Soundstage! - The Entry Level by Greg Smith

A Tale of Two CD Players

August 1996

The biggest difference between the mind-set of a typical audio buyer and that of those who are buying from the high-end is how CD players are regarded. The general public perception is that your choice of CD player has the least effect on the system sound quality. After all, they all are decoding the same bits off the media. And if you look at measurements, most of them test exactly the same, so how could they sound different, right? This view of things, often called the "bits is bits" argument, joins the "all amplifiers sound the same" argument as the two biggest points of contention between the "I just measure" camp and the "I just listen" camp in audio-land. I don't sleep in either of those beds myself, as I find them both uncomfortable and limiting. CD players do have a big effect sound quality, and should be budgeted for appropriately.

I didn't always believe this myself. Back when I was first putting together an audio system that attempted to transcend mid-fi and actually perform, two things kept me from dropping a big chunk of money on the digital part. First off, this was back in 1991, and at that time is seemed that radical improvements in CD sound quality were showing up every few months. Second, I didn't really believe that high-end CD players were seriously better, even though I has some evidence they were. Accordingly, I bought a decidedly mid-fi Sony 5-disc carousel changer in the $250 range, which measured better then its similarly priced competition while sounding "good enough". It played and played for years, then about a year ago it started mistracking and otherwise not working right. It seemed it was time to be moving up to something better; while improvements in CD sound are still moving right along, there aren't the same radical improvements every time you check like there were years back.

First off, a digression about CD player capacity. I go through so much trouble improving my audio reproduction for the simple reason that it lets me enjoy the music more. And I listen to quite a bit of music. I've always bought CD changers because it makes it so much easier to do so. I can load up a small stack of new material and listen to it for days, because by the time I make it to the end of what's in the player I'm usually ready to head back to the first thing again. Plus, some of the things I do, like comparing regular and remastered versions of CDs, really require having both discs available with little transition time between in order to compare things properly. Some of the audiophile crowd thinks that changers are evil, nasty products that can't possibly compare with a single disc player. What I think is true is that the changer mechanism in a typical player ends up adding about $100-$200 to the player cost. Comparing good CD changers with good single players that cost $100-$200 less has always been a fair sound quality comparison to my ears. If you're looking for best quality for the buck, of course a single disc player will give you that. The convenience of a changer is going to cost you more for an equivalent level of performance, as you would expect it should. Now, there are two basic types of changer out there. The carousel has a large platform that has indentations for each of usually 5 CDs. A motor rotates the platform around, bringing each disc around toward the laser mechanism in the rear where it grabs it for playing. On modern players, this usually means you can be fiddling with some of the discs while the player is going; I find this a very useful feature for uninterrupted listening. The other major type is the magazine player, where you load typically 6 CDs into a cartridge which moves vertically and has a mechanism to kick one CD back toward the play mechanism. I've owned or used a number of magazine players from companies like Pioneer and Magnavox, and every one of them has left ugly marks on my CDs because of the shuffling process. The only decent magazine-style arrangement I've ever found is Nakamichi's music bank system. I find carousels better in every way, so I don't ever consider magazine players any more.

Having decided on a carousel changer, the next thing to figure out was how much to spend. Some sifting through reviews, discussions of the topic on the net, etc. showed that the entry-level high-end sound was running around $400 for a single disc player. I guessed, then, that the level of performance I wanted would be found in player costing between $500 and $600. Some sifting through the marketplace showed that the top contenders in that range were models from Rotel, Denon, and as a slightly odd wild-card the Nakamichi music bank (it wasn't a carousel, but it wasn't a regular magazine either). I dispensed with the Nak first after a brief audition at a local dealer. While their product literature emphasizes listening over measurements, I found those measurements to be dismal--particularly the error correction capability. It doesn't matter how good a player sounds if it won't track your CDs, and all the music bank players I tried stunk in that department; stuff with marginal scratches and such that played fine elsewhere skipped and hiccuped. The Nak player seemed overpriced as well, so with several strikes against it I dropped it from the running.

