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CD Player FAQ

Loren Barstow started at Crutchfield in 1999. After working a few years as a sales advisor, he moved on to become a writer and then an editor. He has written about televisions, Blu-ray players, speakers, and various other audio/video components.

More from Loren Barstow

Q: Should I buy a single-disc player or a changer?

CD changerA 5-disc CD changer lets you change four discs while the fifth keeps playing.

A: If you're the type of person who rarely listens to more than a single CD or a few songs at time, a single-CD player may be all you need. But we've found that most people opt for changers. They provide hours of uninterrupted music, and make it easy to program music for parties, or to record custom "greatest hits" mixes with songs from several CDs.

If you like to keep a mix of music ready to go, consider a 5-disc carousel changer. Most models let you change four discs while the fifth continues playing. Your tunes will just keep flowing without interruption. And a carousel's rotating platter makes it easy for you to read each CD's label when the player's drawer is open.

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Q: What does a digital output do for me?

A: CD players have built-in digital-to-analog converters (DACs) so they can deliver a regular analog audio signal to the input of your receiver. If your CD player has a digital output, and your receiver is equipped with a compatible digital input, you can bypass your CD player's DAC and send the digital signal directly to your receiver. Depending on the quality of your receiver's DACs, this may result in better sound for all of your CDs.

The two most common types of digital outputs are coaxial and optical. Although coaxial connections usually have standard RCA-type connectors, the cable itself is specially designed to handle the much wider frequency bandwidth of digital signals. With optical connections, the signal is transmitted as pulses of light through a cable housing glass or plastic fibers. Optical transmission offers extremely wide bandwidth, ultra-low signal loss, and immunity to RF (radio frequency) interference.

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Q: I plan to record CDs to cassette. Do some CD players do this better than others?

A: Yes. There are features designed especially with tape enthusiasts in mind. CD players with "Peak Search" will scan your disc, find the loudest passage, and then play it back repeatedly so you can set optimum record levels.

"Time Edit" helps you plan your recording to fill a given tape, using the songs' playing times and the tape's length.

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Q: Do CD-R copies really sound as good as the original CDs?

A: Some audiophiles say that there is a very slight reduction of sound quality in CD copies, but to most people, the sound of a CD-R dub is indistinguishable from that of the original disc.

One important factor in maximizing the sound quality of your CD-Rs and CD-RWs is the ability to make a digital connection between your CD player and your CD recorder. If you have a dual-well CD-R/RW deck, you've already got self-contained direct digital dubbing in place. (Note, however, that copyright protection makes these decks switch to analog recording mode when you are making a copy of a CD-R, i.e. a copy of a copy.)

With single-well CD-R/RW decks, however, you'll have to make a connection to an external CD player to make copies of your favorite discs. If your player offers a digital output (virtually all newer players do), you'll definitely want to use that for the connection to your recorder. If your CD player doesn't have digital output, you can still burn excellent CD copies via an analog connection, but there will be a marginal loss of sound quality and convenience. This is due to the fact that the source signal is translated from digital to analog by your CD player, and then from analog back to digital by your CD-R/RW deck.

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Q: What's the difference between CD-Rs and CD-RWs?

A: Nearly all CD recorders work with either blank CD-Rs or CD-RWs, so you won't be locked into exclusive use of one or the other by your hardware. Choosing between the two formats really comes down to your intended uses for the discs you're burning.

Although the "R" in CD-R stands for "recordable," this is a "write-once" technology. That means anything you record on a CD-R is permanent. So if you make a mistake while recording a CD-R — for example if you change your mind about song order — you can't erase or re-record the disc.

The CD-RW designation indicates a "rewritable" disc — you can erase and re-record on the same disc over and over again. CD-RW blanks actually use a different technology and disc material, so they may not play back on some older players.

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Q: What other types of sound sources can I burn onto CD-R and CD-RW?

A: Virtually any sound source can be transferred to CD. Direct digital recordings are the most common, including CD and MiniDisc. Most CD-R/RW decks also have analog inputs, so you can create digital copies from practically any audio source as well — cassette, turntable (this requires a phono input on your preamp or receiver), a CD player without digital output, VHS, TV, radio ... whatever you want.

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Q: Reviews of SACD players and discs say that the sound is warmer and closer to analog than CD — but aren't CDs themselves supposed to be superior to analog recordings?

A: Yes, in many senses. The Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) technology used for CDs does offer a number of advantages over traditional forms of analog recording and reproduction — including increased clarity and expanded frequency response. But sound waves themselves are analog, no matter how they are recorded. And PCM does a great, but not a perfect, job of capturing and reproducing analog sound.

Direct Stream Digital (DSD) is the advanced recording technology that makes SACD possible. Standard CDs use 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM (44,100 samples-per-second Pulse Code Modulation, encoded at 16-bit resolution) to represent audio in digital form. DSD, on the other hand, is a 1-bit technology that samples music 2.82 million times per second, capturing 4 times more information. DSD also eliminates several layers of filtration and modulation inherent in PCM technology. The combination of these factors allows SACD recordings to capture more faithfully the "warmth" and smoothness of the original performance.

SACD also offers significant advances in the areas where CDs are strongest. SACD has a frequency range of over 50kHz, compared to CD's 22kHz ceiling. It also offers a dynamic range of over 120dB across the entire range of audible frequencies. With specs that phenomenal, SACD recordings are able to reproduce music with a presence and purity that has bowled over even some of digital sound's harshest critics.

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