CD player round-up (early 1989)

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I once told wrote it might be worth, say, a 10% loss in sound quality with CD not to have to jump up and turn over the damned record. Sometimes a CD saves you from popping up twice—Mahler’s Fifth or Bruckner’s Seventh on a single disc instead of three LP sides— or three times—Mozart’s Magic Flute on three CDs instead of 6 LP sides. That might be worth a 15% sacrifice.

I don’t know that you will need to lose even 10%. Unless, of course, you have a turntable like a Versa Dynamics 2.0 or a Goldmund Reference.

Now, if only the cost of CDs would come down.

That may happen soon. The New York Times reports a growing CD glut. (Goody-goody. Goody got it and he has to get rid of it.) Joe Epstein, of Berkshire Record Outlet, hints of impending CD cut-outs. (How do you “cut out” a CD? Gouge a hole in the edge of the disc?) The Wall Street Journal reports that GE has developed a new resin, which will make it possible for CDs to be molded quicker—that should worsen the glut. And sale prices for “full-price” CDs have already dropped to as little as $10.00 per disc in New York.

There’s more encouraging news.

Designers such as Dan D’Agostino, of Krell, and John Bicht, of Versa Dynamics, are turning their attention to CD. Both Dan and John are looking into transports—or rather, the whole “front end” retrieval system, which includes the laser assembly Audiophiles max’ be paying as much attention to CD transports as to turntables. . . and perhaps as much money! Expect to see top-loading players with innovative clamping and damping mechanisms, which may obviate the need for such devices as CD Rings. [1]

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1. The problem with CD Rings is you can’t always remove them without disc damage if you change your mind . . or change players and then change your mind. We need to see hard evidence—tests, not testimonials—as to what CD Rings do or do not do when used with a variety of players. You might try piggybacking a CD-Ringed disc—or a ringed Mod Squad CD Damper—atop a naked disc. Warning: this will not work in all players, and might jam some. If my ears are not mistaken, you get an effect similar to ringing each individual disc without actually having to do so.

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The transport does make a difference—or, to put it another way not all digital outs are created equal. Recently at Definitive Hi-Fi in Mamaroneck, NY, a few of us Thursday night ‘philes were listening to CD5 through Mike Moffat’s Theta outboard digital processor. We tried different players. There were differences. It’s hard to say something definitive (ouch), but subjectively it appears that sturdier players retrieve the encoded data with fewer errors. Sony transports sounded particularly good.

Now, some promising players.

These players—from Magnavox, Adcom, Yamaha, and Onkyo—are in four different price ranges. Strictly speaking, none is competitive with any of the others, so all comparisons will be “unfair.” But what the hell? What’s interesting is what you can get for your money and whether it’s worth spending the money for a more expensive player. If you’re expecting a survey of players in a particular price range, forget it. No one could listen to them all, any way. More interesting to make unfair comparisons. And more in the spirit of The Audio Anarchist.

Most of my listening took place through the line stage of the Forte Model 2 preamplifier. Three of the players, all except the Magnavox CDB582, had variable outputs, so I auditioned these directly into a Threshold SA/3 or B&K ST-140 power amp. Interestingly the B&K amplifier was better at revealing differences than the Threshold. Interconnects were Discrete Technology Platinum and the very promising new Audio Prism Ultima ($160 retail for a Impair). Speaker cable was $5.75/yard Naim Cable, which sounds at least as good as, if not better than, some very costly cables with bull shit stories attached to them. Speakers were Martin-Logan Sequels.

I ran the dropout tests of the second Pierre Verany test disc on each machine. I also tested a couple of damaged discs in each player. Then I sent all the machines to Santa Fe, except for the Onkyo, which weighs 60 pounds. Santa Fe already has another DX-G10. So the Onkyo DX-G10 they measured is not the DX-G10 I heard.

Magnavox CDB 582: $249 [early 1989 price]

This machine is basic and uncluttered—no frivolous features like Favorite Track Selection, unless you count the headphone jack with no volume control. It comes with an uncluttered wireless remote but lacks digital out. The trans port looks improved over previous generations of inexpensive Philips-made players, and the drawer lets you use 3” CD5 without adaptors. Soundstaging was good, but not spectacular. It shrank during tough-sledding passages, like the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred (get Riccardo Chailly’s stunning performance— London 421 441-2). At the same time, dynamics became compressed—as they do, say, on a cheap receiver Bass extension was good for a player in this price category, but the bass was not particularly tight.

