Do CD transports sound different from one another?

Yes, they do, and it’s one of the harder hi-fi truths for most to understand.


First, let’s clarify what the term ‘CD transport’ means. A CD transport is a CD player used as a digital source only, or a dedicated player that can only output a digital signal. Either way, when we use the term transport, we are referring to a player used to generate a digital signal which then feeds an external DAC.

More Than 1s & 0s

You’d think that CD players and transports, outputting a digital bitstream as they do, would all sound much the same, given that they read the same data off the disc. They should, and I use that term carefully, generate the exact same bitstream, in theory. They don’t though. For various reasons, they all sound a bit different, reading the same data, off the same disc. Curious.

I’ve always known that CD transports sound different from one another, even if the reasons why are less obvious than they are with turntables for example. BUT, these sonic differences between CD transports have never been more apparent to me than when I changed my transport from my beloved Sony CDP-X7ESD to my recently acquired Accuphase DP-90.

The spectacular Sony CDP-X7ESD CD player, my main transport on and off for the last few years.
Accuphase DP-90
This NOS condition Accuphase DP-90 has replaced it and is perhaps the most beautiful-looking and the best-sounding CD transport I’ve used.

The differences between these two transports in terms of the sound output by my DAC are night and day. The Sony is a great-sounding super-smooth operating transport in its own right. It’s also perhaps even nicer in terms of the loader action and smoothness than the much more expensive Accuphase, but there’s not much in it. In terms of sound though, the Accuphase DP-90 takes everything to 11.

With the DP-90 feeding my DAC, the bass is massively extended, mids are more real and everything is better resolved and fleshed out, in a way that is obvious when you are not even in the listening room. As soon as I hit play, I was stunned, and I was prepared for the worst. I was hoping for some improvements, not necessarily expecting anything major, but the first track of the first disc confirmed my best possible hopes. Night and day improvement.

Keep in mind the CDP-X7ESD sounds great when compared to lesser players, probably about as good as my old Meridian 506 and better than my Sony CDP-XA20ES, itself an excellent transport.

This gorgeous Sony CDP-XA20ES was my CD player and later my transport for at least ten years. I bought it new in around 1998. There’s a reason I use and recommend Sony CD players and players that contain Sony mechs.
Meridian 506
This gorgeous Meridian 506 CD player is an amazing-sounding transport and was the heart of my system for a good five or so years. The 506, 507 and 508 all sound spectacularly good whether used as integrated players or transports.

Bottom Line

Forget what you think you know in terms of CD transports and instead, just know this: transports sound different. These differences are more subtle at the lower end of the spectrum but paradoxically become more pronounced as you go up the food chain. I suggest that if you love Redbook CD as I do, that you get yourself a really good transport, the best you can afford.

A great transport will be made by a major manufacturer, built like a tank and might even be quite old by modern standards. Most importantly, a great transport will transform your playback of CDs, in a high-resolution system of course. Again, I have nothing to sell you, no secret stash of Accuphase DP-90s, though I wish I did!

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