In the early days of CD playback equipment, often there were large differences between the sound of different CD players. Designers then found that by paying more attention to the analogue output sections as well as power supply design for the digital section, it was possible to do something about the flat, brittle sound that marked the early CD players. This pursuit of digital improvement continues today, albeit at a much less frantic pace. However, unlike the early players, current players that aspire to at least a minimum of sonic pleasure are not that far from those that are cost-no-object in their design. In other words, the gap between low end and high end has narrowed. At the bottommost end not much has changed except the package. These units will play CDs but they make little attempt to sound good doing so. But for a few hundred dollars it is now possible to get a passable sounding CD player; it is these mid-priced units that are the most interesting. With CD players in this price range it is possible to put together a very respectable sound system.
So what is the point of all this? Well, if you are putting together an audio system from scratch or are thinking about updating an existing system, it means that you should be focusing on the amplification or the speakers first. More often than not, doubling your CD player budget will make much less of a difference than putting that amount of money toward a better speaker or amplifier. Speakers by far benefit from the most that you can put into them, with the amplification following second. For instance in my listening experience, the most notable CD player budget jumps are as follows: under approximately $200 it is hard to find decent sounding units. Between $200 and $500 there are a few units that sound pretty good. In order to improve in any meaningful way from there you would have to spend between $1,000 and $1,600. Improvements beyond that point are questionable. No, I am not saying that even better sounding units do not exist, but the reality is that the quality of the source disc is going to have a much larger impact on the final sound than the CD player will. Be careful of giving yourself a price point to work with and feeling compelled to meet it. Too often people are willing to spend $800 or so on a CD player, but there is really no reason to do so. Now most $800 CD players seem to exist to fill a price point. I have no idea why this is so, but in the last few years many of the $500 CD players have improved to the point the $800 players were and the significant jump has gone over $1,000.
Speakers, on the other hand, get significantly better through those price points. Raising a speaker budget from $200 to $500 makes a very big difference. That same percentage of improvement will exist if you raise the speaker budget from $500 to over $1,000. Doubling the budget from $1,000 will again net a similar gain in performance. Speakers continue to get usefully better, up until about the $7,000 point or so. I should point out that this does not mean that extremely good speakers that will bring years of enjoyment to the listener can not be had for less. They certainly can, and in many instances, space or décor concerns will dictate a smaller, more inexpensive pair of speakers. Once you achieve a certain degree of tonal and timbrel competence in a speaker, more money buys you greater bass extension and volume capability. Those last two octaves of bass can get very expensive. In fact the hallmark of a good speaker line will generally be one that does not sacrifice tone, timbre, and midrange sound quality in the more inexpensive product. In theory the smallest speaker in the line and the largest speaker in the line could have an indistinguishable sonic character if fairly "non-frequency extreme demanding" material were played at moderate levels. More money in that line would get you more octaves of bass and overall louder playback capability. I have found very few speaker manufacturers that can successfully put a speaker line together in this fashion. Most often there are major tonal shifts in the reproduction as one moves around the speaker line.
Amplification can also benefit from the money saved on the CD player. Decent sounding integrated amps start at about $350 or so and reasonable and worthwhile improvements can be had at around the $1,000 point. After that, things start getting much more expensive. Doubling the budget to around $2,000 adds a few more interesting pieces but not many. Unless you are prepared to spend over $3,000 dollars or so, integrated amps are your best buy. Manufacturers can save a lot of money by combining the amp and pre-amp into the same package and performance suffers very little if at all. The next big jump is about double and here you start to get products with very few compromises, sometimes both sonically and mechanically. There are also a very, very few products that are really worth that much money.
It pays to pick and choose the budget allocation carefully when building an audio system. Smart concessions and reaches can help you achieve an audio system of much greater value than the apparent sum of its parts.
© Cadence Magazine 2000