Though one could easily spend thousands of dollars on a CD player, we've indentified a few moderately priced units that can deliver as good -- or nearly as good -- sound for much less money. While sound quality remains a high priority, we've also weighed ergonomics, build quality and value into the equation in naming our Best Reviewed CD players for this report.
Most consumers have probably never heard of Emotiva Audio, and the company only sells its products direct from its website (emotiva.com). However, the Emotiva ERC-2 (*Est. $450), like its predecessor, the ERC-1, has quickly earned a reputation among professional reviewers and audio aficionados for its terrific performance, strong build quality (backed by a five-year warranty) and relatively budget-friendly price.
For example, Steve Guttenberg of CNET finds the ERC-2 on par with the Oppo BDP-95 (*Est. $1,000), a universal disc player that costs more than twice as much, and he jokingly speculates that the only reason the ERC-2 might not be considered an "audiophile" player is because it doesn't cost enough. Stephen Mejias at Stereophile opines: "The ERC-2 quickly distinguished itself as a punchy, authoritative, muscular performer able to produce very quiet backgrounds while keeping a steady grip on the music." According to Mejias and several owners who have written shorter reviews online, the ERC-2 is a player that invites listeners to fall in love with their old CD collections again, and seek out new CDs to explore.
At a hefty 17.5 pounds, the Emotiva ERC-2 gives the impression that it is a serious machine, with a thick black metal faceplate and a simple diamond of four front buttons, which glow blue in the dark. What is most odd is its slot-loading mechanism, typical of mobile/portable CD players or devices like the Sony PlayStation 3, rather than a traditional tray loader. Slot mechanisms are often a source of concern -- if not outright derision -- for their rough handling of discs. But rather than the typical (and problematic) rubber rollers, the ERC-2 uses a "robust" magnetic loading mechanism that's similar to, but an improvement over, the one used in its also-well-regarded predecessor, the Emotiva ERC-1. Still, loading is slow and requires delicacy and precision, which Stereophile's Mejias says took some getting used to. Once loaded, the disc plays right away, which might rankle some users who prefer to use the remote to begin listening after they're seated and settled.
Some complain that the remote is a big, bulky monster, while others relish its heft. A fan at AudioCircle.com says it would be right at home on Star Trek. Another user notes that the ERC-2 does not have a jack for headphones. One thing that it does have, an improvement over the ERC-1, is a professional-grade digital output connector for those who wish to use it as a digital CD transport with a high-end amplifier or receiver (remember, using the digital link hands off signal-processing cores to that receiver or amp).
An issue that bothers some is limited format compatibility. The Emotiva ERC-2 supports CDs, HCDC, CD-R and CD-RW, and there has been no reported testing of owner-made discs (which often did not work in the unit's predecessor, the ERC-1). Moreover, the player does not support SACDs (Super Audio CDs). Though -- small consolation -- with a free update provided by Emotiva, it apparently will read the regular CD layer of a hybrid SACD.
For enthusiasts, sound quality is of paramount importance, and that's an area where the Emotiva ERC-2 scores well. Nearly all reviewers agree that, with the Emotiva CD player, they can hear layers and nuances of music that they've rarely noticed. One poster at Secrets of Home Theater and Fidelity remarks that because the Emotiva's "noise floor is so low," subtle details pop out. "Playing old favorites reveals music way back in the mix." Listening to a CD of live chamber music, CNET's Guttenberg marvels at how clearly he can hear an off-stage violin. For Stereophile's Mejias, this showcasing of detail is a mixed blessing. Playing one of his old band's early recordings, he says he is chagrined to hear the cheapness of the mix and the drunken mutterings of their lead singer.
As with the ERC-2's predecessor, the ERC-1, there have been a few complaints that the sound is too bright (slightly biased towards higher frequencies), but one defender replies that what listeners are interpreting as bright is in fact a "clean, clear treble response" that they've never heard before. CNET's Guttenberg remarks that the dynamics of the Oppo BDP-95 were fuller and more realistic, and that by comparison, the ERC-2 was "cooler." But most listeners tend to rhapsodize over the ERC-2's sound with what can only be described as a nostalgic awe.
The NAD C515BEE (*Est. $300) also garners respect. It's a former Best Buy pick at What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine and an Editors' Choice at The Absolute Sound. According to What Hi-Fi?, the C515BEE's strength is its ability to squeeze every bit of detail out of music, delivering vocals "with torrential levels of emotion and expression." Bass response is excellent, as is the CD player's ability to create a sound stage that's more expansive than most. However, the magazine describes the C515BEE as a little tentative -- even shy -- especially with selections that would benefit from the player being more willing to "really cut loose when the material demands it."
Build construction is solid, and the traditional NAD styling, while not particularly eye-catching, is efficient and not unattractive. The C515BEE uses a traditional and perhaps more comforting, disc-tray mechanism. Connectivity includes everything you might expect, including optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, and unlike the Emotiva, a headphone jack. Audio format support includes WMA files, but not HDCD.
