It's possible to pay upwards of $25,000 for a CD player, but reviews suggest that doing this won't necessarily make your CDs sound any better. The biggest factor in a CD player's audio fidelity is the quality of its DAC, or digital-to-analog converter, which translates the digital signals recorded on a CD to a form your ears can listen to. The cheapest CD players use low-quality DACs that don't pick up as much detail as a high-end DAC from makers like like Burr-Brown or Cirrus Logic.
However, you don't have to spend thousands of dollars for a player with a higher-quality DAC. Even moderately priced CD players in the $300 to $500 range have superior signal processing technology from top-shelf vendors. Spending more than this may get you more bells and whistles, but it isn't necessary for great-sounding music that's sure to please even demanding audiophiles.
The NAD C-516BEE (Est. $300) proves this point admirably. Steve Guttenberg of CNET says it's "Nothing fancy, but the look and feel are first-rate." So is the sound quality, which Guttenberg compares favorably to Apple Lossless files played in iTunes on a Mac computer. He says the NAD player, with its Cirrus Logic DAC, provides livelier dynamics, a more spacious soundstage, and firmer bass definition on the same tunes than the computer.
The NAD C-516BEE earns terrific user feedback at Crutchfield.com, where we found the most reviews, earning 4.5 stars from over 100 users. Owners describe the sound as crisp, clean, and natural, with a high signal-to-noise ratio. Many users say they're hearing details in their CDs that they've never noticed before – which isn't always a good thing, as the defects in poor original recordings are also more apparent.
Owners are equally impressed with the player's build quality. They say the tray opens and closes smoothly and the controls are simple and very easy to use. They also describe the remote control as well designed, though a bit small. They admit its design isn't fancy, but many find its compact size and minimalist looks pleasing. We found very few complaints about durability, and NAD confirms its faith in its product by backing it with an above-average two-year warranty -- but be aware, that warranty will only be honored if you buy from an authorized dealer.
The NAD player isn't exactly feature-packed, but it covers all the basics. It can play commercial CDs and recorded CD-R and CD-RW discs with MP3 and WMA files. It has optical and coaxial digital outputs, and its functions include repeat and program play, forward and reverse skip, and search. The only two features reviewers would like to see added are a USB input for digital music files not on disc and a printed manual, rather than one supplied on a CD-ROM. But for someone who just wants good sound without a lot of bells and whistles, reviewers consider the NAD C-516BEE to be a great choice.
If $300 is still a bit more than you're prepared to spend, the Onkyo C-7030 (Est. $170) is worth a look. We didn't spot any credible professional reviews, but this single-disc CD player earns 4.5-star overall rating based on around 635 reviews at Amazon.com, and an identical 4.5-star rating based on nearly 90 reviews at Crutchfield.com. Owners describe the sound as clean, clear, and well balanced, with plenty of detail. They also note that the player doesn't produce a lot of mechanical noise to obscure the music.
The Onkyo can play all the same disc formats as the NAD. It also has similar features, including easy-to use controls and a remote. It even has one feature the NAD lacks: a headphone jack with its own volume control. However, this cheaper player doesn't appear to be as durable as the NAD. We saw several complaints from owners about machines that either were damaged right out of the box or broke down within the one-year warranty.
Another cheap CD player with fairly good reviews is the TEAC CD-P650-B (Est. $140) . This budget-priced player has one feature that sets it apart from the two players above: in addition to playing all standard disc formats, it has a USB input that allows it to play music files from a computer, MP3 player, mobile device or flash drive. Users at Amazon.com and BHPhotoVideo.com love this feature, along with the TEAC player's crisp, full sound. However, like the Onkyo, it has some complaints about durability. Several users say it broke down within or just outside the one-year warranty period, and getting repairs can be difficult. Still, overall ratings are solid, including a 4.3 star score at Amazon.com based on roughly 235 reviews.
If you're equally serious about audio and video, a universal disc player can be a good investment. The best ones can play pretty much any type of disc or file -- 3D Blu-ray, CD, Super Audio CD (SACD) and more -- at amazingly high quality.
The clear standout in this category is the Oppo BDP-105D (Est. $1,300). Britain's What Hi-Fi? awards this player a perfect five-star rating, saying it "does it all with movies and music." It can play discs in any format, and editors say it delivers "consistently pleasing" sound on all of them. They praise the "full-bodied balance," "rich low frequencies," and "sparkling" treble, though noting that true audiophiles might wish for a tighter bass sound. They say the picture quality is excellent as well, with "crisp detailing and richly textured colours."
The Oppo also has the superior build quality and features you'd expect from a player of its price. Audio processing is handled by the well-regarded ESS Technology ES9018 SABRE32 Reference DAC. Editors say that the Oppo is a solid piece of machinery, with a remote control to match. It offers digital coaxial, digital optical, and dual HDMI inputs, as well as a USB connection and a built-in headphone amplifier. The controls on the front are "nicely responsive," though editors wish the display provided a little more information, such as "the sampling rate of the piece of music you're streaming." In addition to the panel controls and the remote, you can run this player through an iOS or Android device via Oppo's MediaControl app. It supports a limited number of streaming providers out of the box -- including Pandora and Rhapsody on the audio side -- and is Roku ready, meaning that you can add the full lineup of Roku streaming partners by plugging in an optional Roku Streaming Stick (Est. $50).
Despite their enthusiastic review, the editors at What Hi-Fi? don't name the Oppo as a Best Buy because it's so much more expensive than most Blu-Ray players. However, most reviewers at Crutchfield.com and Amazon.com say this universal disc player is a great value despite its high price tag. They point out that for $1,300, this single device can do the jobs of a dedicated CD player, a Blu-Ray player, and a media hub -- allowing you to use the player's digital audio processing in place of the likely inferior processing found in your HDTV, game console, computer or other source(s). They say that in addition to providing great sound and picture quality, the Oppo is easy to set up and use, with intuitive controls and a helpful user manual. Several owners also praise Oppo's customer support, saying reps were always quick to answer their questions and provide repairs for faulty machines under the two-year warranty.