Resolution of low-level detail was fair—I have yet to hear a Philips-made machine with really great resolution. I think the Philips fog helps explain why modified Magnavoxes have enjoyed such popularity.

But it wasn’t the fog that bothered me so much. My sample of the CDB582, furnished from a dealer and not via North American Philips, exhibited a roughness and coarseness on strings that I don’t recall hearing with, say, the Magnavox CDB650. And, as of early January [1989], you could still find CDB650s around, here and there in small quantities, for around $270. That is a buy!

One aspect of the 582’s performance was truly outstanding: its ability to track. The 582 played through track 35 of Disc 2 of the Pierre Verany test disc set—these tracks simulate dropouts. Anything beyond track 27 is beyond standard values but inside the theoretical correction capabilities of CD players.” The 582 even played track 36 without glitching too much. There are only 38 basic tracks. Moreover, the 582 played four out of five damaged discs in my collection, including two discs no other player has been able to flawlessly track.

If only the sound quality had been a bit (or even two bits. . . hell, I don’t know) better, I could recommend this machine most enthusiastically at the piddling price. Maybe I got a bum one—you expect sample-to-sample variations at this price point. I should also say, in fairness to Philips, that I have not heard a better machine at the price (I have seen the 582 selling for as low as $179.95), and I have heard far worse. You may have better luck.

---Magnavox CDB582 CD player

Adcom GCD-575: $599

I got two samples of this machine—early production and late production. Late production is better, I think—the sound is smoother. Victor Campos of Adcom told me about the changes, most having to do with tighter tolerances and a few parts upgrades.

Never mind the tech stuff, this is a very good-sounding player for the money—devastating to most of the competition at the price in that once I heard the Adcom, most of the other players were unacceptable. What makes the Adcom so devastating is its low-level resolution—i.e., clarity. This is from a 16-bit Philips DAC with 4x oversampling. I wonder why I haven’t heard this resolution from Magnavox and Philips machines.

Soundstaging is very good, and imaging is excellent. Ambience retrieval, too, is most impressive—just short of the very best you can get with a CD player and far better than what you might expect for the price. Instruments are very clearly localized, and there is air around them—they don’t exist in a void, as they do with some CD players.

There are limits to the performance, of course Dynamics are somewhat reined in. When you get to the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, this machine, like many, gives up—it cannot deal in a totally satisfactory way with the dynamics.

---Adcom GCD-575 CD player

Parts quality looks good for the price, except for the drawer mechanism, made by Sony, which looks like it belongs on a cheap machine. Every time I used the drawer, I thought it might break

—but it didn’t. Even more disturbing was the poor shock resistance. This player skipped when I walked up to it! And I had it on a Mission Isoplat with a VPI Magic Brick on top. (The Adcom is shipped with no transport screws. Maybe that’s a mistake.)

Adcom is known for innovation. The GCD 5’5 has, in effect, its own built-in line amp, which gives a variable output of up to 5.3V, with an output impedance of 100 ohms. You control the output level with a conveniently located volume control on the lower-right corner of the front panel. The Adcom GCD- 575 can probably drive any power amplifier directly. You could have a dynamite duo: GCD 575 and GFA-535 power amp for under $1000 list.

Another novel feature is AFPC (Analog Frequency/Phase Contour). Switching this gives a dip in the presence region, boosting frequencies below 1kHz by about 1dB, cutting frequencies above 1kHz by an increasing amount to —3.2db at 20kHz. This is akin to a slight LF boost upward with the Quad 34 preamp’s tilt control. I found this feature occasionally useful, but it’s no substitute for adequate weight in the bass.

The Adcom sports a polarity reversal switch that works via remote. Julian Hirsch says he couldn’t hear any difference with the switch in or out. I bet you can! When the setting was right, there was more air around the instruments. More space.

What causes mc to hesitate about this player is the flimsy factor—the rickety drawer and the player’s exceptionally poor resistance to shock (this on the two samples I had, plus another sample I examined. . . as well as on Julian Hirsch’s test sample). Sonically the Adcom GCD-575 is a winner at the price, but not so good that I would be tempted to switch from something like a Magnavox CDB650. I suppose my real complaint is that Adcom did not choose to build this player to a higher price point.

Yamaha CDX-1110U: $1199

This machine (at $1199 list) is one of the new generation of Yamaha “hi-bit” or “pseudo” 18- bit players, as the competition calls them. I’ve been trying to sort out the technical claims— Yamaha’s vs the competition’s (i.e., those manufacturers who offer players with “true” 18-bit DACS). I have failed.

