One Listener's CD Player Survey (by Anthony H. Cordesman) (Auricle, Jan. 1986)

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By Anthony H. Cordesman

Company Addresses:

Denon, 27 Law Dr., Fairfield, N.J. 07006.

Discrete Technology, 2911 Oceanside Rd., Oceanside, N.Y. 11572.

Magnavox, c/o NAP Consumer Electronics, P.O. Box 6950, Knoxville, Tenn. 37914.

Meridian, c/o Madrigal Ltd., P.O. Box 781, Middletown, Conn. 06457.

Mission Electronics, 5985 Atlantic Dr., Unit 6, Mississauga, Ont., Canada L4W 1S4.

Nakamichi U.S.A. Corp., 19701 South Vermont Ave., Torrance, Cal. 90502.

NEC Home Electronics, 1401 Estes Ave., Elk Grove Village, III. 60007.

Revox, 1425 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville, Tenn. 37210.

Sony, Sony Dr., Park Ridge, N.J. 07656.

Yamaha, 6660 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park, Cal. 90620.


I can't help wonder what the average person shopping for a Compact Disc player would say it he or she were suddenly exposed to one of the little hifi magazines which talk about the average CD player in terms of "digititis" and describe the sound as capable of driving a reviewer out of the room. I suspect that if he or she happened to own an average moving-magnet cartridge, automatic turntable, mid-fi transistor electronics and box speakers, the reaction would be a deserved incredulity.

Even the worst-sounding Compact Disc players I have heard, the very early ones, were not bad enough to justify reviewers' tantrums. In fact, our average listener might well have found such players to be flatter, more dynamic, and more musical than a combination of the average low-cost cartridge, turntable, and extra gain stage required for the phono input. Chances are, too, that a low-cost mid-fi receiver or amplifier would have been sufficiently hard and lacking in detail in the upper midrange and highs to mask many of the problems in a mediocre CD player. And most low-cost, American-made speakers would have been sufficiently slow and rolled off in the highs to further disguise a player's problems.

At the same time, it is all too clear that today's Compact Disc players are not perfect. They may do a wonderful job of eliminating most forms of noise and distortion we have come to recognize in phono records and analog tapes, but they also introduce new ones. This is clearly reflected by the effort manufacturers have put into improving the better third-generation players. There are good sonic reasons why manufacturers have rushed to upgrade the laser, drive system, loading system, filters, phase response, immunity to shock, output stages, and virtually every other aspect of their original machines.

However, even the best CD players now available still have audible problems that offset many of their advantages. While these problems may not be all that apparent on the average mid-fi system, they are audible on top grade transistor or tube electronics and on top-grade electrostatic, ribbon, or cone speakers. Although the best current Compact Disc players are far better than the first generation, they are just beginning to be competitive with the kind of top-grade phono system that can cost well over $1,000. Admittedly, any Compact Disc player is superior to the best home turntable or tape deck in some important areas. The CD player has virtually flat frequency response, and this response stays constant over a wider range of signal levels than does a tape or LP system. There is no resonance, wow and flutter or speed error, so timbre and pitch are more exact; no non digital or frequency-modulated system has been able to avoid audible problems in these areas. There are no major setup problems of the kind that are inevitable in a phono or tape system, and no inherent problems in geometry of the kind that limit even the best straight-line tracking tonearms and cartridge designs. Properly manufactured CD players also have a higher "ceiling" in terms of maximum dynamic range, far better (and more consistent) separation between stereo channels, and less inherent noise. These are all very real and audible merits of the Compact Disc format.

At the same time, every CD player I have heard to date suffers from problems which show up all too clearly on a top-quality sound system. These include an inability to resolve low-level musical detail, harmonics, and "air" as naturally as the very best record-playing systems and tape decks. In the frequencies above about 3 kHz, all CD players exhibit at least some "hardness" or lack of realistic musicality that is not apparent on a top-quality record playing system or tape deck. On most, but not all, CD players there is also a loss of smoothness or musical coherence from top to bottom that is most often reflected in slight problems in the consistency of imaging, and in a slight leanness and lack of coherence in the midrange. Even on the best players, there is at least a slight tendency to reduce the width and depth of the sound stage.