Luckily, I found a local dealer who carried both the Denon and Rotel players and had them all on the demo floor. I went in armed with my usual collection of CD player comparison tools. I had a good set of headphones I was extremely familiar with (Sennheiser HD490, really excellent for about $100 when they still made them, very easy to drive). I had a few of my favorite evaluation CDs, which usually consist of the trio of Toy Matinee, the Alan Parsons Project Gaudi, and the MoFi version of Robbie Robertson. Not that I necessarily recommend these for you; I pick these not only because they have excellent sound, but because I'm intimately familiar with them. You should be taking along whatever you are that familiar with yourself. Also along on my quest were the classic Pierre Verany test discs. This is highly useful for verifying the error correction capabilities of players, as they have a calibrated set of holes in the digital data (you can even see them) of increasing size on a series of tracks. You can listen for when the player starts dropping data. Equipped this way, I got two of the Denon players (DCM-460, $450 and DCM-560, $650) hooked up along with the just released Rotel RCC-940AX ($500) to a common preamp with a headphone jack. I started listening and checking things out.

Another digression here, this time to discuss just what I was listening for anyway. Audio components are never used in limbo. You have at least one other item each component is hooked up to. I feel the greatest problem with the all-measurement philosophy is that this sort of thing is ignored. The sound of a CD player, for example, depends not only on its internal characteristics but also on how effectively it can drive the load presented by the preamplifier it is connected to. Without considering that preamplifier load, you can only generalize about how a player sounds. Attempts to quantify the load any audio device presents to the thing that is driving it is very difficult. Measurements like input impedance only give one number to quantify what is actually a complex (in the literal and mathematical sense) frequency-variant function. My understanding of the issues involves says that this is the real reason components that measure similarly can sound so different. Just like the way a cheap power amplifier, measuring fine driving a 8 ohm resistor, can sound bad when dealing with a real, difficult loudspeaker load, so can a CD player that measures perfectly have sound that's less then perfect into a preamp load.

This is the cornerstone of my own equipment selection philosophy. Any individual component has its own inherent sound that you can try and ascertain by hooking it up to a variety of equipment, but just as important as its individual performance is how well it works with the things it is connected to. This is one of the reasons high-end buffs like to play with cables; that's the simplest way to deal with these interactions. So when you're looking to build an entire system, you need to balance the sound of the pieces as well as control their interactions. Cables are one part of that approach, and testing equipment matching with a bias toward what works better in the total system is the other. I usually go about building a system with a consistent methodology. I start by picking a set of loudspeakers, since they have the most radical effect on the total sound. Next, I pick a matching power amplifier, with sufficient current to drive those speakers while having as complementary sound as possible. Amplifier recommendations that don't consider the speakers involved, and vice-versa, should be suspect, as they interact so intimately that random matching can get some very bad combinations even among good individual pieces. After I get those squared I away, I move on to picking a CD player that balances them out, and finally a preamp builds the final link. In order to do it this way you need to have some extra, older equipment lying around to use in place of the pieces you haven't gotten yet, but I feel this is a good method for those who are trying to upgrade an existing system to use.

Some background, then, on what was happening in my own system at that point. I had a set of Klipsch Forte II speakers ($1300) I had bought years before. While I agree that most horn speakers sound bad, these do not. The main thing that makes them stand out from the ugly horn crowd is the tractrix midrange horn they have. Most horn speakers sound bad because they abuse the horn properties, using drivers way out of their recommended range, usually in two-way designs with the horn covering the majority of the frequency range. While the high efficiency lets you get away with this, overall response and dispersion suffer greatly. In the Forte II (along with the sister models, the Quartet and the Chorus II), Klipsch designers decided that, even though the midrange horn could be pushed up to 17Khz and still work, they weren't going to strain it that way. These designs are all 3-way configurations with the midrange horn going from about 600hz to about 7Khz. This has most of the midrange in one driver, which gives a coherent midrange sound that I miss in most designs that throw a crossover point right in that sensitive 3- 4Khz range. In any case, even though the sensitivity of these designs is very high, power amplifier integration is critical. In order to match the horn drivers to the cone woofer, they need to be padded down to have the levels match. Klipsch does this with a circuit they refer to as an autoformer, which is a sort of frequency dependent transformer that combines out of band attenuation with level matching. Being made out of inductors, the autoformer circuits are very difficult to drive, and the midrange gets warped with a bad amplifier. Thinking that you can use any old cheap amp because there isn't much power needed is the wrong approach. I had already gone through several power-amp iterations by this point, rejecting excellent general performers like the Adcom GFA-555 because they just didn't mesh well with these speaker. Ultimately I ended up settling with a Proton D1200 as the best match of current-driving ability with smooth, compatible sound. The moral to this part of the story, one that is becoming often learned again with recent resurgence of horns along with single-ended tubes, is that it is possible to get well-designed horn speakers if the horns are used properly and amplifier matching is done correctly--just because they don't need much power, that doesn't mean you can use a crummy power amp and expect good sound.

