Let me instead ask you this: What’s better: a CD player that is beautifully built, reliable for decades and sounds great, or one that sounds great but lacks the beautiful build quality and WILL fail after only a handful of years?
Carefully consider this because, in a nutshell, that’s where we are at in consumer CD player land. Deciding what’s better for you means understanding a bit about what’s changed, and you ain’t going to get that from a salesperson.
The Golden Era
In terms of build quality, serviceability, operational life and general ‘vintage goodness’, older CD players are almost always better and nicer to own than new ones. Even in terms of sound quality, older players often sound superb, especially when you consider that CD playback technology was thoroughly mature by the naughties.
In other words, just as I keep telling everyone that you want a turntable from the golden age of analog, I reckon you should try to find a nice CD player from the golden age of CD. It makes sense when you think about it.
See, newer players can sound good, great even, due to improvements in DAC architecture. But that’s about all that’s improved in terms of Redbook CD playback and even then, it’s not easy to find a great sounding affordable player. I’ve noticed that many newer players sound pretty thin and lacking in body and wood. There’s nothing worse than thin-sounding sources, even if they are as smooth as you like, so keep this in mind.
Other things like lasers, power supplies, loaders (tray and mechanism), build quality, etc., are critically important. Let me tell you, these elements are rarely ever as well designed and implemented as they were in older players. Newer players rarely last more than five years, vs. nearly 40 years for players I work on that still run well keep, and herein lies the crux: older players are generally much better built and more reliable. Let’s look at a few examples:
That’s Not a CD Player…
THAT’S a CD Player!
Look at these examples of wonderful older CD players and just try to convince me that this is better.
But Mike, it’s got a Wolfson DAC!
And what use is a Wolfson DAC when the player it sits inside can’t load or read a disc…? Bueller..?!
Decreasing Build Quality
I’d never thought I’d be saying this but, just as the golden age of turntables passed long ago and the best turntables are already out there, so it is now with CD players. Modern players are cheaply built with crappy lasers that don’t last long. Some players need a new laser after just a couple of years, which is unacceptable.
I constantly repair CD players from the ’80s and ’90s, running their original lasers. They are broken, yes, but for reasons that relate to their 30+ years of age and failing capacitors for example rather than bad lasers in most cases. I repair modern players too, with lasers that often last 3 years or less. This is how far we’ve come, all that new technology, blah blah blah.
Well, new technology isn’t much use if the device containing it is made of the world’s shitiest plastic and is generally unreliable. I’ve had customers tell me they wanted to throw their unreliable new CD players in the bin! Do you think hi-fi store sales staff are going to tell you this..? They NEED to sell it to you to put food on the table. Conflicts of interest, anyone..?
Please let me know if you’ve ever walked into a hi-fi store, told the salesperson you own one of the great CD players and the salesperson has told you that your classic player is much better than any of the new affordable shite they have in the store! Please let me know because that person and the store they work in deserve serious props.
The sound of a CD player depends on many elements: the CD drive used, error correction, power supply, analog output buffer design, internal layout, build quality and DAC architecture all contribute to the sound. This is how some older players can sound better than newer ones despite DAC architecture improvements – it’s not only about the DAC, and I’ve written about this.
Don’t get me wrong though, a good modern player, like this Accuphase DP-450, is a stunning-sounding player, better than most older players, for sure. They also have multiple digital inputs which enhance flexibility and, being an Accuphase, this one is certainly well-built. But it’s also $11,000 AUD.
That being said, an older Accuphase CD player like the incredible, venerable DP-75 for example is built better, much better.
Best of Both Worlds
A good, modern DAC, where the focus is more on the DAC itself, the power supply and the output buffer, can lift an older player that might have excellent build, laser and mechanics but a dated DAC architecture. Want the best of both worlds? Get a classic player and a really good new DAC!
That’s what I’ve done with my Redbook CD and digital source playback chain and it’s breathed wonders into old and new source material. I use my Sony CDP-X7ESD and iPhone 13 Pro Max as file sources or ‘transports’ and a supremely good, and brand new stand-alone DAC with balanced outputs. This combination comfortably bests the Sony compared to using it as a stand-alone machine and that’s being polite. It has transformed my digital playback, and I still get to use an incredible classic CD player. It’s a win-win!
The Bottom Line
So it depends on what you want. Most people want something that’s going to last – is that a new Marantz CD-6006 like the one I re-lasered earlier this year after just over two years of service? Or is it a 25-year-old Sony CDP XA-20ES for example, that still plays a disc as well as it did when it was new? I know which I’d rather own.