These problems may or may not be the result of phase distortion. There are other potential causes, and I suspect that the problems are more likely to be an interactive combination of faults--beginning in the recording studio and continuing on to the output jacks of the CD player--than the result of any single cause. They are not, however, imaginary, and they are recognized by most manufacturers of CD players. I have talked to the importers and manufacturers of several top models, including Denon, Meridian, Mission and Yamaha. All admit that today's CD players have sonic weaknesses, although all are a bit irritated at the extent to which these faults have been exaggerated in some of the little audiophile magazines.

Individual CD players also sound very different from one another, and some sound distinctly mediocre. A CD player does, after all, employ an exceedingly complicated chain of mechanical, optical, digital and analog technologies. This chain involves a wide range of parts and components, and even the most expensive home CD player is forced to make some compromises to integrate them into a single unit. Every design problem and technical compromise in the chain contributes to what operations analysts sometimes call the "error budget," the full list of variables which can cause distortion.

Many of these errors cannot yet be fully detected or measured by today's technical methods, although serious audiophiles may wish to look at the November 1984 issue of the French Son magazine and the first issue of the new British Which Compact Disc.

Son tested nine different Compact Disc players and found significantly different performance with regard to separation, distortion, and phase, pulse and square-wave response. The machines with the worst measurements, all of which use the 16-bit process developed by Sony, had well over 80° of phase shift, poor 1-kHz square wave performance and a considerable amount of ringing.

Which Compact Disc tested 23 CD players and revealed some very different capabilities to resolve information according to level. None of the players under survey proved able to resolve at the ideal 16-bit sampling rate, and several of the machines rarely went much beyond 14 bits.

Further, the word "digital" does not mean that CD players do not need complex and high-gain analog output stages. I have taken the cover off a number of CD players and often found analog output stages that have the defects of those in a $20 portable radio.

Some manufacturers make many of their cost compromises at this point in their designs, and some use circuitry that is normally unacceptable in even a bargain-basement receiver. These compromises include the use of the kind of high-gain op-amps that are notorious for poor sound character and the kind of integrated circuits which have been recognized by many audiophiles as a major source of sound problems for years.


above: Denon DCD-1800; Discrete Technology LSI

 

Some manufacturers also use multiplex circuits that switch back and forth between channels every 11.3 µS, and while this switching is not audible, it may lead to problems in other areas.

Some players have low-grade, unbypassed electrolytics in the output stage. Many players have low-cost power supplies, minimal-quality grounding, and too much feedback.

The irony is that the analog audio stages in CD players may well be the primary source of many of the sound problems that some reviewers claim are caused by "digititis." These problems are so bad, in fact, that the British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review published a long article in its December 1984 issue which explained how the analog circuits in digital players ought to be fixed.

This brings us to the bottom-line subject of this review: If CD players are not perfect, how well do they compare to alternative sources of sound and how do they differ by model? I recently had the opportunity to listen to a wide range of Compact Disc players for at leas' several days at a time, using a system with Audio Research SP10 and D250a1 electronics driving Infinity RS IB, Quad ESL-63 and JBL 250Ti speakers, and the Stax Lambda Pro ear speaker system.

I was able to compare Compact Discs on these players to analog records on several turntable and tonearm systems. These included a range of top-quality cartridges on combinations of the SAEC WE-407/23, Dynavector, and Eminent Technology arms on the VPI turntable; the revised Alphason arm on the Oracle Delphi Mk II, and Sumiko's The Arm on the SOTA Sapphire turntable. I also used a Tandberg TD-20A SE tape deck, and two second-generation dubs from the master tapes of recordings which I also had in LP and CD form. Since I was conducting separate cartridge and cable surveys during my listening to CD players, I was able to go to great lengths to get the best sound out of each record playing system.

You may not have a similar system, but you can repeat many of my musical comparisons. I made heavy use of several CD and record combinations.

These included Jazz at the Pawnshop and Cantante Domino on the Proprius label; Dave Grusin's Discovered Again on Sheffield and his Mountain Dance on GRP and Nimbus; Willie Nelson's Stardust on CBS; the Sheffield Track and Drum records; Vivaldi's Four Seasons on Telarc; Michala Petri's Recorder Concertos on Philips, and Dafos and Popular Masterworks of the Baroque on the Reference Recordings label. I particularly recommend Jazz at the Pawnshop as the best demonstration I have yet heard of the sound-stage potential of CD. The results of my listening comparisons are below.