There are some other things you need to do different with horns to make them sound good (like moving them closer to walls and not toe-ing them in), but we were talking about CD players, right? The reason I brought all this up was to mention that, even though I was happy with my existing speakers and power amplifier at the time, just like anything else they had their flaws. I wouldn't recommend trying to seriously select a CD player until you get the back-end of your system right. Now that I had done that, I had a clear picture of what the remaining problems with that combination were. The bottom end bass wasn't as clean as I would have liked it, and some CDs were way too harsh and sibilant. These are typically the things that are wrong with inexpensive CD players, and I verified that these characteristics changed when I swapped different CD players in. So when I was listening to find a CD player that was right for me, I wanted one with solid bass extension that had a laid-back character at the top end. That day in the store, that's what I was trying to determine when I had all the players hooked up: which of them would have those characteristics and match my existing system best.

Listening to the Denon changers, which sounded very similar to each other, both of them sounded much too grainy in the treble for me, an especially bad problem considering what I was going to hook it up to. Bass extension didn't seem much better then my old Sony player either. While these players might have been an improvement, they certainly wasn't compellingly so. The Rotel player, though, was a revelation. The bass went down with a solidity I had never heard out of these headphones before, and the midrange sounded perfect; clear and laid-back, but so much so that it sounded recessed. Good enough for me; out plopped the credit card, and I verified the time period where I could return the player if it didn't really work well with the rest of my system. There's no way to know with certainty how a piece of equipment is going to sound when put into a system without trying it, no matter how well you try and isolate all the variables and make a proper selection.

Box in hand, I headed home and plugged the new player into the extra cable I had been using to connect my TV to my stereo. I dropped in one of the CDs I had been listening to at the store, and was rather shocked to find that it sounded horrible! Really, really bad. I've owned enough equipment not to judge that quickly, especially after returning from a long evaluation period that left me simultaneously worn out and overly excited, so I loaded 5 discs up and left for a couple hours. When I came back, I went back to that disc and found that it was much, much better. That first couple of hours of break-in did wonders for the player, but it still wasn't right. I yanked out the old player and connected the shiny new Rotel in its place, connected this time with the Audioquest Turquoise cable instead of the schlock cable I used for the TV. Ah, that was much better, more like I had expected it to sound. This was my first lesson with the Rotel player--it's far and away the most cable-sensitive piece of equipment I've ever owned. Don't even think of using that cable that comes in the box; more on this topic a bit later.

The next couple of days moved along, and the player started acting funny. Fine right out of the box, it was now skipping and making all kinds of weird noise. By the time I'd had it a week, it would barely play at all, and it's no wonder things hadn't sounded quite right. It was apparent that the player I had bought was a dud; not all that surprising, since this was a box out of the first shipment they had sent to the store, and initial production runs are notorious for having problems. This is why I buy try and buy things from a local dealer, though, so a quick trip back to the store and they told me I'd get a brand-new player. Only problem was, they were sold out, and Rotel said that it had been selling so well that their inventory was cleaned out, with no more expected for about a month. After quick chat with the dealer about what my options were, and they offered to let me borrow another similarly priced Rotel player from their demo collection until my replacement came in. Although I would have preferred to be immediately satisfied with a new player, this was acceptable to me, and I got another player to try out for a while.

Rotel RCD-955AX

$450. 16 bit, 4x oversampling single disc CD player. Discontinued somewhere around 1994-5.

