Do CD transports sound different from one another?

Yes, they do, and it’s one of the more puzzling hi-fi truths and paths to improving your Redbook CD playback.

If you need to get in and out quickly, let me assure you that transports sound different, dramatically so in some cases. Even I was surprised by this in the case I describe below, so if you want to hear more about that, read on!


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 extract a digital signal from a Redbook CD, which can then feed an external DAC.

Ones and Zeros

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 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.

For those wondering why they all sound a bit different, I think it comes down to differences in error correction, timing accuracy and a related aspect of that, jitter. There are some obvious contributors to this in the form of build quality, laser quality, health and precision of adjustment, power supply isolation, and so on. These factors generally correlate with cost, so it’s perhaps no surprise what I discovered recently.

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 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 fleshed out and resolved in a way that’s obvious when not even in the listening room. As soon as I hit play I was stunned, and I was prepared for the worst after importing this baby from Japan.

I was hoping for improvements, not necessarily expecting anything major, but from the first track of the first disc, my best possible hopes were confirmed by a night and day improvement over an already outstanding transport. Who knew?! Perhaps I should have, but not many people get to use, let alone own gear like this, so cut me some slack on this one! None of my hi-fi friends and colleagues have a transport this good.

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 non-Sony transport and was the heart of my system for a good five 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 just know that 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 despite its limitations as I do, you get yourself a really good transport, the best you can afford.

A great transport will be made by one of the great manufacturers, built like a tank and might even be quite old by modern standards. It will likely contain a classic Philips or Sony mech, or maybe a Sanyo in the case of some of the classic Krell CD players. 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! Enjoy the journey.

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