Denon DCD-1800

The $800 Denon DCD-1800 has an excellent mechanical feel, good programming features, good ease of operation, relatively low vulnerability to shock, and exceptional ability to resolve low-level detail on test discs. It is marred, however, by a relatively hard or aggressive upper midrange and treble. It fails to provide the low-level musical detail, air, open sound stage, and depth of a top-quality record-playing system or tape deck. The overall sound is quite listenable, however, and most of the sonic problems in the upper midrange and treble are no worse than those that result when records are played through my daughter's mid-fi Denon receiver.

Discrete Technology LSI

The Discrete Technology is a heavily modified Philips deck. The exact details of the modifications are proprietary, but the sonic result is a distinct improvement in the detailing and natural musical character of the upper midrange and treble. Imaging and depth are distinctly more open than the standard Philips and most Sony-process machines. The bass is also a bit more extended than usual, but the LSI does not have the power, natural timbre, or distinction between bass notes of the Meridian players (discussed below). As is the case with all of the better new players, the Discrete Technology, at $1,195, seems to "lock in" with some discs and not with others.

These differences have led one British manufacturer, Cambridge Audio, to develop an $1,800 machine which has the equivalent of switchable phono equalization to adapt the player to different "types" of CDs. I have not heard the production version of this machine, but it illuminates a problem in rating CD players. Unless you listen to a very wide mix of CDs, you may prefer one machine over another for the wrong reasons. A different set of reference CDs might well make another player seem preferable.

Magnavox FD3040SL


above: Magnavox FD3040SL; Meridian MCD

This Philips-made machine, typical of that company's current players, is sweeter and more musical in the upper octaves than earlier Philips models and most of the first- and second-generation Sony-process machines. It is notably less musical and less harmonically natural, however, than the Discrete Technology, Mission, Meridian MCD or Meridian Professional players I listened to. This $449 unit definitely has the character of low- or medium-priced transistor equipment, with a loss of natural lower-midrange energy and typical transistor sound. The deep bass is also curiously lacking in natural force, and notes are a bit blurred and unnaturally hollow. It's not bad in comparison with most mid-fi electronics, but not quite competitive, in terms of realism, with the more natural musical sound available from a good turntable, like the AR, and a reasonably priced Grado, Adcom, or similar cartridge.

Meridian MCD

The $699 Meridian MCD is one of several British modifications of a Philips player, and is the machine that took Bert Whyte's fancy in a previous issue of Audio (see "Behind the Scenes," December 1984). It is an upgrade of the Philips CD-101, which was the first Compact Disc player Philips made, a top-loading machine sold in the U.S. under the Magnavox and Marantz brand names. (Incidentally, Magnavox's version, the FD1000SL, is now available in the Washington, D.C. area for about $200. Not only is it still musically superior to most second-generation CD players using the Sony 16-bit sampling process-although not to the latest third-generation Sony machines-but I know of no $200 record playing system that is the equal of the FD1000SL.)

The Meridian version has an improved laser-drive interface, an improved filter, and high-quality analog electronics. It also deliberately emphasizes sound quality over features. It is the one machine under review that does not provide a digital display or a wide range of programming features none of which I have ever found to be of more than the most passing interest.

(Even my. daughter cannot expand her interest in programming her Commodore 64 to programming the bands on her Duran Duran CDs.)

The sound is generally excellent, but still lacks the air and detail available with the best cartridges used with the best turntables and tonearms. The Meridian MCD provided a more musical midrange and more air than any of the other CD players under test, but still suffered from a slight trace of hardness and lack of low-level harmonic detail.

The sound stage is wide and high but slightly lacking in depth.

The Meridian also has more bass than any other CD player I have listened to; this bass is sometimes exaggerated and a bit less controlled than on the better competition. With the CD format in general, I am more impressed with bass power than with bass control and definition, and this is particularly true of the Meridian in the case of complex percussion. Organ music, however, sounds much better, and the separation between low bass fundamentals is clearer on the Meridian MCD-and all of the other CD players under review-than on either the VPI or SOTA turntables.

I would still give a top-quality record playing system the overall edge, but the Meridian MCD is definitely a "crossover" product that goes beyond mid-fi and at least edges into the high end. The best record-playing systems cost at least 50% more than the Meridian, and many cost far more than twice as much. I know of no current record playing system that can surpass the Meridian at its price, or of any CD player that can provide so many of the advantages of the CD format with so few of the deficiencies.

