Types of CD players

With the popularity of digital music, dedicated CD players have largely evolved into high-end niche players. This means that the majority of well-reviewed players are pricey, aiming for listeners with large collections of discs or a sonic preference for CD sound.

Among moderately priced (sub-$1,000) CD players, you can chose among single-disc players as well as changers that hold anywhere from five or six discs to more than 300. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages.

While you might expect single-disc CD players to be less expensive than changers, the opposite is often the case. Single-disc players are often aimed at the audiophile or quasi-audiophile market and are usually -- but not always -- characterized by higher-end electronics, better build quality and strong aesthetic appeal. Disc handling is usually superior, with fewer problems with damaged discs or jammed mechanisms reported. The biggest trade-off is convenience; you need to physically remove a disc before playing another one.

CD changers offer greater convenience by letting you place five or six discs into the player at once. Most will let you swap out the remaining discs while one is playing, meaning there's no lapse in the music. However, while there are several good performers in this category, we also noted more electronic and mechanical complaints than with single-disc changers.

CD jukeboxes let you store dozens or even hundreds of discs at once. They include utilities that organize your CD collection so that it's easy to access music by artist, genre and more, though some do a better job of that than others. Initial setup can be chore, however, and we've seen some reports of disc scratching. The biggest liability, however, is that most CD jukeboxes are physically enormous. In addition, only a few CD jukeboxes are still being made.

Though some models remain available, standalone CD player/recorders are disappearing from the scene. They have been supplanted by computer-based CD drives and CD-recording tools that are integrated into all of the major operating systems, making them easy to use and readily available.

If you don't want to spend $400 or more on a dedicated CD player, consider a Blu-ray Disc player. All Blu-ray Disc players also play CDs, and most are less expensive than the remaining CD players on the market. Reports say that most do a decent job with CD playback, and a few do an outstanding job. A few Blu-ray Disc players even provide support for audiophile formats such as SACD.

When making your selection, here are a few things to look for:

  • Not all players will play all types of discs and files. This isn't crucial if you play only commercially recorded CDs, but it can be important if you sometimes burn your own discs. See the discussion of disc and file formats below for more information.
  • Consider a Blu-ray Disc player if you are on budget. Blu-ray Disc players are often less expensive than dedicated CD players of equal quality. Some play audio CDs well enough to please all but the fussiest of audiophiles.
  • Check the manufacturer's policy before buying online. Some manufacturers have strict policies regarding authorized dealers. For example, if you buy a Pioneer CD player from an unauthorized dealer, the company could refuse to honor its warranty. Some retailers may offer their own warranty as a substitute, but you'll need to decide if that's an acceptable alternative.
  • CD recorders are available but aren't popular. Most people find recording their own CDs easier with a personal computer. Most computers are equipped with a built-in CD burner and basic recording software.

Disc and file formats

For those who want to burn CDs on their computer and play them back on a component CD player, four different types of recordable CDs are available. CD-R and CD+R discs can only be recorded, while CD-RW and CD+RW discs can be erased and rewritten. Most CD players will play CD-R and CD-RW, though success with the latter can vary. Few CD players, save for so-called universal players that can handle all or almost all disc and file formats, can play music recorded on CD+R or CD+RW discs.

File format support also varies. All CD players will play CD audio (.cda) files. Some -- but not all -- will also play MP3 and WMA digital music files burned onto a CD.

All CD players will, of course, play standard, commercially recorded CDs. Some players also include decoding for HDCD discs (High Definition Compatible Digital) and/or SACDs (Super Audio Compact Discs). HDCD offers improved audio quality compared with standard CDs and is backward-compatible with CD players that lack the necessary decoding circuitry. SACDs also provide technically superior audio quality, but they are not compatible with standard CD playback technology. However, most SACDs are actually hybrid discs that include a standard CD layer, so they can be played on standard CD players. Note that while there is a fairly extensive library of existing SACD titles, many major recording studios have pulled back from the format. New SACD titles are being issued, however, by a number of smaller companies, particularly those specializing in classical and jazz music.

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