"Is it a bad time to buy a CD player?" writes one anxious poster on the website Audioholics.com. In other words, will all music soon be available solely as a download for playback on a computer or MP3 player, rendering CDs obsolete?
The answer is no. At Billboard Magazine, Glenn Peoples debunks Internet gossip that major music labels plan to abandon the CD by the end of 2012, and he concludes that CD sales will continue to be profitable "well into the decade." For the music industry, he observes, "letting the CD die a slow, graceful death has been preferable to premature euthanasia."
As the CD enjoys its open-ended twilight, a newfound appreciation for the technology and its capabilities seems to be blossoming. And devices that play CDs, and that play to the strengths of CDs, are still being produced for budget music-lovers, connoisseurs of high-end audio and everyone in between.
That said, the standalone CD player itself does seem to be a bit of an endangered species. High-end players at equally high-end prices are still being made for those who demand the very best audio quality -- and that have the budget to get it. But more affordable standalone CD players largely have been usurped by the plethora of low-cost DVD and now Blu-ray Disc players that do an adequate -- and sometimes outstanding -- job of playing audio CDs as well as DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. Some high performing CD players at more affordable prices do remain available, however. Another option is one of a small cadre of universal players that are designed to play all types of discs -- DVDs, Blu-ray, audio CDs, HDCDs, SACDs, etc. -- at their highest quality.
To find the best choices, we looked to professional and user reviews for guidance and found some excellent information. For example, the reviewers at CNET and Stereophile magazine offer accessible insights into the technical side of moderately priced CD player options and the sheer joy of CD-listening. Few reviewers go into as much depth as Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, though audiophiles who aren't technically inclined can be easily overwhelmed. Though not all of the players they review are available here, non-U.S. sites such as Britain's What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine also do a great job of reviewing CD players and universal players. Amazon.com, Crutchfield.com and JR.com top our list of places to read owner feedback.
Reviews say there are a number of good CD-player choices available for $500 and less. At the same time, there are many audiophile-grade CD players with price tags of $2,000 and more, and some that cost upward of $25,000.
The natural question is: What do you get for the money with those high-end players? You certainly get bragging rights, for those who take pride in such things. You also get more features, higher-quality electronics and better build quality. But whether or not you get better sound is subject to debate.
Despite plenty of purple prose extolling the sonic virtues of high-end CD players, not everyone is convinced that there is that much of a difference in sound quality between high-end CD players and midprice or even budget choices. Clarke Robinson of EnjoyTheMusic.com is a skeptic. "Truth be told, I've never found anything but minute differences between any two digital source components," Robinson writes in his review of the discontinued Marantz CD5001. He adds, "While sonic differences between digital source components do exist, they don't make as much impact on the overall enjoyment of my audio system as factors like price or ergonomics."
At Stereophile magazine, there's something of an in-house tradition among reviewers to sing the praises of the Sony Playstation 1 as a CD player. Despite "pretty poor" bench test measurements, John Atkinson says that music from the PS1 sounds surprisingly "relaxed and informative." Likewise, Stephen Mejias, comparing the PS1 to the pricier Emotiva ERC-2, claims to hear a "smoothness and ease to the Sony's overall sound that the Emotiva, despite its quiet backgrounds and impressive dynamic range, simply couldn't offer." Reviewer Art Dudley writes: "If I owned any of a number of other digital source components, and if my daughter owned a PlayStation 1, I would offer her a trade -- although I don't know what possible use she could have for the former, and I don't know if I could shake the guilt that comes from getting the better part of the deal." Given that Stereophile typically reviews high-end CD players, not used devices purchased at an online auction for $15 (as was the case with the "evaluation unit" originally procured for Dudley's article), such conclusions are food for thought.
In any case, most experts agree that the quality of a CD player's sound depends as much on the equipment it is hooked up to -- amplifier and speakers -- as the player. For universal players, the connection itself can play a crucial role. As CNET's Steve Guttenberg notes, once you connect digitally, be it via HDMI or the player's optical or coaxial digital output, "the player's audio quality is 100 percent irrelevant; the Dolby and DTS processing, digital-to-analog conversions, and analog audio signals are all handled by the receiver." To get the full benefit of any advanced audio processing in the player, use its analog audio outputs to make that link.
Another key factor is the quality of the original recording and mixing. During the three decades of the CD's lifespan, the technology of recording and re-mastering has improved by leaps and bounds. While a quality CD player can bring out whole new layers of sound in a good recording, it can also shine a spotlight on the flaws of an older, poor recording, making it sound worse than it might on a lesser-grade player.