Meridian Professional


--Meridian Professional; Mission DAD-7000R

The Meridian Professional carries all of the improvements found in the Meridian MCD several steps forward, although at what may be a painfully high price: $1,400. It also is something of a transitional product, since Meridian is developing a new transport that they are planning to have out soon. The Professional is, however, important because it is still better than the MCD in resolving both the bass and the upper octaves. In fact, it begins to challenge even the very best phono systems in natural musicality, although I would argue that cartridge/arm/turntable combinations in the $1,800-plus range are still "sweeter" than the Professional, and capable of producing more natural musical harmonics.

The Professional is also interesting in that it has the bass power of the Meridian MCD, but without any indication of a slightly swollen bass or any lack of bass detail. The Professional also approaches even the best moving coils in terms of depth, imaging, and sound stage width-although it is not a direct rival. Equally important is that it seems far less sensitive to differences between CDs than most players.

This machine will be of immediate interest only to audiophiles with considerable money to spend, but it also gives an impressive indication that less costly, fourth-generation CD players will be even better than the more affordable machines now on the market.

It also indicates, I think, that CD may yet be able to equal or outperform analog discs even in the areas where LPs now retain superiority.

Mission DAD-7000R

The latest Mission I have listened to is a modification of both the Mission 7000 and the original 7000R, and is still something of an interim product.

The 7000 series was originally expected to use a new 16-bit chip being developed by Philips to overcome increased quantization noise. Unfortunately, large-scale delivery of the chip has been delayed to 1986-87, and Mission has had to settle for the older, 14-bit chip which has been standard with all Philips Compact Disc players, including the Meridian.

However, the Mission DAD-7000R incorporates many of the same types of improvements that are found in the Discrete Technology and both Meridian players, and comes very close in sound quality to the Meridian MCD and the best record players. The Mission's bass, in fact, seems slightly better controlled and more natural than the Meridian's, although it still seems to be a bit lacking in natural force or power.

The Mission's weakness in comparison to the Meridian players is that it still retains a slight upper-midrange emphasis or hardness. This emphasis is similar to that of the Discrete Technology player. It may initially appear as more detail, but eventually it shows up as a less detailed and less harmonically natural rendition of low-level passages and harmonics.

The DAD-7000R, a reworked version of the Philips CD-104, also looks and feels a bit cheaply made. The loading drawer mechanism is not impressive, the programming features are a bit more awkward than those of most other players, and the control buttons are tiny and anything but positive in handling and feel.

The Mission is somewhat more sensitive to shock, floor vibration, and acoustic breakthrough than most of the other Compact Disc players I have tested, although using Mission's 'so plat isolating platform ($59) will reduce most of these problems to the same level as those of other players. The DAD-7000R does not provide RCA jacks, and the hard-wired interconnect cable provided as a substitute is sonically adequate, but scarcely top-quality and too short for many component systems. At $749, the DAD-7000R is one of the best CD players I've heard, but it does give the appearance of having engineering compromises.

Nakamichi OMS-5


--Nakamichi OMS-5; NEC NEC CD-705E

The Nakamichi OMS-5 is a beautifully styled machine that uses the Philips sampling process and high-grade filters and output stages. It lacks the usual keyboard-worth of useless programming features, and it has no remote control; these are available for more money in the OMS-7. (But again, who uses all those pushbuttons? For what purpose?) The $995 OMS-5 is sonically interesting in that it has an excellent capability to resolve musical detail on percussion and chamber music; arguably, it outperforms the Denon in this regard.

The overall sound quality is roughly equal to that of the Mission and Meridian MCD in most respects, but the OMS-5 does not succeed in resolving detail in the upper octaves as well as it does in the bass and midrange. The treble is slightly lean and hard, and there is less depth.

The Nakamichi ranks close to the top but is surpassed by the Mission, Meridian Pro, and Meridian MCD. It also does not have quite the natural musical life of the best record-playing systems.

Nevertheless, I doubt if anyone is going to be disappointed by this machine. It handles discs beautifully and was the only machine I auditioned where loading a second disc on top of the one being played (to ensure better tracking) did not give an occasional improvement in sound quality.

