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Are CD Players Still Relevant?

What kind of question is that?


The End.

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

However, the audio community deserves more and would likely demand a digestible explanation behind my opinion.

The more I swim through the many groups and forums dedicated to the CD format I find that thousands of people are still very enthusiastic about what many music listeners thought was something that died in the early 2000s.

CDs have found a massive place in the used market. I see dozens of posts on social media daily where Compact Disc enthusiasts share their haul from a local thrift store or gloat about a rare find at a record shop.

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 and the announcement in 2021 that Spotify may someday enter the world of hi-res streaming have deterred many from returning to compact discs.

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, and 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 experienced.

You cannot do that when listening to a random playlist.

There is also the chance that you discover a new song that you fall in love with that you had not heard before from one of your favorite artists. However, we can make the same argument on behalf of the streaming services and their everyday evolving AI curation features.

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 use the latter because I have yet to be impressed with the DACs offered with lower-priced CD Players.

Many people have also asked, "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 that you should not want to. There aren't many cheap Blu-ray players 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 one you have in storage that you've meant to get rid of. I completely understand why you want to toss it; it is old.

However, over the past several years, the technology of DACs has jumped by 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 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 decoded during a digital-to-analog 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 about whether these imperfections are even audible to the human ear.

Those who believe, believe.

Isolation is a feature that has been added to many higher-end players. 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 to 24-bit resolution, which translates to a dynamic range of up to 144 decibels.

The sampling frequency is the number of times 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 available for each sample. A higher bit depth can provide a more accurate dynamic range.

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 reproduces, is a bit flawed. The 44.1khz sample rate is the industry standard because the human ear, at its best, can only hear frequencies upwards of 20khz. According to the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, the sampling rate needed to reproduce a frequency must be double that of the frequency itself. Therefore 44.1khz covers more than the highest frequency the human ear could hear without any aliasing (distortion) occurring. So 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.

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 than using a CD player with a good quality DAC.

A poll taken a while back on AVS Forums, which many of you know is a platform comprised of many fierce and demanding audiophiles, when posed with the question of 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% thought it was superior to CD quality.

I will conduct my poll via my YouTube channel's community page 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 the superior format. This audio codec is utilized on Tidal, not my favorite streaming service, but one that enjoys touting its innovative prowess.

Now that we've got the science out of the way let's look at some players to consider if you want to enter the ecosystem of Compact Discs or if you want an upgrade from your current situation.

My first recommendation is a price-conscious choice for those who want to have a competent Player and DAC but want to spend at most $500 on the entire experience.

The Yamaha CD-S303 offers optical and coaxial outputs to use the unit as a transport and a Burr Brown 192 kHz/24-bit DAC. It provides a floating mechanism so that the laser pickup is isolated to eliminate unnecessary vibration. It reads MP3s and WMAs; however, it cannot read FLAC in case that is important to you.

With the Yamaha CD-S303 I would pair the iFi Zen DAC, which you can connect via its optical or coaxial inputs. The Zen DAC is a very capable DAC with a solid set of features. You can find my review of this DAC here. This DAC performs well with the Yamaha or any other streaming device you own.

My second recommendation is the Primare DD15 Compact Disc Transport, paired with the Cambridge Audio DACMAGIC 200M. I have used this exact configuration in my setup, and it provided me with dynamic sound and accurate reproduction, and it looks good doing it.

Aside from being an incredible DAC that can decode MQA, it has a competent headphone amplifier that can make for an excellent desktop solution.

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 "altogether."

They can have it all with the Naim Uniti Star.

With a long heritage in audio, Naim created this incredible device. The Uniti Star wears many hats; however, its most notable features are a fully integrated amplifier, a brilliant CD player/ripper, and a well-built music streamer.

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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