In terms of build quality, serviceability, operational life and general ‘vintage goodness’, older CD players are almost always better.
Even in terms of sound quality, older players can sound superb, because CD playback technology was thoroughly mature by the naughties.
Newer players can sound good and sometimes better, due to improvements in DAC architecture. But that assumes other things are equal, like laser and power supply quality, and they rarely are. It also assumes newer players keep running and herein lies the problem: older players are generally just much better-built. Newer players tend to feature ordinary build, dollar for dollar.
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 with CD players, too. Modern players are cheaply built and the lasers don’t last long. Some players need new laser ofter only a couple of years, which is unacceptable.
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.
A good modern external DAC, where the focus is more on the DAC, power supply and output buffer, can really lift an older player that might have excellent build, laser and mechanics but a dated DAC architecture. And older players are just better made, with longer-lasting lasers.
I’ve recently repaired a bunch of CD players from the late ’80s and early ’90s, running their original lasers. I repair modern players too, with lasers that often last 3 years or less. This is how far we’ve come, new technology, blah blah blah.
So it really 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 the 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 one I’d rather own!