Briefly, an oversampling digital filter generates additional bits beyond the 16 bits of the basic CD format. In the Yamaha scheme 18 bits from the oversampling filter’s output are wired through switches to the inputs of a 16-bit DAC. When the two upper bits are not being used, which is most of the time, the 18 bits are shifted so the two unused bits are ignored and the 16 lower bits are used instead. The analog gain then needs to be reduced by 12dB accordingly

The question is whether this “bit-switching” causes distortion. Onkyo, in a “white paper”, contends that it can, while Yamaha, not surprisingly contends that it doesn’t. On the contrary says Yamaha, their bit-switching scheme actually acts as a dynamic noise reducer. A cynic might wonder whether Yamaha uses this scheme because 16-bit DACs are cheaper than 18-bit DAC5. But I’m not the Audio Cynic—just the Audio Anarchist.

Yamaha’s poop sheet makes a big fuss over the fact that the machine delivers such a low level of digital signal leakage that no analog filter is needed to cleanup the digital mess. . ah, noise. But Yamaha supplies a filter anyway—via a second pair of output jacks. This is weird, be cause analog-out from the player sounds much better with just the digital filter, just as Yamaha says it does. According to Yamaha, there is virtually no phase shift with just the digital filter.

I hear a clearer, cleaner, more focused sound. Why, then, spend money on the extra analog filter and extra pair of jacks? Inscrutable! If they didn’t do this, maybe they could afford to put in a pair of true 18-bit DACs. Ah--- but Yamaha claims that the bit-shifting is sonically beneficial. You can see how easy it is to get bogged down.

Let’s not, for we would then lose sight of the fact that this is a superb-sounding player— probably the most “analoguey” player I have yet heard.

Why so analoguey?

The Yamaha CDX1110 has ambience aplenty —the kind of life, light, and air that analog freaks have been craving. There is a bloom around instruments —especially noticeable with an amplifier which itself has plenty of bloom, like the B&K ST-140. (Through the Threshold SA/3, all the CD players tended to sound more alike.) Whether or not this spaciousness is specious—a partial byproduct of the bit-shifting process—I don’t know and don’t care. It’s lovely. Enjoy it!

This spaciousness is combined with an exquisitely-smooth, sweet, and delicate high end —rather like a really neat high-end cartridge! Again, lovely Sounds too good to be true, huh?

Well, on the downside, the Yamaha CDX1110 does not have all the low-end body and low- end punch of some more expensive players. And there is something vaguely uncertain about the way notes emerge from the silences.

In the December 1988 issue of Hi-Fi News & Record Review, Paul Miller writes about machines that do not offer a totally quiet back ground. You can’t hear hiss, but there’s a vague sense that something is “going on” in the back ground.

Paul wasn’t talking about the Yamaha, and it would be unfair to single out this excellent machine for special criticism when the same comment might be made about many, if not most, other CD players. But I did find this sense of something “going on,” and I can’t help but wonder whether or not it has something to do with bit-shifting. It especially makes me nervous when Yamaha talks about the bit-shifting scheme operating like a dynamic noise reducer. Noise reduction is probably one reason why I so passionately hate cassettes—it takes away from the certainty and the solidity of the music.

All this maybe moot, of course, if Yamaha goes to true 18-bit DACs in their next generation of players. Meanwhile, this does not take away from what Yamaha has achieved right now. This is one fine-sounding player. It might even be the best I have heard to date at any price.

Tracking, if you are keeping track, is excel lent. The CDX1110 tracked through track 35 of Disc 2 of the Pierre Verany test set with nary a glitch, hiccup, or warble.

And the CDX1110 has one unusual feature I must mention: the analog outputs are not fixed, they are variable. And the volume control, conveniently adjustable from the remote control, is said to operate in the digital domain—a benefit, says Yamaha, of all this shifting bit business. So maybe it is a boon rather than a bane.

Incidentally, I preferred the Yamaha with my discs naked—no rings. I felt the rings were rolling off the exquisite highs. [If you decide to de-ring your discs, use a razor blade to gently pry up the ring along the outer circumference of the disc— enough so you can slide scissors underneath and cut. Now, holding the disc firmly in its jewel box with a handkerchief, slowly peel off the ring. Remove any residue adhesive with the gentle masking tape sold in paint departments. Do not use solvents. De-ringing is not always successful. If you like the way CD Rings sound with your present player, leave them on.]