Although Rotel has been making audio equipment for over 30 years, it was the introduction of their model 855 CD player back around 1991 that put them into the high-end spotlight. The company's combination of British designs and far-east manufacturing produced a player that caught the attention of the high-end press as being an excellent performer with a modest price tag. The 955 player released as its successor is largely the same, with a collection of minor changes. A traditional player, the RCD-955AX features a sturdy tray that slides out and feeds a single CD mechanism.

There's a good reason these players became so popular. Playing back CDs on the 955 shows off an effortless quality you rarely hear with inexpensive players. The frequency balance is smooth, maybe with an occasional slight dip, but the ugly digital harshness that plagues cheaper gear is all sanded away by the clear presentation. This Rotel is much more neutral then any other player I've ever worked with; for the most part, whenever I try and nail down just exactly what its sound is, I find that what I was really hearing was the interaction with some other component. Back when I originally got this player, I was using a good (but not spectacular) NAD 7100 receiver as a preamp. The NAD is a difficult preamplifier to deal with, and it always seemed to emphasize whatever flaws the source gear had. When hooked up to it, the 955 seemed to have a rough treble. Now that I try it again with my newer Rotel RSP-960AX, a very easy preamp to deal with that seems to file all the differences between CD players away, there's no hint of this harshness to be found. Chalk that one up to a bad component match. The only real flaw with this player, consistent across all the preamps I've tried it with, is its deep bass response. There's a slight roll-off that is especially noticeable when you play recordings with a bass guitarist banging away on the 42hz note those guys love to ride. The gut-rattling impact I expect from that note isn't quite there. Overall, there's not much to say about this player--the response is admirably flat, it seems to mate well with most of the preamps I've used, and accordingly I'd say it was an excellent value.

Checking out the error correction abilities of the player, the first track that started skipping on my Pierre Verany test disc was 33. This meant the player had no problems with errors up to 1.25mm but couldn't handle ones that were 1.5mm. In general, a player that has trouble with errors smaller then 1mm is totally unacceptable, between 1.5mm and 2.5mm is approximately average for good players, and anything that can correct errors over 2.5mm is a blessing.

Looking at the non-sound quality features of the player, the front panel has two collections of buttons controlling every player function. Each set of buttons are difficult to use because they look so homogenous and indistinguishable from each other. The remote, which duplicates everything but the open/close button, is laid out better and is more friendly. There is a shuffle feature, which I've always found laughable on a single disc player.

One nice feature of the 955 for the budding high-end crowd is the inclusion of a coaxial digital output on the back. When I hear coaxial, the first thing I think of are the big metal connectors with the pin in the middle that traditionally have been used for TV antenna connections and network cabling. That style is more properly referred to as a BNC connector, and that isn't what you get here. The coaxial outputs you'll find on CD players use a standard RCA style plug, but termination details prevent you from using a regular audio cable even though the connectors fit. Coax digital outputs seem to be the preferred popular one to use with outboard D/A converters, so it should be simple to get a cable to connect everything up if you want to try and upgrade the converter later. I've always shied away from the whole separate transport/converter scene myself. While it gives one more thing you can vary and try to control, I feel that in the $500 or so price range I live in, my time is better spent using good single units and experimenting more with the other components instead chasing jitter around.

While the 955 was an obviously a good performer, its characteristics did not quite match the rest of my system like I thought the 940 was going to. For the most part, the tonal balance, while probably perfect for some setups, wasn't quite what I needed (the bass roll-off in particular was not welcome). I was greatly relieved, then, when the month had gone by and my replacement player arrived. I bid adieu to the 955 and started some serious listening to the new 940 (although the 955 will make another brief appearance later).

Rotel RCC-940AX

$499. Bitstream 192X oversampling 5-disc carousel CD player. 2 year warranty. Checking the latest information I can find, this one appears to have hit the discontinued product wasteland as well.

