Reports of the CD's demise are greatly exaggerated
In 1982, compact discs and the machines that played them were the state of the art for music listening. But now, nearly 35 years later, aside from a handful of audiophile models, most electronics publications don't even review them. This once-proud technology has become the victim of two distinct, opposing trends in the world of music recording: the digital music revolution and the resurgence of vinyl.
In 2015, for the first time, worldwide sales of digital music downloads surpassed sales of physical recordings. And in the USA, Nielsen reports, even download sales are on the decline as more and more listeners turn to streaming audio sources, such as Rhapsody, Slacker, and others. Yet at the same time, many true audiophiles are snubbing digital music altogether in favor of the old-fashioned vinyl record with its superior fidelity. Today, the most discriminating listeners aren't interested in fancy CD players; they're looking for high-end phonograph turntables instead.
But none of this means the CD is dead as a technology. After all, many listeners – even those who now buy most of their music online – still have large collections of CDs, as well as aging CD players that are on their last legs. So if they're not prepared to replace a couple of decades' worth of discs, they still need new CD players that can make the most of their quaint, twentieth-century music collections.
There are four types of devices that play CDs:
- Basic single-disc players are just what they sound like: machines that can play one CD at a time. They only do one job, but they do it very well. Reviews consistently give single-disc players better ratings for sound quality than CD changers. Prices for single-disc players start at around $150 and range into the tens of thousands, but reviews indicate that it's possible to get a very good player for around $300.
- CD changers can hold multiple discs at once, so you can enjoy hours of music without interruption. You can play several discs in a row or set the machine to shuffle, choosing a random track from any disc in the player. A CD changer typically costs no more than a low-end single-disc player – between $150 and $350. However, these machines typically don't offer the same sound quality as single-disc players. They're also bulkier, and their additional moving parts make them more likely to break.
- Universal players are all-in-one machines that can play any type of standard disc, such as CD, CD-R, DVD, and Blu-Ray; audiophile discs such as SACD; and virtually any file format. The best models incorporate excellent video performance and add in audio signal processing electronics that compare favorably with the best single disc CD players. However, you'll pay a premium for that audio and video quality, $1,000 or more.
- Standard DVD or Blu-Ray players can also play CDs. However, while they will do for casual listening, experts say that things will sound much better on a machine that's designed specifically with music listening in mind.
Finding the best CD players
A good CD player, above all, should reproduce sound faithfully. It should also make it easy to enjoy your tunes the way you want to. That means it needs controls that are easy to use and the ability to read common disc formats such as CD-R and CD-RW. It should be able to select individual tracks, shuffle, and repeat as well as playing a disc straight through. Finally, a good CD player should be built to last - and have a warranty to back it up.
To find CD players that have all these features, we had to rely largely on user reviews from sites that sell audio equipment, such as Crutchfield.com, BestBuy.com, and Amazon.com, as most websites devoted to audio equipment no longer review CD players. However, we were able to find a few relevant recommendations from the British publication What Hi-Fi?, as well as some casual reviews on CNET.com and About.com.