For many audiophiles, the compact disc player is the go-to source component in their system. For Baby Boomers and Gen-Exers, the concept of buying a Compact Disc at the record store is a fond memory. Owning music means something to this demographic and many still own CDs from their collection of the past. Many still buy Compact Discs today to add to their collection – even if it requires them to rip (legally, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998) them to a hard drive as well as shelve or store said CD in its jewel case.
What’s Inside Of a CD player?
The two main components that make a Compact Disc player a CD player are a Compact Disc “transport” and the “DAC” which is short for digital audio converter. The transport plays the actual discs meaning spinning them. The DAC converts digital signals (zeros and ones) into an analog signal that normally goes to a preamp for attenuation (volume control) and then to an amplifier (for a bigger boost) before the analog signal gets to the speakers. This overview is a bit of a basic look at the inner-workings of a Compact Disc player as there are many other components inside the box including the all-important power supply, digital clocks, chips for programing, sometimes there are analog outputs with volume control (thus a sort of analog preamp or digital volume control inside the unit). You might also see a headphone output with variable volume. There are control elements like RS-232 (hardwired) control as well is IR (infra-red) control which is more old school. Newer players have Bluetooth connectivity too. They will allow you to wirelessly connect to your music collection on a hard drive or computer or other device which is very handy. Some of today’s Compact Disc players have a USB-A (I’ve yet to see a USB-C connector on a CD player to date but I bet it is coming) so that you can connect your external drives in a more reliable way with faster transfers.
How Much Do You Need To Spend On A Modern Compact Disc Player?
This is a matter of great debate.
You can buy a $99 Sony Blu-ray player and use its optical (digital) output to drive an affordable “portable” DAC like one sold by the likes of Schiit Audio or iFi (both well under $200) and have a high performance but low cost CD (SACD and Blu-ray too in this case) solution that can also do HD movies via HDMI (additional cable needed).
Dedicated, starter Compact Disc players tend to land in the $350 to $700 range. What you can expect from these players is a) no video output or playback b) better internal DAC components which have a massively positive effect on the sound c) these slightly more expensive players use more solid build materials to make a much more stable component thus better, more error-free performance d) the power supplies inside of the units are more robust which has big, positive effects on the sound e) you will see more digital and analog output options for those looking to upgrade to an external DAC or other upgrade paths f) expect to see a better user interface and a better remote g) these players tend to come with longer warranties h) these Compact Disc players tend to have better resale value. There is a LOT to like about the next step up.
Above a good, solid starter CD player comes external DACs or DAC-Preamp components. These players cost more in the $1,000 to $5,000 (and up) range. A more advanced audiophile might use a dedicated music streamer that can not only pull music (often in Hi-Resolution formats) from streaming sources like Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify and elsewhere abut also house many terabytes of data (think: ripped and uncompressed Compact Discs in AIFF format) and then present them with a gorgeous user interface via an Apple iPad or Crestron remote or another slick interface. Advanced audiophiles also might use a dedicated Compact Disc “transport” which spins legacy silver discs (another way to say CDs in the modern era). These higher end transports focus a lot on physical isolation, build quality and high performance power supplies to get the best possible sound. That brings us to the higher end DACs. These digital to analog converters tend to have more volume and variety of digital inputs to accommodate a larger, more complex digital front end of a bigger audiophile system. These higher end and much more expensive DACs tend to use more sophisticated digital to analog processing methods that require more internal chips, processing power, RAM and more. Powers supplies as discussed before also come into play here as a high end DAC is a pretty sophisticated bit of technology that benefits from even-handed, clean power. The performance difference between an entry level Compact Disc player and an upgraded “separate” audiophile rig with a transport or streamer paired with a DAC is notable to anybody who gets the chance to hear the difference.
The last frontier is the most scary – the world of ultimate level digital audio in the audiophile domain. A number of small companies aim to make the singular best sounding-performing audiophile-grade digital audio components. They will go to any level of extreme design or esoterica to accomplish their goals. The price for this “Nth level” of performance is more than most people spent on their first car – if not more. These products are extreme in terms of build, use and value. They sadly, often don’t hold their value as the technology changes much more quickly than in other audiophile components (think: amps, preamps, speakers) thus the “hot DAC” could be something different weeks after you just spent $30,000 on the one in your rack. Rest assured, you will enjoy the sound of an uber-high-end audiophile digital front end for years. Ignore the print magazines who say that you need to keep changing out super-high-end components. You don’t. Upgrade on your timeline and as your ears and wallet justify it.
Now you have the tools to know how to invest in a true high end Compact Disc player.