"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 notes that instead of dropping off a cliff, CD sales have leveled off over the past four years "just as an airplane would before a soft landing." In fact, CDs accounted for more than half of first-week sales of Justin Timberlake's latest album -- and more than 60 percent of Taylor Swift's.
The CD probably won't disappear, Peoples writes -- "at least within the next decade or two."
As the CD enjoys its open-ended twilight, a newfound appreciation for the technology and its capabilities seems to be blossoming. 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 stand-alone CD player itself seems 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. Audiophile-quality players that cost $500 or more are preferred by the picky testers at magazines like Sound & Vision, Stereophile, Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity and the U.K.'s What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine.
Cheaper stand-alone CD players largely have been replaced by low-cost DVD and now Blu-ray Disc players that do an adequate (and sometimes outstanding) job of playing audio CDs as well. We found a few affordable CD players and CD changers that do a good job, however -- largely thanks to owner reviews at Amazon.com, Crutchfield.com and BestBuy.com, where these cheaper CD players still outsell the fancy kind.
Reviews unearth a few good CD players for $150 to $350. At the same time, there are many audiophile-grade CD players with price tags of $2,000 or 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 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 much of a difference in sound quality between high-end CD players and midpriced 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 life span, the technology of recording and remastering 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.