NEC CD-705E

The NEC CD-705E produces generally pleasant sound and seems to be exceptionally soundly built. The $749 unit has all the usual advanced pushbutton programming features, a nice remote control (with its own place for storage inside the machine), and very good ergonomics. The tonal balance in the midrange and highs is a bit softer than many other CD players, and the sound is good on medium- to high-level passages. The NEC does not, however, provide the air or harmonic detail of a top-quality record player and has notably less depth. Sound stage size is slightly collapsed, low-level passages are not quite as clean as on the Mission, both Meridians and the Nakamichi, and the NEC does not have quite the others' ability to handle massed strings, or transients like those produced by the triangle.

The NEC is not at the top of my list, but I should stress that it is a very musical machine. Its accuracy of pitch and timbre was sometimes audibly superior to that of the reference record players, and its excellent separation sometimes resulted in better imaging. I suspect these differences owed more to weaknesses in record production and quality control, however, than to any inherent weaknesses in the SOTA, VPI, and Oracle turntables. The NEC 705E otherwise had the usual problems that seem to emerge in most CD sound, and it was not sonically competitive with the best record-playing systems and tape decks. This model is far more musical than the earlier NEC CD-803, which was relatively irritating and hard. It is certainly competitive with many record-playing systems available in the same price bracket.

Revox B225


--Revox 8225; Sony D-5

The Revox B225 is beautifully made and has all sorts of complex programming features. Sonically, however, it ranks between the Denon and the NEC, and below the Mission and both Meridians. The upper octaves of this $1,150 player are a bit too hard, and resolution of low-level musical detail is only adequate. Two samples also revealed a somewhat odd sound stage.

Depth was better than in many earlier CD players, but width and height seemed to collapse to a marked and undesirable degree.

Sony D-5

This portable CD player, which costs $299.95 (plus $49.95 for the optional battery pack/carrying case), is noticeably more musical than the most expensive first- and second-generation Sony machines, and outperforms many models, from other companies, that are much more expensive. It is further evidence that Sony's 16-bit process can overcome its initial inferiority to the Philips technology. The D-5 scarcely competes in sound quality with Sony's newest top-of-the-line machines, or even the Magnavox FD3040SL. The sound is slightly unfocused and sweet, however, rather than hard, and the imaging and sound stage are acceptable, even if the D-5 sounds slightly compressed and less accurate in instrument placement than the best CD players. Most competitive low-cost players are far less musical in the highs and much more fatiguing.

Yamaha CD-2

The Yamaha CD-X1 and CD-2 sound almost exactly alike, and are sonically close to the Denon DCD-1800. The Yamaha CD-2 reproduces slightly less low-level musical detail than the Denon, but is softer in the upper midrange and highs. This makes it a very listenable mid-fi machine with a more forgiving character than that of many other CD players.

The $599 CD-2's controls are also well thought-out. It has an excellent set of readouts and programming features, and a good remote control. The Yamaha CD-2 does not rank with the Mission or Meridians, but, like the NEC, it is a pleasant mid-level machine.


above: Yamaha CD-2; Yamaha CD-3

Yamaha CD-3

The Yamaha CD-3, priced at $499, is a warning that newer is not necessarily better. Like many CD players which attempt to keep prices to an absolute minimum, the CD-3 has highs that are a bit hard and fatiguing, and its general sound character seems to mix that of an inexpensive receiver with the general upper-octave problems described earlier. This Yamaha is a good reminder to listen closely to any CD player before buying, and not to buy on the bas s of price alone.

CD Players vs. Record-Playing Systems

To sum up, the best record players, to my mind, still retain a slight edge over CD players (or, in sonic terms, lack one). The best CD players, however, are already directly competitive with, or superior to, most record players in their price range and are far superior to the initial generation of CD players. If they do not represent the ultimate evolution of high fidelity, they certainly can provide excellent high end sound. The Mission and the two Meridian units also indicate that future generations may yet surpass even the very best record players I also should note that the Mission, Meridian MCD, and Meridian Professional players are already good enough to help me evaluate the best turntables. Their ability to provide a flat response and dynamic range in loud passages helped me confirm, for instance, that the latest VPI HW-19 could produce a slightly flatter mid-bass and more midrange detail than the SOTA Sapphire, and also that the VPI was slightly more prone to certain kinds of low-frequency acoustic breakthrough.

Whatever the weaknesses of today's CD players, they already expose some of the deficiencies in even the very best record-playing components.

-Anthony H. Cordesman

(Source: Audio magazine, Jan. 1986)

Also see:

Change for the Better: Four Multi-Disc CD Players (Jun. 1986)

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