The Marantz CD5004 (*Est. $350) is another contender. It receives a rave review in Stereophile magazine and is Crutchfield.com's staff pick among CD players. Though only a few owners have reviewed it on Amazon.com, most of their feedback is glowing.
The Marantz CD5004 again sports a more traditional tray-loading mechanism. Though it boasts an "SACD-quality" digital-to-analog converter, which reduces distortion to an infinitesimal amount, the Marantz does not support the SACD format. It does, however, play CDs, CD-Rs and discs with WMA and MP3 files. The aluminum and resin front panel is said to reduce vibration. Among its interesting features are a Variable Pitch Control for musicians who want to play along with a track and a button on the remote control that lets one repeat the previous 10 seconds on the current track.
Buyers on Amazon.com praise the CD5004 for the depth and detail of its sound, and its ability to handle a wide range of frequencies. Stereophile's Robert J. Reina is entranced by the player's "reproduction of tonal balances." When he tests it against another model seven times as expensive, he finds that the Marantz CD5004, while not superior, holds its own.
Though Marantz is renowned for quality, there have been scattered complaints about the CD5004 from users posting on Amazon.com, Crutchfield.com and Stereophile's web site. One had trouble with the headphone output and the tray. Another, complaining of "inconsistency," went through two units that sounded distorted and harsh (a complaint echoed elsewhere), before ending up with a third that sounded better, but the machine itself was wobbly.
A few other single-disc CD players get editorial recommendations here and there. The Onkyo C-S5VL (*Est. $400) gets a nice write-up by Gary Altunian at About.com. This Onkyo player is one of the rare midrange players that can play SACDs (Super Audio Compact Discs), and Altunian says sound quality compares favorably with other players he's reviewed, including higher-end models. User reviews are limited, but most seem to be very pleased with the C-S5VL. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
The CD players discussed here aren't inexpensive. That's due in part to the ubiquitous nature of digital music, which has helped convert the CD to a niche music format. Remaining CD players are now specialty equipment, and budget standalone CD players have become almost extinct. The few such players we did spot are mostly older models and less-than-stellar performers. Some good, low-priced choices remain among CD changers, which are covered elsewhere in this report.
For those looking for less expensive options, reports tell us that some low-cost ($150 and below) Blu-ray Disc players do a decent job with music -- as long as expectations are reasonable. One example is the Panasonic DMP-BDT210 (*Est. $135), which earns strong reviews on Amazon.com. Many of the reviewers seem to be enjoying the sound quality of this Blu-ray player as much as they are the picture. The DMP-BDT210 is not a universal player, however, lacking support for SACD discs, for example. For those who want SACD support, some moderately priced Sony Blu-ray players -- such as the Sony BDP-S580 (*Est. $120) -- are worth considering, though reviews aren't as strong overall. You can read more about these and other Blu-ray Disc players in their own report.
Although the Blu-ray players in this report can satisfy all but the most demanding audiophile, some Blu-ray Disc players take things to another level. The most noteworthy of these is the Oppo BDP-95 (*Est. $1,000) universal disc player, a step up version of the Oppo BDP-93 (*Est. $500) that is covered in our report on Blu-ray players. While the Oppo BDP-95 is not inexpensive, what you get for your $500 premium over the "base" BDP-93 is audio processing technology and performance that would be more at home on high-end audio components costing much more.
Although the Oppo BDP-95 is short on some popular add-ons (Internet streaming, for example, is not as robust as on other top-rated players), it's long on performance-related ones. The audio DAC (digital-to-audio converter) is a reference-grade component designed for professional studio equipment and the highest-end consumer gear. Connectivity is extensive and includes 7.1-channel analog outputs -- which should be used rather than the digital or HDMI outputs to get the full benefit of the BDP-95's audio processing. The BDP-95 offers comprehensive disc and file support, including SACD, HDCD and DVD-Audio, and it can play back files directly from an external storage device via its USB and eSATA inputs. Video qualities, including 3D playback, are equally high-end and are, for all intents and purposes, identical to those of the BPD-93 (again, see our Blu-ray players report for more on that).
The Oppo BDP-95 has been extensively reviewed and earns nearly universal praise, including multiple Editors' Choice awards and Product of the Year designations. Some of the write-ups are exhaustive -- and perhaps exhausting -- to nonaudiophiles. Still, bottom line conclusions are unmistakable. For example, Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity puts the Oppo BDP-95 and BDP-93 to the test, and it is impressed enough with the former to name it the Product of the Year for 2011 among universal players. The reviewing team of John Johnson, Chris Heinonen and Stephen Hornbrook call the BDP-95 a "reference quality player," and they add that "the BDP-95's audio performance is nothing short of superb, posting some audio measurements that were below the limits of detectability by the standard bench test instrument in the industry."
Leonard Norwitz of EnjoytheMusic.com is no less impressed in his equally in-depth review. Norwitz eschews bench testing for extensive listening sessions with a panel of seven invitees "who have in common a love of film and music, and come with a varied technical and practical background." His conclusion for audiophiles and videophiles alike is: "If you want more than technical excellence -- if you want an emotional connection to and lose yourself in your movies, then look no further than the BDP-95."