Best CD players for 2021
How to choose the right compact disc player for your home system
In this article: We'll look at the features that make up a good CD player, and then I'll recommend a few that stand out from the crowd, to help you get started shopping:
For a couple of decades, I bought music almost exclusively on compact discs. And I’m not about to throw those carefully curated favorites away just because I can stream the songs on my phone now. The discs offer superior sound quality, and a more immersive listening experience.
Many of us still want a high-quality CD player in our cabinet. And there are plenty being made. I’ll explain some of the key parts of a good player, then make some recommendations for specific use cases, so you can make an informed choice when you start shopping.
Key CD player parts
A CD player is a relatively simple machine. Let's examine the key parts of a player so we know what to look for when comparing two models.
Digital-to-analog converter (DAC)
Your speakers can only play an analog signal, so somewhere along the line, the digital information on a compact disc must be converted. Most CD players have a good DAC built in, but audiophiles often prefer to take the pure digital output of the CD player and use a more sophisticated outboard DAC, which we'll talk about more in the next section.
A digital-to-analog converter (DAC) turns digital information into analog sound your speakers can play.
A CD transport loads and spins your CD, and uses a laser to read the information on the disc. Some CD players are transport-only — there's no DAC built in. An outboard DAC can read digital information with extreme accuracy, which results in a more spacious sound with better imaging.
A CD player's transport is the tray you put the CD into and the mechanism that spins it and reads the information on the disc.
Some players will offer one set of RCA connections that passes the output of the built-in DAC, plus a digital coaxial or optical output if you want to use an external DAC. High-end players will also offer balanced XLR outputs for connecting to audiophile gear.
This CD player has plenty of digital outputs, plus balanced and unbalanced analog outputs.
Vibration is the enemy of great sound, so pay attention to the way a player's chassis build quality is described. There are a number of ways to reinforce a player's casing, and CD player manufacturers love to talk about the engineering that goes into creating a solid foundation for your music.
A solid power supply is important for any electronic component. Rugged toroidal transformers are valued in the electronics industry for providing high-current, low-noise power. But there are some excellent high-end variants like McIntosh's "linear power supply with special R-Core power transformer," too.
A look at the powerful, efficient toroidal transformer power supply inside a Cambridge Audio CD player.
Any player can handle mass-produced standard CDs. If you have home-recorded CDs filled with WAV, FLAC, or similar files, it's worth checking to make sure you're buying a player that's compatible. Same goes for SACDs (Super Audio CDs), which *can* be played on a regular CD player, but require an SACD-compatible player to bring out the additional channels of high-res information they're known for.
A note on CD changers
As of May 2021, global supply-chain disruptions have severely impacted the availability of CD changers, to the point where we have none currently in stock. We're expecting more from our friends at Integra and Onkyo soon, but in the meantime we couldn't just... pretend CD changers don't exist. We’ll update this article after our next shipment arrives. Thanks for your patience!
Our best CD player picks
If there were just one "best" CD player, that's all we'd sell. I think it's more useful and accurate to pick the best player for a specific use case or budget. There are plenty of great players out there, but I'll explain what criteria I used to make each of the following picks so you can see if they make sense for your situation.
Best budget CD player — Cambridge Audio AXC35
There are a number of strong contenders that cost under $400, but my pick is the Cambridge Audio AXC35. I trust Cambridge to make a high-quality product at any price point.
The AXC35 can play your CDs, CD-Rs and CD-RWs. And the built-in high-performance Wolfson digital to analog converter is a real difference-maker at this price point. The 2-year warranty gives me a little added peace of mind, too.
Best audiophile player — Denon Anniversary Edition DCD-A110
I’m limiting this category to players with SACD (Super Audio CD) capability. The SACD format offers more audio channels (e.g. surround sound), a higher bit rate, and longer playing time than conventional CDs. There are some truly excellent players in this category, but I chose Denon's Anniversary Edition DCD-A110.
The player is built around an impressive 32-bit/384 kHz DAC that features four separate Burr Brown chips working together to reveal an immersive soundstage. Denon's patented drive mechanism makes sure each disc loads quickly and spins precisely. The player has a solid, vibration-resistant chassis that reduces noise.
Pure Direct mode switches off the display and digital output to ensure clean audio playback, and the Ultra AL32 Processing algorithm smooths out digital audio signals for a more accurate and detailed listening experience.
Plus, the anniversary edition underwent a rigorous re-tuning process intended to enhance musical fidelity. And the whole thing is backed by an impressive 5-year warranty.
Best transport-only player — McIntosh MCT500
Most CD players have very good built-in DACs, but some listeners prefer the precise control they can achieve with an outboard component hi-fi DAC. In this case, a transport-only CD player’s job is just to spin the disc accurately and silently.
The McIntosh MCT500 features a high-precision disc mechanism with sturdy die-cast aluminum disc tray. Audio data on the disc is read at twice the normal speed for better error correction and tracking. It can read just about any type of disc you have, including SACDs, hybrid SACDs, audio CDs, CD-Rs & CD-RWs, plus MP3 and WMA CDs. And it offers balanced, unbalanced, and proprietary McIntosh connections.
Best value for the money — Rotel CD14
For me, a value pick is not necessarily the cheapest option — that's the budget pick above — it's the one that best balances impressive performance with a reasonable price point. And for me, that's the Rotel CD14. Rotel won't compromise great sound quality by choosing cheap parts, but they also won't inflate the cost with unnecessary flourishes. That's an ideal value-conscious design philosophy.
There's a rugged, efficient power supply inside that delivers ripple-free voltage and current to the player's digital and analog circuits. And a high-performance, CD-specific Wolfson 24-bit/192kHz DAC lets your discs be heard as the artists and sound engineers intended. As a bonus, I really like the sleek and simple front panel.
Best CD player shelf system — Denon D-M41
You may have limited space, or you may simply like the convenience of having your entire system ready to go straight out of the box. The Denon D-M41 can play CDs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs, plus MP3 and WMA CDs. It has an AM/FM tuner, and Bluetooth built-in so you can stream from your favorite music service. It can even serve as your alarm clock.
A pair of nice Denon bookshelf speakers come with it, and there's a subwoofer output on the back if you want to add more bass. You can connect a compatible TV to the optical input on the back panel and improve movie and TV time, too. It's basically an all-in-one sound system for a bedroom, dorm room, or home gym.
Best CD player/streamer — Marantz SACD 30n
I love the way the Marantz SACD 30n looks, and it's loaded with features. It features Marantz' proprietary transport mechanism and Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Modules that offer exquisite detail and dynamic range while reducing noise. Its premium DAC makes digital files sound their best, whether they're being played from a disc, or being streamed from a top-notch music streaming platform.
You can make a wired connection to your home network via the Ethernet port on the back, or use the built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for general streaming. But there's more. Apple AirPlay 2 is built-in, and the player is Roon compatible. The player is also HEOS compatible, which allows it to stream from a host of popular cloud-based music services, and lets you build a whole-home wireless speaker system with compatible components.
Record your own CDs
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that musicians and hobbyists can still record their own CDs for demos or home listening. The Tascam CD-RW900MKII is designed for professional use, but it’s reasonably priced and versatile enough to handle multiple types of CD-Rs. You can even fade tracks in and out if you’re making a mix.
We can help you choose
Have questions about how to choose the right CD player? Our expert Advisors know home stereo gear inside and out. Contact us for quick answers to all your shopping questions. Don't forget: free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.