling rate.

Bit depth controls the dynamic range of the sound. A higher bit depth will provide a wider dynamic range. 16-bit is standard for a Compact Disc and supports a dynamic range of 96 decibels. The latest DACs, however, can convert that digital data up to 24-bit resolution which translates to a dynamic range of up to 144 decibels.

Sampling frequency is the number of times that a ‘snapshot’ of the sound is taken each second. Generally, the higher the sample rate, the more accurately the music can be converted into digital data. Bit depth identifies the number of binary digits or bits that are available for each sample. A higher bit depth can provide a more accurate dynamic range. A Compact Disc generally uses a 16-bit standard, which supports a dynamic range of 96 decibels. The latest DACs, however, can convert that digital data up to 24-bit resolution which translates to a dynamic range of up to 144 decibels.

The sampling frequency affects the audio frequency range – from the lowest to highest pitch – able to be stored. The mindset that many audiophiles have, that a higher sampling rate vastly improves the quality of the sound it is reproducing, is a bit flawed. The reason 44.1khz sample rate is the industry standard is because the human ear at its best can hear frequencies upward of 20khz. According to the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, the sampling rate needed to successfully reproduce a frequency needs to be double that of the frequency itself. Therefore 44.1khz covers more than the highest frequency the human ear could possibly hear without any aliasing (distortion) occurring. So, to put it frankly, when companies throw around the 192khz sampling rate capabilities, it’s a bit of marketing fluff since the only creatures able to hear frequencies that high are bats and dolphins.

So, when someone asks if CD Players are “still relevant”, yes, albeit the technology that has been provided with hi-res streaming is impressive, I don’t feel it’s groundbreaking enough to claim that it has much of, if any audible improvement to using a CD player with a good quality DAC.

A poll taken awhile back on AVS Forums, which many of you know is a platform comprised of many fierce and demanding audiophiles, when posed with the question whether there is an audible benefit to the MQA format versus CD quality here is how they responded: 43% found MQA sounds the same as CD, 20% thought it sounds worse, and 36% though it was superior to CD quality.

I will be conducting a poll of my own via my Facebook group, “HiFi Audio Enthusiasts”, to see if the sentiment still stands.

However, the masses of audiophiles spoke loudly when 80% of those surveyed found MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), the same quality as Compact Discs, or as the superior format. This audio codec is utilized on Tidal, my favorite streaming service if I had to pick one. I use this as reference because it is regarded, amongst streaming fans, as one of the highest quality streaming formats they have experienced.

Now that we’ve got the science out of the way, let’s take a look at some players to consider if you’re wanting to enter the ecosystem of Compact Discs or if you are wanting a bit of an upgrade from your current situation.

My first recommendation is a price conscious choice, for those wanting to have a competent player and DAC but don’t want to spend more than $500 on the entire experience.

Remember you can just get the player and use the DAC provided in the unit itself, this is just a match in case you wanted an external DAC as well.

The Yamaha CD-S300 offers optical and coaxial outputs to use the unit as a transport as well as a Burr Brown 192 kHz/24-bit DAC. It offers a floating mechanism so that way the laser pickup is isolated in the hopes of eliminating unnecessary vibration. It reads MP3s and WMAs, however, it cannot read FLAC in case that is something important to you.

With the Yamaha CD-S300 I would pair the Topping E30 DAC which you can connect via it’s optical or coaxial inputs. I have found the E30 to be a very capable DAC with a solid set of features. You can find my review of this DAC here. Paired with the Yamaha or with any other streaming device you own, I feel this DAC performs well above its price class.

My second recommendation is the Primare DD15 Compact Disc Transport, paired with the SMSL SU-9 Balanced MQA DAC. This is the exact setup I use in my system and feel it provides me with a dynamic sound, accurate reproduction, and it looks good doing it.

The SU-9 can decode up to 32bit/768kHz and comes with the ES9038PRO Sabre DAC. What caught my eye about this unit was the balanced outputs which plug directly into my preamp. The Primare DD15 uses a Philips slot-load disc drive which is known to resist vibration and noise.

My final recommendation is an all-in-one system that solves many problems for most people.

Many do not want separate units; they want to keep everything “all together”.

With the Cambridge Audio Azur 851C Upsampling DAC, CD Player & Preamplifier they can have it all.

Cambridge Audio, having a long heritage in audio, created this amazing device that can be a preamp for other devices, a competent CD player that is well built, and can deliver great quality sound. Utilizing twin DACs in dual differential mode and 2nd generation Adaptive Time Filtering it can produce a fully accurate reproduction of the music being played.

So, the next time someone asks you, and they will, why you listen to CDs or touts that streaming is better, feel free to use the information in this article to respond to their opinions.

Thanks for reading and happy listening!

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