Out of all the ones I've ever used, the RCC-940AX has become my favorite CD player. Sure, there are tons of better players to be found out there, but not many others come close to what you can get from Rotel for $500. The frequency balance is mostly neutral, and the few things that get a touch of emphasis (like the upper treble) tend more toward making the sound detailed and airy rather then harsh. Best of all, the bass response doesn't suffer from the low frequency problems I'm used to hearing in inexpensive players; every system I've used this player with seems to have more bass depth and control then I had thought the speakers were capable of. Sure, it's not a high-end powerhouse, but it's far better then you normally expect at this price.

There are some caveats here. For one, this player is the most cable sensitive one I've dealt with as well. I mentioned before that it sounded like dirt with an el-cheapo cable. The AudioQuest Turquoise ($30) that I use for most cabling sounded good, but this player continued to improve as I moved up the cable ladder. Ultimately, I've ended up settling on AudioQuest Ruby ($100) as the most cost effective cable that really brings out the best in the player, but this is definitely an upgrade that isn't worth doing until everything else in your system is configured as well as possible.

Now, being strict with cables doesn't mean that it's picky about preamps. It worked perfectly with the NAD receiver-as-preamp I used to complain bitterly about, and performance is terrific with my current Rotel preamp. The 940 is slightly less revealing of preamplifier quality then the 955 is, but with most inexpensive preamps this is usually a blessing rather then a fault. If you're interested in using an outboard D/A converter, the output connector on this player is of the Toslink optical design. Toslink is generally considered an inferior connection method to coax, and it's a shame that's what Rotel picked to use.

The error correction abilities of this player are OK, but nothing spectacular. I got up to track 32 before the skipping started, which translates to a defect of 1.25mm being untrackable. Not particularly impressive performance, but it's acceptable.

The front panel of the player is sparse, with controls for the disc selection, play, pause, stop, and track movement. Many of the features, like random play and programming, are only available on the cluttered and difficult to navigate remote. The changer mechanism itself seems to be of average speed, and only rotates in one direction. The CD tray itself is very solid and heavy, much more so then your typical changer, and as you would expect it seemed far less prone to skipping when disturbed. The tray slides out even when a CD is playing, letting you swap in two new discs. I find this to be a feature that, now that I'm used to it, it's difficult to live without.

To summarize, the RCC-940AX is a very nice $500 player with sound quality few changers can touch, competitive with similarly priced single disc units. While the error correction and digital output leave much to be desired, these are less important to me then the things the 940 does right.

Where to buy 'em, and some bad availability news

OK, so say you're hot and heavy into wanting to try out Rotel players now; what do you do? Last time I checked, there were no dealers authorized to sell Rotel equipment mail-order. You really need to find yourself an audio dealer who carries their products to try them out. Finding a good dealer is the first order of business I recommend to most people, anyway; there's too many products out there to try and sift through them all by yourself, getting a dealer you can trust can be very valuable. You can contact Rotel at (508) 664-4109 or 1-800-370-3741 to ask them about finding a dealer, or check out a Rotel home page (this appears to be semi-official, but who can tell any more).

Now, there's a reason why I spent so much time talking about the 955 and the 940, even though as far as I can tell they aren't being manufactured any more (thought I'd make that clear, because I'm still getting e-mail in from people who tell me the Phillips player I mentioned last month is gone from the market--CD players don't seem to last very long on the for sale racks any more). See, lots of the audiophiles who picked these players up in their heyday are now disposing of them in their continued upward quest. After liking the demo 955 I borrowed from my dealer, that's how I ended getting one myself, as a used model. Normally I don't recommend buying used CD players; compared with more predicable pieces like amplifiers and speakers, the lifespan of your average CD unit is difficult to nail down. Rotel's units are built much better then most and because of it tend to last longer (the above average 2 year warranty is indicative of that), so they are one of the few brands I'd recommend buying used. Like any used purchase, be careful (especially if buying through the mail) and make sure to check the merchandise and its records thoroughly.

I haven't spent much time dealing with the newer models Rotel has released, but unless they've pulled a Coke and messed with their winning formula their equipment should remain good performers that get you some of the best sound possible for your spent audio dollar. I've slowly been replacing quite a bit of my system with their products, and in every case it has been money well spent.

(Greg has a number of additional ravings about audio and music available on his home page).