Onkyo DX-G10: $2500

This is a CD player?” asked my UPS delivery man. “I thought it was a Threshold or a Krell or something.”

The Onkyo DX-G10 weighs 60 pounds! And lists for $2500.

It is by far the biggest, heaviest CD player I have had in my system. And it’s beautifully made, too. Elegant, uncluttered design— Yamaha could certainly take some lessons. Piano-black side panels—beautiful. Welcome features include a large knob for variable for ward and reverse—why didn’t someone else think of that? The Onkyo DX-Gl0 has another terrific feature: you can dim or turn off the display with a push of a button on the remote. What a blessing to those of us who often listen in the dark.

Sonically, this player—which has true 18-bit DACs with 8x oversampling—is most impressive. Dynamics are particularly rewarding. This player can really open up and let it rip on pas sages like the final movement of the Manfred. The bass is firm and tight. Instruments are precisely localized, and, unlike the Yamaha, emerge from a background of silence.

The DX-G10 strikes me as having the creamy-textured smoothness I have come to associate with Onkyo products. The sound is unfatiguing, quite lovely at times, and yet it can become uninvolving. Never irritable, just bland, I just wish there were more air and sparkle, more life.

There were times when I really loved this player’s solidity in reproducing the dynamics of a piano. But even there I missed a satisfying sense of the acoustical environment in which that piano was located. Have we got some phase shift going on here?

Features on this player include a polarity switch to change absolute phase (useful), and :he aforementioned display dimmer. All the controls functioned flawlessly except for one glitch. Sometimes, unpredictably, a disc would not load—the display gave a reading of zeros and the machine would not play. I had to shut off the machine, clearing the microprocessor. This worked every time—I was then able to play the disc. A minor glitch, but still not a problem I should have encountered in a $2500 machine. The DX-G10 tracked up to Track 31 of Disc 2 of the Pierre Verany test disc set, started to hiccup on Tracks 32 and 33, and faltered badly on Track 34. The Magnavox CDB582 did much better at one-tenth the price.

This is a good player—beautifully built and exquisitely designed. I wish I had found it less lacking in life, light, and sparkle. As it is. I must tell you that I preferred the Yamaha at less than half the price.

Conclusions

Each of these four players is attractive in some ways—the price of the Magnavox, the clarity of the Adcom, the sweetness and spaciousness of the Yamaha, the authority and dynamics of the Onkyo.

But none of them completely blows me away, although the Yamaha did pass my ultimate test: I was never once tempted during a listening session to turn the player off and listen to LPs! All the other machines ultimately had me fleeing to my turntable. On the other hand, I still like my turntable set-up better than the Yamaha CDX-1110.

I don’t think you will go wrong with the Yamaha, assuming that its DACs are properly trimmed. (I would try to find a dealer who could verify for me that they are—that way he will have earned his 40 points.) But if you already have a CD player and don’t have to buy a new one, you might just sit tight.

You might wait for interesting CD transports and black boxes (outboard decoder units) to controls functioned flawlessly except for one come on the market. Wait, too, for manufacturers to provide individual calibration charts showing that each player’s DACs are linear. Wait for the whole shifty bit business to settle down. Wait and see what Dan D’Agostino and John Wicht come up with. Or Stan Warren, Paul McGowan, or John Beyer. If 1988 was the year of the kludge, then 1989 could be the year of the black box—CD separates.

Or you could be like my friend Frank. He imagines that he’s purchased certain products —right now he’s imagining that he bought a pair of hard-to-get English speakers which he has read a review of but hasn’t heard. This is ideal, since the speakers can sound better and better as Frank imagines more and more. When be tires of these speakers and gets excited about something else, he doesn’t have to trade them in. He only needs to start imagining the next product. (Sometimes he actually gets to hear a product, which spoils everything. He then has to read the reviews to latch on to something else. You can see why Frank likes products which are unavailable. He’s “owned” a Finial now for several years.)

Why not take a cue from Frank? Imagine that you own one of these four CD players—take your choice. Cut out a picture of it and place it next to your present player. Then, several months from now, when the imagined player has been superseded by another model, cut out that player and pretend you own it, too.

[The editorial above was published early 1989 in the mainstream audiophile press mag, Stereophile, under the column THE AUDIO ANARCHIST by Sam Tellig].

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Updated: Wednesday, 2015-05-13 5:21 PST