In almost any hi-fi set up the CD player is the source that has the most influential effect on the performance of your entire system. Whether you're buying your first player or upgrading an ancient model there are plenty of options to consider and my guide will ensure you get the best player to suit you.
Unless you're Bill Gates, or enjoy a similar indifference to annual income, it's likely that your choice of CD player will be dictated by budget. Generally you can split dedicated CD players into three price categories - budget, midrange and high-end.
Budget players priced below £300 provide the most plentiful crop of dedicated CD players. Build quality may be lightweight and features limited but budget performance has never been better and there are always incredible bargains to be found - although steer clear of obscure imports for better long-term reliability and sound quality.
Midrange players, priced between £300 and £800 will afford reputable hi-fi brands offer improved construction, connectivity and disc compatibility with better sound detail, depth and dynamics.
High-end players, where prices escalate upwards of £1,000 offer sonic gains that are more subtle than sensational - using painstakingly engineered state-of-the-art electronics to produce outstanding audiophile performance.
Decide your budget before you visit a retailer and don't assume expensive players will sound better, especially if you don't have an equivalent system.
Your existing system
Essentially, you need to partner your system - speakers and amplifier - with comparable components to avoid an unbalanced, biased sound. A rough guide is that your CD player should be 25 per cent more expensive than your amp and about the same price as your speakers.
Player type If performance is a priority then only a dedicated CD player can help you scale those sonic heights. They use higher quality components that are single-mindedly concentrated on optimising CD playback performance without being distracted by other duties.
So, while DVD players and integrated midi-systems offer all-in-one convenience, affordability and ease of use, they simply don't sound as good. And, as well as peerless sound performance, dedicated players offer more varied features, connectivity and flexible options for future upgrades.
If you have an extensive CD collection then multi-disc changers allow you to conveniently store and access your music but sound performance is almost always compromised.
CD player features are relatively limited with few essential differences in connectivity and functions between budget and expensive players. However, build quality does vary wildly and you should physically check the player before you buy it, looking out for weak panels, illegible displays and unresponsive controls. Also check how fast the loading mechanism is, whether it's easy to access tracks and how noisy the player is during operation.
There are several connection options to carry the sound signal from the CD player to your amplifier. The most common are phono interconnects that use separate analogue cables to carry the right and left channel audio - look for OFC (oxygen free copper) or gold plated plugs for the best performance.
Otherwise, you can use a digital connection - although audiophiles claim the sound is more clinical. Optical digital connections use light to carry the sound signal through a single cable. There's less signal deterioration over long distances and if you want to make Mini-disc recordings you'll need one of these. Coaxial connections are a digital alternative that is also suitable for use with home cinema receivers. Connections play an important part in the performance of your system and I suggest spending roughly 5-10 per cent of your budget on cables.
Disc compatibility is generally standard but if you own copies or use encoded formats ensure that the player accepts recordable discs such as CD-R and CD-RW. And HDCD compatibility will allow you to play high-resolution discs that offer superior sound quality - although these discs will also play as normal CDs in a standard player.
Playback functions range from basic to more advanced features like programmable play, shuffle and faders for copy-editing. But functions are only valuable if you're going to use them and we suggest you look to features only when you can't separate sound performance between players. Finally, if you're in for the long haul, enquire about upgradability options as some higher-end players let you replace digital processing chips as technology moves on.
Sound performance is the single most important attribute to consider, and only listening to a player will give you an idea of its audio ability. So, although you can often find some great bargains on the web, you lose the opportunity to judge performance first-hand - and after-sales service can be poor.
We always recommend that you listen to a CD player before parting with any cash so it's therefore well worth visiting a retailer. Good retailers offer demonstration rooms where you can preorder players and listen to them in-store. Try to use a surrounding system that compares to yours at home - alternatively, some retailers will even allow you to leave a deposit and take the player home to test on your own system.
Use your own music with a variety of tracks that you recognise and most importantly 'Trust Your Ears'. Sound is subjective and only you know what suits your tastes - don't be swayed by price; if you can't hear the difference between a budget and expensive player, go for the budget model. Listen to a few players and use a process of elimination until you find the one that sounds best to you. And remember, if you're replacing an old CD player the sound is going to be different - but not necessarily worse.
Dos and don'ts
Do listen to a CD player before you part with any cash
Don't choose a player that won't fit in with your existing system
Do place sound performance above all else
Don't be over influenced by style, price or features
Do choose a separates player if you're looking for the best sound performance
Don't choose a player without a digital output if you want to make digital recordings