Many of us still have CD players and some may be considering buying a new one, so here’s a guide to getting the most from your machine and your music collection. After all, we're still buying a lot of CDs.
Before we get going, remember that it’s important to look after your discs. While not as sensitive as vinyl to surface scratches, the silver disc will give you a better sound if it’s in good condition. If your disc is a little marked, at best you’ll experience a slightly worse sound, at worst it’ll cause your player to skip or refuse to play the music at all. So, handle with care and always put the discs back in their casing rather than leaving them loose.
If you’re upgrading or changing your player it pays to buy the best one you can afford. After all, if maximum information isn't being retrieved from the disc, it's impossible to replace the lost data further down the replay chain. Extra money will tend to buy you better build and improved sound quality.
If you’re buying a new player, consider going for one with digital inputs. These will open up use with other digital sources – computers, set-top boxes, DAB radio – and will give you improved performance across all feeds thanks to the (hopefully) higher quality digital-to-analogue circuitry fitted.
Let’s face it; a dedicated audio source is likely to have more care lavished on its DAC circuitry than anything on that list.
Give your CD player some solid support
The first thing is to make sure you install it on a proper support to minimise the amount of vibration it has to cope with. Most obviously, that would be in the form of an equipment rack. Ideal platforms will be rigid, level and low resonance.
While CD players don't show up vibration effects as obviously as, say, turntables, footfalls and even the sound from your speakers - especially at loud volumes - make the player's data reading mechanism work harder, which can affect the sound.
Not convinced? A cheap experiment is to try a partially-inflated bicycle inner tube under the player and listen for any difference. Don’t inflate the tube until it’s hard. The trick here is to keep it as soft as possible while still lifting the player’s feet off the support surface.
It may be a bit awkward to get the player level, but if you hear improvements then you know this is a course worth taking. If you don’t, hopefully you had a bit of fun in the process.
More after the break
It's all in the connections
Just about every CD player will come with a pair of analogue connection cables in the box. It's worth considering these hook-ups as no more than a 'get started' measure: even a budget player will sound better with some good interconnects, so budget around £30-£50 for a better pair.
Most machines have standard phono sockets for their analogue output, but some also have the option of balanced XLRs. These can give better sound quality, but not always. It all depends on how well the balanced circuitry has been designed in both the source and amplifier.
Unfortunately, the only way to tell is to try it. In most cases – outside of higher-end products - we’ve found the single-ended approach to perform better, with the balanced option only sounding louder at best.
The other, very handy, facility you should consider using is an optical or coaxial digital output: this allows the player to be connected to an outboard digital-to-analogue converter. It’s something to consider if you have a player that’s working well but you still want to improve the sound. There are plenty of good DACs around, with Chord’s Mojo an excellent option at £400.
How easy is it to operate?
At its simplest, a CD player needs just one button to open and close the drawer, a couple to start and stop playback, and track skip up/down controls. A headphone socket with its own volume control may be handy for late-night listening.
CD players will come with a remote control as standard. The handset will let you access a range of functions – often including some which aren't available via the front-panel buttons – and allow you to pause the music, skip tracks and so on. If you use an amplifier from the same brand, chances are the remote will 'drive' both amp and player.
Switch off the display
As well as letting you see which track's playing, some players show artist and title info when playing CDs with CD-Text. Strange as it may seem, most players sound better with their displays turned off, as the display itself can create some electrical noise.
Perhaps even stranger is the effect of switching off the digital outputs. This isn’t a particularly common feature – Marantz’s award-winning CD6005 has it – however there is a small but notable improvement in clarity and dynamics. You’ll only notice this if the rest of your system is transparent enough, though.
Filters and upsampling
We’re seeing far more machines that give the option of changing digital filter parameters. Audiolab is a big fan of this approach with both its CD players and DACs. It’s well worth playing around with these.
The default setting will usually be the best measuring filter, but you may well find that one of the other options sound better. It’s well worth taking the time to experiment.
We’re less positive about the upsampling option on some players. If the implementation isn’t spot-on you end up with a smoother, more refined sonic presentation, but one where the attack and sparkle in the music has been diluted.
Building the rest of your system
Just about any CD player will work with almost any amplifier – at least in electrical terms. Most players’ analogue outputs deliver around 2V, give or take a few microvolts, and that's just what the amp's line inputs expect to see. If you're using vintage amps built before the CD age, you may have some issues, but a simple modification can sort them out.
One final note – a system can only sound as good as its weakest link allows. If the rest of the set-up is unbalanced or poorly set-up, any changes you make at the source end simply won’t be revealed. Enjoy...
MORE: Best CD players 2016