CD player buying guide
David Brown is a member of Crutchfield's Home A/V writing team. He studied writing and politics at Ithaca College in upstate New York, where he grew up. He spent 12 years in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Masters degree in journalism and wrote an award-winning humor column. David relocated to Charlottesville, VA, in 2012. He enjoys listening to music, playing the guitar and piano, and hiking with his wife and children.
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If you've spent years building an impressive CD collection, an equally impressive CD player is the best way to enjoy your discs. Sure, you can play CDs on your computer or Blu-ray player. Or you can rip them to digital files and play them on your smartphone or iPod®. But if you’re looking for the easiest way to enjoy all the musical details of your favorite discs, a quality CD player is a smart investment. [Shop our selection of CD players.]
What should you look for when shopping for a CD player?
Though they’re less versatile than Blu-ray or DVD players, the CD player’s focused mission of music playback means they are optimized for good sound. Designers don’t have to find room for video processors or add cost to prevent interference between the video and audio signals.
The best players are distinguished by solid construction, smart design, and high quality internal components. They’re designed for accurate, detailed playback while minimizing interference and distortion in the signal. Pay attention to the following features when shopping for a new player.
Digital-to-analog converter: turning 1s and 0s into music
Because CD is a digital format, every CD player must be able to convert the digital signal to analog for playback on a stereo system. This is the job of the digital-to-analog converter (DAC).
Most inexpensive CD and Blu-ray players use low-quality DACs. However, high-quality CD players depend on better DACs to squeeze all those little details out of your discs for more accurate playback. One way they achieve this is by minimizing jitter – digital timing errors that can occur during conversion. By minimizing this sound-degrading effect, high-quality DACs can produce a cleaner, more vibrant sound. Some brands of high-quality DACs include Wolfson, Burr-Brown, Analog Devices, Cirrus Logic, and ESS Sabre.
Some high-end CD players are also capable of converting digital signals at a higher sampling rate than the CD. This process, called upsampling, can take a digital signal from a standard CD, encoded at 44.1kHz, and convert it to a higher sampling rate such as 192kHz before converting it to an analog signal. This can make your music sound more detailed and lifelike.
While every CD player has a DAC, some players feature two DACs, using separate converters for the left and right channels. This allows for even more accurate playback as the left and right-channel signals can be kept separate prior to conversion all the way through the output stage, creating a wider soundstage with clearer stereo imaging.
Get more mileage from your player's DAC with digital inputs
Some high-end CD players have digital inputs for using the player’s built-in DAC with other source components. For instance, USB (type B) inputs allow you to connect a computer to use the CD player’s DAC. This can produce far better sound quality than your computer’s stock sound card.
Digital inputs allow connection of computers, network streaming devices, and other sources for superior digital decoding that improves sound quality.
Some players also have front-panel USB ports for playing digital music files from iPods® or USB storage devices. There are also network-capable CD players that can stream music from online music services or a remote computer connected to your wireless home network.
Players with a front-panel USB input allow connection of an iPod, iPhone, or iPad.
More design features that affect sound quality
Clean power is essential for audiophile-grade sound. The best CD players use large toroidal power transformers to generate the proper power for high-performance playback.
A large toroidal transformer provides clean power with minimal noise.
The transport is the disc drive. Look for players with sturdy transports designed to minimize vibration for a purer audio signal.
A sturdy, isolated transport prevents vibration from distorting the audio signal.
The chassis is the enclosure that protects the player’s internal components. A rigid, reinforced chassis with large feet to support it helps prevent vibrations that can distort the audio signal. Some chassis feature a double-plated top or bottom panel, aluminum construction, and additional vibration dampers.
This player’s reinforced front panel and double-bottomed chassis reduce vibration for a purer sonic performance.
Balanced and unbalanced connections
While all CD players have RCA stereo outputs, a few high-end players also offer balanced XLR outputs for connection to a compatible amplifier or preamp. These balanced connections transmit extremely low-noise signals, so more of your music’s details shine through.
This player has balanced XLR outputs for connection to a high-end preamp or receiver.
What kinds of discs are compatible with CD players?
Almost all modern CD players will have no trouble playing CD-Rs or CD-RWs that you burn using a computer, including discs that store MP3s as data files.
Super Audio CDs
Popular with some audiophiles, Super Audio CDs are capable of storing high-resolution files that surpass CD sound quality. Many high-end players support SACD playback, and all SACD players also play standard CDs. [Shop our selection of SACD players.]
Some SACDs feature 5.1 surround sound mixes for multi-channel playback. Because CD players are only capable of decoding stereo signals, you’ll need an SACD-compatible Blu-ray or DVD player to play these discs in surround sound.
Finally, if you want to enjoy hours of uninterrupted music, there are multi-disc changers that allow you to load more than one disc at a time.